The role of offices today explored at Realty

Tim Harrup

One of the conferences at last week’s Realty fair took a look at the office market from a new perspective, rather than just analyzing the figures. It may be summed up as the ‘New Way of Working’ which we have all got used to over recent years, having given rise to the ‘New Type of Office’. The panel comprised David Vermeesch, co-founder of rapidly rising real estate agency Belsquare, Grigor Hadjieu, in charge of ESG and innovation at insurer and property owner Allianz, Tim Weyts, Business Development Director at RH and allied services provider sdworx, and art collector and buildings owner Frédéric de Goldschmidt.

A good place to start is with a quotation from David Vermeesch, who has 25 years of experience with real estate agencies: “Ten years ago, when a company needed new offices, the Facilities Manager called us. Now, it is the Human Resources Manager”. The typical request now, alongside the obvious requirement to contain costs, is ‘what type of offices do we need in order to attract people into our company’? On top of satisfying this demand, David Vermeesch went on, we have to add the additional layers of ESG strategy and environmental friendliness. There is currently a lack of these buildings in Brussels, buildings which have gardens and terraces, office space and meeting areas, in short which offer a new work experience. Twenty years ago, he continued, a good office building was one which conformed to the norms of the EU’s ‘Blue Book’ (a specification document). Now it has to be sustainable, meet ESG needs and be certified.

Returning to the lack of quality product in Brussels, David Vermeesch had some figures. Overall vacancy in Brussels is relatively low at 7% or around one million square metres, but vacancy in Grade A buildings is only 1%. So supply can clearly not keep up with demand. The only way in which companies and organizations can find these buildings is to take pre-lets in as yet unbuilt projects. And such is the demand for the right type of offices that price is no longer the prime criterion. Companies are therefore tending to take smaller areas at higher cost.

Attracting staff

Grigor Hadjieu, speaking as a buildings owner, started by saying that the post-covid return to the office was continuing, but had slowed a little recently. He also cited ‘Grade A’ as a top criterion, but added another factor: cities which were vibrant 24 hours and 7 days were more likely to attract young workers. From Allianz’s standpoint, these cities across Europe are doing very well. On top of being in the right city, companies need to be centrally located with easy access, enable hybrid and flexible working, offer more services and be environmentally-friendly. In Grigor Hadjieu’s words, they have to be ‘obstacle-free’.

He went on to outline the fact that technology has a part to play, particularly in terms of cyber-security and data management. The technology has to be easy – opening a door or turning on the heating with a smartphone, for example – but the nuts and bolts which make it work have to be hidden. When all this is in place, Grigor Hadjieu concluded, a building becomes a business partner for the user by helping to attract and retain staff.

This last point was taken up by Tim Weyts, whose HR perspective has shown that while buildings alone cannot solve the HR problem, bad buildings can become ‘dissatisfiers’. And if this causes people to leave the company, it also makes it harder to attract replacements. To the list of required amenities set out by the previous speakers, he added the provision of good healthy food in the building’s eating areas. And while some of the work is now carried out at home, a good place to co-work with colleagues in the office is now critical too.

Finally, and still on the subject of making the office an enriching experience, Frédéric de Goldschmidt cited his own case with a first building transformed many years ago into an early example of mixed use which included an art area. The inclusion of art in the building though exhibitions or simply hanging on the walls, also plays its part in making a satisfying work environment. Under appealing conditions, he said, it has been shown that people are more productive when at the office. And that seems like a good statement with which to end this look at ‘New Offices’.