No3 Circle Square July 2019
Developers such as Bruntwood, building Manchester's Circle Square, hope for a bounceback in the office market

June ‘too far away’ for office return, industry says

Sarah Townsend and Dan Whelan

The region’s place makers have called for a phased return to workplaces ahead of the 21 June guideline issued by the Prime Minister yesterday, to protect local economies and mental health.

However, the office market will still bounce back from the past year of disruption in the medium term even if people remain cautious and continue to work from home.

“The announcement [by Boris Johnson] does not change much in terms of the longer-term outlook for the office sector in that we are still heading towards some semblance of normality,” said David Topham, chief executive of CTP, which is developing Liverpool’s Pall Mall Gardens among other schemes in the North West.

“In the short term, though, the Government is encouraging a slower return to work but in reality many businesses are making their own decisions on the matter. SMEs are particularly keen to go back if they’re not already, even if large corporates are holding back.

“Our view is that there will be a steady drip back to the workplace in the weeks ahead.”

Will Lewis, director of office agency OBI said that June 21 “is simply too far for the reopening of offices when you look at some of the other relaxations being planned”.

He said: “We are seeing an increase, among clients and within our own business, in people who are suffering either with mental health or because of not having quite the right set-up to work from home.

“Safety is very important, but people’s mental health is at a critical point and if you say to those on the edge that they have to wait until June, that’s not good – it can’t happen.”

Pall Mall Green Square CGI

CTP is developing Pall Mall Gardens in Liverpool

Responsible employers have invested in making their offices Covid-safe and have good protocols and restrictions in place, Lewis added. “While nobody should be forced back, after another six weeks of the vaccination programme – maybe from April onwards – a phased return to the office could be encouraged if it is safe to do so and workers are getting tested regularly. June is just way too far off.”

Building back

Others were more cautious about the prospect of an office return before June, but remained adamant that getting people back into workplaces is key to the country’s economic recovery in the months and years ahead.

Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council, told Place North West: “City centre business – hospitality in particular – has borne the brunt of the economic impact of fewer people working and spending in the city centre. And although we have some way to go before the number of commuters returns to pre-Covid levels, I hope the announcements this week provide some reassurance that there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

After nearly a year of homeworking for thousands of people in Manchester, “there will be an eagerness to return to workplaces safely from June”, Sir Richard added. “There is no substitute for in-person collaboration and relationship building. And although a phased return to the office may be the only option in the short-term, the office market will come back strongly in the medium to long-term.

“The road map announcements give us all some optimism and give the city’s businesses an understanding of a route beyond Covid and a return to a semblance of normality.”

Sir Richard Leese

Leese said the recovery roadmap provides a light at the end of the tunnel

Andrew Cooke, strategic director at Bruntwood Works, the offices arm of developer Bruntwood, also welcomed the provision of much-needed “clarity with clear milestones”. “This is particularly important for our own retail and leisure sites (such as, Hatch and Afflecks in Manchester city centre, and our town centres schemes in Stretford and the Stamford Quarter in Altrincham), so that our customers can start to move from ‘survive’ to ‘thrive’,” he said.

“However, we can’t forget how much of the retail and leisure on our high streets is underpinned by the office workers in our towns and cities. Getting people back into offices safely will be key to economic recovery because they help to drive forward a cyclical economy.”

Bill Addy, chief executive of the Liverpool BID Company, agreed. “We want people to come back into offices because we know that our footfall won’t return until we get the whole of the city working.”

Market ‘resilient’

Those people that have been following the guidance “to the letter of the law” will have been in near-isolation for almost 11 months, he pointed out. Getting on public transport, dealing with crowds again, and working in an office environment could prompt nervousness, so employers must be flexible about when and how people come back into the office and ensure that they feel safe.

“Because of this I think it will be a slow return, but I would hope from the summer onwards people feel more confident and encouraged. If we get this reopening right, we will be able to return to some sort of normality – which is what we all want.”

In the longer term, levels of and patterns in of office market demand will depend on individual requirements and there could be a period of suppressed activity and disruption ahead, predicted CTP’s Topham. But he and others in the industry say they believe the market will recover.

“We are certainly not worried that in years to come there will be no demand for office space,” Topham said.

