During lockdown, we endlessly debated how the pandemic would affect office working, but were we on the right track?

Susan Freeman

Susan Freeman

In October 2020, I moderated a lively panel for our Mishcon Academy with The Office Group’s Charlie Green, Cushman & Wakefield’s Richard Howard, Ronen Journo of Hines (formerly at WeWork) and Derwent London’s Emily Prideaux.

They predicted that as technology now enabled us to work anywhere, the five-day-a-week commute was a thing of the past. Journo said the huge volume of data collected by employers globally showed an overwhelming consensus that employees wanted flexibility and a choice of when to travel to the office. The panel concluded that to entice people back, offices had to be high quality, amenity rich and a place that facilitated collaboration.

Prideaux anticipated “a different type of contract between employer and employee” with more emphasis on purpose, the value of being in the office and the experience. “That comes into our role as providers, of working with those businesses to help that dialogue,” she said.

So how is that dialogue going and how are we choosing to work? The latest Remit Consulting figures show UK office occupancy stabilised at around 25% capacity, rising to just under 33% midweek. In London, the average occupancy rate recently hit 29.3%. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday remain the busiest days.

Employers continue to feel their way towards ‘the new normal’. A new Apple policy (not yet implemented, amid Covid concerns) requiring staff to be in the office three days a week led to an angry employee petition. Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon, who famously called remote working “an aberration”, in a recent CNBC interview said his campaign to get more employees back to the office was “still a work in progress”. US bank Jefferies has called on senior dealmakers to return to the office “enthusiastically and with purpose” to mentor “abandoned” juniors.

CEOs calling for a return to the office say being together encourages connectedness. This isn’t necessarily true. In a recent Accenture report, 42% of employees who were on site said they felt ‘not connected’ – almost double the figure for remote workers. While in-person time is critical, it clearly requires leadership support, flexibility, a sense of purpose and the right technology.

Elliot Gold, co-founder of flex operator Work.Life, says the office’s role will be to provide the very best technology available. It is constantly innovating with a big shift to accommodate growing demand for the ‘Zoom booth’. Technology was the focus of Philip Ross of Worktech’s recent talk to our ULI Europe Tech Council. He said predictive analytics were key to redesigning the office around purpose and expected to see more sector-specific co-working such as the Ministry of Sound co-working club for music and media industries.

Journo said what had most surprised him since our 2020 panel was “the universal acceptance that pre-Covid practices didn’t work, metrics were not met and people were not happy nor engaged”. As we explore a new age of hybrid working, I concur with his assessment that, for those able to embrace change and innovation, now is “a fantastic era of transition to be a practitioner in this industry”.

Susan Freeman is a partner at Mishcon de Reya