It’s almost 20 years since I, Robot, the Will Smith science fiction movie was released. The movie told the story of how robotics would be integrated into society to help human beings with their day-to-day lives, before everything went horribly – albeit predictably – wrong.
The idea may have seemed fanciful at the time, but the day when you might walk into an office block and be greeted by a robot who offers to help you with your enquiries may not now be far away. “Access to buildings used to be fairly easy,” says John Moran, chief executive of commercial property company JLL Ireland. “You could walk into a building, say you wanted to meet so-and-so, and nobody would bat an eyelid. They would just send you up in the lift. “That’s going to completely change. There’ll be turnstiles in every single building. You won’t have the ability to call in and see somebody on the hoof. It’ll be by appointment. I can only envisage that all that change will be robotic.
“There are smart bots out there already that function as receptionists. You’re greeted by a robot. The robot takes your name. The robot tells you where to go and tells the person who wants to meet you where you are, and they come down and collect you.” Moran doesn’t mention any concerns about robots evolving by themselves and becoming too powerful for humans to control, so it all sounds like the offices of the future can hopefully avoid the plight of Will Smith’s dystopia. Another aspect Moran describes is the installation of monitors under desks to tell building managers how space is being used. “They will monitor usage of space and tell which areas of the building are being intensively used and which areas aren’t,” he says. In general, Moran says the office is going to change significantly. “If you look at an office at the moment, about 60-70 per cent of it is individual and support spaces, and maybe 30-40 per cent of it is collaborative and social spaces,” he says. “We expect that to flip on its head. The office will perform very much a collaborative function. It will be there to sort of train people, have meetings, and work in groups. As a consequence, we expect the layouts to change quite significantly.” The view is shared by Marie Hunt, head of research of commercial property group CBRE, who says the Covid-19 pandemic has “absolutely changed the office landscape forever more”. “If you look at the brand new buildings that are being designed today, it’s all about touchless technology,” she says. “You walk into the building and into the lift without actually touching a button.
“Air quality has suddenly gone up to the top of the agenda as well. It’s probably not something that anyone was particularly worried about before, but it’s right up there at the top of the agenda now. “Our surveys of occupiers 12-18 months ago showed that concierge facilities and gym facilities were top of the agenda within buildings. That’s gone down to the bottom of the pile now, while air quality, cleaning, and flexibility have gone to the top. “The tendency in recent years was to cram people into buildings and the amount of personal space that everyone had was getting smaller and smaller. That’s going to go in the other direction now. The mentality has changed and people want more space per person.” Mathieu Proust, general manager of UK, Ireland and emerging markets at WeWork, says flexibility and technology will play a key role in the future office, and that health and safety will be a priority for every company. “We have invested significantly in this area by implementing enhanced sanitisation, advanced systems to serve the maximum achievable delivery of fresh, clean air, as well as changes to enable social distancing including staggered seating in communal areas,” he says. He adds that the group has also modified its layouts to minimise footfall in high-traffic spots, and set up “collaboration hubs”.
Another point that has been raised is the possibility of having too much office space with most companies exploring the concept of hybrid working – part time in the office and part time from home – when the public health crisis has passed. Both Moran and Hunt are confident this will not lead to large swathes of empty offices across the country. “Once you get people back and show them it is safe, they will begin to see the benefits of being in an office environment, particularly in terms of collaboration and the younger people who need training,” says Hunt. “That just can’t happen remotely.
“We’ve just done some stats for Dublin and it looks like 70,000sq m will come back into the market again. That’s mainly financial firms like AIB and Bank of Ireland,” adds Hunt. “At the other end of the spectrum, you have the big tech occupiers, and they are actually continuing to grow their footprint, so even though people mightn’t have the full contingent of staff in the office at any given point, they are still looking for more space.” Moran says that older buildings will become more obsolete as they will not be up to spec from an environmental standards point of view. “One feature will be a de-densification,” he adds. “Dublin is quite a high density city from an office occupational point of view. We have about 100sq ft per person. We think that will change and there will be a reduction of 5-15 per cent in density.”