The question of when – or if – companies will bring staff back into the office continues to hang in the air. Some have done, some say they will do, others have abandoned the idea completely.
While traditional offices face an identity crisis, one thing we do know is that workers and businesses crave flexibility – and that offers a big opportunity for flexible space owners.
As such, new research released by Savills, ‘UK Flex Office Perspectives’ (October 2021), claims that demand for flexible office space in the UK is recovering fast.
The report found that demand for flexible offices is expected to recover to in excess of 10% of overall UK office demand in 2022, thanks to “increased appetite” for workplace flexibility.
“We anticipate flex offices will reach 10-15% of office demand over the next couple of years in response to the pandemic, and flex offices will reach 20% of total demand in the long term” – Savills
In 2019, demand for flexible space reached a 15% high. In 2020, when the pandemic hit, demand fell to a low of 3-5%. Over the next two years, Savills expects this figure to rise to 15% of overall office demand, with predictions of more than 20% long-term.
Workthere, the flexible office arm of Savills, noted that enquiries for flexible space are already outstripping pre-pandemic levels; enquiries are up 30% on pre-pandemic levels, with the number of transactions up 36%.
What’s driving this surge?
According to Savills, it is down to “the fundamental shift in the way that many occupiers are approaching the office”. In large part, it is coming from businesses wanting to offer staff more options and flexibility in terms of the way they work.
It is also coming from smaller companies and individuals who were working at home and now require flexible, short-term office space.
After 18+ months of remote work, a reluctance to return to pre-pandemic norms, cost savings from reduced commuting, and the various benefits of flexible working practices (including flexible workspace), employers are taking notice of flex space now more than ever.
Speaking to Savills, Orega’s Zach Douglas noted that many companies are turning to flex space because they are “unable to plan for a longer period and see the five-year lease as an eternity”, while FORA’s Enrico Sanna added that, coming off the back of an unprecedented global health crisis, companies are looking for flexible tailored solutions that “can cater to their evolving needs”.
The demand, according to interviews conducted by Savills, is coming from all types and sizes of businesses – including large corporates, high-growth startups, and SMEs bouncing back from the impact of COVID.
Dan Zakai, CEO, Mindspace, said:
“Where flex was once more for large technology companies, our member base has diversified significantly and we have occupiers from the media, financial, aviation, cyber-security, health and wellness industries.”
Rupert Dean, XandWhy, said:
“We have seen a range of occupiers using our spaces to trial new ways of working … Everyone is wanting short term flexibility as well as spaces to get together/convene but also quieter individual spaces to escape and focus.”
Natasha Guerra, Runway East, said: “…we’re increasingly seeing larger companies looking either to downsize their space or get a more flexible solution for a subset of their team.”
That said, uncertainties remain.
Operator demand for new space within central London, particularly the City and West End, has “been slower to recover and if anything, we have seen operators reduce their footprint so far in London in 2021.”
Regional office markets have observed a faster recovery, with 10% of demand in the first half of 2021 accounted for by flexible offices. Based on Savills’ research, “regional markets look set to be among the main driver of expansion for operators in 2021 and 2022.”
Cal Lee, Head of Savills Flex and Global Head of Workthere, comments:
“Flexible offices in regional locations are in a growth phase that began prior to the pandemic and has been revived over the course of 2021, supported by a strong surge in demand. As a result, there is a prime opportunity for flex operators to capitalise on the lack of space in these less mature flexible office markets and expand their offer out into regional markets where they do not already have a presence.”
Experience is everything
Location aside, the key takeaway from the report is the need for a positive and engaging workplace experience.
“Landlord and occupier sentiment remains positive towards the flex office sector, with workplace experience and engagement as the key to encouraging workers back to the workplace.”
Interviews with office workers found that 62% of respondents rank “workplace experience” as highly important. Other high-ranking requirements include personal safety (79%) and low levels of background noise (74%).
Despite the much-publicised pros and cons of working from home, the big benefit is that workers have been able to make their space their own. Bringing people back into a shared environment will require a workplace with the right balance of facilities, collaborative space, and independent workstations, in order to accommodate various needs, working styles, and preferences.
Companies are also looking for convenience and “speed and ease of occupation” — which is something that flexible offices are renowned for, and which is “helping to propel sustained demand within the flexible office sector”.
Other takeaways from the report include:
Savills does not expect occupiers to adopt hub and spoke strategies on a significant scale, and expects conventional headquarters to remain the most popular occupier model, with the caveat that “it is still early days”.
Flex offices in regional locations are at a growth stage and we will see a wider range of flexible office operators expand in the regions.
Demand in central London markets is likely to recover at a slower rate, although the capital will continue to attract international talent in the medium-long term.
Landlords are seeking to increase their exposure to flex through management agreements as a service element becomes more essential in attracting workers back to the workplace.
Some landlords will seek to introduce their own serviced offerings in fitted space for customers looking to sign for longer terms.
Convenience is fast becoming a priority for occupiers who are willing to pay for additional services, giving rise to the “hotel” model.
Mixed use environments will become more important in providing a holistic workplace experience. Landlords willing to take more development risk may seek to repurpose some of their existing retail schemes into flexible workspace.
Retrofitting will become more popular with landlords to reduce carbon emissions, whilst occupiers will seek more visibility on their carbon emissions in flex space.
One final note.
While flexible office space has long been referred to as its own sector, the report suggests that the future of flexible office space may be less distinct.
Meaning, the future of work is focused on flexibility and serving the end user, and all providers of workspace — conventional landlords and coworking operators alike — may effectively become one and the same, differentiated by their unique experience, style, and service delivery, rather than the flexibility of their terms:
“It will become increasingly hard to draw the line between flexible workspace and conventional office space – instead we just have a variety of different options that are able to meet the needs of the end user, whatever they might be.”
AllWork (Jo Meunier née Disney) - https://allwork.space/2021/10/report-finds-flexible-space-to-recover-to-over-of-10-of-overall-uk-office-demand-in-2022/