Many articles, speakers and reports have suggested that the need for office space is diminishing and that in the future office space will lose its relevance. The focus of such philosophies tends to hinge on a significant shift in where we work – a home, or a beach or a coffee shop versus an actual office work space. However while telecommuting is on the rise, it has not and will not eliminate the need for office space in the near or distant future. It’s not a matter of where we work, but rather how we structure the work/life balance that will have the greatest impact on the office market.
In other words, as society places a higher value on a more equitable work/life balance, employees are less expected to conform to the employer, instead the employer is expected to meet the needs of the employee. This is evidenced by the ongoing migration to cities and urban centers from the outlying suburban markets. Many firms have cited the access to the growing, talented labor pool available in urban centers as a deciding factor to bring operations to the downtown market. As Richard Florida, the Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management suggests in Business Insider,
“Real cities have real neighborhoods. They are filled with the flexible old buildings that are ideal for incubating new ideas. They are made up of mixed use, pedestrian scale neighborhoods that literally push people out into the street, cafes and other third places, encouraging the serendipitous interactions, the constant combinations and recombinations that result in new ideas, new businesses and new industries.”
Several companies including Google, W.W. Grainger, Sterling Partners and Gogo, have all recently relocated or announced relocations to downtown Chicago. This migration from the suburban markets has also led to the increasing popularity of neighborhoods outside of the central downtown markets including Chicago’s Green Exchange at West Diversey and the Kennedy Expressway where Coyote Logistics has leased 120,000 square feet for its corporate headquarters. This geographic transition is due in large part to an employer’s need to attract and retain a new generation of employees which increasingly demands to live and work in urban areas, much more so than their predecessors who were more focused on finding a well-paying job in their field of expertise.
The younger generation of workers is also focused on a new set of amenities, often found in cities and urban centers. The need for proximity to “L” or subway stops and city bus stops is now more important than the relative proximity to the city/suburban train routes as more of the workforce lives inside the city limits. On-site fitness centers, restaurants and shops are also among the amenities favored by the incoming workforce. As a result, fewer parking spaces are often required, the need for on-site cafeterias is diminishing and big local gyms are not as much of a draw as they once were for suburban dwelling graduates. This shift in thinking is again representative of the growing trend toward an improved work/life balance.
Another critical factor that is shifting office space requirements is technology. Wireless and “smart” technology have created an entirely mobile workforce that is no longer chained to a desktop workstation. The ability of employees to spend partial hours working remotely, or away from their desks, and the decreasing need for administrative services due to increasing self-efficiencies has also reduced the amount of square footage required per employee. The younger workforce is less focused on the importance of the big corner office, favoring more open and collaborative work spaces. In fact, CoreNet Global’s research suggests that the average amount of space per employee will fall to 100 square feet by 2017 from around 250 square feet today.
However the need for office space isn’t likely to evaporate completely, but it will adapt to a new generation of workers. Office environments of today and the future tend to favor more open, collaborative work spaces. Cube walls are lower than they used to be, café style meeting areas are prevalent and wireless technology has allowed for increased mobility within the work space. New office locations are transitioning to downtown city markets and outlying urban centers are generating increased efficiency and collaboration among its young employees. Again it’s that philosophical shift in thinking where the employer is more focused on the needs of its employees for whom interaction is critical.
Office is relevant today. Office will be relevant tomorrow. Employees are relevant today and employees will remain essential tomorrow. Rather the change in office place dynamics is the result of a relative shift in how business is conducted. As technology continues to create greater efficiencies and society moves toward a more balanced work/life relationship, new accommodations in the work place will be made and the real estate market will adapt to those changes. Spacial proximity and face-to-face communication are still critical for the transmission of ideas and skills, but we may be witnessing the beginning of a new era in workplace production and efficiency.