What impact has the pandemic had on office furnishings in the urban space? Will homeworking live beyond the crisis? How do we encourage employees to come back to the office? Is the future of city business precincts at risk?

According to Eric Bastin, CEO of Growners, the business office needs to remain a place where people can socialise as well as work. He offers SMEs practical solutions for planning the acquisition of offices that are in step with the world of tomorrow.

Growners is a specialist real estate dealer located at Lasne in Walloon Brabant. The company’s core business consists of buying office buildings and warehouses that are at least 10 years old and located on the outskirts of Brussels (because mobility is at the heart of their thinking). It then recycles or subdivides theses properties into a wide range of lots ranging from 50 m² to 8,000 m², before putting them back on the market to be sold or leased. Because becoming the proud owner of premises is now very much part of the offices of the future… Anyway, so much for the introductions.

Is homeworking likely to be the future? Eric Bastin: “I don’t think so. Having to work from home is one thing, but deliberate homeworking, à la carte, that people actually choose to do, is quite another. They’re apples and pears – you simply can’t compare the two. Numerous surveys have shown that people will gradually return to work in the office. In fact, many homeworkers are looking forward to getting back to the office so that they can avoid feeling isolated. They want to enjoy face-to-face exchanges with their workmates and feel appreciated by management, etc. Interestingly, this unprecedented health crisis has had an unexpected positive effect by revealing the extent to which the office is somewhere to socialise. It needs to stay that way, too – otherwise I fear for the mental health of some people who are currently working from home!”

But travelling for and from work takes up so much of the day… “You’re right. Electing to set up a business in a congested city centre is crazy.  That’s why 90% of the properties we offer for sale are located on the outskirts of town, usually close to a station, cycle route or the Brussels ring road. Being out of town is a plus for mobility.”

Some surveys talk about workers making a gradual return to offices. But isn’t that a major challenge for companies?  “You bet! It’s one of the most significant challenges that businesses will face once the crisis is over. We’ll need to totally change the way the offices of yesterday once looked into an attractive working environment that is actually a place where normal life goes on. That’s why we commissioned Alternativ to create a “show unit” in one of our buildings in Diegem. The aim of this show unit, which has been set up in an internal area as big as a station concourse, is to show our clients that company offices can be at the very heart of wellbeing in the workplace – provided we pay the required attention to the way they are designed and fitted out.”

Belgians may love their bricks and mortar, but they’re not necessarily keen to invest in the tertiary sector! “Sure, but Covid-19 has inescapably prompted companies to ask themselves about the future of the office.”

So, a very gradual return to work isn’t something of a conundrum? “At Growners we pay great attention to the location of offices – and hence the ease of accessing them – and offer them at prices that are highly competitive. Of course, “recycling” buildings means they cost a whole lot less than new premises in the city center. Better still, we offer spaces that are tailored to fit demand. Our clients are even able to envisage decentralising their work units to different locations.”

What’s your target audience? “Scale-up companies and SMEs (employing 2 to 100 people) looking to purchase an office that can be financed by their own business. This enables them to increase their property assets. Our business model means an SME can become the owner of its own offices at a level equivalent to repaying a bank loan. It’s a win-win situation,” concludes Eric Bastin with his trademark enthusiasm.

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