Eight flexible workspace trends from real estate leaders

Colliers, WeWork, Microsoft, and EY share the strategies and technologies that will impact flexible space

Colliers recently released its highly anticipated 2020 Flexible Workspace Report in the U.S., surfacing important market trends in the role of remote work today, how flexible workspace may fit into real estate portfolio strategies moving forward, and how technology can inform—and influence—the future of flex space. 

Colliers vice president of flexible workplace Francesco De Camilli sat down with WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani, Microsoft vice president of global real estate and security Michael Ford, and Americas real estate leader for Ernst & Young David Kamen to discuss the results of the Colliers report—and their personal predictions about the future of flexible workspace. 

To view the full recording, please register here. For a snapshot of key insights, here are some highlights.

The demand for flexible workspace has dramatically changed in the past 18 months

Colliers found that in the first half of 2019, demand for flexible workspace was up about 20.5 percent from 2018 across the leading 28 metro markets in the United States. In the first half of 2020, growth was still up from the year prior—but by just 1.6 percent. There’s no denying that COVID-19 significantly impacted this slowdown. There’s been a lot of discussion recently about what will happen in the next six months, and how an uptick in demand for flexible workspace in the suburbs might impact growth.

To gain more insight into suburban inventory, Colliers examined inventory growth over a 21-month period (between the fourth quarter of 2018 and the second quarter of 2020). As of Q2 of this year, they calculated about 21.4 million square feet of flexible workspace in the suburbs compared to 41.1 million square feet of flexible workspace in the central business district (CBD) market. Suburbs roughly maintain 50 percent of the inventory of CBDs, but many expect this to change dramatically in the next 18 months as lower density suburbs receive a disproportionate share of new demand. 

A majority of occupiers believe the return to work will drive demand for flexible workspace

Flexible workspace is still just a sliver of the overall office space market in the U.S. (only 1.5 percent). But many believe there’s a huge opportunity for real estate operators as companies navigate how to return to work post-COVID-19. In a survey that Colliers ran with thousands of its global occupiers, one third of respondents predicted there would not be more demand for flex space in the future, 20 percent of respondents were certain there would be more demand, and another 40 percent believed there would possibly be more demand. In other words, the majority of occupiers anticipate an uptick. 

WeWork 725 Ponce in Atlanta.

In this same survey, Colliers asked individuals how often they worked from home pre-COVID-19, and how often they would want to work from home post-COVID-19. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents hadn’t worked from home at all pre-COVID-19. But 43 percent of them want to work from home at least two to three days a week post-COVID-19. This is a dramatic shift, and there are a few companies that are leaning in to remote work strategies as part of the new model—Microsoft being one of them. 

Most employees want a balance of remote work and in-office work

According to Microsoft’s Michael Ford, about 5 percent of Microsoft’s employees worked from home regularly before the pandemic. Now the company anticipates that number could reach up to 20 percent. He’s found that the majority of Microsoft employees do want to come back to the office, however. Eighty to 85 percent of employees said they wanted to work in the office more than three days a week. But that doesn’t mean that office space will return to business as usual. 

Post-COVID-19, Microsoft employees expect more flexibility across three areas: 

  1. Work site: Are they working at home, at a Microsoft location, or in a flexible space? 
  2. Work hours: If they’re not working in a traditional office space from 9 to 5 every day—and they’re still getting their work done—does it really matter when they work? 
  3. Global office locations: As a worldwide company, this still matters. 

All of these factors are informing Microsoft’s global real estate portfolio strategy moving forward, as the company wants to build a flexible portfolio that can flex to the employee, not the other way around.

To do this, the team at Microsoft is carrying over health and safety learnings from COVID-19 to create a safe and productive environment. This includes reducing office density and following social distancing standards across the company’s portfolio. 

The company also expanded their portfolio—whether it’s in their own space or a leased space—to include flexible workspaces that deliver focused areas, common or unassigned spaces, and bookable conference rooms when teams need to come into the office for collaboration. Microsoft has already proven that people can work remotely and still be productive, but the company wants to offer its employees a menu of options based on their needs.   

