What if the office’s survival depends on its social utility?

  • Office
  • Uses


  • Aurélie Deudon

    Co-founder and CEO of Ultra Laborans

A fascinating survey by the Institut Montaigne published in February 2023 and entitled “The French at work, beyond the clichés” highlights a key issue: “The rise of remote working is the only truly disruptive factor to emerge since pre-Covid times”.[1]

We should not forget that not all professions allow remote working. This new fashion mostly affects the tertiary sector and “office-based” jobs, while the issues it raises are focused directly on the role of physical working space – the office – in the worker’s social life. This was a question we raised at the SIMI 2022 conference “Has is office become the new Facebook?” In in other words, if the office is now (nearly) operationally redundant, can we save the “keyboard warriors” by finding them other roles that justify their continued existence?

The office, a sociable space…. really?

Let’s agree on the use of the word “office” in the discussion that follows: the office is the place where people carry out, generally during fixed hours, regular paid and, usually, intellectual work (in contrast here to the factory). As such, the office is the de facto place for meetings and exchanges that brings people together in a common project. Does this make it a forger of social bonds?

One swallow doesn’t make a summer. Consider, for instance, Emile Durkheim who offers the beginnings of an answer. In Durkheim’s view[2], the glue that holds society together is solidarity. Solidarity (particularly “organic solidarity”) is a vector for social cohesion thanks to the complementary nature of individuals’ activities and roles. We can infer from this that, in our societies with their characteristic division of labour, such solidarity is build (or at least “should” be built) within working teams and, by extension, in company offices.

However, we must not forget that the “office” (and all the services, actions and leisure facilities that characterise it) is merely the reflection of a company’s organisational structure, hierarchical human relationships and managerial system. Perhaps the greatest peril is that the office does not embody, or even contradicts, the social relationships that really prevail in the company. Imagine, for instance, a company that organises table football competitions, after-work drinks and pancake days, while the managers continue to exercise minute control over the working time by noting when employees arrive at and leave their desks…does this ring a bell?

Beyond the social link, the value of use

Another, more systematic approach, considers the utility value of an office building. What do we mean by utility value? The whole set of functional qualities that serve the criteria and needs of each company. These can involve interior comfort, accessibility, connectivity, services, aesthetics, ergonomics, etc.

Utility value seeks to capture the well-being of the building’s occupants. From this, it follows that such capturing inevitably involves HR and operational issues that go well beyond matters of building management in the strict sense. The building manager takes on a wider and deeper role. The office becomes a means of attracting and retaining talent.

By the way… when we talk about measuring and maximising utility value, it seems we need to break away from the commonplace assumption that environmental or social commitment inevitably degrades an asset’s economic and financial performance. We can intuitively grasp that a green building will last longer and be more sustainable, because it is better blended into its environment, and should therefore in principle prove more resilient in terms of value and rental income.

Understanding the utility value of a building in terms of functional diversity during the day and throughout the week can even provide the means to enhance the value of the asset. One example: intensifying footfall over longer periods would naturally improve the performance of buildings’ street-front retail outlets and drive up rents.

Green value: the red ocean of real estate value

We cannot continue this discussion without first looking at the environmental and energy issues affecting office buildings and how addressing them creates new opportunities in terms of the non-financial value of real estate assets. Collectively, we have come a long way to arrive at a worthwhile consensus on how to measure environmental impact, a consensus illustrated by the introduction of different certification standards now widely accepted by real estate investors (HQE, BREEAM and LEED for the performance of new buildings and the related HQE Exploitation, BREEAM in use and ISO 50001 for their energy performance). Last but not least, the application of the French Tertiary Decree[3] provides strong incentives to embrace low-carbon approaches that go beyond mere fines. A poor carbon score means a drop in the green value of the real estate asset, making it less appealing for investors, CQFD standards, etc.

Most strikingly, for several years now we have been hearing demands for such measures not only from the SRI[4] I funds: the incentives for environmental commitment are rooted in investment cases and push companies to position themselves on the side of virtue to boost stock market performance and/or cut borrowing costs (see the “greenmium” effect of green bonds, for instance).

Over the rainbow… social impact of the office?

We are now sailing calmly towards the blue ocean of real estate valuations: how can we measure the social value of an office? Put this way, the question seems mind-reeling: what on earth do we mean by social value? Can we really tease out this value, measure it and in due course embed it in appraisals of real estate assets?
Little research has been done on this point and we are aware of few initiatives to find out more. Probably, the matter deserves a dedicated research-action programme (note for a future date!). As it stands, we can try to set out some guiding principles which will probably become hotly contested talking points.
One for starters: the model of scopes 1, 2 and 3, now familiar when measuring carbon footprints, will be an indispensable key to capturing the social value of an office, retail or other business building from construction/renovation to operation.

And one conviction: the office as a source of social impact must be seen in a holistic way, within the landscape of which it forms a part (or is “embedded”, as Karl Polyani has it), and at the heart of a whole range of actors with whom it interacts.

Here, we need to cite a number of guidelines that should help us identify the means by which the office generates its social impact:

Financial accessibility of workspaces

…what if we reserve offices or other workspaces for bodies working in the public interest (e.g. institutions in the social economy)?

“Social utility” of occupants

… what if we prioritised access for committed companies, e.g. those with a mission and corporate purpose focused on protecting the environment.

Responsible procurement at building scale (during construction works and operation)

…what if we favoured service and maintenance providers with ESUS (social utility company) certification or a commitment to (re-)introducing people to working life (EI insertion companies) or those from the sheltered employment sector?

Systems for managing uses and prefiguring future spaces

…what if each real estate project was subjected to a wider review, involving other local stakeholders (open worksite, temporary occupation, extended consultation, etc.) to address any local needs in the area?

Intensification of uses

…what if each project had to go through a chronotopic study to identify opportunities for hybridisation of uses, so buildings could be available for off-market organisations such as charities and associations?

We told you it would be… mind-reeling

Once the criteria are defined, we need to agree common tools and methods to measure them, so we can share uniform and comprehensible guidelines among all parties: owners, tenants and investors.

[1] 40% of workers now work from home at least occasionally and 33% regularly (at least one day a week), compared to just 7% before the pandemic.
[2] Emile Durkheim – On the division of social labour – 1893
[3] France’s Tertiary Decree, published in October 2019, requires all public and private office buildings measuring over 1,000 m² to reduce final energy consumption by 40% (versus 2010 baseline) by 2030, 50% by 2040 and 60% by 2050.
[4] Socially responsible investment

Aurélie Deudon is co-founder and CEO of Ultra Laborans, a committed consultancy that explores and supports transformation at work. She is particularly involved in developing strategies for social engagement, cultivating projects for social innovation and studies linked to Corporate Regional Responsibility (CRR).

A graduate of Sciences Po Grenoble in 2011 with a Master 2 in Economics, Aurélie has been engaged for 20 years with public and private organisations promoting the development of innovative, collaborative and positive impact projects.

From economic studies to entrepreneurship, new ways of working and impact strategies, her career is built around a determination to re-anchor people and institutions in their local regions.
Convinced that the region is the best tier of intervention to build a happy and inclusive ecological transition, she has been working for the past decade to renew the fabric of the city alongside the country’s top real estate players.