Today’s Times and others report that for many productivity is holding up as more people are working from home, a trend that ‘would accelerate the shift to more flexible ways of working, especially for companies whose staff produced as much at home as they did in the office’.
Working and the workplace has come under intense scrutiny since lockdown began and talk is increasing about the office of the future.
While there are advantages to home working, ultimately we are social creatures we thrive on the intellectual sparks that come from working with people within and beyond our own area of business specialism. Coffee shops and breakout areas aren’t just about refuelling or taking a break. Unexpected encounters or easily arranged introductions can take projects on an unexpected but ultimately better path as a result.
But the worth of an office is so much more than just a desk and a building, so rather than talking about avoiding hot desking or advocating home working, there is an opportunity here to completely rethink how we work – and even find a way to offset some of the other issues caused by Covid-19 at the same time.
So what might a good outcome to this period of adjustment be?
Central London will survive – it has to and it will – but the days of 9-5.30 face time and new buildings being designed to a density of 1:8 may well be over, for SMEs at least. Many businesses may retain their central hub here but we will see a balance between working from home and long, inefficient daily commutes.
At the same time, local authorities outside the capital and other major cities should throw their support behind local office and business communities burgeoning in their town centres. In conjunction, and with office supply, especially in the South East, eroded by permitted development rights we need more control on conversion and a clear requirement to retain or create more local office and employment space. Many local authorities we work with have real concern about the loss of employment generative spaces in their town centres.
With this should come more regional co-working allowing a collaborative and existential mix of businesses to operate side-by-side – a new way of creating productivity and the chance of growth – but locally.
This new model would localise consumerism too, with a greater thirst (and hunger) for more good quality and unique produce and services with more frequent visits by the local catchment to the surrounding towns and cities – especially where trips link working and leisure.
Ironically, then, could it be that while Covid-19 may have hastened the end of the homogenised town, it accelerates the re-emergence of a vibrant locally occupied and operated high street? And could the 'Hub and Club' provide the solution for resetting our work/life balance?
For those of us who worry about the social, physical, environmental impact of the internet on our towns and city centres, it is just possible that with the right tweaks in policy from Central Government deftly applied by Local Government we will emerge with a more resilient but far more interesting landscape of town centres.