Joanna Bourke: Why London HQs have a future part 2

Predictions have been pretty tough to make during the coronavirus crisis, with continual uncertainty and confusion around lockdowns across Britain. It feels like, and is, a long time since I, in March, declared there are plenty of Londoners who would “shudder at the prospect” of working from home on a long-term basis.

Little did I know then that office workers would continue to do their jobs from kitchens, front rooms and bedrooms for the whole Summer.

It turns out there are many people in the capital who have embraced WFH, enjoying the savings made by not having to commute into central London and welcoming more time at home.

That office occupier demand (in terms of how much space needed and what type of space) could drastically change is undeniable. Leasing deals in the last six months suffered as travel restrictions made agreeing lettings more tricky and firms waited to see how the pandemic might impact future space requirements. A report today from property firm DeVono Cresa, which advises tenants, said leasing of office space across central London in the second quarter totalled 1.2 million sq ft, representing a drop of 57% on the previous quarter. This is 68% lower than in Q2 last year.

But I still think that companies will continue to be in need of offices, driven by employee demand.

Yes, firms will have to look at more flexible working, with staff seeking a mixture of home and office time. Yes, companies may look at their rent costs and where they can reduce them. Yes, there will be concerns regarding managing social distancing in offices. Yes, some employers and employees will have worries about using public transport to get into work. But, is WFH the best thing ever? No.

For all the reasons I outlined in March, such as high home heating costs and disturbing other people in your house with numerous phone calls, there are some good reasons for not wanting to do your job remotely permanently.

After months of WFH some of the things I welcomed on returning to the office a few days per week in July included seeing colleagues. It genuinely felt good to chat about life and work in person rather than via a Zoom video call.

I also relished going to the pub for some after-work drinks for a colleague’s birthday. Oh how I missed wine with people I hadn’t seen in months.

I have also welcomed the 15 minute walk to the train station most mornings. It feels good to stretch your legs rather than roll straight out of bed to a kitchen desk where you start work immediately.

In addition, I can’t imagine I am alone in preferring computers and a proper desk in the office rather than my laptop at home and an unpredictable internet connection. Also, the office’s air conditioning would have felt great during the heatwave in August, (she says remembering how hard it was to work at home when it was boiling).

The offices sector will no doubt face changes and challenges, as companies assess future space requirements. I do see and welcome the benefits of WFH, and more flexible working will become more normal: that is a good thing. But the thought of no offices is very unpleasant.

Later this month I will report on what offices could look like in the future, and what demand for them there will be in London.