IN FOCUS | Industry clamours for return to office
Built environment professionals are emphasising the importance of a return to offices to nurture junior workers, safeguard company culture, boost business and combat the decline of city centres.
Business is picking up, thanks to a resilient attitude among property professionals and a determination and demand to continue to get deals done. But workers have been slow to return to the office since the Prime Minister relaxed guidance on working from home last month – something that is causing concern among property professionals.
One of the issues an extended period of homeworking could bring is a possible negative effect on junior staff, company representatives said.
Chris Lloyd, director of developer Glenbrook, said senior staff should “think long and hard” about the responsibility they have to nurture young talent.
“The best business people are those that keep evolving and learning new things. I worry that one of the consequences of [the pandemic] is that if senior people are staying at home, they aren’t passing on their experience and knowledge.”
The general consensus across the industry is that, while remote working has been successful to a point, there is no replacement for face-to-face collaboration.
This is particularly true for more creative professions like architecture, some said. Ewen Miller, director at Calderpeel Architects, said he was concerned his junior staff may not be getting the help they need to aid their development.
After six weeks of homeworking during the lockdown, Calderpeel set up the office in preparation for a safe, phased return, but, at the start of this week, Miller decided that more needed to be done to bring people back.
“We wanted to get people used to being back in the office because [ours] is a collaborative profession.
“We can work well remotely across some aspects of our work, but if you want to design something or ask questions it is easier to do in the office.”
Calderpeel has set up a three-day rota to boost numbers in the office, which Miller said would enhance the education of junior staff while saving the company precious time by being able to guide projects more easily and preventing staff “going down cul-de-sacs”.
Just as face-to-face meetings are preferable for staff development, they also make a difference when it comes to firms winning new contracts.
Those who choose to navigate the choppy waters of in-person meetings now, could steal a march on those less willing to take the risk.
Des Walker, director of multidisciplinary practice Walker Sime, secured two jobs in a single day by taking the time to meet prospective clients in person rather than on a Zoom call.
“There is no substitute to sitting there and looking into the whites of someone’s eyes. It was the simple fact that we were sat there in person that sealed the deal.
“I came back to our office and I was buzzing. It was a massive release.”
The “release” Walker mentioned was that of a build-up of pressure that, for him, had accumulated during months of homeworking – a period he said affected his mental health.
The enthusiasm shared by some for homeworking was due to the good weather at the start of lockdown, but we are at the breaking point of what some people can put up with, according to Walker.
“Working from home made me feel anxious and I was struggling. I am worried about people’s mental health and so we have encouraged people to go back to the office if they feel safe.”
City centres and company culture
The impact of homeworking on city centre retail and hospitality is hard to deny.
Drastically diminished football and reduced confidence in public transport mean city centre bars and restaurants, which rely heavily on the custom of office workers, are struggling.
The Government has responded with the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ initiative providing 50% discounts on meals out, and by cutting business rates. However, these measures are only temporary and, if the thousands of office workers currently ensconced at home fail to return in the coming months, the future for city centres looks bleak, experts say.
Will Lewis, director of agency OBI, said bigger firms have a duty to bring back their staff to safeguard the future of city centres. “Delaying the decision to return is going to have a massive negative impact on cities,” he said.
Lewis put workers’ hesitancy down to the “weak and woolly” guidance given by the Government and implored business owners to take matters into their own hands and show leadership.
‘You can’t create a culture on Zoom’ – Ben Fearns, managing director, Novo Property Group
OBI has navigated the period of uncertainty better than others. In March, the firm had 30 staff, none of whom were furloughed. It has since grown its workforce to 35 during the lockdown.
Lewis said this was made possible by the company’s proactive attitude to market changes. “We tried to read the market while some companies just sat on their hands waiting for the market to return.
“Clients need to be advised and new plans need to be drawn up. Landlords are changing the way they have been leasing for the past 15 years.”
Company culture, Lewis said, is a key driver in OBI’s desire to keep as many workers in the office as possible – a figure that hovers around the 90% mark currently for the Manchester-based firm.
Ben Fearns, director of Altrincham-based developer Novo Property Group, agreed.
“The office is still a really essential thing. You can’t establish culture or rapport working remotely,” he said.
Asking workers to return to the office is difficult, especially in Greater Manchester where fresh restrictions were imposed last week to cope with a rise in Covid-19 cases.
But, as Walker said, the novelty of working from home full-time seems to be wearing thin.
David Porter, head of Knight Frank’s Manchester office said the firm’s staff were eager to get back into the city.
Around 20% of Knight Frank’s staff are back at its Manchester office, but this increase as Government guidance shifts, according to Porter.
“As soon as we get the green light to bring more people in we will bring the maximum number of people in. They want to come in, categorically,” Porter said.
“Our business works on interactions with each other. Fundamentally people want to be in the office and have that communication. We are not having to fight with our people.”
While there is evident demand among such firms for a return to the office, other companies – across industries – are adopting a more cautious approach. Google’s staff will work from home until next summer and banks including RBS and Natwest have told staff that they will not have to return to the office until 2021.
Most firms, however, are taking a softly-softly approach, which aims to striker a balance between the old and the new normal, for instance inviting some staff into the office each week as part of a phased return.
Andy Rainford, director of AEW Architects, said: “We’re looking forward to getting back into the office but making sure it’s done in a professional and controlled manner. We’ve been following Government guidance [by the book] and engaging with our people throughout the situation.
“We’ve taken our time to digest each announcement, assessed the implications and not react with a policy change straight away, always giving our people time to adjust, flexibility and reassurance.
“The last thing we want is to find ourselves at the centre of an outbreak, with the associated health and negative press implications.”