Escape rooms and yoga bring workers back to the office

Until a few weeks ago, the 38th floor of the Cheesegrater was just another unremarkable office, albeit in one of London’s most famous skyscrapers.


With the floor now unoccupied — Banco Sabadell, the TSB owner, moved out this year — CC Land, the Hong Kong investor that owns the Cheesegrater, has taken the unusual decision to turn it into an “escape room”.


Such rooms require players to solve a series of puzzles against the clock in order to “escape”. The game is open to the building’s tenants, which include Aon, the insurer, and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the architect that designed the tower. A leaderboard allows companies to keep tabs on how they are doing. The room has been fully booked for the summer months.


It may only be open for a few months while CC Land waits for a new tenant to move in, but the move is the latest sign of the changing purpose of office blocks up and down the country as the rise of flexible working sees tenants demand more from their landlords than simply rows of desks.


CC Land said the introduction of the escape room stemmed from its desire to make its offices spaces “for people to collaborate, learn, socialise and have fun”. Adam Goldin, head of CC Land’s UK investment team, said: “It creates a buzz about the place and it gives people an incentive to come in.”


Other landlords have brought in similar initiatives. TwentyTwo, the City’s newest skyscraper, offers “serotonin-boosting” puppy yoga — a combination of traditional yoga with the endearing chaos of allowing puppies to roam around the participants.


Others send ice creams to workers on hot days or offer language lessons, bring in street food stalls and run arts and crafts classes.


Gyms, decent changing facilities, plenty of bike storage and better catering options are now the norm in newer blocks. Some are even putting in massage salons and spaces for fitness classes. One developer described it as the “hotel-ification of offices”.


James Sellar, the chief executive of Sellar Group, which will shortly finish a huge new office block next to Paddington station, calls it “office 2.0”.


“The office of the future is about better quality environments and more space which is more enjoyable, more productive, more humane, really,” he said. “It’s a more nourishing overall experience. It is no longer about quiet space with lots of desks crammed in . . . It’s a much more communal, collegiate, sharing environment.”


In the years before the pandemic, developers had been working on the basis of giving eight square metres of space to each worker in an office. The British Council for Offices’ specifications — seen as the bible of office design — now recommend that each worker gets ten.


With working from home much more commonplace, landlords are aware that businesses, and their staff, have a choice as to where they work. Being in the office every day is not the given that it once was and building owners are having to work harder to keep their occupiers happy.


Hybrid working has brought with it many benefits, not least its flexibility, but it also has its drawbacks. One of those is isolation, which is why landlords are keener than ever to promote their buildings as communities rather than just blocks of concrete and glass.


One UK landlord said it was now about “creating a kind of neighbourhood”. Phillip Shalless, a senior asset manager at Axa IM Alts, which owns TwentyTwo, thinks offices should feel like “vertical villages”.


He said: “We’ve tried to create a community and we say to our occupiers that their problem is our problem. If something’s not working, let us know and we’ll work with you to get it right.


“We want [our offices] to be places where people choose to work and not just the chief executive deciding that’s where the staff are going to work. Happy people are more productive.”


There is of course an economic reason for landlords starting to pay more attention to the demands of their tenants and how they interact with their offices. Bank of America predicted last week that there will be “extreme polarisation” between modern, sustainable offices and tired, second-rate blocks. The message was simple: offer the best buildings or see your tenants take their businesses elsewhere.


“Good buildings will let [for] more [occupancy and higher rents] than bad ones,” the analysts concluded.


Bank of America also noted that offices “are increasingly important to an occupier’s brand”. With businesses battling it out for talent amid shortages of workers, they are prepared to pay more rent for fancy buildings which they can use to try to lure new staff.


In the past, they might have just picked whichever tower was cheapest, said CC Land’s Godlin.


If businesses are to hit their sustainability targets, their real estate will have to match their ambitions, which is funnelling demand towards greener, more sustainable buildings. Office owners are trying to outdo each other when it comes to sustainability.


For example, a number are now not accepting individual deliveries directly to their buildings. Instead, tenants have their goods sent to a hub on the outskirts of the city, where all the deliveries are pooled and brought in in one trip.


Despite all the improvements under way, the future for many offices might not even be as an office at all. A recent survey carried out by CMS, the international law firm, showed that landlords expected to repurpose almost a third of all properties in the next five years.


Just shy of a quarter of the investors and owners who responded to the survey said that they were looking to convert offices into housing in an attempt to take advantage of the pandemic-induced boom in the residential property market.


It will also insulate them if working from home permanently knocks demand for office space, as Bank of America predicts.


“The survey results indicate that in five years’ time . . . a large proportion of town and city centre real estate could be very different,” Clare Thomas, a partner at CMS, said.


“Centres might be more akin to what can be found in continental Europe, where more residential is integrated with retail and offices.”


The Times (Tom Howard) -

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

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