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Sunday, 30 September 2012

No need to remain office bound


I attended a meeting in a hotel lobby some time ago and as I entered the vast room I was struck by just how many similar meetings were going on.  I’ve been doing business like this for a many years now and there have always been plenty of others doing the same thing, but I haven’t witnessed quite such numbers other than in a conference environment.

These people were clearly not all part of one group.  Everywhere there were earnest and convivial conversations going on as the participants leaned over laptops from comfortable armchairs and sofas.  One of my companions was a high flyer in commerce and I asked him if this really was a phenomenon that has arisen in relatively recent years or was it always so outside the professions.  He confirmed that technology has made all the difference to the numbers now conducting business in this way, so much so that hotels are specifically gearing up for this kind of trade and often turn a greater profit per square foot of informal meeting space (even the formal meeting rooms are disappearing) than bedrooms, bars or restaurants.  The table turn is high and yet coffee, sandwiches and Wi-Fi access are consumed in sufficient quantities to deliver very healthy margins.

The hotel I attended was part of a chain and yet it was well appointed and an improvement on most offices I have ever worked in or visited.  Free parking was plentiful and the whole experience was energising.  Once over, my colleagues and I went our separate ways, all working from home as it happens.

This is not a trend that I can see being reversed.  People are being freed from the constraints of working in one fixed place and firms should at the very least be asking themselves whether they need as much office space as they currently occupy and whether there are opportunities to reduce rental and associated overheads and engage in a more flexible and in my opinion more enjoyable way of working.  I recommend a strategic review of all leases and a plan in place well before lease expiry and break dates, as once those dates pass with new leases or further locked in periods, the opportunity will be lost for several more years during which time the pace of change in technology may cause a largely office bound workforce to appear more and more anachronistic.

A shift in working patterns could also bring about changes in volumes of certain types of work.  A shrinking market for office space would obviously impact on the volume of commercial property transactions as office space lies empty.  Shortages of good housing stock could lead to office blocks being transformed into apartments, thereby rejuvenating the residential market.  Strategic reviews may need to be far reaching…