Moments after Boris Johnson announced the end of Plan B Covid-19 restrictions the order went out to civil servants to lead by example – and head back to the office.
The edict will have reflected a desire to get people back into the capital and breathe new life into the economy, not least the hospitality sector.
But it also highlights the growing debate about what the future of work will look like in the post-Covid world.
The pandemic saw a “great experiment” as the nation stopped commuting and instead travelled a far shorter distance to work in the study, the garage or at the kitchen table.
Now as we begin 2022, people wonder whether the “rush hour” will ever return?
Lloyd’s of London stoked the debate about the future workplace just last week by revealing it was exploring a move out of the iconic Richard Rogers-designed building that bears its name.
Such a review is prudent and expected because the pandemic has created opportunities to question what works get done, by whom and where.
And clearly, hybrid or flexible working is here to stay. Many organisations we speak to are looking to continue flexibility for where and when people work. Over 80 per cent expect to allow employees to work remotely, at least part of the time – spending on average two days working outside the office in a week.
But landlords in the City shouldn’t call time and seek to drown their sorrows just yet.
Our research – and experience from helping clients around the world – shows us that the office remains central to “work” in the hybrid or flexible model.
Office take up in central London bounced back in 2021, with Q4 volumes up 251 per cent on the depths of 2020 and approaching pre-pandemic levels.
And organisations who drew up plans to radically downsize their real estate at the height of the pandemic are having second thoughts.
While it may not feel like it right now, all the signs are that the City of London will bounce back and thrive.
Firstly, employees want to return to the workplace.
Many have been on a journey during the pandemic. At the start of lockdown, workers embraced the change, and the cost-savings, associated with being at home. But the “WfH” novelty wore off.
Already last year, there were reports of ‘virtual’ fatigue, mental burn out, and a blurring of boundaries between work and home life.
In Spring 2020, some 48 per cent of workers felt more productive at home. Last Spring it was 37 per cent.
Secondly, research data has shown throughout the pandemic that employees prefer the office for a range of crucial work activities; collaboration, problem solving, networking or simply to socialise with colleagues.
They want to be mentored and supported by management.
Many employees do expect to be able to pick and choose when they travel in – at least to a degree. And it’s clear they expect organisations to offer more services – especially around wellness and fitness – when they get there.
Big Tech is once more showing the way. Google’s Kings Cross HQ will come with a 25-metre swimming pool, indoor basketball courts and massage rooms.
Perhaps more indicative is Google’s decision two weeks ago to spend £730m to buy the 15 storey Central Saint Giles development in central London. This is a fantastic endorsement of London’s future as a hub for talent, and also of the centrality of the office for innovation and growth.
In short, expect intensive experimentation by organisations in 2022 as they trial various hybrid models to engage and support staff– while enticing them back to the office.
But come back they will.