Keith O'Neill
Executive Director & Head of Office Advisory BNP Paribas Real Estate Ireland
+353 (0) 1 661 1233

The health crisis has raised many question regarding the head office and its role as a central and symbolic entity. It has highlighted ways of working differently, thanks in part to the number of digital tools we now have at our fingertips.

However, we must question what the consequences of this new reality are? Is it possible to seamlessly combine working in person and remote working in the months and years to come? How can we rethink the organisational structure of a company while maintaining well-being, confidence and productivity at work?
The health crisis as an accelerator of new practices

Working from home has enjoyed both a growth spurt and mixed success in recent years. Whilst many sing its praises, it has left some managers and employees perplexed, anxious to maintain daily contact with their teams. However, like any new practice, its acceptance has had to be gradual, in line with the rolling out of new digital tools. The health crisis has shaken up our habits, and with no time for a transition period, we had to react quickly. This forced many companies to stop reflecting on whether remote working was effective and instead put it into immediate effect.
The unprecedented circumstances linked to the lockdown forced companies to adapt and to deploy substantial resources to overcome initial difficulties. I think that this episode has only further highlighted the breaking down of our traditional workspace. Today of course it is not the time to talk about peaceful and organised remote working, but instead about how lockdown has forced us to work. We have been required to stay at home, sometimes in small spaces or having to look after children and not necessarily with the tools or the ideal surface to work on. Not all companies were ready but then neither were many people’s homes. This experience cannot therefore be representative but for many, we were able to continue our activity, maintain our meetings and find a daily rhythm in spite of everything.
Now as many countries across Europe step into lockdown for a second time, we will really be able to test the idea of remote working on a large scale. Again, the perception of the office, housing, transport and the head office will shift, along with how we interact with them.
Towards more remote working after lockdown?

While some large companies had already established the necessary resources to allow employees to work from home, smaller companies were forced to adapt and find solutions in order to survive! Now we can say that these processes have been put in place and that a milestone has been reached across our society. By digitalising so much of our work, many companies were able to quickly train those who were not necessarily comfortable with these types of practises. I think that the conditions have now been planted and that this trend may continue to take root in some form or another. Recent crises have shown the need to be able to work from home, to anticipate certain problems related to the climate, social movements or transport problems. The comfort inherent to the home office has been championed, as we consider the time not spent on commuting, which brings real comfort and considerable time saving, as well as monetary. Companies are going to have to reinvent their office spaces and new forms of communication should become a sustainable part of the future.
Third Places and the Hybridisation of Spaces

Before the health crisis, the strategy was to maximise space and encourage collaboration in a flexible way. The company building was seen as the centre, where people converged and communicated. Flexible office space emerged as a way of blurring the boundaries between individualised office space and collaborative areas. Today, it is unthinkable to work in such a populated way. Will we return to dedicated spaces and more traditional office design? Quite the contrary! If we work two to three days a week from home, we will see new hybrid spaces blossom that have yet to be invented. These will be neither residential spaces, nor offices, nor hotels, but a merging of all of this at the same time, third places in short. Co-working spaces, in partnership with head offices, will also have to adapt, they will have an important role to play and will have to offer new forms in line with health issues and the new needs of employees.
The new functions of the company building

Remote working is central to our future, but only if it is supervised and structured. This is where the company building plays a major role. It remains a place of socialisation, training, reference points and identity, and offers the tools that we simply can’t have at home. The office building - and all the more so the head office - is in a way how the company showcases itself, it is a place where employees, service providers, customers, trainees and new recruits converge. It is a place that attracts new talent and investors; a crossroads of opportunities. That doesn't mean that offices will offer less square metres, but, if I dare say so, "more square metres". We will have to take advantage of these renewed spaces for a more enhanced and inspiring service approach. Nothing can replace contact; non-verbal communication, those spontaneous social cues that make it possible to obtain information, to follow up with a colleague, to organise a short impromptu meeting, to respond to a problem and to make concrete progress on a task. Work is a place of exchange, emotions and experience, which only the company building can truly offer.  
Sociological consequences

The crisis has suddenly forced a global workforce into remote working – and not everyone was ready with the right working environment at home. It’s been culturally challenging because the office for many organisations was ingrained as the best way to collaborate and achieve the best results, professionally and personally. 
For me, the head office will become more important than ever because it is essential in shaping an organisation’s cultural environment and sense of belonging. You cannot substitute the informal exchanges you encounter from working in a collaborative office environment with video conferencing, and I believe lockdown has been a wake-up call for many businesses to make their offices even more productive and collaborative.
Rethinking the organisational structure of the company

As organisations redefine the way they operate for a post-COVID world, the goal is to create a way of working that gives options that enable each individual to work as productively as possible, so collectively the organisation can be more productive. For certain situations, such as tender/pitch preparation, not being in the same room makes work much harder – leading to frustration and inefficiency.
Support from experts

As a result, most BNP Paribas Real Estate Occupier Solutions clients are reviewing their portfolios to see where any gains can be made, whether reviewing service charges, business rates, lease events or engaging proactively with all landlords for rent free or deferment in 2020/2021. Many are also undertaking wider strategic reviews for return to work and HQ strategies, including headcount changes, transportation strategy and figuring out how their staff can get back to the workplace. We have a dedicated team in Dublin who can help with this and should you require any guidance do not hesitate to get in touch.

Keith O'Neill
Executive Director & Head of Office Advisory BNP Paribas Real Estate Ireland
+353 (0) 1 661 1233