The ongoing discussion centering around the return to Central London offices is one which reaches far beyond the property sector – it affects every white collar job in the city and thus has attracted significant media coverage and insight.
The answer is simple in principle but expectedly difficult in application. Flexibility has been coined as the go to word in response to the questions of when, where and how – but what does it mean?
As office agents we have a more in depth understanding of what this flexibility means for both landlords and occupiers. Below we shed some light on what flexibility will mean in practice and how it will be applied.
1.Flexibility of space
As attitudes towards work and the workplace evolve, the ability to change social distancing, implement one-way systems and avoid contamination is key. Moreover, the ability to change is as important as the ability to change back – we will not be operating at a reduced capacity for the rest of time and as restrictions ease, it is important to be able to adapt and be quick on our feet to bring office spaces back to ‘normality’.
A major concern still remains with regard to transports flow in and out of London, with 80% of London workers reliant upon public transport. Space will therefore also need to be flexible in terms of access, with car parking spaces and cycle storage the two main features that would enable less reliance upon public transports.
2.Flexibility of use
Attitudes to working from home are widely different based on circumstance. The average graduate, working in a small flat will understandably be much keener to return to the office than someone who is benefitting from a larger space or even a dedicated office at home. As such, everyone’s attitude to working from home or the office will be different and should be considered when creating plans and policies which will be truly deemed as flexible.
3.Flexibility of lease
The demand which developed upon the loosening of lockdown was for short term, fitted space. On the contrary, as a Landlord, it is preferential to sign longer lease terms guaranteeing income well into the future. As such there will need to be ongoing flexibility between the long term income objectives of Landlords and the desire for tenants to have the ability to change spaces and be agile with their property strategy. There will be, and already has been, an inevitable rise in tenant disposal space due to occupiers downsizing or removing London hubs. This has brought a more flexible choice of space to the acquisitions market, with fully-fitted ‘oven ready’ options an attractive proposition to companies still in need of viable alternatives during a period where longer term acquisitions may be on hold. There is still a lack of evidence of how the increase in tenant disposals will impact the market, with Landlord’s still holding strong on headline rents.
4.Flexibility of transport
It is prudent to realise that a large majority of the health threats in deciding to work from the office occur before you even step through the front door. Championing the ability to walk, run or cycle to the office will be more than simply providing showers. The relaxation of expected uniform, building in more travel time and thoroughly cleaning changing facilities will all help in creating a culture whereby flexibility of travel is not just spoken of, but actively encouraged.
5.Regional vs London
As already detailed,mentioned above, London staff primarily use transport to get to work which is causing major disruptions. Companies and staff are perhaps now keener to work from the office, at least several days a week but simply can’t access their workplaces. The regions do have a short-term advantage, offering a greater likelihood of employees driving to work in larger volumes and with limited exposure, coupled with lower property costs means occupiers could take more space to allow for social distancing measures. There is however less competition in the regions, with investors and developers put off by the lack of liquidity, meaning there may be a significant short-term take up that could overwhelm the market and leave occupational choice scarcely limited. The major advantages of London lies with its amenities, attraction in the long term and younger staff who will be keener to return to the city and its vast choice of workplaces, which will have to be altered in the short-term.
6. Workspaces and workstyles
There are some likely certainties to occur in both workspaces and workstyles, including the impact of high demand for reduced working densities, affecting co-working and hot desking arrangements. Traditional urban occupiers may also seek increased regional occupational presence and want to spread reliance around different geographies. Workspace monitoring and data collection will become normal with regards to working hours, transport routes (whether use of public of private transport modes) and increased flexible working patterns. There are still issues, however, with workspace invasion at home and loss of privacy.
7. Workplace developments
Workplace developments within the planning system will also have to adjust to the new office landscape. Whilst there will still be demand for offices, new developments will potentially require detailed design changes incorporating lower densities as well as multi-mobile access points for transport to work including vehicular, cycle and train access. There will also likely be a movement back to larger desks and reduction in open plan shared spaces, along with increased demand for regional business parks and micro-office submarkets in the regions, drawing businesses and workforces within local catchment. Lastly an increase in mixed-use office schemes is likely to provide choice for users to reside and socialise close to work.
In summary, attitudes to working from home will do an almost full circle throughout the Covid-19 timeline. There was a sudden shock of working from home, being away from the working pattern that had been forged over decades and not being able to go to ‘your favorite sandwich shop at lunch’. There was then a realisation of reduced commutes, flexibility in regard to family life and the pleasantries of being able to video call from home. As the pandemic has gone on though, there has been an even starker realisation of the importance of separating work and home life, its inherent influence on mental health and the ongoing strategic and learning opportunities which are missed by not being around your colleagues day to day.
As such, yes, there is currently a huge demand for the flexibility to work from home. But maybe even more importantly, there is still a strong demand to travel to and work from an office. This desire to come into an office has almost been championed by the stresses and strains of Covid-19 and it is multi-faceted flexibility which will give us the tools to return to the office.