The post-pandemic future for city centre office space
July 6, 2020
Richard Darby and Tom Darby
On behalf of the Oxford COVID-19 Evidence Service Team
University of Oxford
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Working from home has environmental and social benefits.
Offices are still needed for innovation, collaboration, learning and networking though.
Smaller, local offices could reduce commuting and promote more inclusive workplaces.
This productivity opportunity would then provide economic benefits as well.
One of the few advantages to flow from the current worldwide health crisis is the dramatic reduction in harmful emissions, partly as a result of so many people being forced to work from home rather than travel into city centre workplaces. Not only has this led to a significant environmental benefit, but also many are reporting the social benefits of a better work-life balance as a result of being able to spend more time with their household members and families, or exercising, and less time commuting. Thus, two of the pillars of urban sustainability are being supported, but currently this is at a terrible economic cost.
The question we pose here is whether a model can be envisaged for the future, in a post-pandemic world, whereby the environmental and social benefits outlined above are maintained, but economic sustainability also becomes a possibility. We are considering this purely in the context of the urban office market, rather than any other sectors of the property market or economy.
PHOTO: Dylan Nolte
CURRENT AND EMERGING EVIDENCE IN COVID-19
It has been widely publicised that Twitter, Facebook and Google propose to allow all of their staff to work from home until at least the end of 2020. Slater Gordon Solicitors have announced that they will be vacating their London office in September 2020 and that remote working will become the norm for all of their two thousand staff. According to LSH 88% of office workers believe that they could work at least two days a week at home without impacting on their work and mental wellbeing.
However, none of this means that the office is dead, although landlords and occupiers will both need to respond to these changing requirements. Physical interaction is still a key catalyst for innovation, which requires people to be together and work in teams. Collaboration is also important for problem solving and the development of corporate culture. Also, whilst older workers have embraced working from home, because they do not require supervision and already have professional networks in place, junior staff need to learn from colleagues and crave the work and social relationships that offices can provide.
The result of the above could be that the overall demand for office space will not change significantly, but that the impact on workplace design and location will be considerable. Offices will no longer just be places to come to work every day, but will become collaborative/creative spaces, perhaps visited twice a week. Consequently, companies might choose to have more local, suburban and smaller offices, closer to where people live, in order to reduce commutes – a multi-site or dual-hub solution. This, in turn, will impact urban form, reducing the importance of the city centre and possibly re-prioritising neighbourhoods.
A further social benefit of this environmental and economic change could be that the existing trend towards more inclusive workplaces will accelerate. A working culture which is genuinely without a presenteeism focus presents a productivity opportunity provided by those previously reluctant or unable to accept full-time office work. This then becomes an economic as well as a social benefit and further strengthens the resilience of this new paradigm.
Richard Darby is a Chartered Surveyor and Director of Darby Group Ltd. He has an MSc in Sustainable Urban Development and an MPhil in Land Management.
Tom Darby is an Investment Analyst at Barwood Capital Ltd. He has an MSc in Real Estate Management.