Market Insight

If Hybrid is the answer – what was the question?

July 24, 2023
Throughout 2023, there has been a variety of headlines about office occupancy hitting new peaks, workplace occupancy being better than pre-pandemic levels and occupancy rates reaching their zenith.

So, if hybrid is the answer, what was the question?

Sounds rather philosophical, but the point I’m trying to make is that, yes, hybrid seems to be the best way forwards, but its favourability in the longer term is yet to be proven.

It is fantastic to see 35% to 45% office attendance return, however, this compares with a pre-pandemic occupancy of somewhere between 60 and 80%, on average.

What does this tell us? That, even before the pandemic, somewhere between 20% and 40% of office real estate was being underutilised.

Even if we account for further growth in office occupancy rates, some 50% of current office stock is either surplus to requirement or could be at the next lease event.

Larger corporates have been the early adopters of the return to the workplace and have embraced the hybrid model, taking smaller but higher-quality office space to attract their workforces back into the office – many with a three-day ‘in the office’ requirement to maintain corporate culture and identity; manage stress and difficulties of junior colleagues missing learning opportunities.

This paints a positive future for the office, a sentiment echoed by global design and architecture firm, Gensler, who recently reported that hybrid is here to stay.

However, as their research reveals, whilst the office “…remains a critical space for many knowledge workers to perform at their best…the physical workplace hasn’t kept pace, with two thirds of workplaces not changed since the pandemic.”

And herein lies the problem.

As the Economist recently reported in their article, “The working-from-home illusion fades”, it turns out that we are not more productive working at home than being in an office, after all.

Issues such as individual versus team productivity; lack of collaboration at the dining room table; increased co-ordination costs; and underdevelopment of human capital are all reported.

This, together with the tricky economic climate, is driving more businesses to get their people back in the office. Indeed, 94% of corporate real estate leaders polled by Leesman expect hybrid to become part of an office and home / 3rd space solution.

However, not all workplaces are created equally.

Those businesses that have invested in their premises (either through refurbishment or relocation) to give employees a better experience in the office than they had at home through the likes of acoustic privacy, Zoom rooms, improved kitchen and break-out facilities, as well as a mix of working spaces, are reaping the benefits.

But hybrid will only succeed where sustainable transport solutions and access to amenity and wellbeing activities also come together.

Location, location, location is a much-hackneyed real estate expression, but for good reason.

Offices based in town centres with public transport infrastructure or well-connected amenity-rich business parks are showing much higher occupancy than secondary or tertiary locations.

As a result, many employers are relocating towards major transport nodes to access the best talent pool, and it is this next generation of talent that will truly evidence whether hybrid will thrive or die.

Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) represents 30% of the world’s population and is estimated to make up over a quarter of the workforce by 2025 – rising to 30% by 2030.

Gen Z and younger millennials want rapid promotion career and growth and to learn from others which is best done face to face. It is also this generation which is reporting the highest levels of burnout and stress, linked to the inability to switch off when working from home.

However, according to Hopkins University, Gen Z and younger Millennials also have the lowest levels of engagement with their employers, and one wonders what impact this could have on the workplace, if the majority of young employees don’t have strong relationships with their managers, employers or co-workers.

“The benefits of hybrid working can’t be refuted – from mental health awareness and improved sustainability, diversity and inclusion, to better communication and team bonding, not to mention work/life balance.

David Thomas, Occupier Advisory Partner, Vail Williams LLP.

But whilst hybrid might be the answer, it simply won’t work if you don’t get the culture right.

It doesn’t work in the wrong location. It doesn’t work if you don’t have sustainable transport solutions and energy efficient space. It doesn’t work if you don’t create a better experience in the office versus home, and it doesn’t work if the frequency you expect staff in the office, ends up eroding the bond between staff and managers.

If, as we think, hybrid is the answer – then what should the question be? To inform any hybrid working policy, you need to start with your question and work out from there.

Vail Williams has supported the post-pandemic workplace strategies of SMEs through to FTSE 250 companies and can help you to deliver a workplace which is fit for the future needs of your business and its people. Get in touch for support with your hybrid working strategy.