Local offices ‘could let staff walk to work in 15 minutes after Covid’

Many offices in the future will be around the corner from workers’ homes or just down the street, as the country comes out of pandemic working, one of the UK’s top property bosses has said.

Many offices in the future will be around the corner from workers' homes or just down the street, as the country comes out of pandemic working, one of the UK's top property bosses has said. The shift could allow people in the UK to live in so-called 15-minute towns, where most amenities, and work, are within a quarter-hour commute by foot, bike or public transport of residents' front doors. Picture: Aaron Chown/PA Wire

The shift could allow people in the UK to live in so-called 15-minute towns, where most amenities, and work, are within a quarter-hour commute by foot, bike or public transport of residents’ front doors.

It could also take some pressure off public services and the environment.

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Mark Dixon, chief executive of IWG Group - which rents out offices in dozens of countries - has a simple reason why office life is unlikely to return to its pre-Covid status quo: “Because it’s what people want, and because it’s what companies want.”

“It’s one of those rare things in business that works for both sides,” he said, pointing to lower commuting costs and time, and lower rent for offices, among several other reasons.

Ever since large parts of the country were forced to work from their living rooms, spare rooms and even bedrooms during the pandemic, the debate over the future of the office space has heated up.

However, the chief executive said that Covid was merely a “forced experiment” which sped up trends that were already happening.

“If you would have asked me a year ago I would have said exactly what I’m saying now, that office space - not all of it, but a large proportion - will be close to where people live,” he said, predicting a building boom in local councils across the UK.

In 2017 he told CNBC that if staff “can work at an office near to where they live or near to where they need to be, it’s totally transformational”.

But the pandemic gave people a taste of the potential future that modern technology offers.

“People realised, whilst they don’t like being [at home] all the time, they said, ‘Well, actually, you know, what, it’s quite good ... It ruins my life, spending an hour, two hours a day either stuck in traffic or on a railway train’,” he said.

It has led to a major surge in demand for suburban and rural office space, statistics from IWG show.

Demand in the suburbs rose by a third in the first quarter of 2021, rural office space was 20 per cent more popular, while demand in city centre areas dropped 11 per cent.

Last month Ipswich revealed plans to become what it said would be the UK’s first 15-minute town.

However, although it may not have been deliberate, many big cities across Europe have already come close to at least part of that target.

A recent survey by engineering company Arup found that in Madrid and Milan people only have to walk or cycle for 13.1 minutes to get to essential amenities such as shops and parks.

The two other surveyed cities, Berlin and Paris, were not far behind, at 16 and 15.5 minutes each.

But London stood out. People in the UK capital need to travel for an average of 23.5 minutes to reach these basic services, the survey found.

Recent research by property giant JLL into office market activity revealed that most businesses are planning to return to the office this year but over half - 58 per cent - plan to reduce their footprints over the next three years.

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James Mitchinson