Opinion Piece by Michael Walters

The changing face of office space

A global pandemic, a UK national lockdown and a seismic shift to daily lives and what people considered normal, be it where and how we work, how we shop, where we live, how we travel and how we best support our day to day living in a truly safe and sustainable way, has resulted in many reflecting and re-evaluating what is important to them, their lifestyle and what a post Covid-19 world may look like.

With an imposed lockdown and many now entering their sixth month of predominantly working from home, both home and work environments have been placed under the microscope and it’s hard to see a full return to the life as we knew it when we entered 2020 and the start of the new decade.

I have been following the debate and the contributions made by a number of people directly involved in the shaping of our cities and urban environment. Pat Hayes, Managing Director of Be First, LB Barking & Dagenham’s development and regeneration company, posted recently that “the days of the status symbol city centre office with is an exhausting unhealthy commute must surely be numbered with businesses basing themselves around a number of cheaper more flexible spaces at suburban transport nodes where staff drop in but don’t spend all day” and sees the opportunity to revitalise suburban centres with greater retail footfall and development of smaller easier to commute to offices linked to home working. Debbie Jackson, Executive Director, Growth, Planning and Housing at Westminster City Council rightly, in my opinion, highlighted that” …. city centres play host to countless SMEs and independents struggling to survive as well as creative and cultural sectors that rely on the concentration and mix of residents, visitors and workers. Employees radiate from city centre locations so shifting motherships will be challenging…”

The most common consensus, is that everyone in the office and service-based economy will want more flexibility and the dilution of a daily commute, the nine-to-five fixed office working for five days a week will be a change for the better, resulting in a healthier lifestyle and a more sustainable environment. The flexible working environment concept has been with us for a long time and technology has developed in that time. The current shock to the system is the catalyst to embrace the change which for current millennials is not so much of a change anyway.

For some, the lockdown has imposed changes previously considered unthinkable. As well as the appeal for more flexibility on where and how we work, there is greater emphasis on wellbeing, and for the importance of community – be that with friends, family or neighbours.

Lockdown has also given people a greater appreciation for their space both indoors and outdoors and the desire for more natural light and ventilation.  Many people living in the heart of our cities and large suburban centres will question if this is still the right place to live and call home to.

One of the appeals of city living was to have your home surrounded by all kinds of establishments be that bars, restaurants, shops, gyms on your door-step enabling you to craft the lifestyle you want. When you lock these all down, you effectively remove the heat beat. But this won’t be forever and how the current central business districts, in cities and large suburban areas with expanses of office and retail accommodation adapts and finds new uses will be a challenge but is also opportunity.

A rich diverse environment with more cultural, educational, creative and research bases and a stronger “local” economy to supplement the continued development of urban living should be the goal.  

With this renewed focus on wellbeing and the importance of community, a shift to more flexible working and the evolution of our urban centres, how design codes, density and space standards are developed will be challenged by the economic models on which current land value, development cost and sales returns are based. This is where our political leaders must be brave enough to challenge the status quo and where Planners, Architects and Urban Designers need to use their skill and creativity to produce economically viable environments that meet the changing needs.

Michael Walters is a Director of  Corstorphine + Wright Architects

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