Offices not dead, but evolving

Tim Harrup

For our last report on the topics covered at this year’s Realty summit, we turn to a subject which has been occupying office owners and users for many months: The Workplace after Covid. Speakers of the highest level included Alex de Witte (Baltisse Real Estate), Serge Fautré (AG Real Estate), Frank Geets (Het Facilitair Bedrijf) and Stefan de Clerck, Chairman of the board of directors of Proximus. Opening the subject was Federal Secretary of State for the Recovery Plan Thomas Derminne.

Thomas Derminne began his presentation by saying that Covid has changed our relationship with the buildings we occupy and with the environment. The current challenge, which very much affects buildings, is the energy transition, and it should be borne in mind that the climate and our infrastructure are intrinsically linked. He was honest enough to say that Belgium is currently very poor when it comes to the energy transition. He said that currently, greenhouse gases – 18% of which are allied to buildings – are slowly diminishing but that more needs to be done.

Moving to the workplace itself, the Secretary of State said that the taste for home-working had begun before Covid, but that work has to be a central philosophy in our society and that the notion of ‘work from the workplace’ is still very much a factor. It should also not be forgotten (and here he was speaking from experience…) that working from home also has disadvantages, especially when young children are clamouring for attention.

Key drivers

AG Real Estate CEO Serge Fautré ooked at the question of whether home-working caused by Covid among others, will kill the office. He said that studies have shown that the key driver for the popularity of working from home is avoiding a long commute. But as mobility solutions continue to develop, this factor will decrease in importance. The cultural factor ‘working together’ will probably swing the balance in favour of the office.

Alex de Witte, CEO of Baltisse emphasized the need for a good home-work balance, and for a flexible approach to the place of work. It will not be uncommon for people to carry out their work from a number of locations. And when we do build offices, the war for talent has to be taken into account – not only does the latest work generation want flexibility, but it wants the digital era to be built into the places where work takes place. Stefan de Clerck, agreed, speaking of offices which will be smaller but of higher quality – the way we are working is evolving and our buildings have to evolve too. New offices may be more in the form of a campus than an office block. Frank Geets put it like this: ‘Before, we had an office, now we have a connected workspace’.

All of this has to be managed of course, and Serge Fautré highlighted two aspects to this. Firstly, managing people who are working from remote locations does not have to resemble ‘Big Brother’. And secondly, given that the overwhelming majority of our office buildings are ‘old’, renovating these is the key to the infrastructure question.