What will 2021 hold for a business world beset by pandemic chaos?

Given the catastrophic and, dare we say it, ‘unprecedented’ year 2020 has been, who in their right minds would dare to predict what lies in store for us in 2021?

Nevertheless, there are brave souls prepared to gaze into their corporate crystal ball and hazard a gaze into how things might pan out.

Caroline Baker, head of Cushman & Wakefield’s Manchester office and the Northern region, has nailed her colours to the mast on five points, in particular, for 2021, and beyond.

She said: “Number one, we will return to the office, but in a different way.

“The office is not dead, but our relationship with it has changed forever.

“When we return to the office it will be for meetings with colleagues and clients to brainstorm, make decisions and ensure we are developing our team’s culture and expertise.

Caroline Baker

“Focused individual time will be done from home or from a coffee shop.”

Secondly, she believes we will demand more from our homes.

“There will be a premium for outside and flexible space.

“The focus will be on access to open space – gardens/balconies – and flexible space that can adapt to changing requirements – dining room or office space and garden pods.”

She added: “Third, we will need to significantly reduce our impact on the environment – we need to travel more sustainably and create buildings which are more energy efficient – working towards net zero carbon.

“There also needs to be a focus on tackling energy efficiency in our existing buildings, especially our homes.”

Turning to the bloodbath that has been the UK’s high streets this year, she said they need to be more flexible.

“The trends we were seeing in retail have been accelerated by COVID-19.

“There is no doubt the number of voids on our high street in 2021 will increase, but the successful centres will be those that attract and support new occupiers who are responding to current demands.”

Finally, Caroline insists 2021 will be better than 2020: “It couldn’t be any worse. Could it?”

Sticking with property, Birchwood Park, the North’s largest out of town business park in Warrington, has looked at how the office sector will develop over the coming period.

It believes workplace satisfaction will be founded in sensory surroundings and judged on air, light and sound quality and will be an employer’s responsibility to ensure that the office they provide for their staff is more than adequate to meet both mental and physical needs: “Expect to also see a rise in flexi working – if COVID-19 has taught businesses anything, it’s that they can still survive and thrive whilst their employees work from home and enjoy a greater work/life balance.”

A holistic approach to wellbeing will also come into focus and we will begin to see businesses offering greater support to employees: “Promoting healthy eating habits, an active lifestyle, greenery and open spaces, and, perhaps most importantly, more mental health support and provisions.”

A shift in office layouts will also come to the fore, with floor spaces reconfigured to allow for teleworking/hotdesking, with individual working pods installed to allow for solo working.

Soundproof screens will also be commonplace in years to come, allowing employees to shift quickly between solo and collaborative working without disruption. Private phone hubs will be a must, and for those seeking privacy or relaxation, sound-proofed breakout hubs will feature.

Another feature of the future will be touch-free tech – wall-mounted temperature check facilities and touch-free devices, automatic doors etc, will become commonplace, as will purpose-built sanitisation stations.

Allied to this is prevention of disease spread, and there will be more high-tech devices installed to minimise contamination – permanent air conditioning with heaper filters to filter viruses out of the air will become standard issue, and UV light sterilisation will mean that areas are properly safe for workers.

Finally, Birchwood predicts an increase in portable tech to tie into the increased need of greater flexibility in the way employees use the office. This will be linked with core working hours, rota systems to split time between the office and home working, and an increase in teleworking and hot desking.

Technology also features in the office landscape of the future.

Pete Hanlon, chief technology officer for Wrexham-based outsourced communications specialist Moneypenny, gives his take on 2021.

“Artificial intelligence will find its place. The trend for large tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Facebook to open source their research has supercharged the speed of innovation in 2020, specifically in the field of Natural Language Processing.

“The breakthroughs have been significant, but up to now much of the technology has been limited to academia and research labs.

“During 2021 we will start to see the technology mature into mainstream products allowing the wider business community to reap the benefits of these advancements, working smarter, giving us better ways to analyse data, streamlining supply chains, improving production processes and more, meaning less waste in our systems and increased sustainability.”

Peter also thins AI will become more private: “Concerns around privacy will force companies to move AI processing closer to the end-user, with mobile phones, sensors and smart home devices running AI processing locally and so removing the need for data to be sent to a centralised service.

“This change in approach will mean faster AI capabilities with increased privacy.”

He added: “We can see this move starting to happen with the release of Apple’s M1 chip which comes with a Neural Engine baked directly into the silicon, setting the groundwork for privacy first AI solutions.

Peter Hanlon

“For example, processing such as voice recognition or image processing that would normally use cloud services can happen directly on the device, keeping your data private and secure.”

He also believes digital communications will increase: “Businesses have had to embrace the use of digital communication technologies in order to ensure business continuity.

“This forcing of their hands will see the wider adoption and acceptance of technologies as both the technology advances and the new-normality resumes. This will not replace human communication, but allow us to discover new ways to connect.

“I believe that businesses achieve greatest performance when human and machine work in partnership, so consider AI as a way of enhancing rather than replacing human capabilities.”

The advancement of smart home-working technologies will also continue, he said: “With the pandemic proving that agility and flexibility will be the key to business success in the new-normal, more and more businesses with be embracing remote working and so the further development of smart home working technologies will be the focus.

“Keep a look out for some of the smaller tech companies innovating in niche markets, too, like more immersive and natural video calling.”

Peter predicts that techology will become kinder to the environment: “Right now, not enough thought has gone into the impact of AI and Natural Language Processing on the environment, the power that is used and what is produced as a by-product.

“As these technological advances are embraced and refined, the impact of them will increasingly become a focus for researchers and companies alike,” he said.

Another development will see technology become more bespoke. Peter said: “Service businesses will continue to develop the ability to tailor their technology more so than ever to their clients’ needs and, more cost-effectively, meaning that smaller businesses will be able to benefit from those solutions typically only afforded by the larger multi-nationals.

“Already being demonstrated by companies including Moneypenny, tech giants, like Amazon, technology will provide more personalisation in real time, predicting clients’ wants and needs with ever-increasing accuracy.”