New pandemic era office could be model for the future

When we open our new office next month in Nairobi, Kenya, it will be half the size it would have been had it opened before the COVID-19 pandemic. The new office has space for just half of our Nairobi staff and if everyone turned up for work on day one, there would not be enough chairs to go around.

Because this is a new office born during the pandemic, we needed half the space and incurred half the cost of setting up a pre-COVID business. The last few months have answered the question business leaders often pondered – could people work effectively from home. The answer is overwhelmingly yes, they can. In fact, efficiency is increased as all staff can be reached, without issue. From clients to journalists – it is far easier and quicker to connect with people and get things done.

No more time wasted travelling. You can have speakers join an event from across the world without costly air fares; attendance numbers for virtual events are far higher than physical gatherings and are achieved at a fraction of the cost.

The pandemic era business has outsourced not to workers in other countries, but to employees working from home – thereby saving on costly office space in city centres and reducing the cost of production.

How will this new half home half office type of business develop? Does it matter if your Nairobi office is partly staffed by people from around the world? There is no reason why a country expert needs to be based in that country to do a good job. At the moment, I am working with a web designer based in Australia. The time difference increases efficiency, as when I start in the morning, he has just finished his day and delivered a full day’s work for me to review.

What else might change in the long run? Will companies pass on these reduced costs to their customers and possibly trigger price wars that destroy value for businesses but reduce prices for clients, as is often the case when a market is disrupted?

It seems clear that things will never return to how they were, but the extent to which businesses have changed for ever is more difficult to assess. Face to face meetings will make a welcome return and colleagues will drift back to offices when they are able, to benefit from the stimulation of working with others. But even if office space is reduced by ten percent; if every physical event is also available virtually; or if people start to take just one day a week working for home, the business landscape have undergone a radical shift.

There will be losers – landlords, company drivers for example – but hopefully more winners. As the cost of employment drops, there will be more jobs created and as prices adjust, markets will grow. There will be less pollution, less time wasted sitting on Waiyaki Way traffic and improved productivity, just as long as we can learn to build the relationships and contacts that make the business world revolve: at a social distance that might be on the other side of the planet.

Trends from other parts of the world highlight that many recent changes will be with us for a while. Given how flexible, adaptable and productive employees have been, some companies see their employees working from home permanently and just popping into the office for an all in-house meeting. This will push real estate developers to rethink how to create an office space to lure back their tenants. Will the office require a garden, maybe some different type of interior décor or mimic the great outdoors with warm colours that give a break from all the grey that was there before? These are new lands – but as the world gradually opens up, it is an opportunity for employers to think about opening offices that spur creativity and staff happiness to deliver for you – no matter the number of employees.