It’s almost as hotly contested as the lockdown v no lockdown debate - will the UK ever return to 9-5 office working or is trillions of sq ft of prime office space doomed to lie empty?
It would be an excellent office water cooler talking point - if we were allowed to gather around water coolers - and one which the commercial property sector needs to address.
For many, the novelty of not having to pull on business attire and commute to city centre offices in favour of being able to dress down every day and Work from Home (WFH) has worn off.
Flexible and agile working has been with us a while – we adopted it at Pinsent Masons several years ago - and its advantages have been underlined during the CV19 pandemic. But let’s face it, most of us miss our colleagues and the chance to collaborate and be creative together, to encourage and support junior staff, acknowledge each other’s small victories and commiserate when things are not going so well.
And it’s collaboration which may prove to be the saving grace for the future of the great British office. Indeed, Kevin Ellis, UK chairman of PwC, the world’s second largest professional services firm, said recently that despite the new normal of WFH, his firm had no plans to downsize any of its office space. With most of PwC’s 22,000 UK staff working from home, he said he had received many messages from people who place a very high value on the option of being able to use an office.
Leaving aside the encouraging news on vaccines, if social distancing is here to stay in some shape or form it stands to reason that businesses are likely to need more, not less office space. There may well be less desks, and hot-desking may now have had its day with its associated post-pandemic hygiene risks, but how we view the best use of our office space has arguably changed forever.
When people start returning en masse to offices, it will be to collaborate with fellow staff, a creative coming together to share in and support projects, but likely for shorter spells and blended with WFH.
However, very few businesses have office space set up to accommodate this. Desk space and meeting rooms tend to be generic and, in reality, pretty inflexible. Greater thought and vision will have to be invested in how we make the transition from the pre-CV19 office to spaces that are truly adaptable, and which align the needs of individual businesses with a workforce which has much different expectations of how, when and where they will work.
This will inevitably lead to a re-design of office space as we currently know it and even greater emphasis on providing robust IT networks, and the latest communications technology, to optimise a mixture of in-person and virtual collaboration.
Businesses will have to carefully consider what their office space brings to their business and perhaps a different strategy around the life-cycle of their office assets.
Developers and architects involved in designing real-estate projects of the future are faced with a major challenge when there is little consensus right now on what will provide the most marketable office space in future.
Some are already ahead of the game, and we are supporting our clients HFD Group with adaptations to their 313,000sq ft development at 177 Bothwell Street which will be Glasgow’s largest single office building, and similarly advising Barclays as construction of their 470,000sq ft bank campus at Tradeston progresses towards a post-CV19 completion.
Where less office space may be required, the focus could switch to better quality accommodation, fuelling greater competition from occupiers to secure the best space, and sophisticated developers will move to meet this requirement, with the ripple-up effect potentially impacting on rental yields.
Already in 2020 we have seen plans to repurpose obsolete office space for new residential buildings or hotel and hospitality use. This may become a collateral feature of the evolution of the office market in coming years, particularly when local authorities are seeking new ways to grow our city centres as vibrant and viable communities. However this plays out, 2020 will undoubtedly prove to have been the catalyst for a fundamental change in the way we view and use our office spaces.