Tuesday 23 March 2021 6:00 am

Hyper-local offices and central HQs could chart the path forward to save cities

John Spencer is CEO of Bizspace

Enforced home working and lockdown travel restrictions have, for many, led to a journey of local discovery. To name but a few, the surprise and delight of hidden parks and gardens discovered during our daily exercise ration and great independent food shops providing welcomed morning coffee hits and morale-boosting treats.

However, despite the lack of commute improving work/life balance, surveys continue to show a strong desire to return to the office, albeit in more flexible terms in light of newfound love of local.

Some firms are already responding with the creation of a more local flexible office network to meet the demands of employees and future talent. So, is the future of work going to be in the suburbs and satellite towns where most people live, becoming hyperlocal? And what does this mean for London and the UK’s cities?

At the start of the first lockdown many office workers greeted home working with glee. No more grinding and expensive commutes on over-crowded transport or trying to focus in noisy, open-plan offices.

But, it didn’t take long for cracks to appear. Researchers revealed growing home worker dissatisfaction with feelings of isolation, stress from not balancing home and work life and missing face-to-face meetings with colleagues reported. And so, it came as no surprise when a survey of over 2,000 workers, conducted by JLL, found three quarters wanted to return to the office.

The challenge of sole home working is particularly acute for younger workers, many of whom live in smaller homes and shared accommodation – with flatmates or family. And, for those at the start of their careers, the ability to network and directly learn from more experienced colleagues in the real world is essential. 

However, the benefits and viability of home working are not lost, and workers want a choice of where they work. A survey by Google last summer found 62 per cent of its employees wanted to return to the office, but not every day. As a result, the tech giant is developing a hybrid model of working and looking at longer-term home working and office arrangements.

The growing demand to work from anywhere is having a profound impact on business location. Talented staff are a business’ chief asset and competition for this limited resource is intense. This is leading many firms to reconsider the traditional workplace structure and increasingly transition to a hub and spoke model, bringing the office closer to where their workers live while retaining a central hub, albeit at reduced scale and lower cost. 

Given the financial sector’s past cultural reluctance to embrace flexible working, the likes of HSBC and Lloyds made quite the impact with their commitments to reduce their city-based presence and increase their network of more local, near-home workplaces across the country.  Other firms, such as Salesforce and Nestle, have followed suit.

Some have suggested a full departure from the central office is on the cards, leaving cities with an uncertain future. But there are many reasons why this is highly unlikely. Among them is the battle to attract young talent. London and other major cities have always acted as a magnet for ambitious young people. Just last week, The Global Talent Survey shows London remains the most attractive city to live and work in from respondents across some 190 countries. 

It is not just about the opportunities for career and educational success. It hasn’t been so long as to forget that, outside of lockdown, city living is fun. Pubs, clubs, fabulous restaurants and great cultural and sporting amenities will re-open and hold as much, if not more, of an attraction. Having a central office enables younger workers to rub shoulders and be trained by their more experienced colleagues, and then there are the networking opportunities created through office social life. Flexible local offices will complement the prestigious office hub and not replace them.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.