Reflections From Dublin: What The Office Means To Me

This article was written by Simon McEvoy, who leads Knotel's Real Estate and Business Development efforts in Dublin and Amsterdam.

When I started my first “real” job as an office leasing agent in Dublin back in 2006, the office was not a very exciting place. This weighed on my mind as I contemplated the reality of working in the office industry for the remainder of my career, conceivably the next 40 to 50 years.

Walls were plain (and dirty), carpets were grey (and dirty), kitchens were small (and dirty) and everyone's attire was dull (but remarkably clean). However, despite the uninspiring environment, the place buzzed with energy, activity and ideas. It was inspiring and I loved it. So much so that I was there 6 days a week for 2 years.

Interestingly enough, in those two years from 2006 to 2008 the physical office didn't change a lot. It didn’t have to. The market was booming so there was no time, space or need for creativity. If it ain’t broke….

During that stretch of time, landlords and owners were very powerful forces in the commercial real estate market (not that they aren’t now too). From Dublin to Dubai, leases could stretch up to 25 years. Some owners even refused to lease to tenants who were late for meetings.

In this same two-year period, while the offices themselves weren’t yet changing, something else was: what was on people’s desks. Laptops replaced desktops and increasingly became part of the new normal in modern office life. The Blackberry replaced the Nokia phone. Everybody felt liberated. They could now work from anywhere. Maybe not as efficiently as if they were in the actual office with access to all their usual trappings, but still, calls and emails could be now handled on the move.

Then came the economic crash in 2008, now infamously dubbed the Great Recession. This world-changing event represented, at the time, the biggest economic meltdown in the U.S. since the Great Depression. Naturally, the ripple effects of that calamitous crash reverberated across the globe.

For various macro and micro reasons, Ireland and Dublin were hit particularly hard, worse than neighboring countries. For a period there, the office wasn’t the same. For starters, there were less people there. Approximately one in five employees lost their jobs during the Great Recession. Secondly, the energy wasn’t the same. Naturally, it’s difficult to conjure up the same excitement every day when the global economy is teetering on the brink of collapse.

Despite all of these headwinds, we found a way to stay optimistic and flexible. Moreover, these developments happened to fortuitously coincide with the rise of major technology superpowers -- Google Facebook and Apple -- who had started to set up shop in Dublin. This was also the around the time millennials started their eventual ascent as the largest cohort within the global workforce. As we would soon come to learn, the impact of millennials on the workforce would have massive ramifications for how and where companies work.

After a difficult and turbulent 18 months, the economy started to improve and offices started to get significantly more interesting for everyone, not just the office agents. The trend of dynamic, interesting and colorful workspaces continued over the next decade, with free thinking tech companies leading the way and investing tons of money into architecturally stunning offices. Naturally, others started to follow.

Industry commentators and pundits wanted labels for this major business shift, and adopted an old McKinsey term “the war for talent.” In Dublin, tech recruiters were poaching staff from competitors by promoting benefits their offices had over others; slides, pools, electric scooters. In recent years, offices have become a major component of how companies think about culture, recruitment, and more.

However despite all of this, the essence of the office hasn't changed. It’s still that place that you come to for social connection. Nearly 15 years later, it’s still the place you conjugate to feel that energy, activity and ideas.

If I happened to start my office leasing gig this year, in 2020, I’m not sure what my experience would be at the office, other than I wouldn’t be at the office since many of us are still working from home as the pandemic continues to spread. What I do know, is that looking at a laptop with my headphones in to drown out the sound of my family, flatmates and other distractions, I don’t think I’d be as excited about the future of the office.

Working from home the last few months has had its advantages. Good habits have been formed and there is no doubt many will persist over time, but pushing through all the noise and the “office is dead” think pieces, it’s clear that -- both personally and professionally -- offices and workspaces aren’t going anywhere. What will change is how, when and where they will be utilized.

Graduates don’t study hard and aspire to get a job where they are given a laptop and told to work from home. Young parents don’t want to have to feel like they are choosing work over their families as they try to balance both in a close environment, never being able to separate the two. Managers can not manage, inspire and impart wisdom over a stifled scheduled zoom call once an hour, day, week or month.

As we all start to acclimate to our new normal, I suspect some of us will start to appreciate the office again. For me, I can’t wait to get back.