Companies are turning to restaurants, cafes and even algorithms to help staff work from anywhere

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How do you calculate the right blend of in-office and at-home working while social-distancing measures and local lockdowns are still in place?

For Michael Colacino, president of real estate broker SquareFoot, the answer could be an algorithm.

Pre-pandemic, the company’s Manhattan headquarters housed around 60 staff and the space was seen as a necessity for all of them, but returning to the office is likely to look very different due to social-distancing rules. “It’s something that we have to allocate, the same way that you would allocate water in the desert,” Colacino told CNBC by phone.

In May, right in the middle of New York’s lockdown, business had largely ground to a halt because the company couldn’t show space in the city. So, SquareFoot staff spent some of the time on a hackathon to create a piece of tech that would help ascertain who should return to the office once restrictions were lifted, and in what combination.

“We had each department head create an impact score, which was to think deeply about what the real value of the office was to their group … Then, we looked at the employees, and tried to figure out where people commuted from and how important it was for them to be able to get to work. And … we had department heads think about professional development, and which groups had to be onboarded,” Colacino said. The business also considered how much people needed to use amenities like conference rooms and high-speed internet.

SquareFoot ended up with an assessment score for different teams. “For example, our real estate brokers … they only make up about 38% of the company. But because of the high level of value that they see from having offices … 49% of the office capacity gets allocated to them,” Colacino explained.

While offices and real estate companies have been permitted to reopen in New York City since June 22, most of SquareFoot’s staff are still working from home and Colacino expects them to start to return in September. People will be able to bid for the amount of time they want in the office, and the algorithm will help determine how much they get.

Beyond a reduction in staff numbers for some downtown offices, Colacino also sees a move toward lower-density satellite workplaces that are close to transport hubs. This is a move that outdoor recreation company REI is set to make to reduce commuting time for employees.

Shorter commutes are also a consideration for former Goldman Sachs banker Sanj Mahal, who is hoping a new pitch to corporates will pay off: He wants to help fill underused hospitality spaces in London with large companies’ employees — those who would usually spend upwards of 90 minutes traveling to and from an office.

“People are much happier with a micro commute over something that takes 45 minutes to an hour … and I think it’s very difficult to take away time from people once they’ve experienced it … The issue is, what do corporates do about this?” he told CNBC by phone.

Mahal is co-founder of AndCo, a website that lists spaces in upscale hotels, restaurants and coffee shops to hire by the day, for a daily, monthly or annual fee. While it had been small businesses and freelancers who’d used the service pre-pandemic, Mahal is now in discussions with large companies that are looking to implement a “work from anywhere” policy.

Newly remote

While working from home is popular for some — 53% of full-time office workers are “extremely” or “very” keen to work this way permanently, according to research from GlobalWebIndex, which surveyed more than 8,000 people in 10 countries online between June 29 and July 2 — others are finding it more challenging.

Neighborhood co-working start-up Good Space opened its doors in London suburb Queens Park on June 15, a few weeks after the U.K. eased its lockdown. Good Space members are a mix of small businesses, self-employed people and those from multinational banks and tech companies, many of whom were feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of continuing to work from home. Some of the large corporates’ employees were used to remote working pre-pandemic, but many were not, according to co-founder David Brown.

“One guy works in finance in the City (of London), and his office is closed. And he was like, I need a place, I’ve never worked from home … it’s not ideal. And so he came to us, and he’s lobbying the CEO to let him stay at least a few days a week,” Brown told CNBC by phone. Another works for a bank in the Canary Wharf financial district, but now spends two to three days a week at Good Space. Brown foresees a future in which large companies maintain their head offices, but operate a hybrid model in which staff spend some of the week working remotely.

Employees now have a voice to argue for flexibility, he added. “Now they have the power to kind of push back against their employer and say, maybe I’m not going to do this (commute) all the time. If you need me there for meetings once a week, fine … They have a voice now to be able to say, yeah I can probably do this closer to my house.”

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