Will our current COVID world usher in a ‘hub and spoke’ renaissance?



By Ted Skirbunt, National Director of Workthere Americas

As we near the end of summer 2020 with many regions in the United States combatting recurring outbreaks of the Coronavirus, it’s clear challenges will likely continue for the foreseeable future with effects felt for at least several months to come, as we continue to adjust to public health safety measures such as mask wearing, social distancing, only going out when it’s essential and having limited contact with friends and family.

Accepting that reality, one of the most all-encompassing changes to come out of the situation has been how and where we work. For a sizable majority of office workers who do not fall into the ‘essential’ workers category, working from home has taken time to properly take root, with many a kitchen table, sofas, porches, patios and gardens being used to replace the good old office.

As corporate leaders and workplace committees or task forces examine a multitude of ‘return to office’ scenarios, integrating working from home or increasingly referenced ‘work from anywhere’ into a ‘normal’ working week will become something that is earnestly evaluated as part of long-term strategic plans more so than ever before. How do companies and organizations implement a distributed network for their geographically dispersed employees?

The so called ‘hub and spoke’ tactic to corporate office portfolio management is a model that could gain more traction than ever before.  Whether viewed globally, nationally, regionally or within a metro area this commonly involves having a main office (the ‘hub’) and a constellation of smaller branch offices (the ‘spokes’), which are often strategically located in closer proximity to employees’ homes.  During this challenging COVID-19 period, this model seemingly offers sensible solutions by reducing the need for workers to use public transportation and concurrently providing a more inspiring and productive working environment. We expect the adoption of this model to increase the demand for suburban flexible offices in the short-term, and perhaps in the long-term, as a portion of employees will likely seek to make these working arrangements permanent with the war for talent applying pressure on employers to capitulate.

Benefits for employees

Flexible offices can provide an enjoyable and efficient office experience, with an IT infrastructure and internet connection already in place, ergonomic chairs, desks and increasingly the option of a standing desk, as well as often free coffee of superior quality to what’s available at home.  Moreover, they provide a degree of adult social interaction that many people miss while working from home; while you may not have a complete team that convenes on any given day, the element of human interaction is still important and spurs inspiration.

For those living well outside city centers and commuting daily to a company’s headquarters, this could be a transformative solution to those hours spent on a train or in a car. Even before the pandemic, demand for rural flexible offices outweighed supply, with our What Coworkers Want report showing that only 8% of respondents work in rural flexible offices, but 17% cited it as their preferred location. Furthermore, there would also likely be environmental benefits of more people working locally. Fewer cars on the road and easing of often over-crowded public transportation would arguably be a highly-sought after accolade for any company wanting to promote how it encourages staff to do their bit for the environment.

Benefit for employers

While this framework may align with a company’s ESG strategy, it could also help reduce a company’s real estate costs. The use of flexible offices could enable workspace to be utilized more efficiently by allowing workers to use it as and when they need it. Moreover, by giving employees more control over their working location and environment it is likely to result in a more satisfied workforce, reducing turnover and increasing retention rates.

The current pandemic will be a catalyst for people and companies to assess long-term viability of current practices, and the modalities of space and real estate we utilize for work will be a big part of this analysis. One example of late is the accelerated use of 'experiential office' into the national office lexicon.  Flexible offices present an option for those companies hesitant to commit to a long-term lease. The sector is also in a good position to play a vital role as national and multi-national corporate office occupiers look to the flexible office market in order to add elasticity to their real estate and office portfolio capacities.