Flexible spaces may make more financial sense for companies

WeWork CEO Sandeep Mathrani noted that pre-pandemic, office space capacity averaged around 60 percent—with companies or renters still paying 100 percent of the monthly office space bill. Many employees were not sitting in their physical offices regularly. They were with their clients, traveling to solicit business, or working from home a day or two a week. So, while the pandemic has led to a more noticeable shift in working from home, once companies return to work, they can leverage their workspace better by leasing flexible spaces that give employees greater options and cost companies less. 

WeWork Gav-Yam Negev in Be’er Sheva, Israel.

Mathrani also clarified that “flexible office space” doesn’t mean individuals or employees are sharing space with someone else, or sitting next to someone from a different company. In fact, more than half of WeWork’s tenants today are business enterprise clients investing in flexible spaces and using an entire floor or building based on the amount of time and space they need. They can flex up or down and take a lease for as short as a month or as long as 10 years.  

Data is helping companies make more informed workspace decisions

Ernst & Young’s David Kamen said that EY has been offering flexible workplace programs to its employees for almost a decade. The company has a tremendous amount of data that it’s used to track daily office presence, where people like to congregate, and how long they’re there, and has changed its offerings based on these findings. But the data before COVID-19 may not accurately predict office use moving forward. The team is still tracking usage where they can, but they are starting to think about how they might need to use their data and technology differently. 

Technology is impacting—and increasing—the use of flexible space

Many companies are using technology to enhance the office experience. Microsoft, for example, has created an app called My Hub, which includes Microsoft technologies and third-party apps, to assist Microsoft employees from the time they wake up in the morning to the time they come to the office to the time they go home.

As Michael Ford explained, if people want to drive their own car to work, My Hub offers smart parking as they arrive to campus. If they want to take public transportation, the app provides the best time to catch the bus. They can order food ahead of time so they don’t have to wait in line, and book workspaces based on their needs or preferences. Microsoft’s goal is to offer its employees the best possible experience, so they’ll feel like they have the flexibility they need to be creative and innovative going forward.

WeWork has also incorporated more tech to enhance its product offerings and flexibility. With WeWork All Access, members can access hundreds of WeWork spaces in 150 cities whenever they want, wherever they are. Individuals can pay a monthly membership to book space right from their phone and work in different spaces. Larger companies can also pay for their employees to work in any WeWork space—whether that’s down the street to avoid the commute, or across the world if they’re traveling for business.  

All Access has gained a lot of traction from companies that want to provide their people with a place to go. Their corporate offices may be closed, but their employees might not have an ideal place to work at home. They could be living in a small apartment, lacking office space, juggling the responsibility of family, or being distracted by roommates. But they still want a place to focus and be productive. All Access has become a great solution for many people.  

For even more flexibility, WeWork On Demand is an app where people can buy space to work by the hour, by the day, by the week, or by the month—even if they’re not a WeWork member. It’s currently available in 11 cities and 160 WeWork locations in the U.S.

Companies are employing a range of models to leverage flexible space

One size doesn’t fit all. And at WeWork, Sandeep Mathrani has seen companies take quite a few different approaches. Some businesses are effectively looking to de-densify their office layouts. Other large corporations have given up headquarters altogether and have embraced the hub-and-spoke model. The younger technology companies, on the other hand, see the value of being together and how collaboration leads to innovation. Tech companies are capitalizing on flex spaces and moving back in to stay ahead of their competition and get a leg up on innovation.

The impact of working from home on individuals can’t be ignored

Many people don’t just go to the office to work, they go to collaborate and socialize. While the long-term impact of people working from home is still unknown, many people are experiencing isolation and burnout. While offices may be closed to reduce COVID-19 exposure, many people are still going to bars, gyms, and restaurants and contracting the virus anyway. A workplace that prioritizes health and safety could help employees feel less isolated and more connected.

Want to hear the whole conversation about the future of flexible workspace? Check out the recorded webinar to get all the details.

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