Article | Evolving Workforces

Magnetic Office: Re-imagining future workplaces

There’s been an overhaul in the way people work in the pandemic aftermath. Peter Andrew, CBRE’s Executive Director of Asia Pacific Workplace Strategy, explores the strategies behind bringing employees back.

November 28, 2022


There’s been a complete overhaul in the way people work in the past three years. No one would have predicted that by 2022, it would be acceptable for office workers to be spending up to half the week working from home.  

“You’d have been called crazy,” says Peter Andrew, CBRE’s Executive Director of Asia Pacific Workplace Strategy.  

“’Technology won’t support it,’ they said. ‘Productivity will plunge,’ they warned. Yet it happened – the biggest shift in workplace culture since the establishment of the eight-hour workday occurred almost overnight. 

“And not only has the sky not fallen in, it’s been a pretty successful trial by fire.”   

At CBRE’s recent Resilient Melbourne event, which explored the biggest real estate challenges facing the industry today, Andrew presented alongside an expert panel discussion on Creating Magnetic Workplaces.  

His take on the post-pandemic work environment is a positive shift, one that has allowed employees to reassess how and where they work as well as underscoring the significance of flexibility and life balance. 

“And the workforce isn’t ever going to give that back,” he says. “We have re-defined productivity and have blown up traditional concepts of the workplace for good.” 

Workplaces must earn their place 

The argument of productivity in the office versus productivity at home is essentially settled, according to Andrew. The new goal is about elevating the spaces where people work.   

“Existing workplaces weren’t good enough and need to get better. Poorly executed open plan and activity based working models just don’t cut it anymore.” 

Not all workplaces have been asleep at the desk, though. Plenty of companies around the world are rapidly adapting the way they plan and organise their workspaces. In Australia specifically, this challenge is compounded by a low unemployment environment where companies are having to bend over backwards just to attract and retain talent. 

“The latest round of job vacancy data shows that there are nearly half a million unfilled roles. For context, in November 2019 there were only 227,000 vacancies - a jump of more than 107%.    

“As a result, it’s clear that companies are having to create this ‘magnetic office’ alongside an attractive work culture in order to bring people together in workplaces where face-to-face environments and culture can drive business performance.”  

The next challenge is realising the chance to capitalise on this sudden workplace transformation.  

“Corporates can see an opportunity to cash in, but they are cautious of getting it wrong. They are also uncertain as to how digitisation is changing their industry,” adds Andrew.  

These opportunities come in the form of: 

  • What can companies do with excess office space?  
  • How can companies make workspaces flexible?  
  • How can companies unlock the financial and productivity gains of a truly flexible workplace? 

Addressing these opportunities first requires an updated definition of hybrid work.  

A new definition of hybrid work 

Andrew says that the hybrid work model used to mean working a day a week at home for a lucky few. But today that’s become a mix of face-to-face and online work. 

“The irony being that when many of us do go to the office, most of our meetings are still Zoom calls anyway.  

“The laggards are trying to cope with scheduling who comes into the office and when. Leaders are looking at how hybrid drives performance and staff engagement. They are miles apart and there are not many leaders right now – just a lot of fear and uncertainty.” 

If there is a silver lining for the post-pandemic workplace, it’s come in the form of an emboldened workforce that has proven it can operate from almost literally anywhere with a basic internet connection.  

Andrew says that some employers may disagree with this, but the majority of employees report that their personal productivity has improved by working at home. This is supported with fewer random interruptions, the ‘Hey can I talk to you?’ moments and skipping the dispiriting daily commute. 

“And when we do choose to go to the office, it’s certainly not for the ‘forced fun’. The biggest attractor for employees is other employees. Most of the time it’s about hanging out and doing our everyday work together.  

“What the data also shows is we go to the office for ulterior purposes – lunch with a friend, the sports game on a Friday night, and perhaps even just the novelty of getting out of the house. The commute can be almost enjoyable when viewed from this angle. Going to the office may for some, just be a secondary consequence to the benefits they gain from connecting with other employees or the amenity that surrounds their place of work.” 

Businesses that embrace these non-core drivers for office work are the ones who are pioneering magnetic offices.  

Space for improvement 

Companies today are reducing their physical footprint, offering fewer desks, fewer car parks and using fewer resources. And they are doing this to actively managing their level of fullness to optimise the performance of their workspaces.  

“In fact, the way we have embraced working remotely means we don’t even need desks anymore, just a place in a breakout room or common area to make calls and work on a laptop. What employees are saying is: ‘Give me what I need to get my job done and trust me.’ 

“Freed of these traditional expectations, organisations are making some radical decisions about their workplaces and generating some significant productivity gains.” 

What some companies are doing with their space: 

  • Reducing their floor space and given it back to landlords 
  • Exploring more creative ways of sharing their leased space where different businesses can agree to use it on alternating days of the working week  
  • Turning off floors on quiet days to maintain the critical mass of human activity and energy 

Using data to better predict or respond to daily changes in space demand. Knowing this optimal utilisation can drive immediate and substantial savings while reducing their carbon footprint 

“With space savings comes the ability to reinvest some savings to create higher quality experiences and amenities, thus affording the most magnetic workplaces,” adds Andrew.   

The bigger picture  

While these new spatial practices can present another set of challenges for Governments who look at bustling CBDs as a sign of economic health, there is a silver lining.  

“We are also seeing a ‘flight to quality’ approach – landlords upgrading buildings for better amenity, performance and sustainability; organisations refurbishing workplaces their people will want to come to; and some seizing opportunities to grab premium locations while the market is flat. This is all to create a magnetic destination workplace that will attract and retain talent. 

“And the benefits reverberate widely, adding years to the sustainability of our CBDs by flattening demand peaks and reducing environmental impacts like energy use, road congestion and public transport capacity. 

“The revolution in the way we work is here and it presents a golden opportunity to reimagine the workplace for better social, economic and environmental outcomes.”