Nathalie Charles, Deputy Chief Executive Officer of BNP Paribas Real Estate in charge of Investment Management, is convinced that offices are a central part of our future ways of working. In a recent conference with ULI, she argued the importance of these professional environments to stimulate our senses and drive innovation and creativity, as well as maintaining our work-life balance.
“I believe that the future for offices is a very strong one. Offices for me are all about people, as we as humans are always seeking out interactions with others, both professionally and personally. These interactions help us to develop ideas and be innovative, and the office plays a significant role in facilitating these interactions,” said Nathalie Charles.
The office is centred around the five senses, which are crucial and which aren’t stimulated by working from home 100% of the time. Today with video conferencing, we can only see half of one another and we may have difficulty hearing each other because of a bad connection. We certainly can’t smell the environment around us or shake hands and whereas we used to be able to conduct meetings over a coffee or meal, this is now impossible. The frustration of not being in an office building is also about losing some of our senses from behind the screen. People want to be back in their offices for this. As Nathalie Charles points out, “Humans are at the heart of what I believe creates strong offices.”
The case for the commute
Going back and forth from the office was previously seen as a huge constraint for many. However, now that we don’t have to do this, it is perhaps surprising how much people miss it. “Movement means being energised and having a separation between our personal and professional lives. We miss walking, cycling or driving to our places of work. This lack of movement makes us static, both physically and intellectually,” explains Nathalie Charles.
Indeed, life is about rituals. We need frameworks in our professional and personal lives to feel secure.
I believe that the future for offices is a very strong one. Offices for me are all about people, as we as humans are always seeking out interactions with others, both professionally and personally. These interactions help us to develop ideas and be innovative, and the office plays a significant role in facilitating these interactions
Innovating real estate’s existing stock
With a significant drop in the occupancy rate of offices, there have been many discussions about whether offices can be reconverted, particularly as a way of responding to a lack of housing in many European cities. However, Nathalie Charles believes that offices are still an important part of cities’ real estate offer.
When I see the array of buildings in cities such as London, some being famous, I see stock, not a new starting point for 2021. I see millions of square footage of existing offices, which must remain as offices. Whatever we think about the ability to innovate, if these buildings could have been transformed into residential assets, it would have happened. Unfortunately, real estate does not work like this, instead we must find ways to make these existing offices more sustainable and adapted for the future of our professional needs.
Indeed, whilst the idea of converting existing office stock has gained traction in recent years, the reality is that it’s easier said than done. A ULI report stated that while cities across Europe and America have proposed successful scheme for converting offices to housing, “there needs to be just the right amount of excess older office space in the market for it to be able to withstand having that space redeveloped into housing (or hotel use) to meet real residential demand, without pricing out the full range of businesses necessary for the local economy to thrive.” So whilst there are opportunities to convert offices to housing, these projects must be carefully selected as not every offices lends itself to being able to transform into housing.
The response to this Nathalie Charles believes is to use innovation to invigorate offices, in order to make them appealing and adapted for our future needs. She goes on to explain that, “We are certainly at a time of friction and questions, which is causing a great deal of uncertainty. These challenges will be tackled through a great deal of innovation in the coming years, in order to promote a really strong office market.”
Isolation is burdensome
When the first lockdown in France finished, Nathalie Charles was keen to spend time with millennials and people from Gen Z, in order to understand how they had come to view the office and how they had experienced lockdown. “My main concern was to understand if they were happy to be back in the office. After having these discussions with colleagues from across different countries, I found the overwhelming response to be that they didn’t want to be isolated,” explains Nathalie Charles.
From new starters, who have recently finished their studies and who need to be onboarded, to those under 30, who expressed their desire to come to the office, they are a range of reasons younger generations want to be back in the office. As Nathalie Charles details, “They want to learn, which is easier and much more efficient when they can ask someone sat next to them. They want to be part of a community and to escape their home, which might be small or be with young families. In this way they have a strong desire to have an office which reflects their expectations and the way they wish to work.”