Picture: Nonku Ntshona, CEO Nonku Ntshona & Associates Quantity Surveyors; John Jack, CEO Galetti Corporate Real Estate; Jan Davel, CEO PayProp South Africa.
Most South Africans are still working from home and will continue to do so permanently. But this is not ideal for everyone. Property experts share their thoughts on how to ‘rethink’ the real estate office for the ‘new normal’.
‘The office, as you know it, is dead’ reads the headline of a recent CNN Business online article. According to the article the pandemic proved that employees don’t need to work in office cubicles to be successful – consequently, 68% of large companies in the US plan to downsize their office space.
The trend is also impacting property-related businesses. This week leading proptech company PayProp announced their staff can now choose where they want to work, be that from home or, while traveling, in corporate or group offices – newly converted into co-working spaces – or even theoretically, the beach. They also made their first fully ‘distributed’ appointment – their new South African accountant was hired by her Swiss employer after an interview and induction process conducted entirely remotely via video conferencing.
Closer to home, many office buildings are still standing empty or are only used by a small percentage of the normal work force. Dimension Data spoke to 73 executives of companies with at least 1,000 employees. The report found that 42% of organisations in South Africa have employees working from home full-time today, with 67% saying they will have employees working from home full-time within the next two years. Statistics South Africa estimates that more than 77% of South Africans are still working from home, despite the easing of restrictions.
The expectation is that most people who can will continue working from home permanently, also estate agents. “Even after life returns to normal, it is likely that many will continue working remotely, which will have an impact on buyers preferences and housing market trends. In our own context, each of our offices are independently owned and operated, which means that they are free to make their own choices around this depending on what works for the associates in their office,” says Adrian Goslett, regional director and CEO of RE/MAX of Southern Africa.
Also read: Covid-19 the game changer for real estate
‘Not for everyone’
Nonku Ntshona. founder and CEO of Nonku Ntshona & Associates Quantity Surveyors, has no doubt that working from the office will become optional as that is the way the world is going, but says unequal access to technology and digital connectivity poses a major challenge to employers in South Africa. “This is a real problem; I have experienced this where my WiFi does not work from home, so I use fibre. We have also given all staff laptops to use from home as well as USBs for WiFi,” she says.
Galetti Corporate Real Estate CEO John Jack says the reality of the digital divide is one of the reasons why he would caution any business owner who is considering making a long-term decision about reducing their office space requirements. “Many workers do not have access to the same conditions at home as they do at the office, and they are actively struggling to maintain the same level of productivity and performance,” he says.
Another factor is the lack of close interaction with fellow team members. Jack says many professionals are finding themselves longing for the excitement and stimulation that comes from in-person interaction with their colleagues. Research shows that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems faster than remote collaborators, and that team cohesion suffers in remote work arrangements.
In contrast, Jack says that various prominent companies have embraced digital innovation and are transitioning with ease and agility. “Dimension Data, for example, has created a smart virtual workplace solution enabling employees working from home more efficiently”.
PayProp undertook the massive task to reengineer its collaboration and communication systems and processes. “There were obvious questions over systems and technology, but in South Africa even more basic considerations had to be taken into account including unreliable Internet connections and load shedding.” says Jan Davel CEO PayProp South Africa. “One of the positives to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic was that it showed we had the right equipment, technology and processes in place to allow distributed work. We will continue to refine this, while ensuring we continue to support colleagues who have chosen to work away from the office.”
Ultimately, the decision of whether to work remotely comes down to personal preference. “We have conducted multiple surveys on our social platforms to gauge employee attitudes towards working from home and found that 83% of respondents indicated that they looked forward to going back to their offices,” explains Jack. Consequently, he strongly believes that the office will not become obsolete, but its form and function will need to evolve.
Rethinking the ‘office’
Coming out of the hard lockdown in June, the local real estate industry was surprised by the unexpected high level of activity in the home buying market. Property experts’ attributes this mostly to pent up demand with the record low interest rates adding further encouragement. However, the trend can also be a result of many reassessing their needs and preferences now that they are no longer tied to a fixed workplace.
Chas Everitt International Property group CEO, Berry Everitt, says many people who were confined to their homes during lockdown or are still working from home are keen to have more elbow room or outdoor space, or simply move to a better area.
The FNB Residential Property Barometer report cites anecdotal evidence showing rising demand for bigger properties (mainly freestanding homes), notably in less crowded “second-tier” cities that are not major commercial hubs.
“It is no surprise that remote working is leading to an increase in residential relocation away from former workspaces,” notes Jack. He says with travel restrictions starting to ease, the future of remote working may not be limited to ‘working from home’.
“Depending on the industry and the type of job, we could see more people relocating to areas outside of the major cities to enjoy a quieter lifestyle whilst still having the luxury of an office base to visit every week or two for collaboration purposes,” Jack adds.
Guidelines for adapting traditional office space in the ‘new normal’
- Look at remote space and office space as two separate functions:
- Office space should be focused on collaboration.
- Remote space needs to be set up to optimise individual productivity and output.
- Reduce office space as needed, but don’t do away with it entirely. This may mean sharing space with other like-minded businesses, i.e. subletting.
- Consider renting your employees a desk or an office in a co-working space close to their homes. These are often more flexible and affordable than traditional office leases and encourage collaboration.
- Ensure that you invest significantly in your digital infrastructure.
- Constantly reassess the performance of your employees to see what is working and what isn’t.
- Above all, be flexible and understand that these are unprecedented times.
“While this pandemic will certainly prompt all companies to rethink their ways of working, office space is here to stay. It exists with purpose but like everything else, needs to evolve.” Jack concludes.