Can you hear it? The loud clattering of wooden wheels accelerating downhill? That is the sound of the handcart we are all going to hell in, that is.
Thanks to the government’s extraordinary U-turn on its ‘back to work’ plan (now we know why it never evolved into the anticipated campaign), any hopes of a swift recovery for the office sector are in tatters – and with them any hopes of a swift recovery for the economy.
It wouldn’t be such a blow if office occupiers and owners hadn’t wasted so much money, time and energy ensuring their offices were safe to return to – having been urged to do so by government – and we hadn’t all geared ourselves up psychologically for the great return.
Why be so vocal in encouraging people to return to the office if you had any inkling that working from home might have to continue? (Actually, don’t answer that. Clearly, you would have to have an inkling about what you are doing, which the government does not.)
How can people be expected to work from home for another six months? Six months from now, will all that expensive Covid-secure kit even be necessary? And what’s this about people being allowed to go into the office if “it is important to their mental health and wellbeing”? Count us all in then!
It is a total shambles and it is no surprise that the industry has come out in force to express its dismay over the latest draconian measures, which seem totally disproportionate to the level of threat we face from the so-called second wave of Covid-19. Helical’s Gerald Kaye sums it up perfectly when he describes the U-turn as “deeply disappointing”.
Of course, offices are not the only big losers. The hospitality sector is furious with the “illogical” 10pm curfew that has been imposed just as operators were finally starting to recover from lockdown.
But it is the fresh threat posed to the future of the office that has rocked the industry, chiefly because it was so unexpected.
The question now is: is there any wiggle room? Tellingly, the latest guidance is “strongly advisory” rather than “mandatory”. This is not a lockdown – and the agencies we spoke to for our cover story say they intend to keep their offices open. There is a good reason for that. As Prestbury Investment’s Nick Leslau pithily puts it: “Running our world via Zoom has been like throwing a drowning person a rubber ring. It will certainly keep them afloat in an emergency, but they won’t be going anywhere fast in it.”
It is time to ditch the rubber ring and jump into a speed boat. If the industry is to save the office, it must lobby the government for more clarity. The guidance we have been given this week is not nuanced; it is ambiguous and confusing. The industry must also keep driving home to politicians the grave economic consequences of not returning to the office, and in the absence of direction from government, it must lead from the front.
Many property businesses have ensured the safe return to the office of their employees and they can advise government and occupiers on how they can return to the office safely, too.
The future of the office is in the industry’s hands. Having spent the past six months trying to drag ourselves away from the edge of the economic abyss, let’s not now take a running jump headlong into it.