Back in June, the ONS reported that 37% of operational businesses at the time expected their workforces to have returned to normal working environments by the end of August 2021.

Ryan Unsworth, OPUS North

Ryan Unsworth, development director at OPUS North

After more than a year of varying lockdown restrictions and widespread disruption to office working, these early predictions now seem slightly over-optimistic. There’s also reason to believe that most existing office space is simply no longer suited to the ‘new normal’ of businesses’ needs.

Over the past 18 months, businesses of all shapes and sizes have seized the opportunity to reassess their priorities and consider how they want to operate in future – including how they choose to present themselves to internal and incoming staff, stakeholders and the wider world.

In Leeds, where some of the country’s most progressive brands and businesses are seeking modern workspace, we’re seeing a clear shift in occupier demands that isn’t currently being met by supply.

Thanks partly to the widespread conversion of offices to residential use via Permitted Development rights, some sources gauge regional supply down as much as 35% on 2009 levels - a downward trend that will make premium sites even harder to come by in the return to office working.

12 King Street, Opus North’s ongoing office redevelopment in partnership with Fiera Real Estate in Leeds city centre, will bring much-needed high-spec office accommodation to Leeds, proving investor confidence in the city’s burgeoning office market.

The project has been funded by the Fiera Real Estate Opportunity Fund V, a programmatic venture with CBRE Global Investment Partners to create best-in-class, sustainable buildings in markets with strong fundamentals like Leeds, which is increasingly prioritised by modern businesses.

Hygiene

More than ever, employers have a duty to ensure their people feel safe to reintegrate after such a long period of home working and that their office environment will protect against future risks.

In the same ONS study from June, businesses and individuals cited safety measures including “enhanced cleaning procedures” and “social distancing” as a top priority when returning to traditional workplaces.

After a period of such heightened sensitivity and awareness of contamination, maintaining hygiene standards in office environments will be a key priority for businesses as they plan for a safer future.

Employers and building owners will need to prove that improved hygiene specification, contact tracing and physical distancing measures are an ongoing priority, to ensure employees continue to feel comfortable in their places of work.

Smart-enabled buildings like 12 King Street in Leeds city centre have integrated modern tech including Internet of Things (IoT) sensors throughout, enabling different monitoring systems to work together and make targeted interventions through the Building Management System.

Features like touchless access control; auto-detection lighting, heating, cooling and ventilation, as well as smart visitor management for time-sensitive building access are innovations that we expect to see more and more in the next generation of Grade A offices.

Environmental impact

Another key area of focus for modern, values-driven businesses is minimising the environmental impact of their operations.

With COP26 looming on the horizon, the national appetite for improved energy efficiency and reducing waste has never been more apparent, while property investors across the country are determined to deliver on this key, primary pillar of their ESG objectives.

Comparing the carbon footprint of remote versus office working is complex, but employers can exercise much better control and monitoring of their environmental impact with the majority of staff and operations under one well-designed roof.

Our complete remodelling of 12 King Street is due to complete just after COP26 concludes this winter. The fully renovated building will naturally achieve BREEAM excellent rating and the highest EPC energy efficiency ratings, but it’s also designed to support sustainable lifestyles.

With 72 dedicated cycle bays and multiple charging ports for electric vehicles, the building itself is enabling employees to play their part in reducing carbon footprints across the site.

Wellbeing

Returning to the office will affect everyone differently and employers will be mindful of their responsibility to support team members accordingly.

Mental health awareness and support have been key priorities for businesses throughout the challenges of the past 18 months, but the reintegration into new working models will no doubt cause new issues, at least in the short term.

At Opus North, we feel that a modern and truly future-proof office environment should give people room to breath, relax and reflect – encouraging better shared professional experiences and improved wellbeing.

In partnership with Fiera Real Estate, we have put wellbeing at the heart of our designs at 12 King Street, maximising natural light throughout the building and providing a truly unique space to escape the confines of the office.

Our Sky Lounge and private Roof Garden on the seventh floor will be a space for all future occupiers to meet, relax and entertain themselves, against a 360-degree panoramic backdrop of Leeds’ vibrant city centre.

We’re proud that 12 King Street looks set to be the first truly ‘future-proof’ office environment to complete in the North this year. The challenge for developers and investors will be to continue delivering buildings tailored to the changing needs of modern business, to ensure everyone finds a home they can be proud of.

Ryan Unsworth is development director at Opus North