Commercial property consultant Chris Renshaw tells LBN he believes there is an appetite for a return to office life after COVID-19 – but that people remain cautious. Tony McDonough reports
“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” said writer Mark Twain and that sentiment is now being echoed in the commercial property market as the country gets ready to open back up.
Rewind to summer 2020 and the end of the city centre office was being confidently predicted by many observers. But while working from home has its advantages, the downsides have have been underplayed, until recently.
Humans are social animals. Most of us need some form of regular contact with people in the wider world. Working in your pyjamas with the radio on in the background may, at first, seem like a very attractive option but many people have reported feeling a sense of isolation.
Therapist and life coach Karl Rollison said: “Video conferencing tools such as Zoom have been great, but there is no substitute for casual encounters in the hallway or by the coffee maker from a psychological perspective
“Working from home can make it hard to build a culture and employees tend to feel more productive when they feel a sense of purpose and belonging which fosters a culture of pride.”
Based in Liverpool, consultancy The Momentum Group offers property management, facilities management and retail delivery services to its clients in both the retail and office property sectors.
Chris Renshaw, co-founder and director at The Momentum Group says many people who are working from home are now feeling “Zoomed out”. He explained: “We’ve been talking to clients and in short, reports about the death of the office are a little premature, particularly across the Liverpool city region, where the office is seen as a place to build relationships as well as to get work done.”
He acknowledges that, as the society starts to open up again after the COVID-19 pandemic, there will still be big challenges for landlords. He added: “We don’t think there will be a big recovery in the office market in 2021 because many people are still nervous and unsure about how it will work.
“But while there has been talk of occupiers needing less office space if more people continue to work from home, there is also a scenario where organisations may need more space to accommodate more social distancing.
“At Momentum we moved into a new office in Liverpool just before Christmas because we felt the previous office was too small to accommodate the ‘new normal’. Although the return may initially be slow we do think there will be an appetite for people to come back to the office.”
Prior to the pandemic, office landlords had already started to talk the language of wellbeing. Of creating healthy, collaborative spaces where innovation could thrive. COVID-19 is offering a real test of those claims. Landlords will now have to deliver on those boasts.
Some are putting their money where their mouth is. Currently rising from the ground in Liverpool’s Knowledge Quarter is ‘The Spine’, a £35m 160,000 sq ft office building, with 70,000 sq ft due to be occupied by the northern headquarters of the Royal College of Physicians.
It his claimed The Spine will be “one of the healthiest workspaces for mental and physical wellbeing in the UK”. It will include a timber curtain wall designed to reconnect people with nature and a ceramic frit façade, complete with 23m unique polygons that mimic human skin and react to the local environment to control noise and glare.
It will also boast an internal sky garden, complete with high-oxygen producing plants, a fine dining restaurant available for private hire, a large bicycle and shower facility and under croft parking.
Following the publication of UK Government’s road map for getting back to work which could see us back to ‘normal’ by June 21, Chris believes the modern office will be more important than ever and has a vital role to play post lockdown.
One of Momentum’s clients is the Appreciate Group. The company was formerly known as Park Group. It was founded by one-time Everton and Tranmere Rovers FC owner Peter Johnson. Based for many years in Birkenhead it focused on Christmas savings and hampers.
In the past couple of years it has undergone a transformation. It has dropped the hampers and is now a more diversified corporate rewards and financial services business. In 2018 it relocated the bulk of its staff to 20 Chapel Street in Liverpool’s commercial district.
Momentum Group works closely with Gill Taylor, chief transformation officer of the Appreciate Group which says it is committed to “creating moments of joy for customers, partners and colleagues as part of its company purpose”.
Said Gill: “Face to face working is great for strengthening relationships and building rapport. We worked with The Momentum Group to create a new office environment in Chapel Street, Liverpool, creating an open design where colleagues can feel connected to each other.
“We were delighted to win the “Best working environment and workplace Design” at the 2020 Business Culture Awards showcasing the efforts we made in ensuring the best workplace for our colleagues and one we know they will want to come back to post lockdown”
Both The Appreciate Group and The Momentum Group encourage staff to communicate and collaborate with others outside their immediate job functions which they say have helped drive collaborative working that can be more challenging when people work remotely.
Momentum also shares the same philosophy about a physical space. Its new office offers break-out places, informal meeting areas and catering facilities where clients and colleagues can interact and enjoy social time. To reassure everyone the office has also been future proofed providing 2m social distancing markers on the custom-made carpet.
“We don’t have a crystal ball and we can’t say for definite what will happen in the office market in the coming months,” said Chris. “But we do believe there will be deals to be done. It is all about how confident both occupiers and their staff feel about returning to work.
“And we do believe there is an appetite for people to return to the office. Home working will still definitely be a bigger part of the mix than it was before the pandemic. I think what we will see is a trend towards a more hybrid blend.”