Are we now moving to a way of working where the office is a personal choice rather than a professional obligation?
This month Shrewsbury County Council announced they would halt the redevelopment of their main HQ site. The plan had been to:
Then COVID 19 happened.
They are now asking councillors to approve “that plans to refurbish the council’s Shire Hall headquarters for £24.1 million are stopped, and that detailed work is instead carried out into options for a new, smaller civic centre in the town”.
It has already reviewed the impact on council staff, “with more than 95 per cent of staff working from home, and more than 90 per cent indicating a willingness to continue doing so in the future”. Are we now moving to a way of working where the office is a personal choice, not a professional obligation?
The benefits being cited are the support for regeneration of the town centre, and, the reduction in running cost for the current 20,500m2 office space of over £1.3m.
There are clear financial benefits for a council to re-assess their plans. EventMAP has been contacted by other councils to support the scenario planning of new options for space use, and the wider opportunities this could bring. However, we have an obligation to point out to clients that there are wider implications to this. Suggested change of working, and some practical and more strategic long-term thinking will be needed.
The upsides are clear. Less property cost, less running costs, and less ongoing long-term maintenance of buildings also open-up a review of where, and how, the council delivers services.
However, what about the presence of the council buildings, which historically are near the centre of town? Will office removal reduce the footfall for retail in the town centre, and accelerate its decline in a recession predicted economic climate? How does this support the ‘place making’ objectives of the council?
Our experience tells us that savings can be overstated to obtain the political buy-in. Once the supporting IT, process and customer satisfaction measures needed for success are implemented, the savings, at least initially, are reduced.
The assumption is that because employees like it now, it should go on. However, working even for a few months at home, and the longer-term option of ‘forever’, might well elicit a different response in a few months’ time. Employees have been dealing with lockdown. Some are dealing with a whole host of other considerations, with a backdrop of closed schools and nurseries, and now the potential for part time opening up, but with reduced class sizes or rota-based attendance for children. Not to mention caring responsibilities for elderly parents, aunts and uncles.
There is a ‘right to request’ HR process for flexible working already established in law. We would certainly suggest a formal ‘sign on’ is needed from employees, before a property strategy is committed to. The council should also expect a longer-term percentage of those people requesting a return to the office, as their circumstances change.
Solutions that worked as a temporary fix with COVID, like the issue of laptops, mobile phones, and real use of shared online or cloud-based drives, may need revision and enhancement. Wider IT considerations on scanning and workflow, online environments for socialisation of teams, and a revision, or introduction of training for managers in how to manage a virtual team may be needed to sustain performance gains.
Gains in reducing the carbon footprint of fixed property assets are easier to measure than the impact on travel of employees, or the impact on less footfall using public transport to get to work. We have experience in rural areas of the local bus service into the town centre being kept alive purely on the number of council employees using the service to get to work, and so inadvertently subsidising the whole service used by the wider community. Once the council in town goes, the community loses the bus service. Then, for those able, the car is used to make the journey, or a taxi, which increases the impact on the environment.
These are just a few of the wider implications to be considered when making what seems to be a straightforward property decision.
At EventMAP, we have supported organisations with scenario planning for the ‘new normal’. This includes redesigning office locations, and, supporting the introduction of homeworking and flexible working into their working lives.
To quote Warren Buffet “It's only when the tide goes out that you discover who's been swimming naked.” This is as true for property and organisational strategy as it is for investing in the stock market.
Before you make any formal decisions, please feel free to contact us for a discussion based on our experience in this area, we would be happy to help.