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Five Global Themes Influencing the Future of Office

Based on lessons learned in the past 18 months, companies are planning to use the office much differently than in the past.

There is no one-size-fits-all option in the future of work. The pandemic accelerated several trends that already were gradually reshaping the office and our use of it. Now the changes are coming quickly, and each company must decide how to adapt.

Large companies are embracing change in work practices and office formats at a different pace than smaller companies. And companies in the Americas and Europe are approaching change differently than those in Asia-Pacific.

Despite this divergence, trends that warrant analysis are emerging in regard to how extensively society will adopt hybrid work, what that means for the office going forward and what role flexible-office space can play. CBRE examined these topics in recent surveys of more than 400 decision makers at companies across the globe (U.S. results here).

The results of those surveys inform these five global themes shaping the future of the office.

1. Hybrid work is a powerful force around the world, driven by multinational corporations.

Hybrid work has become a stronger guiding principle for companies across the globe that are balancing a strong desire to bring people back to the office with a desire for greater employee flexibility. This sentiment is especially true of large multinational corporations, mostly so in the financial services and technology sectors. Most are attempting to offer clear guidance that aligns with both employee expectations and employer work requirements.

Decisionmakers in the U.S. and Europe are farther along than Asia-Pacific in fully embracing hybrid work. In Asia-Pacific, where office buildings have largely been open and occupied since the early days of the pandemic, hybrid work is a contingency only if occupany restrictions are reinstituted should a resurgence of infections occur.

Regardless of region, the acknowledgment that more hybrid arrangements will define the future of work has been pervasive and likely will continue to grow. Companies around the world are still formulating best practices and will iterate their policies using lessons learned as more people return to the office. Globally, companies that are least likely to adopt hybrid work operate in industries that depend on space-specific needs, such as life sciences, small companies that rely on in-person interaction and domestic Asian companies. 

2. Globally, the office remains an integral element of company culture.

Even with the increased adoption of hybrid work, most companies expect employees to work in the office at least half the time, if not more. This sentiment differs by region, with companies in the U.S. and Europe taking a more progressive stance than those in Asia-Pacific. In the U.S. and Europe, no large companies expect employees to go into the office five days a week; most indicate expectations for employees to come in 2.5 or more days a week. Conversely, in Asia-Pacific, the biggest shift in sentiment seems to be around employees who previously worked at the office every day now being expected to opt for working remotely one or two days per month. Therefore, most companies in Asia-Pacific—with the exception of Western multinationals—will continue requiring employees to spend most of their working week in the office. Worldwide, small firms are disproportionately planning to return full-time to the office and unlikely to favor an equal mix of in-office and virtual work.

3. Workplace transformation is expected to draw employees into the office.

Before the pandemic, occupancy studies revealed that office space was often underutilized. Today, more companies are acknowledging this fact and planning to use the office much differently than in the past. For example, companies are considering desk-sharing to increase utilization. While Asian companies are still much more likely to prefer dedicated seats, Western companies are much more likely to implement desk-sharing for some employees, if not activity-based workplaces. This type of arrangement not only allows for optimal space usage, but also allows occupiers to have more control over their space and usually includes more collaborative zones to conduct work. As companies move closer to resuming widespread office-based work, they are thinking about how to transform their workplace into not only an efficient environment but more so the best environment for their employees’ productivity, wellness and overall engagement.  

4. Demand for office space—especially in quality buildings—remains strong.  

As the economic recovery gains momentum, many companies recognize they will have greater need for office space than they believed would be the case in the depths of the pandemic . In Asia-Pacific, 50 percent of occupiers now expect the size of their office portfolios to increase in the long term. Asian companies report a stronger appetite for expansion, while consolidation remains a focus for many multinationals. In EMEA, 40 percent of companies expect their portfolios to contract over the next three years (only 5 percent significantly), compared with a third who anticipate expansion. Technology, media and telecommunications companies are particularly optimistic, with over 60 percent expecting to expand their portfolios. In the U.S., 44 percent of companies expect their portfolios to contract over the next three years, almost exclusively driven by large companies. However, the degree to which they expect to scale back their portfolio has moderated throughout the pandemic. In general, occupiers continue to target high-quality properties in prime locations to satisfy employee expectations. 

5. Flexible space models see a spike in interest.

Occupiers are increasingly focused on incorporating flexible space as part of a real estate portfolio. The value that occupiers place on flexibility is rising, partly in response to short-term uncertainty around office requirements, but even more so for strategic reasons. Across the world, occupiers expect that flexible office space will comprise a much larger part of their portfolio over the next two years. A broader offering of flex space, ranging from on-demand meeting space to customized private suites, is becoming available and often outfitted with advanced technologies and other premium services that cater to corporations and other large space users. Despite stronger interest in using it, flexible space is expected to comprise less than 25 percent of occupiers’ overall office portfolios in most cases.

Julie Whelan is Global Head of Occupier Research for CBRE, the global commercial real estate services company. Follow her on Twitter at @JulieWhelanCBRE.

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