GUEST SUBMISSION: As COVID-19 continues to challenge the commercial fabric of Canada, Canadian office vacancy reached 14.6 per cent in the first quarter of this year, according to a recent report by CBRE.

It’s clear that we’re not out of the woods yet with this virus and the complications it continues to force on our places of business.

But reports suggest there remains a significant appetite for leading companies to have their workers return to the office when the pandemic wanes and it’s safe to go back. A survey by accountants KPMG showed recently that only 17 per cent of chief executives plan to cut back on offices, down from 69 per cent in the last survey in August 2020.

Meanwhile tech giants, the likes of Google and Facebook, continue to move forward with plans for more office space in the U.S. — and Amazon is sticking to its plans to fill 3,000 jobs at its newest Vancouver tech hub.

The new office space dynamic

This seems to suggest there will be an ongoing demand for premium office space in and around our urban cores. In line with this belief, at Rendition Developments, we’ve launched a new boutique light industrial-office project that will add 25,000 square feet of leasable space to Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.

In 2019, before the pandemic, more than 20 million square feet of office space was in various stages of the development pipeline, with nearly half of that taking place in downtown Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.

As developers across the country continue to maintain the pipeline of new office buildings, it’s essential that they develop strategies to position the space for future needs and wants, partly shaped by our experience over the past year.

As the national vaccination program continues to accelerate, people will be heading back to the office and the quality and location of their workspace will play a major role in the decision to go back — or not.

Here are four strategies for builders to ensure they’re developing office buildings and spaces that will meet the needs of workers and companies well into the (new) future.

1. Start with the right site

We must select development sites in walkable/bikeable, vibrant, urban environments with exciting amenities, social spaces and a sense of culture.

Our workspaces are part of a neighbourhood fabric, and the parks, cafes, bars and businesses must be treated like an extension of the office. It’s important for land buyers and office builders to aim for properties that are close to our urban cores, but not overwhelmed with foot or vehicle traffic.

2. Respect the trauma of the last year

Everyone has been impacted by this pandemic and the trauma and suffering of this experience will have lingering effects on how we feel about working, gathering and socializing.

It’s important we reflect and be sensitive about the workspaces of tomorrow and design these spaces so they are controllable, shaped and equipped for wellness and comfort.

Our offices must be ready to meet tomorrow’s post-pandemic needs, such as equipping them for digital collaboration tools, air purification, personal space needs and touchless habits and tech.

Workers should have the ability to gather as they see fit, but not be forced into a scenario where they are interacting involuntarily with others. These are all ingredients in the recipe to attract workers and companies back to the office.

3. Make the workplace a fun place to be

The future of work is clearly going to be hybrid, with some staff working from home while others are at the office.

As companies increase flexibility to win the war for talent, our workspaces must be fun, exciting and energizing.

This means that our office buildings need to be reconsidered. Are rows of personal or dedicated desks needed anymore? Perhaps it will be more important to consider shaping more space for socializing, relaxing, detaching, collaborating and connecting.

Think about why your workers are coming to the office and how they will be spending time there. Does the space add value that cannot be replicated by working digitally, at home? Where do productivity gains truly come from in the office setting?

4. Predict the unpredictable

This past year has taught us a lot about coping with uncertainty and our ever-changing reality. That means our office spaces of the future must be ready to reshape and adapt with little notice.

Easier said than done, surely, but designers and builders need to be planning right now for a future office space that includes flexible footprints, scalable work areas, adaptable common areas and digital pivots and the acceleration of tech tools.

Let’s hope the next pandemic never comes, but if we’ve learned anything over this past year, it’s that our businesses and workspaces must be prepared for the next one.

Brian Roche is the president and CEO of Rendition Developments

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