City Centre Offices

City Centre Offices

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Whilst there’s been a huge amount of discussion around the rise of online shopping and the decline of bricks and mortar retail outlets, it’s also worth noting another significant socioeconomic trend that’s been accelerated by the pandemic. Home working looks like it’s here to stay and has not only transformed people’s lives but also the environment around us.

Back in April 2020, according to the Office For National Statistics, 46.6% of people in employment carried out some work at home. Whilst this number has reduced somewhat from its peak, three-quarters of British businesses say they will keep increased homeworking in place, after the coronavirus has been supressed.

Some organisations have gone even further including Twitter – which announced last year that it would allow employees to work from home forever. More recently, the boss of Unilever said his office workers will never return to their desks, five days a week.

For many, the benefits of home working are clear. It cuts out the commute, enabling people to be at their desk within minutes; it costs less; it gives people more flexibility with their home life; and it’s certainly more eco-friendly.

There are, however, certain disadvantages. These include the tendency to become more easily distracted by children or pets; workers can become isolated; it can be harder to switch-off; and it’s easy to stagnate. Unilever was also quick to highlight this, referring to the “slow erosion of social capital” as colleagues are prevented from meeting in person. Many business leaders have also voiced concerns about lack of innovation and the impact on training younger staff when workers do not congregate.

Last Summer, Morgan Stanley predicted 30% of US workers would work from home after the pandemic – double pre-Covid estimates. If this happens and is replicated across advanced economies, it will have a dramatic impact on the urban environment and the economy as a whole.

Metropolitan areas in the UK account for around 60% of national GDP, with the City of London alone generating almost 10%. Those figures are worrying when you consider that the number of people visiting cafés, restaurants and retailers in the first week of October in the City was less than one-third that of pre-pandemic levels.

It’s not all bad news though. Suburbs are the big winners and appear to be benefiting from people’s desire to meet and shop closer to home. A Centre for London report showed that, while card transactions in central London shops have dropped 60% since January 2020, spending had shifted to smaller town centres. East Ham, home to a famous east London market, saw grocery spending increase 16% throughout the pandemic.

My own experience throughout the pandemic is that, whilst Manchester city centre appeared deserted, Hale village seemed absolutely rammed. As soon as lockdown restrictions were eased, the cafés were bustling, and significantly more people than usual could be seen wandering down the high street. This has, for now, been interrupted due to the current lockdown. However, my suspicion is that the crowds will start to appear once again just as soon as the cafés reopen.

The same experience has been reported in nearby Altrincham and similarly in many of Greater Manchester’s suburban town centres.

This boon for local retail outlets was particularly evident when (shortly before the current lockdown) I took a walk across some nearby fields. To my surprise, in the middle of a small wood, on the edge of a ploughed field, a solitary cabin had set itself up selling teas, coffees and hot chocolate. What was even more astonishing, was the queue of at least sixty people snaking through the trees. This was striking not only because of its remoteness but also due to that fact that there’s certainly no shortage of cafés in the local area.

I can only assume that the sheer volume of home workers together with their families are directing their purchasing power to more local retail facilities. Moreover, it appears they’re also receptive to fresh, innovative offerings and are prepared to spend on anything that affords them a treat in these gloomy times.

Either way, it’s clear that change is happening. Like the significant move to shopping online, more of us are going to be working from home – and that may well be for good.