This is a guest post by Chris Keys, Development Manager at L&Q and FoL Alumni Rep.
With the UK lockdown beginning to ease, urban practitioners are turning their attention to recovery. To help, Future of London’s Alumni Network hosted its first online Communities of Practice forum in June.
These peer-led discussions can help alumni share challenges and new ideas on some of the critical issues facing urban practitioners during the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.
They’re also part of Future of London’s wider Learning From Crisis programme, which is exploring the immediate crisis response and the longer-term recovery across a multi-media programme.
This first forum discussed workspace – the very existence of which has been threatened by the pandemic. The forum explored some of the short-term operational and design challenges as people return to the office, and the long-term role workspace will play in supporting local economic recovery.
Sarah Birt, a Senior Development Manager at the GLA and an Alumni Rep, chaired the meeting with participants from different local authorities, housing associations and private companies, as well as guest speaker Matthew Flood, Head of Occupier Markets at Landsec. Matthew started with an informative presentation outlining the short-, medium- and long-term challenges for workspace as well the role of the developer.
Short term – are offices still required?
The current climate has caused a huge debate about what kinds of workspace are now needed for companies and their employees to continue working. Early in lockdown some companies predicted the death of the office but this was perhaps a hasty conclusion and now a wider debate is taking place about how offices can be adapted and blended with a working-from-home culture.
The Leesman Index recently published a report polling employees on their experience of working from home. The results showed that it had been a very disparate experience, with many positive but also many negative comments. People stated that individual tasks are more productive at home, but knowledge sharing works better in the office. So both environments are required.
Until now, some commercial developers have had a mentality of ‘build them and they will come’ but this is now under threat and it will be essential going forward to make a compelling business case for office buildings. A 2019 YouGov poll reported that 85% of respondents felt that their offices could influence their clients’ business decisions and provide a shop window for attracting the best talent. Would a post-lockdown survey generate the same results?
Medium term – cutting costs
In the medium term, many businesses will look to cut costs. Will the office be one of the first victims? Thirty years ago, the office accounted for 30-40% of an average business’s costs but today 90% of a typical business’s costs are its people and only 9% its office.
If costs are lower as a proportion, will changing tenant demand be a more significant factor? On the one hand, greater demand for flexible working may equal less demand for office space as more people work remotely. But on the other hand, there may be a move against high-capacity offices, requiring more space for further staff.
This is at odds with most modern commercial building design. They are made to be occupied at very high density – typically one person per eight sq. m or less – which would struggle for viability under current social distancing rules. Flexibility is key to positioning the office as an asset once again. People will need to be offered choice as to how and where they work. The office won’t be for 9 to 5 processing work, but more likely linked to training, innovation and integration of wider teams.
Long term – hub and spoke
There are signs that a central location for collaboration, client engagement and branding, with multiple satellite locations nearer residential areas (thus shortening employee commutes) could be a way forward. With a focus on quality, wellbeing and sustainability, this would be part of an employer/landlord drive to attract people back to the office as opposed to working from home.
Younger people in particular will want to work for companies that offer sustainable space. This crisis will accelerate the need for this and it will become more important to ensure offices have good natural light, cycling and shower facilities, healthy eating vending machines and environmentally sustainable environments.
For co-working spaces, flexibility will remain a priority and they could offer core office space with ‘as and when’ bolt-ons such as extra meeting rooms and training areas, on a pay-for-use model. For commercial developers, they will become more focused on who the landlord/operator partner is and if there’s mutual alignment with business objectives. Could these relationships move beyond transactional landlord-tenant agreements to become long-term strategic partnerships?
Following the presentation there was an alumni-led Q&A and roundtable discussion covering the following:
- The rise of third spaces to allow more people to work near home.
- The impact on inner city cultural institutions and hospitality if fewer people return to the central London office.
- Touchdown spaces where employees can access printers, photocopiers and so on, but wouldn’t use for their day-to-day work.
- Support for tenants in ‘messy’ or maker spaces, who require more space and specialist equipment that can’t be moved to the home.
- Flexible office space with short-term rents to attract future, and potentially less stable, tenants.
- House design and space standard changes to better facilitate home working. Does more flexible use of homes and office space need different planning consent?
- The challenge of sustaining a company culture with a hub and spoke office model.
- How technology could support the new remote ways of working.
- The future of older office stock that can’t easily be used in a flexible or more sustainable way.
The discussion generated several questions that can’t be answered until the lockdown eases further and the economic recovery begins. However it’s important to maintain a dialogue as the situation evolves, and this will be a core objective of the Communities of Practice forum. Watch this space for future themes on home space standards and high street recovery.