How to persuade staff in Leeds to return to office – Jessica Bowles

THE Government has tried a number of ways to encourage people back to the office – most recently pointing out the legitimate concern of the need to support younger workers as they enter the workforce.

What more can be done to encourage people to return to offices in cities like Leeds?

We have also seen a call to get off our at-home Peloton bikes... I’m a recent cycling convert, so as much as I would love to see people cycling into cities rather than cycle indoors, I think we’re still missing the point here.

While the Prime Minister may be right in encouraging people back to the office, he needs to remind us of the reasons we love interacting with our cities in the first place.

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Rather than pointing to a duty to return, we should be talking far more about the burgeoning potential in our cities and their many layers which enrich our lives.

Jessica Bowles is director of Strategic Partnerships and Impact at Bruntwood.

Bruntwood’s latest research project, which asked ‘what makes a thriving city?’ to over 1,200 people across the country, including Leeds, saw a wide variety of answers given.

Telling was the frequency that ‘business’ came up when people were asked the question. The frequency of this answer takes business from a ninth place ranking in 2019 to top of the leaderboard in 2021.

It is not unreasonable then to conclude that, more than ever, people recognise the importance of a healthy business community and its role in a city ecosystem. It is also fair to suggest that this fact was somewhat taken for granted by us all previously.

As businesses left our towns and cities overnight in March 2020, the unimaginable happened. While changing work patterns were slowly being introduced pre-Covid, the sudden emptying of our busy streets and offices took us all by surprise.

What more can be done to encourage people to return to offices in cities like Leeds?

But after a year spent without their normal city life, those we asked spoke of more than business alone… they talked about ‘culture’, ‘food’, ‘green spaces’, and ‘diversity’. The picture these words paint is a heart-warmingly rich tapestry that reflects the cities we love most.

Bringing people back in, however, goes beyond any one single factor and the PM should be tapping into this fact if he really wants to win hearts and minds.

People know why they love 
our cities and it goes beyond their office and colleagues. So rather than focus on the office setting alone, the Government should be celebrating the blending of work and leisure that we all value.

For the longer term, we also need to hear far greater detail when it comes to the levelling up agenda because any measure of success for this should include the level of vitality within our towns and cities in the future.

The innovation that the Government wants to boost in order to create more high value jobs in every corner of the UK will also have a greater chance of being unlocked by reigniting the spark in our towns and cities – given the importance of collaboration and people and businesses being densely clustered in driving innovation.

Innovation will create jobs 
and opportunities in our towns and cities, it isn’t just something that happens in labs and universities.

Focusing on developing an ecosystem with a rich mix of people, talent and ideas that can support innovation and increase productivity through high value jobs will reap greater rewards for a local economy, and the country as a whole.

This is where Leeds is so well placed with its flourishing digital, financial and creative sectors that can come together in new ways creating new businesses.

It would be a positive step to see the Government support – and join – the creative partnerships between the public and private sectors as we build out of the Covid era.

Levelling up means different things to different people, but if we’re serious about ensuring people return to cities permanently, it needs continued investment.

Improved infrastructure – commitments to HS2 and east-west Links as well as city transport systems – are top of the list but so too is investment in people, their skills and opportunities and in our digital connectivity.

The inward investment the region’s cities are seeing is evident in the skyline and in the jobs that are being created, but to reach their full potential, Westminster should focus on what truly makes a thriving city and make greater commitments to encourage more people back to the workplace.

Yorkshire businesses will certainly be listening out for this come the Budget at the end of this month.

Jessica Bowles is director of Strategic Partnerships and Impact at Bruntwood.

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