Back To The Office, Or Is It?

Jackie Bennion Deputy Editor 30 July 2020


How workers and businesses are rethinking the work space and the logistics of getting workers back into offices which may or may not fit workers' expectations are addressed in several recent sentiment studies.

There has been much debate about if/when and in what numbers workers will return to the office, especially those labelled as knowledge workers, who arguably have the choice. Two sets of survey data out this week shed more light on the situation and what businesses and employees want post COVID-19.

A survey by office space search firm Flexioffices found that 57 per cent of UK businesses are planning to downsize, and within that group 39 per cent want more flexible leases on their premises.

As populations accept the inevitability of living with the virus, the cost and logistics of maintaining office space have become a serious business concern.

The Flexioffices survey of 13 sectors across 10 UK regions found that around half of businesses which own their office space are considering renting next time; and the majority are prioritising reducing capacity and encouraging staff to remain working from home. The largest response rates came from financial services (18 per cent), followed by public sector and retail at 15 per cent.

It also found that London-based businesses are the most likely to move out of the capital, with a third indicating that they were searching elsewhere as a result of COVID-19.

This is supported by data from property consultancy DeVono Cresa showing that demand for commercial London office space fell 30 per cent in the first few months of 2020.

As most of the real estate investment market is concentrated on developing prime commercial office space, how to make it attractive and optimal post the pandemic – for investors and occupants – requires careful thought.

“The pandemic has asked businesses to re-look at office space and include the perspective of how it affects people – their productivity, their wellbeing, how they interact together and engage in positive experiences,” said Flexioffices’ director of business development, Michael Dubicki. "What does the office actually do? Why do we have them? Do we need them?" These are the questions businesses are asking, he said.

Workers are asking similar questions. Only 25 per cent in a recent CISI members poll see themselves returning to their offices for the same number of work days as before the pandemic. Most workers have indicated – in a semblance of normality returning – that they would like at least one day working from home. The Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment, the body representing financial services, also asked its members in June and July about the impact the pandemic was having on business stabilily. Forty-two per cent said they were not sure whether their business would survive six months of COVID disruption, and a majority said it would take 12 months or more for their business and the economy to recover. The pressure on businesses to rethink their fixed costs is enormous.

CISI CEO Simon Culhane called these "truly challenging times" for financial services in re-evaluating the purpose of an office, and some now are focused on using them "primarily for creativity, collaboration and communication rather than a de facto place for work,” he said.

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