Many happy returns? There's no 'one-size-fits-all' solution to getting employees back into the office, says Lee Baron's Carl Whayman

Back to work

By Carl Whayman, Chief Executive, Lee Baron – The debate about getting people back into the office continues apace. However, the messaging on both sides seems to me to be rather simplistic and the voices of employers and employees who have been successfully working remotely over the last six months are not adequately represented within the political debate. 

There are clear indications of a general shift in the thinking of UK business leaders in respect of low-density office usage. According to a recent PwC survey, almost seven in ten UK chief executives believe that the move to less dense office usage is going to last for some time to come. 

Much to the surprise of many, companies whose underlying business model has not been restricted by the lockdown, have not found remote working an insurmountable operational barrier. Indeed, thanks to the power of technology and staff engagement many firms have noticed that their productivity has, thankfully, not been adversely affected. Furthermore, it appears that once things settled down and companies and their staff adapted to the new circumstances, remote working has been seen to engender in many situations an improved work-life balance, as well as having fiscal a benefit to both employer and employee. 

So, whatever the new way of working may be – and one size will definitely not fit all – it is quite clear that agile working is here to stay and will evolve and mature. Models will vary including companies who work entirely remotely, attend HQ two out of five days a week, or find themselves in local hubs. As opposed to the more traditional headquarters model in which a business operates from a single city centre head office, “hub and spoke” offices allow employees to work from either their city hub or a strategic spoke location, including regional workspaces. 

The financial advantages of this work model are many as it allows companies to downsize the city centre office and open up a range of strategically placed smaller offices in the regions. Fewer square feet in the city translates into lower fixed costs, rent and expenses. Similarly, working more locally is also beneficial for employees who save money and precious time on their commute. If this were not enough, the “hub and spoke” model allows businesses to help the environment by reducing their carbon footprint while growing the company. A larger geographical footprint can also mean a broader audience and customer reach, allowing for a more extensive distribution network and new business partners and employment opportunities more evenly distributed throughout the country.

What has also been interesting to see is the resurgence in some of the suburbs as commercial hubs with, for example, increased support for local shops and support businesses during lockdown. Now, more than for many years, it would seem that local businesses have a bright future. Indeed, many of the smaller regional hubs have seen the loss of many former office buildings to PD and so the available office stock left has seen a constriction in supply and an uplift in demand.

But, if remote working means that businesses no longer need their workers in one fixed place, and technology allows us to transfer knowledge to the other side of the world in the blink of an eye, does this mean that the importance of major cities to the UK economy will diminish over time?

There are huge question marks around the long-term behavioural changes of the workforce post lockdown and the impact on cities. Some believe that the new regional and remote office models will not hurt cities quite as much as the majority of commentators. According to the health and education foundation Nesta, face-to-face interactions are set to increase across sectors over the next decade. On the other hand, others believe that cities are doomed and that there will be a need for a national government-led effort to boost consumption in struggling city centre shops and restaurants, such as the widely successful “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme which came to an end last month.

Either way, no matter which campaign the Government runs, many city centres were already in reverse gear following the often dramatic decline in traditional town centre shopping centres. Now with the added potential shift in office demand, the need for both a radical and pragmatic rethink is more important than ever. Whilst this poses many challenges, for visionary disruptors opportunities will surely follow. 

It is highly likely that city centres will look rather different to what we are used to, and their ability to evolve with speed will prevent their deterioration. Cities will adapt, re-invent where necessary and rebound in due course. In the same way that real estate has swiftly adapted to this situation in the rejuvenation of the suburbs, it will progressively support the rebound of city centres when the time comes. 

Real estate’s ability to adapt and evolve in the long run is historically well documented and as property and estates managers we are in a unique and ideal position to play a leading part in this post-Covid-19 process of change. Over the coming months, we have a responsibility to set an example by embracing new ways of thinking and to finding creative and innovative solutions to the issues, big and small, that face us all 

 


Carl Whayman is the Chief Executive of Lee Baron, a specialist in all aspects of property management across all sectors. The company has a particular focus on retail, and mixed-use residential, and manages large complex estates. Its offering includes advisory and consultancy services, compliance and risk management and property, financial and data management.

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