And Bruntwood Works’ Cooke added: “While we are absolutely sure that the future of working for most people will be a hybrid of work from office versus work-from-anywhere, we have seen a huge swell in interest in office space in the last few weeks and this gives us a positive outlook for our customer return to the workplace.

“For many businesses, offices will be spaces for collaboration, idea sharing and social connection. Their function, shape and size may change, but their importance to business will not.”

Your Comments

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There are a lot of people (myself included) who don’t want to move back into the office. It’s pointless if you can do your job from home and your productivity is not impacted.

By Observer

Yes please!…never thought I’d say it but I’m ready to go back to work. I will travel the six miles into the office and I’ll smile when I get there. This will last for a few weeks when I’ll moan again about not working from home. But such is life!

By Isadora Duncan

Office sellers say we all need to get back to the office ASAP. Shock.

By Tim Parker

I think the assertion that everyone wants to go back to the ‘old’ patterns of working is incorrect. Certainly everyone I have spoken to sees a future with atleast part time working from home. Saving on time and money wasted on commuting, and offering environmental, personal health and local economic benefits. There will a shift in spending on local facilities such as cafes, and local parks and fitness offerings will benefit. Please also do not forget that 10pc of those infected are suffering from Long Covid. These people often cannot return to work in much capacity for months following infection. When you bring the workforce back together you increase your risk of losing vital members of staff to this debilitating disease. Ongoing risk assessments will be required to be undertaken by all employers going forwards.

By Anon

Get me back in the office. I no longer want to be a hermit. The last 12 months have truly been the worst, I need human interaction and the buzz of the city. If my company went to home working only I would hand my notice in today.

By Bob

We have been back since July, most of our block has emptied though as companies have decided WFH is the future, also surveys say people are happier working from home and people don’t want to use public transport because of covid.

By Floyd

WFH permanently just isn’t going to fly. It’s been said before but people want interaction and the buzz of the office. Of course it depends where you are, If you are somewhere like Manchester that has invested big time in large office development s and a significant transport infrastructure, then getting back will be a priority. Other places may not have this luxury.

By Cityscape

Giving employees a choice over where they want to work should be the priority. Having the option to work from home or in the office is the ideal situation for a happy workforce. This enables staff to save money on commuting and wrap around childcare, whilst enabling companies to adopt smaller offices, and ergo less rent. I’m sure the office agencies won’t be happy with this, but it’s been on the cards for some time, Covid has just accelerated the process.

By Red Rose

The pandemic has busted the myth that wfh is the future. Yes there are benefits but not having the ability to meet people in person, sit next to them all day, bump into them in the kitchen, etc are all starting to take their toll. I’m sure the future lies in more home working than previously but as social creatures, we can’t truly progress or be creative unless we are co-located.

By Mancunian

Perhaps another legacy, longer term, is that future offices will be built (or retrofitted) with natural ventilation systems and/or with openable windows. Also more environmentally friendly in terms of energy usage.

By Steve Webberley

Yes , I think we’ve seen the whole WFH myth already being busted by the big financial institutions this week saying everyone back in the office. There will be a bit more flexibilty but no more than that. Neither firms nor the government will allow it to become the norm, as all of the economy will need to kickstarted, including Retail.transport .hotels etc. Cities Like London and Manchester that have invested heavily in large developments like New Bailey or Circle square have already seen a lot of lease take ups from big tenants and most of these will be at least 10 yr leases.

By Simon

I don’t want to waste hours of my time commuting any more. I’m happy at home, can do my job perfectly well at home, and interact with everyone I need to. I get up naturally without an alarm, and arrive about 20 mins before I need to … I then do my day job, break for 30 mins lunch which I spend with the family, before returning to my desk for the afternoon. At the end of my day if I’m in the middle of something I finish it off and am still ‘home’ earlier. I see more of my husband and kids than we used to and we enjoy each others company.

Covid is not my concern about going back… I’ve just come to realise that I just don’t need the stress and rushing of the commute. I have to be up earlier, clock watching, rushing and getting stressed in traffic, do a desk based job, but then need to leave dead on the dot to be able to rush back home, where I will arrive an hour or more later and then have to rush to get tea on, rush to do chores, make the lunches, have barely any time with family before we all go to bed to do it all again the next day.

Remind me why I would want this?!

By Reluctant