One of the great questions of hybrid working is what happens to all the spare office space if employees work at home half the week.
Do businesses just accept their expensive buildings sitting empty several days a week, or sparsely occupied every day? Do they downsize to lower overheads?
Or do they take a leaf out of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s gilt-leafed book and attempt to force workers back in order to improve the ‘efficiency’ of the office space?
I’d suggest such a position is a rather futile attempt to put the genie back in the bottle. Some employers may still see flexibility as a discretionary perk, but many white-collar employees now consider it a right – and as any student of industrial relations will tell you, people are generally disinclined to give up their rights.
In the current labour market they generally have the power to back up this disinclination by taking their services elsewhere, a position that 90% of FTSE 350 leaders already recognise.
It’s therefore sensible for employers to come up with a long-term solution to the office utilisation question.
An option that doesn’t get much attention is the idea that firms will come to arrangements directly with each other to share offices.
One CEO I spoke with recently was considering just this – we’ll take Mondays and Tuesdays for team meetings and face-to-face time, you take Wednesdays and Thursdays and we’ll alternate Fridays.
It could be a rather elegant solution, so long as people remember to clean up behind them and don’t devolve into a passive aggressive Post-It war over the curry someone left overnight in the fridge, in accordance with the best hot-desking etiquette.
You might ask why it’s better than simply using a coworking space, which effectively does the same thing at scale and with greater flexibility. Indeed, co-working providers could end up one of the great long-term winners from the shift to hybrid working, despite the pain they endured in 2020-21.
For firms based outside of major cities, though, or with long leases that they can’t escape, splitting an office with one other firm could be a cheap and effective way of co-working. It also perhaps gives something that larger co-working spaces can struggle to give – a sense of the space being yours (at least sometimes).
Maybe it won’t take off. The trust required between the two businesses is considerable, outside of whatever contractual agreement they sign. But we can expect firms to continue to look for innovative solutions as hybrid becomes business as usual.