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20 things you’ll be talking about in 2020

Blending and voice-activation, speculative development and social purpose: Mix property guru, David Thame, spent the last 12 months talking to the wise heads of the UK property business. This is what he’s learned about the ABC of workspace talking points in
the year to come.

15/01/2020 6 min read
WeWork, Oktra


No longer just for geeks. Analytics will affect the way workplaces are run, costed and occupied. Big data will drive the change. The days of the hunch are now history. Design, but find space for data collection and analysis.


Blended families, where two divorcees with children get together to form a new unit, have been a thing since the days of TV’s The Brady Bunch. But blending in the workplace? HR teams are now hot on blending. They take it to mean a mix of freelancers and staff, part-timers and full-timers, often with a demographic mix too. This all-in-it-together idea has a definite appeal to some businesses looking to foster a sense of shared purposes (see Experience). But it also leads to complexities because each group needs different things, at different times, in different ways. Your mid-50s freelancer absolutely does not see their workplace needs as the same as a Gen Z striver. Maybe tech fixes can help provide each with what they want? In 2020 we will discover if it can.


The ubiquitous ground floor coffee bar, and the creation of workplaces that closely resemble funky coffee shops, felt like the leading trend of 2019. Landlords find it a quick way to improve their property’s kerb appeal, occupiers think it makes them cool. So no change likely.


The crash-and-burn of the WeWork flotation in autumn 2019 might suggest that we’ve reached peak coworking. The industry consensus is that all we reached was peak WeWork and that the flexible workspace market is unlikely to suffer long-term damage. The big change in 2020 will be we’ll see much less emphasis on coworking as a business fuelled on latte clutching hipsters running breakout tech enterprises, and more emphasis on the large number of boring stable corporates who want to use serviced and coworking floorspace.


Data is going to be the watch-word in 2020. We’re already familiar with the potential to collect, analyse and rethink data on property management issues (when lights go on or off, when and how meeting rooms are used, how to heat efficiently…). But the next wave of data collection will be less about buildings and more about people. Employee monitoring was a minority sport only a few years ago (some sources say 15% of employers monitored staff electronically as recently as 2015). But sensors, AI and the ubiquitous 5G technology could change all that. Claims that 80% of employers will insist employee monitoring is factored into workplace design by 2020 could be moonshine. Or they could be true.


Sometimes the office property market is driven by supply, as investors unload money into real estate in an effort to rebalance their property portfolios. Sometimes it is driven by demand, as investors race to catch up with the real needs of the occupational market. The first version leads rapidly to over-supply and, ultimately, a property crash. The second version is more benign and takes longer to go wrong, and that’s what we’ll see in 2020. For now, demand in all the UK’s major office markets comfortably exceeds supply. So no property collapse is likely in the next 12 months.


Shopping is now about a ‘leisure experience’, hotels are a ‘hospitality experience’, restaurants a ‘dining experience’: the whole world is about experience. This trend, already bubbling under during 2018 and 2019, will burst out into the open in 2020 as occupiers, landlords and developers concentrate on building an experiential element into workspace. Translating the idea into physical facts will mean moving on from the pool tables and chill zones of the last few years. The gimmicks that produce Instagrammable content may help recruitment, but do they help with retention? The latest wisdom is that a sense of community and common purposes might work better, though it is hard to see how you design that into a workplace when atomising trends like voice-activation are taking over (see below).


The #metoo movement may have done its work, but the impact of gender on the workplace is far from over. Architects and designers (and landlords) are still pondering how to respond.


Still going up in most major UK cities – but expect 2020 to see rental growth on a modest scale. No massive up swings, no massive cliff edges, just a solid steady market.


So a message from a co-worker arrives on Whatsapp, you reply on Slack to set up a face-to-face, and your diary confirmation arrives by email. This is normal in many workplaces, but it risks collapsing into a chaos of complexity, and it’s only getting worse. Whether you call it centralised communications platform or just cutting out the distractions, the pressure to simplify workplaces will begin to mount in 2020.

Sounds Like Work

Alexa and her voice-activated friends are already familiar in the home, but in 2020 they will become big in the workplace. Alexa for Business has been launched. Yes, it can call an Uber, reorder toner cartridges and lower the blinds, but the big advance will be to extend remote working at home and in the office. So conferencing gets sharper, wasted time in meeting rooms less. If it works, meeting rooms will be things of the past. Meantime, watch out for a slew of other voice-activated devices with the same grim purpose of cutting down the amount of face-to-face interaction. Property consultants, JLL, have one (called, you guessed it, JiLL) although theirs is used to book meeting rooms, rather than make them redundant.


Speculative development is always a gamble, and the unknowable outcome of the Brexit process adds an extra element of danger to a process that costs millions and takes years. Even so, expect 2020 to see a swathe of new speculative office developments as developers and their financial backers race to catch up with an occupier market that wants new, efficient floorspace, regardless of Brexit.


Once an adjective and a noun, now a verb. In 2020 plenty of people will find themselves redlined, and the most redlined of all with be those buildings that fail to meet ESG or wellness standards demanded by occupiers (and, increasingly, by property investors). Public pressure, social media and a world in which you get just one chance to get it right will make redlining the design nightmare of the coming 12 months.


Increasingly big in the logistics world, and making their way into office workplaces through virtual digital assistants, 2020 will not be the year that Marvin the Paranoid Android will be sitting at the next workstation – but it may be the year that AI and machine learning becomes ubiquitous, and workplaces will have to find new ways to incorporate it.

Smart Buildings

5G technology will become available, in a small way, in a dozen UK cities, opening the potential for seriously smart buildings. By the end of 2020 the first signs of the landlord response should be apparent.

Social Purpose

We used to call it corporate social responsibility (CSR), we now call it environmental, social and governance (ESG). Whatever it is, 2020 will be the year it leaps to the top of the workplace agenda, rivalling wellness and old favourites like flexibility and agility.

Voice activation

Part of the new office aural experience, and set to grow. Having spent years trying to control workplace noise, or to coral it into sound-proofed booths, new approaches may be needed to control volume and privacy.

York House © Jack Hobhouse

Wellness Turns Into Therapy

We’re all familiar with the wellness agenda, but what if that moved on from encouraging wellness to therapy for unwellness? Many big US corporates are now investing in programmes to help resolve anxiety, stress and mental health problems. This might be on-site therapists, it might mean more time outside the office or outdoors. It’s early days, but expect this to be big.

White space

Hiring your offices from an intermediary is the new renting from a landlord. Occupiers like Amazon, BT and a host of corporates are now taking short-term flexible space from middlemen like WeWork or Spaces, and the unbranded floorspace they take is called white space. Already a major factor in London and Manchester, it will flourish in 2020.

Z, Generation

Gen Z is causing landlords and developers some headaches: digital natives, with demanding expectations of themselves and others, who like to feel a sense of shared purpose and don’t seem to have any hang-ups about privacy. Designing the perfect workspace for Gen Z means more than a supply of coffee and some long bench desks. Beyond that, nobody knows. In 2020 we may find out.

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