The Shard, London

Reflections: What is the future of the office?

So, we are finally beginning to unLock. What seems like a 12-week experiment in social behaviour is slowly ending. 3.5 billion people worldwide have been at home.

Technology has fast forwarded to where it should have been 12 weeks ago and everyone within and around the property industry is asking and thinking the same thought – what is the future of the office?

Like much on social media, there will be many different, strongly-held opinions. As an advisor who has spent 24 years in the property business, (22 of those dealing with offices and 2 as a very poor Investment agent) would like to add my two pennies’ worth. I will try to remain objective, but if everyone gives up their office, I’m out of a job!

Firstly, a typical London commuter spends 1 to 2 hours each way, to and from the office, depending on traffic, trains etc. That adds up to 10 to 20 hours a week – a significant chunk of the working week. People very easily feel like Michael Douglas in Falling Down.

On the flip side, these journeys are a chance to read, catch up with emails, study, listen to the radio or a podcast, meet friends – or just contemplate. You may even meet your future life partner. You might be head-first into someone’s sweaty armpit, perhaps your future life partner’s.

Then you get to your office, via a £3 cup of coffee and a £6 breakfast. If you worked at a big corporate office building, it likely took 2-3 minutes to wait for the lift each time you need it (1 hour a week – yes!). You get to your desk with your back to a window listening to colleagues whose previous night had been gym, date, dinner with a friend, movie and then another friend – thinking your life was ever-so boring.

If you were lucky, you work with a great team, alongside some genuinely lovely people who all have their own personal goals and ambitions. Some colleagues work to get promoted. Some work just for the pay. Others, like me, are fortunate to love what they do and just want to be part of building a business, to make it as successful as possible in the broadest terms, not just financially. Every office has its own identity. There are millions of companies in the UK. Each has their own take on what constitutes success and what would make them who they want to be.

Your office costs a percentage of turnover, a tangible expense organisations must control; however, it also brings everyone together – a huge benefit that is difficult to put a figure on.

So, do we need an office moving forward???

I’m going to digress and mention someone slightly controversial, at the heart of government – Dominic Cummings. On 2 January 2020 prior to SpecGate, he wrote a blog article which spelled out the type of people he’d like to recruit to work in Downing Street. From the 2,906 words the press picked up on three of them: “Weirdos and misfits”, opening Cummings up to ridicule yet, he wants people who are capable of real change and to look at how we do things, do them differently and, do them better. Basically, to completely disrupt normal. Like every single FinTech. He is focusing on Science, Tech and Maths. Particularly in Government.

The article’s overall message was actually really important. Cummings wants people capable of real change, able to look at how we do things, to do them differently and, do them better – to completely disrupt the norm.

The current Government says it will radically change everything from our education system to how we work, embracing a massive shift towards Science, Tech, Health and infrastructure.

This is not a pro or anti Dominic Cummings blog – you will have made your own mind up. And btw, he doesn’t care. What is clear is that these last 12 weeks since lockdown, millions of staff have managed to work from home. How effectively? We will see – it was born out of necessity. On the whole, it seems to have worked well.

In a discussion with a good friend last week, who is CEO of a major employer in the UK, we discussed how by having his entire staff working from home he could now recruit from across the country. You can now hire the best talent from anywhere in the world and not have to worry about relocation costs to a head office or local office. The talent pool just increased from a local area to the whole country and beyond.

Do you have to meet someone in person when you can see them online? For many, projects you are working on across the world don’t have to involve travelling there. So much can be accomplished via your video communication platform of choice such as Teams, Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp or Facetime.

An example of WFO/WFH is The Houses of Parliament, one of this country’s most beautiful buildings. Every week The Commons provides some of the best live television: 600 people baying for one person’s blood – the PM. Unfortunately, the building is totally impractical for 2020 use.

We could have done what has been done to many listed buildings. Keep the exterior and demolish the interior (for perhaps £1 billion), replacing it with something modern and remarkable, but ideally not by some glass box. Those MPs not working from home would then have had a beautiful “new” state-of-the-art environment in which to serve the Country. A similar approach was chosen for the Reichstag in Germany – designed by Sir Norman Foster.

Instead, they are about to spend billions repairing the fabric. The cost of this refurbishment is being put at £4 billion, enough to build 8 new Houses of Parliament or fund the NHS for 2 weeks.

This brings us back to offices:

  • The lines between home and work are now blurring.
  • Technology, unless you switch it off can work 7 days a week, year on year.
  • Can a team function properly and succeed not being together over years – not weeks?
  • If you work for a company where you don’t meet colleagues, you don’t interact face-to-face – what loyalty do you have to your company, its vision, its brand? Isn’t it vital that every individual has some form of connection with their employer?
  • Are our cities still going to be as important in 20 years’ time? If you don’t need to be there for work, why go? Levelling up, may mean levelling across. London, to me, the greatest City in the world, is likely to change fundamentally. Yet we still have 9m people living in its borders (what happened to Crossrail??).

So, what is the future of offices? To quote Sir Alex Ferguson: “…you know you have a great team when you are in that dressing room and the people in there you trust implicitly to win – not just play well.” The office is our dressing room. Our pitch and stadium are our identity and our colleagues are teammates. I don’t believe long term you can build a successful business without bouncing ideas off those closest to you – or knowing how they are, how their families are. These colleagues have come to work for your company because they share a vision and values. Even colleagues who don’t care and just “took the job” – know more about us than our families sometimes. It’s about trust. Everybody needs a home, be it a person, a family or a business – you may not spend much time there, but after a while living in a hotel gets boring and if your relationship with your wife is similar to Angie and Den in EastEnders, forget about getting work done when you want to. The office can be your working home, part of who you are. Without one, you may be saving costs but losing out on so many other aspects.

Years ago, we were involved in a building on Golden Square. The Ad Agency came up with a name for the marketing – the building was called “Happy Tomorrow”.

My view is simple. While we get used to the technology and take advantage of deals in the City (less so the West End which will be more resilient) – keep a base, even if 30-50% smaller. Agile working is the key. What’s needed is flexibility, both the space, which should be adaptable and, the lease. A quality tenant still needs to sign a 10-year term. If you don’t need to go in 5 days a week, perhaps 2-4, keep yourself and your staff fresh and be grateful that tech has moved to the point where you have a choice. If your company does away with its own office entirely, keeping a strong team together will be harder and that has many consequences, including recruitment issues. Maybe we need to change the name of the office – to a WorkPad?

For now, as an Occupier’s Agent, we are watching the situation evolve and yes there is and will be fallout and I truly hope we don’t go the way of travel agents.

At a minimum, every company needs to keep or strengthen their firm’s individual identity. It’s what makes you, you. Our developers need to provide buildings to house great businesses – however they occupy.

The office is evolving. It is exciting…
You ain’t seen nothing yet!