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Will the COVID-19 pandemic bring about the end of the viability of open-plan office space? A recent ULI Asia Pacific webinar, “The FutuRE of Cities and Communities: Are Open Plans Outdated?,” asked a panel of real estate experts from the Asia Pacific region and Europe who concluded that flexibility, technology, variety, and health would be the key concepts bringing companies and key employees back to offices.

Discussion leaders included Julian Bott, managing director, Asia Pacific, Cundall; Shaun Brodie, senior director, head of occupier research, Greater China, Cushman & Wakefield; Andy Nicholson, executive director, head of Asia asset management (excluding Japan), PAG; and Coen van Oostrom, CEO and founder, EDGE Technologies.

Here are the key takeaways from the session:

Smaller, smarter workspaces: Panelists agreed that the high cost of leased office space compelled many companies even before the pandemic to reduce overall space to save money, yet they are increasingly mindful of providing effective workspace for their staff. Tech-driven smart offices can provide better and more efficient working conditions, with more measurable outcomes for staff. Staff are demanding healthier offices, with expanded wellness amenities including outside space, more quiet space, and the opportunity to stretch their legs.

It’s not straightforward: Working from home tends to appeal to senior workers; younger staff are typically more eager to get back into the office, particularly workers who live in smaller homes. “Millennials miss the perks of modern office space,” said Brodie, whether that be faster internet access or even just a safe place to pick up packages or connect with peers. In Mainland China, most workers of alare already back in the office. Elsewhere, office workers may demand some opportunity to work from home on a flexible basis.

Offices are collaboration spaces: Why do people form companies? The clue is in the name: collaboration is needed for creativity and productivity. “The office should be a place to meet people,” said van Oostrom. Offices may need more meeting and breakout space, some of which might come at the expense of open plans.

Always evolving: Occupiers and asset owners need to work together to provide for the needs of office workers. Said Bott, “Landlords and tenants need to be more engaged around flexibility solutions, and earlier in the process.” There will be fewer “one size fits all” office layouts in the future, with a mix of segmented and open space alongside collaboration, social, and quiet spaces.

COVID-19 as a catalyst: Panelists agreed that the office sector had been moving toward more agile workspaces (conference rooms, lounge spaces) in addition to more flexibility about working from home, and that the pandemic has merely accelerated these changes. However, these changes represent the accelerated development of an adapted version of the open-plan layout to accommodate the higher value placed on personal space with fewer shared elements.