The market for flexible offices will explode in the coming years, predicts Benjamin B. Andersen at DEAS predicts. But that’s far from the only new development. Data and new technology will revolutionize the real estate market and make buildings smarter – for the benefit of the planet as well as people.
The development was already underway. Driven by a megatrend that dictated a break with the traditional office environment and weekday meeting times from 9-5. A break that came about because companies are always looking to improve efficiency. Because most people like freedom and want to have as much influence as possible over their work life.
But then the spark was struck: Probably from a sick bat in a market in Wuhan, China. Soon after, a global pandemic rolled in and added fuel to the fire. Everyone – who could be sent home from work – was sent home. For half and full years.
In these weeks and months, hundreds of thousands of Danes are returning to the workplace, somewhat cautiously. But something happened while we were at home in a meeting on Teams and Zoom. For many managers and employees, the office will be changed forever… or will be transformed any day now.
Danish platform beat the big ones
In Aarhus, Benjamin B. Andersen is testing what could be a new reality for most of us: A flexible office environment without fixed seats. Where there are more employees than desks. Where your tasks on a given workday define which office chair is the optimal one for you to sit on. At home, in the office, at a customer site, in a project room in the city or anywhere else.
"In my office, we have 18 employees. We only have 14 desks. There is a physical framework that means we can’t just knock down a wall and expand. To make everyday life more manageable, we now have a digital system where we can book a seat in the office or notify our colleagues that we are working from home or out in the field for a few hours. We have chosen a Danish platform called Mydesk. We’ve tested other platforms developed by multinational corporations, but those systems were too rigid and square. That’s exactly the opposite of what we need. An agile system with room for our specific needs… our world. With Mydesk, we have found a platform that we can help shape and further develop… just as my colleagues and I would like to do. My mantra is that digital systems are 20 percent technology… and 80 percent people. Digital solutions need to be simple to use to win the hearts of users… a bit like Uber or Airbnb".
Demand will explode
The title is Head of Department, and as a manager, Benjamin B. Andersen has a responsibility to make everyday life work… even in an office with too few desks and "40% overcrowding," as he puts it. At the same time, as part of DEAS – considered by many to be Denmark’s leading property management company – he has a responsibility to sense where customers and demand are moving:
"I have no doubts at all! The market for flexible office environments will explode in the coming years. The nature of demand will change. Customers – who previously only asked about the location and square footage of offices – will in the future look for offices with specific characteristics. The focus will increasingly be on inspiring environments, well-being, high productivity, flexibility and sustainability. In the flexible office environment, some conservative businesses may be looking at the savings they can easily rack up by reducing the number of office spaces. And I can certainly understand the mechanism… it’s obvious in a reality where the utilization rate in a typical office workplace is as low as 60 percent".
But Benjamin B. Andersen hopes that the most forward-thinking and visionary leaders and employees will look up and see the big picture:
"To me, flexible office environments are not a cost-saving exercise – rather an investment in sustainability and a good working environment for the benefit of both people and business. With flexible office environments, we’re entering a reality where the canteen avoids food waste because the kitchen staff knows whether you work at home or eat your lunch at work. Where there is an available parking space because you have booked one. Where your workplace can contribute to lower CO2 pollution because buildings operate intelligently… whether we’re talking about heating, lighting or ventilation".
As an example of the importance of operations not only for the planet’s climate, but also for the people who work in a building, Benjamin B. Andersen explains that studies show that productivity in an average office drops by a tenth in the afternoon. Simply because of lower oxygen levels in the air and an indoor climate filled with slightly more carbon dioxide than in the morning. We breathe, but as the workday progresses, we also draw energy from the air we breathe. A low-oxygen indoor climate is an obstacle that can be eliminated with the right measuring equipment, data and technology, according to the engineering graduate.
Loud pulse or quiet presence
Even on a more practical level, flexible office environments are far preferable to the old-fashioned habits of fixed workstations. Fixed seats don’t make much sense in today’s work environments, which are anything but fixed routines and straightforward workflows.
"I know it from myself. There are times when I need to sit in the middle of everything and feel the pulse and energy of colleagues in the room. At other times, I need to retreat to a quiet corner or close a door and talk in private. And then there are times when I want to sit close to a new hire so I can be an attentive manager and provide reassurance. Add to this the fact that the labor market is rapidly moving into a new reality with more and more project work and more external freelancers hired for shorter or longer periods of time."
Benjamin B. Andersen – who is 47 years old and has dedicated the last 17 years of his working life to DEAS and the management of private homes, office buildings and shopping centers – also sees a new generation of young employees bringing flexible working days and modern, intelligent office environments into companies in the king’s chair.
Get ahead in a long queue
"Just before the corona crisis and lockdown, I hired a young male project manager. He had a strong desire to work from home, which we wrote into his contract. Then came the crisis and he got all the homework he wanted… and more. Now we are gradually opening our office again, but my guess is that he will never be a colleague who sits in an office from Monday morning to Friday afternoon. His type is becoming more and more common… the ability to work from home is very high on job seekers’ wish lists. The queue for skilled labor is long. The companies that can handle flexible office environments and flexible workdays will move ahead of those that can’t or won’t."
We live in a country with the world’s highest ambitions for CO2 reduction: 70 percent by 2030. That ambition is going to place wild demands on both public and private buildings in the very near future. At a time when social responsibility and attractiveness are almost as important as black numbers and profitability, the flexible workspace market will be an engine with a solid bottom line.
That is why Benjamin B. Andersen is currently practicing on a small scale in the office from which he and his colleagues at DEAS in Aarhus manage properties. The same goes for colleagues at the DEAS office in Copenhagen. It’s like paving while they drive on the road: Creating new opportunities for a more flexible and sustainable working life at DEAS… and at the same time gaining experience that the market and customers are beginning to demand:
"It is definitely my dream that together with Mydesk we will gain so much practical experience that we can also offer DEAS customers the ability to manage the flexible office environment of the future. From my point of view, it is an essential element in the ambition to make our buildings smarter and more sustainable".
Not a stone, but a cathedral
When he leans back in his office chair and looks beyond the ceiling, Benjamin B. Andersen has no trouble seeing the bigger picture. Andersen has no trouble seeing the bigger picture in what appears to be a platform where he and his colleagues can log in and reserve a desk, a parking space and lunch when the worst of the canteen rush hour is over.
"Yes, we’re on a construction site, chipping away at a rock. It can seem trivial and almost inconsequential. But if we raise our eyes and look around, we are building a cathedral. Imagine what it could be like when buildings conserve resources and only use the amount of energy they need. Or share surplus energy with the local community. Imagine what it could be like when the canteen can prevent food waste and sell its surplus food to Mr. and Mrs. Jensen who live around the corner… just like some supermarkets already do with the help of digital technology and our mobile phones. Imagine what it could be when buildings can rent out available parking spaces outside of normal office hours or sell power from electric car charging stations… well, anything. The only limit is your imagination".
If Benjamin B. Andersen – and there’s really no good reason not to – unwise buildings will soon give way to intelligent and sustainable ones. But that’s not all: The buildings of the future will reach out to us in ways we can barely imagine today.
The revolution will happen in our private homes. In our workplaces. The stores where we shop. The halls where we play sports. The institutions where we educate or care for the young, the old, the sick.
"Buildings are a huge part of our lives. 20-23 of the 24 hours of the day we are in a building. Now we’re going on a very long journey of discovery together. It can get me high thinking about it, because it’s going to be really interesting!"