Offices: The new working week - Boodle Hatfield

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18 Jan 2023

Offices: The new working week

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Katherine Worrall View profile
4 min read

A study published this month by Placemake.io and Visitor Insights, and picked up by the BBC, has confirmed the experience of many of us: that the new working week now typically comprises two days WFH and three days in the office, with Tuesday to Thursday the established preference for "in the office" days.

This 2:3 ratio aligns with the experience of many office workers in 2021 and 2022 when the vast majority of professional services firms, by way of easy example, adopted a post-COVID 2:3 strategy. As noted in an article I published last year, this weekday split provides a compromise between allowing workers the freedom to spend some time at home (avoiding the commute, doing the washing and being in for the plumber/ electrician/ delivery driver), and retaining a feeling of the core ethos of the relevant firm (ensuring co-workers see each other in person on at least one cross-over day a week, facilitating collaborative working and enabling easy access for quick questions that might not warrant an email or phone call).

The question of what this means long-term for offices, if indeed the 2:3 ratio is here to stay, remains hard to anticipate.

There can be no real argument against saying that the office market is going through a tricky period. The BBC article quotes CBRE Investment Management as saying that empty office space in London has "more than doubled in the last three years", and this firm carried out some research last year which showed that 1.8 million m2 of office space (equivalent to 248 football pitches) had been taken out of use in the UK up to y/e March 2022. That being said, Savills published some interesting research in mid 2022 on European office occupancy generally which noted that, whilst "businesses remain[ed] in a period of transition in their return to offices following the pandemic", office occupancy was (at June 2022) recovering post-COVID.

It is the fact that we remain in a period of flux, nearly three years down the line from the start of COVID, that makes it so hard for building owners and employers to know how best to deal and the market hard to predict. A 2:3 ratio by default requires cross-over of personnel on at least one day a week and so the argument that firms will retain office space, but all move to smaller office footprints, stumbles at an early hurdle as they may not then be able to physically fit all of their workers into that smaller space on at least one day a week. Not something that will boost morale or productivity amongst workers, or be considered good management by employers. That being said, clearly office occupancy has not returned to pre-COVID levels, and the experience of some people who are back in the office a set number of days a week is that it can feel very quiet on days when they do decide to go into the office but find that the majority of their co-workers have chosen to WFH. That, in and of itself, can be disheartening for workers and frustrating for those employers who view it as wasting money on unutilised space.

Sophie Henwood and I wrote an article in 2021 about the possible future of office space and the feeling then was that it might take 10 years for the new role of offices to cement. That comment holds true two years on. Then, as now, the key for building owners and employers (as employers, rather than occupiers) seems to be to offer very good quality space in order to encourage people in and ensure they feel good when they get there. For employers (as occupiers), the current over-supply of office space should means they have far more choice and, in practical terms, negotiation scope than they did pre-COVID which they should make sure they use to their advantage until the market stabilises.

The question of how and when the market stabilises, and what balance is struck long term, is what is going to be particularly interesting to see. The Times has today published an article noting that the number of fully remote jobs advertised in the UK has fallen for the eighth month in a row, perhaps a sign of things to come.

A typical week in the office now runs from Tuesday to Thursday, a study of mobile phone activity suggests. Analysts Placemake.io and Visitor Insights examined anonymised phone data from more than 500 UK high streets from 2019 to 2022. The study found increased activity in many suburban and small towns, which it linked to the trend for working from home.

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