Will one of the lasting impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic see remote working become the new normal? Here, Carey Olsen property specialist Kieran Ogilvie discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the demand for office space in Guernsey now and in the future.
With no on-island restrictions since 20 June, life in Guernsey, at the time of writing, has returned in many ways to as it was pre-Covid-19 – that is, no social distancing, no face masks, and all facilities open and operating as normal.
The island, with its rounded economy, in part comprising a global leading offshore financial services and funds industry, and with a well-established, premium office space offering, can be looked at to consider what approach will be taken by businesses returning to the office post Covid-19 and what considerations the office sector itself may face in the future.
When lockdown was introduced in Guernsey in March 2020, businesses had to quickly transfer staff to remote working and, for the most part, adapted to doing so fairly well. However, the complete lifting of on-island restrictions towards the end of June caused businesses to evaluate the remote working approach. In line with recent research undertaken by real estate firm, Savills, showing that 89% of respondents believe that physical office space remains a necessity, the majority of businesses in Guernsey have returned to the office but with more flexible and remote working options permitted. Factors considered relevant are:
- Collaboration: there are many disciplines that rely on collaboration and team working in the same physical environment that video conferencing cannot recreate. The ad hoc sharing of ideas and discussions with colleagues and clients is less easily replicated remotely.
- Social connections: many working from home have built up 'social capital' with colleagues and clients before lockdown, and that social capital would decline as time goes on. Maintaining and creating relationships is more difficult remotely.
- Development: remote working is more difficult for junior staff to manage, with much practical training and support required and tending to be received from working closely with senior colleagues.
- Separation: home working can create problems for parents juggling care for children with work commitments, and the lack of separation of work and home lives can also adversely affect wellbeing.
- Data protection: there is a recognition that processing personal data is more secure within a secured office space compared with the home environment.
- Leases: many businesses are contractually committed to lease terms of a certain number of years and unless the lease expiry is in sight, firms are keen to make use of space they are obliged to pay rent for in the short to medium term.
The benefits of remote working, however, should not be overlooked in the return to the office. Staff may prefer the flexibility of working from home for at least part of the week, particularly as regards their lifestyle, commute time and family responsibilities. For these reasons, the approach taken across many firms on the island has been to continue to permit flexible and remote working for the time being, on the understanding that the office remains the preferred default environment.
The longer-term outlook for the office space environment is much more difficult to predict. The question of office and remote working generally will not be informed so much by the preference and wellbeing of staff, but by the technology available. The focus will be intensified on the ways in which new tech can automate certain office functions whilst retaining elements required for creativity or independent judgment and thought. It is that development that will most likely inform the progression of working practices and the consequent need for office space in the longer term.
For now, however, it can be said that the approach taken in Guernsey tends to indicate that physical office space remains a necessity for firms to operate successfully in the short to medium term, but that flexibility around remote working is now integral to the working practice and wellbeing of staff.
An original version of this article was first published in Guernsey Property and Construction, September 2020.
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