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COMMENT | How to spur the office return – an OBI survey

Comments (7)

Jordana Anderson OBIOBI has undertaken a survey of more than 100 of Manchester’s business leaders across a range of firm sizes, in an attempt to assess views on a full return to the workplace, writes Jordana Anderson of OBI.

City centres are the engine of our economy. It scarcely needs pointing out that footfall throughout city centres fell dramatically during the pandemic, but the slowness of the return to anything like ‘normal’ is now causing financial worry.

Nationally, total footfall has recovered reasonably well to around 56% of the norm, boosted by the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme, but major business centres like Manchester, London and Edinburgh are recovering much more slowly. Manchester’s city centre management company CityCo documented the total footfall in August 2020 and found that it was down by 44.8% year-on-year in Manchester.

So what is on business’ minds?

The survey results have given us crucial insights into the full picture of when businesses expect their workforces to return to the city.

Out of 105 city centre-based businesses, 58% have not yet returned to the city and in some cases say they will not return until January. What does this mean for businesses and the economy?

Our survey identified the key trends creating a barrier to employees not wanting to return to the office.

The findings highlight:

  • The largest percentage of employees back in the office are smaller businesses with 1-50 employees
  • Almost half (45%) of businesses expect to return to the office between September and October
  • The two main concerns about the return to the office are the commute to the city and Covid-19 in the office environment
  • Increased confidence around the safety of using public transport will entice commuters into the the office and city centre
  • The provision of better value car parking will also assist in bringing more businesses back to the workplace
  • The reopening of schools and childcare will help parents return to the workplace

So, how can we overcome some of these barriers?


Public transport is of huge concern. The perception is that it’s busy, and that commuters are at the mercy of the other people’s behaviour. To mitigate their fears, the city needs to explore new ways to encourage the use of public transport, for example, higher frequency of trams, trains and buses are surely needed to spread passengers out – obviously this is not cheap.

We also need to see innovations focused on encouraging health and safety when using public transport or ‘active travel’, such as touchless fare collection, hand sanitiser stations, smartphone apps that help riders decide the best time to travel, safer bike routes and increased bike storage.

Selected comments on transport from survey participants:

  • Public transport is Manchester’s Achilles heel. It’s expensive, unreliable (particularly trains), slow and time-consuming”
  • “My employees are reluctant to return as public transport is expensive, not frequent enough and overcrowded, and the only other option is to drive but parking is extortionate[ly priced] and limited”

As a short-term fix, it would be beneficial to offer discounted parking for workers in the city. One-third (31%) of respondents agreed that Manchester could encourage more businesses to reopen or rebuild their presence in the city by offering affordable parking and 12% agreed that discounted public transport for workers would also benefit.

Obviously, discounted parking raises the potential for congestion returning, however if employees are offered flexible hours and staggered days this could be reduced – so business leaders need to play their part.

The workplace

Just over half (53%) of business owners stated that

they had made physical alterations to their offices, with measures including hand sanitiser stations, desk partitions, fewer desks and staggered employee days in the office, one-way systems and temperature checks.

Some of the concerns were a lack of fire wardens in larger offices, no health and safety staff on site and air conditioning not being fit for purpose.

Ultimately, the workplace of the future will need to change and adapt but, in the meantime, leaders must act now to ensure workplaces are both productive and safe.

Selected participant comments:

  • “For any business to prosper, you need to harness and build upon its culture over time. Business innovation comes from collaboration in person too”
  • “Business leaders need to lead by setting an example to their employees on the benefits of getting back to the workplace safely and responsibly”

Our view

Business leaders aren’t generally shy on selling themselves on innovation and flexibility. Keeping appropriate safety measures in mind, it’s time that actions matched these words, because an economic emergency is unfolding.

OBI 2020

The shops, cafes and bars that make Manchester such a vital and inspiring place need office users to return, even if that’s on a reduced or staggered basis. As the furlough scheme reaches its end, the coming weeks could be a make-or-break time. It’s on all of us to support each other, support Manchester and do what we can to bring the buzz back to the city.

Download a copy of the report

  • Jordana Anderson is part of the transactions and asset management team at OBI

Your Comments

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It is in everyone’s interest across this sector to return to the office. Anything less will affect us all negatively in some shape or form.
We need to lead by example.


the question shouldn’t be how or when, it should be whether we need to see a wholesale return to the office.

the economy shouldn’t need to depend on workers commuting in. the office market should adapt to the ‘new normal’ which is likely to be less commercial space required in city centres but potentially more required in regional towns and local centres. most businesses will retain some if not all of their office space but some may downsize or downscale to local centres. a small proportion will go out of business or go fully remote. It’s the impact on retail this could have which is worrying.

arguably decentralisation of the economy is what England in particular has needed for years to reduce the gap between the north and midlands to London and the south-east.


This is in relation to retail and the lack of footfall.

I work (although not returned yet) in a primarily residential area so I have worry about the impact of the the non return to work in the immediate future. The residents will always shop while ‘we’ are not there. I can’t see is returning anytime soon as we have one entrance in and out on each wing.

This is cyclical surely? As to the economy, the City Centre evolved surely with the detriment to the local high street. This pandemic, with careful planning and thought, should balance things a little more towards the local areas thus encouraging those retail outlets within the city centre to move out and occupy the numerous empty retail units dotted around the surrounding suburbs.

I live in South Manchester and there have been openings of a number of new businesses over the last 12 months which negate any need to visit the City Centre at all for social activities such as a meal or out for a drink. I can’t think of any of my colleagues or friends who would visit the city centre out of choice and personally, I can only say I visit probably no more than once a year.

The only restriction to large businesses moving out of the city centres are the required size of buildings required which are few and far between in the residential areas and rightly so. However, there’s no reason (economies of scale aside) why smaller hubs in local areas couldn’t be established for those larger companies wishing to move.

By sbt

Am I missing something? If footfall is 56% of the norm, Manchester is hardly faring much worse if it’s 44.8% down, is it?

By Mat H

No-one wants to wear face muzzles. Remove this unsubstantiated nonsense and people will return. Few want to have forced mask wearing on trains or anywhere else. They prefer not go to those places. There is no change in long term dynamics here. People don’t want to be muzzled. As long as that continues, no amount of ‘Covid Safe’ nonsense will work. Few want anywhere to be Covid Safe, which kills tens of thousands with *real* illnesses as long as this fantasy continues.

By Richard

Disappointed by the fact cycling isn’t even mentioned in the travel section of this piece. “The only other option is to drive but parking is extortionate[ly priced] and limited” This is patently untrue for many who live within a commutable distance of their workplace by bike, the benefits of bike commuting are well documented and the potential positive impact cycling could have on workplaces, both in terms of shielding staff from the virus using public transport and the general benefits of improved health and wellbeing are far too often overlooked.

By twometrepeter

Cities cannot remain vibrant and economically sound without the offices who make urban centres their home base!!

By Sam H