The abbreviated ‘WFH’ has become a staple term in our 2020 vocabulary; naturally, the pandemic has accelerated the increasingly popular trend of flexi office space and flexi-working on account of the fact that we didn’t have a choice, we had to make it work OOO. Needless to say, abandonment of the office is having a profound effect on previously busy city centres and their micro-economies. This long-term shift to WFH could create ghost towns, and an existential crisis for city centres and businesses that rely on passing trade and footfall from office workers. In-turn, however, here lies an opportunity for regional town centres that will benefit from increased footfall by way of employees working more locally or from home.
A clear lack of interest in returning to the office, as reported in the Financial Times, sees the Big Four accountancy firm Deloitte planning the closure of four of its 50 UK offices in the coming months in attempt to cut costs and preserve cash, by way of not renewing leases. This begs the question of supply and demand, and the relationship between employees wanting to be in an office and being able to go into an office. Those c.500 Deloitte employees will likely in time want an office space or base to operate from for at least a part of the working week, thus requiring flexi localized office space of some sort in the area they live in.
If we turn our attention to the many - and unwaveringly increasing - vacant retail units in both shopping centres and on the high street, there may be an opportunity for councils and landlords to meet the flexi-needs of workers through the procurement of serviced offices in redundant retail units. Similarly, as workers travel for meetings less and turn to virtual conferences, otherwise empty hotel rooms and lobbies could provide a space and a community for professionals to operate from; encouraging new friendships and connections and limiting the financial and environmental cost of daily travel. This concept is currently being rolled out in some quieter London boroughs.
Both initiatives would redeploy footfall and business to commuter towns that was previously lost to core cities and business districts, bringing life back into previously sleepy town centres. Following an influx in daily population, there will be increased custom and demand on local services and community facilities from; coffee shops and restaurants, to barbers and beauty retailers, to gyms and sports clubs. For councils and landlords, having the foresight to adapt to these new trends, in providing the required supply of service, will enable them to create a more cohesive, diverse and successful town centre.