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Changing office: Why preference for expensive décor has declined

By Peter Theuri | December 9th 2021
By Peter Theuri | December 9th 2021

When the US-based management consulting company McKinsey said the Covid-19 pandemic had thrust the world five years into the future, e-commerce promoters told us we were already in the digital age.

Office owners sulked, wondering what to do with their big spaces now that everyone was working from home.

Office space was going to reduce. For imaginative investors, the office spaces were going to be converted into new use. Few could make this work. In June, the Fortune Magazine’s website wrote that 74 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs expected to reduce office space.

“For tech companies, like Facebook or Square, adopting remote or hybrid workplaces isn’t surprising. But old guard financial firms like JPMorgan announcing plans to cut back on office space seemed to spell bad news for commercial real estate,” wrote Fortune.

The office has been losing the allure, with those working from home happy to do it.

In a recent interview with The Standard, David Chola, lead architect at Adroit Architecture said there's a shift in preferences for home designs, with demand for spacious offices dwarfing that of other features such as private garden or balcony.

Chola said what was initially thought of as a knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic was slowly becoming a reality as many workers sought to work from home.

Not only that. The décor that some offices have had for ages was now seen for what frugal office owners would deem it: excesses.

To remain modern, appealing and probably different from others, offices packed all kinds of expensive furniture and other decorations. And when suddenly the usefulness of the space declined, what became of the expensive décor?

“New office owners have restrained their budgets thus going for just enough office spaces with simplified décor and infrastructure,” says Erick Koguya, founder, InforAfrica group, an architecture and interior design firm.

He says huge offices are no longer deemed necessary. The scramble for the bottom, where the bare minimum is just enough, looks like the new normal.

“Architectural designs have changed in the sense that new home developers now demand the incorporation of home office spaces. As a result of the negatively impacted economy, some office owners have resolved to reduce their square footage,” says Koguya.

Consider a secretary who no longer needs to a pile of files on her desk or in-and out-trays of the boss’ assignments. She only needs a computer, which is her workstation.

The computer is connected to the Internet and can operate faster - one that costs hundreds of thousands, a swivel chair, an expensive table and other decorations atop it?

What, when the secretary, with just enough, performs just fine? What becomes of it when the office is now vacant and workers can find comfort working from home?

“For any developers who heavily invested in Class A offices, we cannot conclusively say it was a waste,” argues Moses Okemwa, Managing Director at Amber Construction Ltd.

Dynamic world

“We live in a dynamic world which demands flexibility and creativity - that will ensure the spaces are taken up. This could include making the offices smaller to attract more clientele or the shrinking business operations or redesigning the available space to accommodate other activities like eateries, wellness centres, accommodation and conferencing.”

Instead of adding décor for the sake of flaunting financial muscle and appearing modern, office owners want spaces tailored to the new needs of the workers and the customers.

“For architects, design and construction of building forms and spaces is an ever-changing quest. This is because buildings are designed to accommodate the evolving human and machine requirements,” says Okemwa.

Covid-19 has brought about new dynamics on office space requirements in location, size and general spatial planning. The need for social distancing and installations of hygiene management stations has seen the modern office space more open, hygienic, properly ventilated and probably with self-testing and sanitisation stations for workers and guests

Probably, some of the most valuable things in the office which act as decorations will be gone for good. In their place, offices will invest in crucial things for the office. These might cost a fortune, but they will not be mere flexing of muscles.

“The décor for office spaces may or may not vary but what is certain is that the users are now more health-conscious and therefore even the selection of materials to use for décor will have more considerations on health,” says Okemwa.

“Work stations may also be more flexible since the work from home option may demand that a work station is used by more than one person.”

CNBC recently quoted Brent Capron, an interior design director as saying developers have become more focused on creating better ventilation systems for indoor spaces.

He has seen greater demand for buildings with ample natural lighting and access to the outdoors, such as private gardens or balconies where workers can spread out.

But Capron also expects workplace design to “follow a pattern of drawing from the hospitality industry by creating inviting, comfortable spaces through strategic lighting, furniture arrangement, art and décor, background music, and down to scent technology meant to evoke association with space,” CNBC writes.

Capron says décor might still act as a huge attraction to the potential employee. US publication Computerworld notes that even as many firms push back a full return to the office, the glut in office space continues to grow, particularly in the US.

Firms are now doing away with décor and infrastructure that add little value to the end product. They focus on what will boost their business. “Microsoft is adapting offices to include conference rooms that cater to virtual meetings with eye-level cameras and screens on the walls. That setup allows remote employees to maintain eye contact with in-office colleagues as if they were all face-to-face,” notes Computerworld.

Buildings are being greened, life-saving interventions being upgraded and ease of operation at the fore. But the exaggerated carpets, expensive lighting, imported chairs and other unnecessary factors in the office that see overheads soar have now been seen for what they are: a luxury.

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