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Karen Fletcher looks for potential positives from the dreadful pandemic

What if we didn’t view the pandemic as a break in how things were being done; as a line marking ‘before’ and ‘after’?

What if we see it as an accelerator of trends that were already underway instead?

In December 2019, property specialists Cushman & Wakefield asked: ‘Should we leave the traditional central business district behind?” in their Outlook 2020 report.

The CBD (central business district) as it’s known in property circles, is the area that exists in most UK cities where you’ll find the big offices and where land values and rentals are highest.

Workers make their way every day to these commercial centres and other smaller businesses (sandwich shops, dry cleaners, pubs) set up around them to serve those hard-working commuters.

Energy efficiency and wellbeing trends were already well underway before COVID-19 turned the world upside down

Karen Fletcher Karen Fletcher Content Director of Rocket Content

A changing landscape

But even at the end of 2019, the landscape was changing.

The CBD became less of a des-res for blue-chip corporates. They were migrating further afield to other parts of the city. Partly, this was due to high rents. But the other big driver was a new generation of employees.

Generation Z isn’t as tied to city centre offices as previous age-groups. They’re much more about work-life balance, so struggling to an office in a central location is just a drain on their time. And if you can’t attract the workforce, there’s not much point in putting an office there.

That’s not to say that cities are out of the picture altogether. Before anyone had heard of coronavirus, the idea of a ‘polycentric’ property strategy was already being talked about.

This could be in the form of a smaller central office for meetings with local hubs where employees gather more regularly (when not working from home).

Don’t forget wellbeing

Cushman & Wakefield refers to these as ‘office clusters’, saying: “Workers will increasingly travel into the CBD for activities that require social interaction, teamworking and face-to-face meetings; while potentially working locally in serviced office space, at home or remotely for independent tasks.”

One of the key points about the modern office that Cushman & Wakefield pointed to is that it’s a draw for employees. 

In a competitive market, an office that supports, “comfort, wellbeing and quality of life is the advantage in the competition for talent.”

We know that trends such as energy efficiency and wellbeing were already well underway before COVID-19 turned the world upside down.

The BCO’s (British Council for Offices) specification guide 2019 included a wellbeing element; and accreditations such as WELL and FitWel were already increasingly popular with developers.

Decentralisation hots up

It’s hard to see a terrible pandemic that shuts down the world for more than half of 2020 as anything but a full-stop.

However, as we emerge and start to move forward again, we are seeing these same trends spotted in 2019 continuing – and accelerating.

Developers who have an eye to the future of the office are already making decisions about the design and function of the spaces their clients want.

The move towards decentralised and flexible spaces that can help to attract and keep the best employees is hotting up.

For example, in August 2020, developer Derwent London announced that it sees the future of offices as ‘long-life, loose-fit’ adaptable design. The company has also made a commitment to offering low-carbon office space. This is a developer that understands the modern business and its workforce – they were Google’s first London landlord.

Pushing boundaries

And in the non-speculative office space, clients are pushing the boundaries of what they want from their office space.

US pharmaceuticals developer Merck (MSD) is putting up a 10-storey office in Kings Cross, London. The new £1 billion MSD Discovery Hub as it will be known will have a biophilic façade, be low carbon; and achieve a BREEAM Outstanding.

Building services are always the invisible factor in these buildings – rarely seen by the client. But we know that they are crucial to delivering comfort and wellbeing, as well as energy efficiency and low-carbon operation.

The challenge is how that will work in flexible office space that in the future might host a series of meetings in small rooms in one month, and then become a conference area in the next.

Meeting client expectations is what the sector wants to do, but some education of clients will be needed to make those expectations realistic.

Karen Fletcher, Content Director of Rocket Content