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The Impact of COVID-19 on Office Spaces in Malta

17th May, 2021
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The global business community has by now readily accepted the fact that Covid-19 has changed the office environment and the way we do business, forever.  This is partly due to the longevity of the pandemic and that many of the solutions that were instinctively enforced in the beginning now have evolved to become sound business practice. Maltese businesses have also embraced the change for the better and are reassessing the situation at present, taking their time consulting with experts before making decisions that are in the best interest of their employees. One thing remains of primary importance and that is to get people back to work and to get the economy back on track.

This does not automatically mean that all sectors of business’ work-from-home scenarios, as practised by their employees, perfectly suit overall corporate strategies.  It has become all too clear that there are huge benefits but also some shortcomings that still need to be addressed. Nowhere in any time in history did we have a blueprint based on the age of technology to follow and many of the decisions up to now have been based on pure instinct. The pandemic has been around for some time now and the revision of companies’ operations are not only becoming more scientific and based on fact, results and productivity but also incorporates the psychological impact the new working rules have had on different personality types and their delivery within the work arena.

Inevitably there will be a majority of employers preferring the larger proportion of their workers to return to the office for various reasons, but before that can happen, many issues such as office layouts, floor space and social distancing within the workplace will need to be addressed.

We first have to ask the question: is there really a need for office spaces at all now that people have proven they can work extremely well and productively remotely? The answer to this is that there is no homogenous answer at all. A vast number of people have proven that they can be more productive at home, deliver better quality work, are more relaxed and can spend the time that is usually taken up by travelling to and from work, more productively being at work, but doing so at home.

However, there are limitations to all the plusses. Humankind is a social species and some can argue that Zoom and WhatsApp have made face-to-face meetings obsolete, but they will be wrong. Studies seem to point in the direction that we fare better with corporate collaboration when we meet in person instead via means of a screen: there are other factors at play such as being able to read social cues better, direct line of sight, ambient sound and even smell. Part of successful interaction and the evolution of human experience is to experience in full. We get a better understanding and idea of who we are dealing with whether it is an individual, a group of people or a company when we actually encounter them in their “natural working habitat”, namely the office. We see how they relate to one another in that specific space and within the boundaries of the company’s rules and regulations and this has a huge direct and subliminal impact on the decisions we make about everything, last but not least the business activities that we engage in with the said individuals and/ or companies.

An important component in the training of especially new and younger employees is actually the interaction of people in the office environment and this is not something that can be taught online. The young also pick up business acumen and social cues from older, more experienced employees in ways that are never written down anywhere in any handbook or company literature. On the other hand, it is far more realistic for older employees to be disciplined, experienced and productive enough to easily work independently from home. This has become all too clear during all the stages of the last year and a half of the pandemic.

As we now have a better understanding of who will be wanted back in the office more often and who will benefit more from being in an office environment rather than being trusted to work from home on a permanent basis, we have to re-evaluate something as simple as office floor space and be fully prepared for the next time a pandemic comes along. And according to the statisticians, it will. It is at least expected for most corporates to have a plan at hand and part of it already in practice by the time this happens so that the impact of having to reinvent ways of continuing operations and affecting the income stream as little as possible is paramount. Malta’s local experts recommend that all business sectors should do their best to define the way forward as soon as possible and to slowly implement and test new ways of operating, as there is no clearly defined blueprint where one size fits all. This trial period may take the better part of the next two to three years but one thing that all businesses have in common is a renewed optimism about the future.

Due to the lack of physical presence in offices during the pandemic, some sectors like tourism and leisure would have had less need for space as opposed to IT and E-commerce who would already be utilising virtual office space for some time. The latter sectors of business already have large numbers of employees working from home. The pandemic also presented opportunities for many firms to reshuffle, downsize and reduce running costs and to upgrade their utilisation of technology. Those who rent offices have also opted for shorter-term leases and some may even have decided not to renew leases at all. The ratio of desks per person has also come down and is likely to continue for the future, but due to social distancing will also in many instances see the return of the office cubicle or partition, but this time it will be made of safety glass to allow eye-to-eye contact and bigger square meterage will be required for each employee. This will lead to a bigger demand for floor space as for instance bigger meeting rooms will be required for the allowance of space between people. This is surprising and contrary to what most thought the legacy of the pandemic will be: less space due to the support of the work-from-home scenario globally. Although remote working will continue from now on, we will also, for instance, see staggered starting times for employees or alternative days of going to the office for employees.

