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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”