So what happens with all the empty office space?

20.15, Monday 13 Apr 2020

After the lockdown, I can’t see people returning to offices in the same numbers. Those who liked remote working will agitate for it to stay that way. And businesses will realise how much cheaper it is to rent only half the floorspace, and push the facilities cost onto employees.

That doesn’t necessarily mean working from home. There are some advantages to being in a workplace with other people – focus, energy, networking, etc. And there are advantages to having professional facilities: printers, a decent video conferencing suite, not having to make your own coffee…

but what if you could kill the commute?

There are tons of people who take the train into London for 60-90 minutes every morning. If I were WeWork, I’d roll out their exact setup to office buildings right by commuter belt railway stations. Sell package deals to city-based firms for separate 3-4 person offices in 20 different towns, for all the employees that live in those places; sweat the details about integrating with I.T. department and make sure there’s secure internet. Show those firms how much cheaper it is against city-centre rent and subsidised peak time season tickets. Not to mention the extra 2 hours work every day.

Then so long as you’re working from a telecommute hub, why not roam too?

I know a guy who sold his company then negotiated that, during the earn-out, he could remote work. Then moved to a ski resort and worked from there.

I’ve worked in companies where you were never entirely sure, until the meeting started, whether your colleagues would appear in person or on the screen. Like, if you could work just effectively in another city, wouldn’t you go stay with friends for a week, just for a change of scene and maybe some sun?

So “working from home” doesn’t mean working from home. It could mean normalising working on the road.

All of which leaves city centres with a bunch of spare office capacity, once firms downsize their permanent desks and lease terms come up. I guess what happens is that the businesses pushed out before by expensive rent will move back in. So from the outside, nothing will really appear to have changed.

But in that changeover, I hope that local government takes the opportunity to lock in vibrant, creative, mixed neighbourhoods for the next few decades. How about zoning for a minimum number of artist studios, co-working spaces, and live-work units, mixed in alongside the flagship HQs and cubical firms, both on the city fringe and right in the middle of the financial district.


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