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19 August wbef webinar

What if…all public buildings had to maintain social distancing for the next five years?

Social distancing has inspired various changes to our daily lives. Some have been behavioural, some technology based and others relate to our use of space. But, by their nature, most of these measures are temporary and based on an assumption that the pandemic will be short-lived. But what if that assumption were to prove incorrect?

World Built Environment Forum
16 September 2020

Workplace cultures have changed and the changes are here to stay

We know that the COVID-19 lockdown has prompted the dispersal of work forces and opened the door to widespread remote and flexible working. It has been an accidental experiment in a new way of life. But, for most office-based workers, such ways of working have been possible for many years. It is the boundaries of acceptability, rather than possibility, that have been pushed back.

“These trends are not really new,” says Jarek Morawski, Executive Director or Research & Strategy with Grosvenor Europe. “More remote work, more flexibility – especially with respect to the office sector – these did not emerge during the lockdown. They have been with us for quite a while. COVID-19 has accelerated trends, but not really introduced many new ones.”

The accelerant effect of the pandemic is oft cited. It has, in various ways, forced people to overcome caution and embrace the possible. Remote working may once have been viewed with a degree of suspicion, but those suspicions have quickly been exposed as outdated and conservative. Whether social distancing measures are maintained for another five years or another five days, mass migration back to office-based working seems unlikely. 

“Right now, for most markets, we’re entering a sixth month of remote working. A lot of habits are made in six months’ time,” notes Tina Paillet, Chair of RICS Europe. “The longer this goes on, the more people will question what purpose the office serves.”

Right now, for most markets, we’re entering a sixth month of remote working. A lot of habits are made in six months’ time.

Tina Paillet
Chair of RICS Europe

In uncertain times, certainty is a highly valuable commodity

This has been, and continues to be, a profoundly unsettling time. Writing for WBEF back in April, Mott McDonald’s Anne Kerr drew on an historic example of how widespread uncertainty can quickly give way to something much more dangerous.

Referencing the 1832 cholera outbreak in Paris, she wrote: “Among the turmoil, rumours spread that King Louis-Philippe was poisoning people by adding arsenic to water wells. Panic and violence ensued, and the army struggled to maintain basic order. The lesson? Communications around impactful events need to be authoritative, clear, accurate and proactive.”

Jez Groom, CEO of Cowry Consulting, and expert in behavioural insights, picks up the thread. “The biggest challenge in decision making is often ambiguity,” he says. “Our brains don’t like to make decisions with unforeseen circumstances.”

Speaking from his desk in a central London co-working space, he cites quality communications as among the factors that encouraged him back into the office. He is a customer of one of the world’s leading Workspace-as-a-Service (WaaS) operators and credits them with providing the certainty he needed to confidently re-enter the workplace.

“The protocols and compliance information that they sent out, covering things like air quality, gave me the reassurance that I needed.”

What if…all public buildings had to maintain social distancing for the five years?

As lockdown conditions gradually ease across the world, fears about a second wave of Covid-19 infections persist. What if talk of the “new normal” and the “post-pandemic era” is premature? If social distancing was to remain a fixture of our lives for the next five years, how would we reconfigure public buildings? What will be the upshot for values and floorspace requirements? Would certain use classes cease to exist as a result? And how might such circumstances invigorate an already buoyant PropTech industry?

The next crisis will be different; resilience is about more than pandemic-proofing

There is an aphorism of uncertain origin about the folly of soldiers who prepare to fight the last war, rather than the next. It is apt here. The possibility of further pandemics cannot, must not, be discounted. But it should equally be acknowledged that the threat is one among many. Those who fail to invest in holistic resilience will find the market unforgiving.

“You might recall that, in most markets 10 years ago, sustainability certifications were exceptional," says Tina Paillet. "In Germany, for instance, practically no office buildings, much less retail or any other sector, had any sustainable certifications. That’s changed. Today, if you have a new development and you don’t have some proof that it was built and can operate sustainably, you will have a hard time finding tenants. You will not be able to sell as the value will be impacted. It’s no longer a choice, it’s a must have.”

And resilience is becoming more valuable than ever

“I would call it a futureproof premium,” says Jarek Morawski. “It doesn’t necessarily need to be related to the pandemic. For example, a futureproof building is probably one that is net zero carbon. I don’t think this is fundamentally different to the pre-COVID-19 world; this is already where the market was heading.”