Office Downsizing in an Uncertain World

Organizations have gone remote during the pandemic, leaving office buildings to sit empty. Will we ever return?

The concept of the office has been so deeply ingrained into our culture that it’s become almost inseparable from work itself. For centuries there has been a shared routine among a vast number of workers: wake up, join the daily commute, and arrive at an office building to work 9-5. But when faced with unpredictable and challenging circumstances, the physical spaces we work in need to adapt in response to cultural, technological, and environmental forces. In other words: times are changing, and office spaces need to change too.  

Offices serve as both workspaces, and as visible, tangible headquarters for the organization. And offices also function as a place for collaboration – research shows that offices designed for coworking and “collisions” (chance meetings/interactions between workers) can have big impacts on productivity, innovation, and job satisfaction. The more opportunity for collisions, the more interdepartmental knowledge gets circulated throughout your organization.

Because of this, we should reframe how we look at office buildings: it’s not just a real estate asset, but a strategic tool for communication and collaboration. And to that end, we need to reconceptualize the office itself. When we see that the true value of the office lies in its potential for face-to-face interactions, it’s easier to decide how to respond to the rapidly evolving world of remote work and an eventual post-pandemic society. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, finding the answer to the question “when can we go back to the office?” has become more and more complex. With technology advancing as much as it has, more workers now have the means and capacity to work from home most or all of the time. Some wonder if we will ever need to return to the office at all. But having a physical space dedicated to business activities reinforces the distinction between work and home, and without that space the line can get blurry. 

There’s a strong argument to be made about why work-life separation should be preserved, and how working from home can lead to a never-ending workday and poor work-life balance. It goes without saying that a home office is different from an office building, and that there are unique challenges and benefits to both.  

Another crucial part of finding this answer lies within business strategy and operating expenses. Office buildings are a significant expense: factor in enhanced cleaning protocols, PPE, and other Covid-19 necessities along with the regular rent, property taxes, landscaping, utilities, maintenance, security…and the costs really begin to add up. 

Many businesses are downsizing as a way to cut costs and stay financially secure during the post-lockdown recovery period. Despite vaccine rollout, we could still be many months away from opening our doors and filling office buildings to their previous capacity, and the uncertainty of when this will even be possible creates another layer of complexity to navigate through.  

According to recent research, a significant portion of the workforce will continue to work from home at least some of the time – meaning that 10-30% of office desks could remain unoccupied in addition to the 30-40% that already went unoccupied pre-pandemic. That makes for wide open empty spaces, which can be very lonely and bad for morale if only a handful of your workers are on-site.

If your organization owns your building, one option may be to redesign your office space to increase the aforementioned “collisions” and collaboration that will be so precious after an extended stretch of isolated work-from-home.  Another option is to reduce the size of your space – which can be accomplished in a number of ways. If you rent, finding a new and smaller space that better fits your onsite employee needs is a great idea. If you own your building, you could consider leasing out a portion of your unused office space, either to another organization or as a professional co-working space.

Both of these options are financially attractive and have the potential to build partnerships and generate revenue. There are undoubtedly many other creative possibilities to enable you to use the space you have in the wisest way you can – and when we understand that the primary function of the office is to facilitate successful collaboration between workers, we can use that as a guiding principle to make sound strategic decisions.  

Despite the general success of work-from-home that we’ve seen over the past year, we predict that offices will always have an important role in modern work culture. Covid-19 may have spelled the end of offices as we’ve known them – but that means we now have the opportunity to make offices into what they were always meant to be: a space where people with shared goals and vision can come together to do great work, and to be together. The pandemic has been a catalyst for large-scale change in many ways, and non-profit organizations in particular need to stay agile, responsive, and remain open to change in order to support their staff and the communities they serve.

By keeping relationships and positive work culture at the forefront of our business strategy, the dilemma of coming back to the office becomes easier to navigate. When you can work from anywhere, the office becomes the place where you go to work alongside your team to problem solve and innovate, and for social interaction.

We may not know exactly what the post-Covid office will look and feel like, but we know we are stronger together. And while things might not ever go back to normal as we knew it, we have the opportunity and responsibility to create a better normal: appropriately-sized offices designed with health, collaboration, and wellbeing as a major focus. This will create office spaces that we can look forward to returning to, together.