Barring the emergence of some far more lethal strain of Covid-19, it would appear that South Africa, and the rest of the world, are set to get back to far more ‘normal’ economic life, relatively unrestricted by lockdown regulations.
But this does not necessarily mean a return to the office as was the case pre-pandemic, said John Loos, property sector strategist at FNB commercial property finance.
“Going from ‘abnormal’ restrictions back to freedoms resembling pre-Covid-19 days, I would expect many office employees to return to the office full time or part-time,” he said.
“However, given what lockdown has done to show many people what they’ve been missing out on over the years through commuting to offices, and given that certain companies will see cost-saving opportunities, I would not expect the level of office attendance to get back to where it was prior to 2020 lockdowns.”
Looking forward, Loos said that he expects the following trends to emerge:
- Firstly, the widespread acceptance of remote interaction as an alternative means that more of us that have always wanted to use it can use it.
- Secondly, I believe that even many late adopters may have been pleasantly surprised at how well the forced WFH “experiment” has worked.
- Thirdly, the time-saving in commuting costs when working remotely can for many employees be massive, up to a few hours per day.
- Fourth, there are significant potential financial cost savings, transport-wise for commuters
- And fifth, there are potential office space cost savings for companies themselves, and “money talks”.
And what happens after the partial ‘back to the office’ drive?
The longer-term rising work-from-home and work-from-anywhere trends will resume in the coming year, said Loos.
“Let’s ignore the myriad of reasons as to why office employees desire to work from home or the office, or why management wants them back or doesn’t. The reality seems to be that many employees desire flexibility in this regard, and a significant portion appear to want to work remotely where the job can be done remotely.”
He cited a recent Vidyard/Atomik survey of a sample of Financial Sector employees in North America which found that only 1% of workers that they would prefer to work in the office all of the time, and 5% of respondents would prefer to work in the office some of the time.
96% of respondents said they would give up a part of their salary in order to be able to work from home permanently. “In short, I would expect the longer-term multi-decade trend towards greater work from home, or work from anywhere, to continue,” said Loos.
“This is what has been happening over the past few decades as technology makes a certain group of employees’ mobility ever greater. So, after some normalisation of office work activity following a lockdown work-from-home ‘spike’, I would expect the longer-term rising trend to resume.”
For many employees, it won’t be full-time work-from-home, but part-time work-from-home to a greater degree than prior to lockdown. And with even the office-bound employees spending far less of their workweek in the office, reserving a desk permanently for each employee makes less and less sense, he said.
“Accompanying all of this, I would anticipate that the office market will continue its long-term trend towards occupying a smaller share of total property stock.
“In the five-year period up to the year 1990, square meterage of office space built amounted to 34.6% of total stock built in the 3 major Commercial Property Sectors (Office, Retail and Industrial). In the 5-years to 2021, this share of total had already shrunk to 22.1%.”