The benefits of getting back into the office

Alan Gordon

Alan Gordon, senior partner of DM Hall based in the Glasgow North office.

RUMOURS of the death of the office as we know it may be greatly exaggerated, but my goodness, they are gaining currency fast.

It is little wonder. When the lights went out and offices across the country fell silent in March, the sentiment that kept people going was that it would all be temporary, and that we would all be back at our desks as soon as possible.

What few workplace observers foresaw was the unseemly glee with which office workers took to operating from their kitchen tables, bedrooms or the cupboard under the stairs – thus avoiding the grinding misery of the daily commute.

The numbers are remarkable. As lockdown began, government statistics showed that around 1.7 million people worked mainly from home, about 5% of the total workforce. By April, that figure had soared to 50%, or 17.5 million. That figure does not include the nine million-odd furloughed workers.

Now an astonishing nine out of ten people who have sampled the new way of working would like to continue to do so to some degree, according to a survey by the Business Clean Air Taskforce.

And even major office job providers such as Barclays are questioning the need to employ 7,000 people in their HQ – though this is the same Barclays which currently is building the Buchanan Wharf development on the south side of the Clyde to house 2,500 technology and operations staff.

What is indisputable is that office life will never be the same again. One big development underway in Glasgow has paused and redesigned its fit-out to create a contactless journey from entrance to desk, with sensors opening doors, operating lifts, turning on lights and even flushing toilets.

It is valid to look to the future and try to envisage viable new scenarios for office life, but it is much less helpful to suggest that cities, corporations and the environment would be better off if everybody started to work from home.

This latter vision denies the innate sociability of the human animal and the basic need for stimulus, response and interaction – a need which office life goes a long way to fulfilling.

The lockdown has shown that there is a distinct downside to being confined to one location. Academics at University College London revealed last week (July 16) that nearly a fifth of 70,000 people surveyed admitted that they had grown distant from friends, and contact with co-workers had fizzled out.

Now, if this is happening to a median range of workers, imagine how much more debilitating it might be for younger people who have been the first generation to grow up in a world in which most social interaction takes place on screen. Do we really want to isolate them any more fully?

I know of one family whose bright young daughter secured a post with the Scottish Government in April – and has yet to meet a single colleague face-to-face.

While being concerned about the direction the future of office life might take, it is also reasonable to recognise that there may be upsides to a reduced requirement for floorspace.

Glasgow City Council has just signed off on plans to raise the population of the city centre by 40,000 by 2035, largely by easing change of use restrictions to allow the conversion of unnecessary office accommodation into high quality housing.

As well as enlivening the centre, this would also throw a long-term lifeline to many of the ancillary businesses, such as cafes, sandwich shops, bars and hairdressers, which are threatened just now by the sea change in working patterns.

If demand for floorspace does decrease, we are likely to see a slow and gradual decline in rental values as leases come up to anniversary periods and occupiers review their occupational needs.

As ever, investor sentiment will be key. We have already seen investor flight from asset classes such as retail and leisure and a stampede towards previously unfashionable industrial and distribution.

Sentiment, however, is fickle and, as the government’s clarion call to Work From Home changes to Get Back to Work, we may all be back at our desks sooner than we think.

Ally that to the necessary distancing measures and office space could soon again be at a premium, which I believe would be greatly to the benefit of the health and social fabric of the country.