Space, the final frontier?
What does a move to hybrid working mean for all of that unused office space?
Its a bit strange - this going back to work thing. Who will be in the office? Will it be empty or buzzing like before? Will my favourite coffee shop still be there, or will it have gone bust during the pandemic?
Work is no longer just somewhere you go
Covid has changed so much. Especially at work. For many of us it’s been a real surprise how we have adapted to working at home. If we had asked a London stock exchange trader if they could work efficiently from home in December 2019, we would no doubt have received short shrift: an impossibility; the culture, the need for physical presence to operate, the technology, the security just not there. But Covid meant we all just had to get on with it.
But what happens now? A YouGov survey shows that most British workers (57%) want to be able to continue to work at least some of the time, from home after the pandemic. The question is not perhaps, how we get people back into the office, but how do business leaders come to terms with the new reality that half their office space could now be redundant; that there is a unique opportunity to capitalise on providing their workforce with the flexibility they increasingly demand whilst cutting costs by divesting newly superfluous office space.
What to do with all the spare office space?
The challenge then becomes what to do with the surplus? An area of real innovation could be converting some of the spare office space in cities to residential use. Combining commercial and residential use in the same buildings provides a flexible solution. The relaxation of planning rules that came into force in 2013 supports the concept. With a little vision and investment, unneeded office space could easily be converted into luxury penthouses, affordable homes, student lets or even hotels. With large windows and great locations, they could appeal to a huge demographic.
The repurposing of empty space would support more than just the creation of much needed extra homes, it has the potential to rekindle a sense of community in our increasingly abandoned city centres, in turn creating demand for leisure, retail, and hospitality resources. As we explore the work life shift and changes in behaviour the global pandemic has engendered, it feels like the Covid 19 crisis could surprise us in another way – with 57% of us wanting to work from home, with the knock-on effect that around 50% of business premises are no longer needed, it could help solve the housing problem – an innovation that should be whole-heartedly embraced.
And I just hope that when I do go to the office there the streets will be buzzing and my favourite coffee shop will be doing a roaring trade.