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Fed up with ‘new normal’ talk? Here are 3 workplace trends you can bank on.

Four months since the world of work changed forever. Or did it? David Thame reports on the emerging workplace trends to rely on as offices start to reopen.

22/07/2020 4 min read
20 Ropemaker Street. © Cityscape

Four months since lockdown. Four months since the world of work changed forever. Or did it? As offices in towns and city centres hesitantly re-open, what have we learned about what post-pandemic workspace will look like?

The answer is, it’s a work in progress. But this is the emerging consensus…

1. Cities are not finished – not by a long way

If you’ve ever been to Siena, you’ll have seen the sad view from the loggia of the Palazzo Publico: a 13th century plague meant it never grew to fill the space enclosed by its city walls. Allotment gardens fill the empty acres, a tribute to the dramatic effect of disease on urban space. Post-pandemic London and the other big cities could share a similar fate as businesses and residents stampede to the suburbs and countryside.

You’ll have sat-in on dozens of Zoom chats full of this kind of talk, and it’s what lots of property people thought, too. By mid-lockdown they had bought into the idea of spoke-and-hub offices as the new post-pandemic property model. Base some staff in town, some out of town, and businesses would be more resilient and coronavirus-proof – or so the argument goes.

Unfortunately, this bird is not going to fly, according to most late-lockdown observers. The pressure that forced AstraZeneca from the Cheshire countryside to Cambridge city, and took Vodafone from the gentle Thames Valley to roaring Shoreditch, are real and continuing, says Centre for Cities policy officer, Simon Jeffrey.

‘There’s a reason why city centres are popular, and that’s because they are in the centre of things. Literally. If employers need to reach a wide labour pool, head to the centre. If you head to the periphery, you shrink your labour pool,’ Simon explains.

David Ainsworth is Chief Executive at CO-RE, the development specialist behind a string of monster central London schemes, including the forthcoming 450,000 sq ft office tower at 20 Ropemaker, EC2, designed by Make Architects for Old Park Lane Management.

‘The centre will remain the hub and people come to work in hubs, not just offices there. So, long term, the city centre remains the logical solution for major tenants,’ David says. These views are widely shared. Maybe occupiers will want less, or healthier, offices in the future, but those offices will still be in cities.

2. Watch the life sciences – they will be big workspace users

If there was one consistent trend over the last 20 years, it was away from campus-style, out-of-town business parks. Amenity provision has improved, and business parks have a dedicated user-group, but little development has taken place outside a handful of Thames Valley and M42 locations. The supply of good Grade A floorspace is strictly limited.

With one big exception. The UK life sciences sector was on a roll before coronavirus came along, and it is now set for a boom. Investment in the sector is flourishing – a rapid rise to £25 billion capital raised in 2019, the highest yet by several billion – and Savills say property investment is following. Manchester and its Cheshire hinterland, the Thames Valley, the Oxford/Cambridge arc, will all benefit. A rising share of venture capital funding, now up to around 20%, means more growth for smaller life sciences business, says Savills. This is one to watch.

You can find the Savills research online at www.savills.co.uk.

3. Coworking has some issues – and some opportunities

Social distancing is a pain for all office occupiers, but it’s a hugely expensive pain for the already vulnerable (and over-supplied) coworking sector. That’s because their charging structure is per desk, and yet social distancing means perhaps 60% of those desks cannot be used.

The big providers, like IWG and WeWork, are taking slightly different approaches. IWG seems to be happy to talk turkey, but WeWork insists it charges per desk, end of story, though it will help occupiers work out how best to use the space they’ve hired.

Working from home has, of course, temporarily cut the legs from under the serviced and coworking sector. The hope is that the post-pandemic world will provide a resurgence of interest in serviced floorspace as part of what Cushman & Wakefield calls an ‘ecosystem’ of workspace options devised and bespoke, for each occupier.

Henry Shearer, Head of UK Offices at giant Canadian investor/developer, Oxford Properties, points the way.

‘The period of enforced working from home over the last few months could result in people contemplating looking for less central places to live if they no longer have to commute to an office every day – especially if they have a family and are looking for more space and a larger garden,’ he says.

‘As a multi-asset real estate developer, we understand the nuances across the different sectors and how development projects are increasingly looking to incorporate mixed-use elements to meet the demands of modern users. For example, providing workspace as part of residential schemes, such as at Get Living’s New Maker Yard in Manchester, which has a residents’ workspace.’

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