When we look at the type of offices employers will be looking for, we can confidently say companies will be looking at better, modern and flexible office space with lots of added value and services, so older buildings are likely to fall out of favour. Landlords will have to up their game as well and provide access to technology with a definite measure of wellness as one of the primary ingredients. The new workplace is now also considered an ecosystem instead of just four walls. Wellness will include air purifying systems and ventilation, better design consideration that has a positive influence on the mental well-being of workers and people making use of these spaces. Office layouts will definitely have to be designed with consideration and forethought in order to increase productivity and promote interaction, but this is not to be confused with the whole phenomenon of co-working spaces based on the model of close physical mix, no barriers to social interaction and high-density open offices that was so popular just prior to the pandemic. The whole principle of co-working and shared office space is currently under reassessment, being cautiously approached so that the health and welfare of workers now determine floor space, composition, layout, location and design. Solutions that promise to work well, are economically viable and entice employees back to the office, will be implemented slowly over the next few years.

Elements from the work-from-home scenario will cross-pollinate to the office such as to possibly include less formal work attire as is already the norm in certain sectors, having real plants and indoor gardens, the inclusion of soft furnishings and having lounge areas. Even though we mentioned the return of the cubicle or partition, this “separation” will not be implemented at the loss of the benefits derived from interaction and collaboration between employees. Offices now more than ever will need to be a place for the exchange of ideas, interaction and inspiration, meetings and tutoring on a holistic level.

Perhaps, physically entering the office will also have to incorporate having no need for the touching of elevator buttons or door handles and this is where the use of sophisticated security and smart access cards that activate automated doors and elevators will deliver an employee right to their office space. One has to see to what extent, new measures will be introduced – to make common areas safe but still practical.

In terms of locations, the way forward for Malta is seen to consist of having a healthy mix: different sectors of business will have different requirements, setups and needs for these particular locations. Sliema/St Julian’s will always be popular with foreign workers as the area is legendary for its appeal to this particular demographic who prefer to work in the area. Areas like Mriehel have established a sound reputation as being very good value for money, being easily accessible and therefore growth and a demand for more office space is predicted for the area.

This brings us to the question of whether new office space or the building of such is really necessary. As always, this is a question of supply and demand. The biggest challenge will be to entice and make employees want to go to the office again but keeping in mind that the successful employer of the future will instead also be encouraging of and support the work-from-home model, finding an optimum mix between these two options.

For positive change to work in the future when people return to their offices, a huge change will also be demanded of the thinking patterns and habits of management. The roles and evaluation of workers will have to be redefined altogether, ranging from those that are capable of productively working from home long-term to hybrids; to those that are definitely better off when classically managed within the office environment and through the now restructured management hierarchy and practices.

It is of primary importance that companies and employers start looking at what innovations they can implement to bring their employees safely and productively back to the workplace, as this needs to happen. Old management principles, systems and styles will no longer have a rightful place in a post-Covid-19 world. For those that want to take the necessary steps and plan ahead immediately, we strongly suggest reinventing what has gone before so talent can blossom and collaboration and productivity can be nurtured while reducing operating costs.

Just think of it this way: as a company you have always wanted your employees to deliver their best, enjoy one another’s company, to ultimately be happy and to achieve good results and contribute to overall success. The fallout of Covid-19 undoubtedly has seen an immense value now being placed on human life, an emphasis on renewed respect for the ordinary worker, their needs, health and safety. The contribution employees make to the country’s overall economic welfare cannot be ignored and this is where Malta’s outlook is very promising. Everything is currently under the microscope: finance and business principles, foreign investment and more. In order not to only regain but BETTER its reputation as an international investment destination, Malta is getting rid of what has affected the country’s credibility and reputation and reinventing the traditional workplace to boot.

Since the advent of the industrial age, there has never been a more opportune time to change everything for the better. In conclusion and relating aptly to all that we have discussed regarding a happier office of the future, we found this great quote by George Orwell: “The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”

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