With the further easing of lockdown to allow pubs and restaurants to open in July, many of us are looking ahead to our return to the office.

Richard Morris

But a prolonged period of home-working and lingering health concerns have fundamentally shifted how we want to work and how we will use our office space.

From Barclays to Facebook, businesses have heralded the start of a more flexible future for working. 0ffice real estate needs are changing, and the commercial real estate (CRE) sector must adapt to survive. Gone are the days of one city-centre office. To cater to our new ways of working, landlords and office providers should anticipate a move to decentralised hub-and-spoke office networks that are more heavily reliant on flexible workspaces, increasingly situated in the regions to minimise commutes and are underpinned by robust digital infrastructure to support a more disparate workforce.

A sudden shift to remote working has shown how important digital infrastructure is to supporting this disparate workforce. Most of us have grappled with technical challenges during lockdown, and up to 72 minutes of our working day can be lost as a result of slow and outdated technology or poor connectivity. If remote working is to endure, more sophisticated and robust technological capabilities will be key, ensuring that connectivity is reliable, data privacy is secure and remote access is always available.

Invariably, our home offices can’t deliver the digital sophistication or security required. Our companies’ offices will have to play this role to a greater extent, becoming digital nuclei at the centre of a far more remote workforce – the heart of a hub-and-spoke network of offices.

Office team work

Source: Shutterstock/ George Rudy

Offices’ function must change radically, and the CRE sector must embrace the tech innovation it has previously overlooked. Even before lockdown, offices certified by WiredScore on connectivity could charge a 5% rent ‘digital premium’, showing how crucial the office is as a digital hub for CRE’s future.

While workers seem set to adopt remote working to a greater degree in the long term, there is no denying the value of a physical workspace. The office will never be obsolete, but the model and location of workplaces are likely to change, with greater flexibility and a network increasingly spanning the regions outside typical centres such as London and Manchester.

Demand for flexible space has been growing for some time and is set to accelerate. The industry has grown by 50% in the past five years, according to Instant Offices, and there has been a big shift in regional cities: flexible workspace in Nottingham grew 93% between 2017 and 2019.

This regional flexible working trend is likely to be propelled even further by greater aptitude for remote working and a new appreciation for shorter commutes and more time at home with family. At the height of lockdown, research indicated 71% of the workforce wanted their employer to provide flexible workspace following the pandemic, compared with just 11% of respondents who had worked in flexible offices previously.

As businesses decentralise and adopt a more dispersed real estate footprint, the CRE sector has an opportunity deliver this new normal through a digitally powered hub-and-spoke model. Embracing technology and flexibility will be crucial to making both buildings and our working lives smarter, safer and more sophisticated.

Richard Morris is a director at technologywithin