The Future Looks …

HBD Director LEE TREANOR looks ahead at the trends in property in the North West and says 2021 holds a lot more promise than the dread year that preceded it.

What a year 2020 was. For many, it has already been filed away under “let us never speak of this again”. It was the year the UK entered the final stages of Brexit and a certain Donald J Trump really ramped up his efforts to become the most memorable US president of all time for all the wrong reasons. Oh, and we also had to deal with the worst global pandemic in living memory.

2020 also brought us some new words and phrases and dusted down some others we had not really had the need to use for a while. “Lockdown” frequently appeared in government announcements, as did “new normal”. And let’s not forget the one that sent a chill down many parents’ spines: “home schooling”.

I think one of my favourite quotes from 2020 was “we have seen five years of innovation in the space of nine months”. So, as we embark on a new year, hope buoyed by approved vaccines accompanied by an ambitious roll out programme, what will 2021 hold in store for the North west property scene?

Mcr aerial

So what will it take to win the hearts and minds of commercial property occupiers, who are now used to a commute that involves walking down the hall? The one point commentators all seem to agree on is that things will not return to the pre-pandemic norm. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Gone are the days rigid working hours at fixed locations, in sterile offices resembling dental waiting rooms.

Flexible working patterns and more hospitality-biased workspaces are not new concepts. They have been a direction of travel for some time, but the lockdown has super charged these ideas, creating a workforce with a strong case for accelerated change. At this point, it is worth pointing out that I am not ringing the death knell for commercial property, far from it. I think we are in a period of exciting and accelerated progression and with change comes opportunity. Property does not, however, have a strong track record for the quick implementation of innovation.

As the world becomes smaller through technological advances, workspaces that are able to interpret and adapt to the relentless progression of their customers’ needs will be the ones to stand out in a crowded marketplace. Below, I have picked out some of the headline items that I think will continue to shape and influence workspace in the coming months and years. I’ve placed a particular emphasis on the area I know best: the North West.

Home from home

For the last few years, the Technology Media & Telecom (TMT) sector and professional services have accounted for around 50% of Manchester city centre office take-up and this is a trend seen in many other regional cities. The “creative class” of occupier with its less traditional working patterns and practices has driven a move away from vanilla, soulless workspace to a more hospitality-biased ethos.

Vacuous and echoey entrance receptions have been replaced by more homely lounge and flexible workspaces, while third spaces, such as lobbies and roof spaces are now providing valuable amenity. Other sectors are following suit, seeing the visibility of the positive impact that inspiring workspaces can have on mental wellbeing and creativity and its transformation into productivity. It is still early days in terms of predicting the speed, frequency and density for the reoccupation of workspaces, but what is certain is a workforce that has spent the last nine months in homely and safe, socially-distanced surroundings will be expecting a continuation when they return to the workplace. If the most likely post-pandemic working practice is a hybrid of home and office based working, workspaces that blur the lines between the two will reap the rewards.

I feel good…

Another shift that the pandemic has accelerated is in health and wellbeing. Near the top of  priority lists of many organisations is the understanding that if you provide your people with workspaces that inspire and motivate them, it will pay dividends. For many, one of the initial benefits of lockdown was the loss of commuting time and an opportunity to address their work life balance. The retention of an element of flexible working should enable a balance to continue, but for many “zoomed out” workers the loss of real social interaction with colleagues is a growing issue and, when it’s safe to do so, will be a major driving factor in people returning to the workplace.

Whilst some observers have claimed this short-term, enforced experiment with mass home working has dispelled the question over productivity and therefore proved that it could be the future, it is becoming very apparent that for the majority people, the need for quality interaction and collaboration with colleagues and clients can’t be satisfied over a computer screen. Wellbeing can be improved in a number of ways, including the incorporation of biophilia into the design to bring nature indoors and providing a better environment by enhancing air and water quality. Alternatively, it could be the provision of a well-curated events schedule, delivering both physical and mental stimulation. In identifying and embracing these needs, workspaces that promote and provide their occupiers with the opportunity to enhance both their physical and mental wellbeing will have a key differentiating factor over their competitors.

Green and lean

We know that the built environment is responsible for about 40% of all emissions, both in the UK and globally. With the UK’s Net Zero Carbon (NZC) commitments continuing to crystallise and gain traction at both national and local level, this is an issue we can all play a part in tackling now. Large-scale initiatives, such as decarbonising the national grid, will go part way towards carbon reduction, but widescale private sector buy-in is required if targets are to be met. With 80% of existing buildings expected still to be in existence in 2050 when the UK has set a target to be NZC, there is a huge retrofit exercise to be undertaken to improve operational efficiency.

New buildings will also have to demonstrate a pathway to NZC, both in terms of embodied carbon produced in construction and operational carbon generated during its life cycle. This will obviously have impacts on the construction methods, materials, plant etc and will also have an impact on how buildings look and feel. Fundamental changes to thermal efficiency will see a shift away from extensively glazed facades, creating changes to both the external aesthetic but also the internal look and feel of space. But is the occupier ready to trade their daylight and views for environmental efficiency? Will a drive towards natural ventilation see a power shift away from those nearest the AC controls to those in possession of perimeter seats near opening windows?

Technology will play a huge part in this, as it does in so many areas of life. Some innovations will go on behind the scenes with little or no impact on the day-to-day experiences of occupiers. Some, however, will involve accepting change and will only be possible if the occupier is brought on the journey and made to feel part of the solution.

In my 20+ years in the property industry, I have witnessed numerous declarations that “the office is dead”. The reasons have been varied, but the conclusion has always incorrect. Each trigger has, however, signposted the need for a reaction and a pivoting of workspace to reposition itself and gain a renewed relevance. As the pace of life continues on an upward trajectory, it is more important than ever that the reaction and pivot keeps in step.

So to pick up where we started, the future looks brighter but to ensure workspace remains relevant, we need to follow the old retail adage: the customer is always right. We must also ensure we listen to what customers are saying and react accordingly.

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