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The Future of Offices

Updated: Jun 12, 2020

A few stats, followed by a collection of opinions from advisory firms and senior executives.

YouGov polling suggests that fewer than one in 10 people (9%) actually want life to return to "normal" after the coronavirus outbreak is over and a further 48% say they would happily take a pay cut for the opportunity to spend more time working from home.

Combine this with the probability that the requirement for social distancing on public transport is likely to be required for a very long time, and that most big cities are going to have to stop us getting in to cars to go to work (see City Transformations), and major corporations, like Twitter, are saying their staff can work from home 'forever', the future of offices - once the mainstay of commercial life - looks ever more perilous.

According to the Office for National Statistics around one in 20 workers did their jobs mainly from home in December 2019. Thanks to faster internet connections, the number is edging up, and looks likely to leap up post-lockdown.

Indeed, Will Gosling from Deloitte, a professional-services company, believes the pandemic has brought about a “five-year acceleration” of a trend that was already under way: it has shown that working from home is feasible and has made it more acceptable, he told The Economist, adding that the old view that “you’ve got an easy day” if you work from home has become much less common.

Lee Elliott of Knight Frank, an estate agent, reckons that “the days of people taking a 74 minute average commute into town to process email, and then 74 minutes back out - they’re gone.”

A business-continuity planner at a financial-services firm says that before the lockdown, when the company initially pondered moving to split working to enforce more distancing in their offices, “no one wanted to be on the working from home side. But a few weeks later, as we started planning how to get back to the office, everyone wanted to stay at home.” More than half of Britons would like to work from home more often after the crisis and around a third say the ability to work at home will be a factor when they next seek a new job.

Nobody is yet committing to flogging their own headquarters and, in the short term, the need for social distancing within offices may prop up demand. But some bosses are predicting radical changes that will delight chief financial officers eyeing potential savings from dumping expensive city-centre locations.

Jes Staley, chief executive of Barclays, has said that large headquarters buildings may become a “thing of the past”.

Nicolas Aubert, head of British operations at WillisTowersWatson, an advisory firm “would be very surprised if corporations in professional services kept more than 50% of their real estate, and it might be significantly less”. Even a commercial-property manager admits that “there is a serious risk that what was once a prime real-estate asset is now an overpriced half-empty building.”

Charlie Rudd, chief executive of Leo Burnett, an advertising firm, reckons his sector will be amongst the first to return to their offices because of the need for very high spec technology facilities and that “in the advertising world many people thrive off that collaboration and being together, and so they will still need offices where they can do that.”

More home working will mean new challenges for managers. Home workers are harder to monitor and so trust becomes more important. It will be harder for junior employees than senior ones. Junior employees need mentoring, want to socialise and have worse living conditions. But the decisions on the future of offices will be made by those for whom the alternative is more likely to be a nice house than a bedsit.

This, of course, leads on to two knock-on questions: what are the layouts and specs going to be for offices in the future and, ditto, homes?

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