First appearing some 5,000 years ago in ancient Rome, the office is an enduring aspect of society, surviving revolution, technology and even Ricky Gervais. It is, in short, an efficient place to work.
But that is changing, says Bruce Dear, a partner and head of real estate in London at Eversheds Sutherland, and that will have a big impact on professional services brands and the way firms market themselves.
The move to agile working is not new. Businesses around the world are exploring new remote ways of working with technology making this transition easier. Whilst working nine to five makes for a catchy song, our working habits are now more fluid. Office space in London before the COVID pandemic operated at around 60% occupancy rates, leaving many businesses questioning the need for expensive physical footprints.
“In March that changed,” says Bruce. “Offices closed their doors and some five per cent of the world’s workers turned dining, sitting and spare bedrooms into offices. It is the biggest home working experiment and it has largely worked.”
Employers once reluctant to allow staff to work from home in any meaningful way now have clear proof that it works. It will be difficult to retreat to the all office model, and as the UK moves into a more profit restrained environment, the office footprint will increasingly come under the spotlight.
“The ‘end of the Roman empire’ tower is finished, but the trophy office isn’t dead,” says Bruce. “They are likely to be much smaller, more luxuriously appointed with tenants paying high rents, and used in a very different way.
“We will see campus-style offices with the rest being virtual – home offices, serviced office space and regional hubs.”
And that has a major impact on professional services marketing and BD teams. No longer a place to work, the office will become a client, education, and socialisation space. It will be a physical representation of a brand, and that will present real challenges in the already tough recruitment market. HR and marketing teams will need to work much more closely than they currently do.
“How we recruit, train and look after our more junior colleagues will change,” says Bruce. “Graduates will not want to join a firm that sends you a laptop and a welcome box, saying ‘plug in and log on – that’s your first day in the office’. It’s a too impersonal experience.”
Bruce believes accountancy firms have the answer.
“Back in the 1980s and 90s, audit was the route into the profession. Those starting their careers would often spend weeks at a time working at client sites as part of that audit process, returning to the office for training, learning, bonding and socialisation. We will rediscover that ‘in-out’ model.
“Technology will make this easier, and it will not stretch the imagination to see those starting their careers working three days a week from home and two days in the office.”
Online and digital marketing will continue to be a key part of the marketing and BD team’s approach, as seen in Eversheds Sutherlands Optimism and Opportunity campaign. The engagement is immediate and the data it provides will allow firms to measure impact more effectively.
Yet the real estate world is famously driven by personal relationships and in-person marketing. MIPIM 2021 is scheduled for March, and MAPIC, the jamboree in Cannes for retail property, is ambitiously still on track for November this year.
Will professional services marketing revert to old habits?
“That will depend on how quickly a vaccine can be found,” says Bruce. “If we have a vaccine before Christmas then yes, but that is unlikely. A vaccine will take time and that could mean we grow out of our hospitality-driven habits. And whilst we miss the meetings with key contacts, I don’t think anyone is really missing the networking drinks and cocktail parties.
“MIPIM 2021 is likely to be a much smaller affair mixing in-person and online learning. The property industry may also look for something different too. Its organisers won’t be asleep at the wheel – they will be thinking long and hard over and it wouldn’t surprise me if a more serious-minded affair emerges.”
The office as we know it may be dead, but as long as people work there will be some iteration of the office. Long live the office.