Today, in normal circumstances I would be flying to sunny Cannes for the annual MIPIM real estate conference.
Instead, I shall be doing the same thing I have been doing pretty much for a year – putting on jeans, t-shirt (or smarter shirt if I have a client call), making a coffee and settling down at my PC on the dining room table.
If ever there was a week which highlighted the frustration real estate people have felt since the pandemic kept us at home, then MIPIM is it. MIPIM is the ultimate networking event. Sure, there is a conference centre and there are any number of talks and seminars but what the attendees really want to do is wander down the Croisette bumping into others, eating in restaurants, partying on yachts.
I’m not sure there is another office-based financial sector quite as people-facing or ill-suited to working from home than real estate. The frustration felt by our real estate clients over the last year has been so clear. Zoom and teams are not their natural habitat. Yet, these are the people who have to be the experts on the future of the office, as they provide the space. They will need to be careful not to adopt their own views on office working.
It is clear there is no one size fits all solution to the future of the office. There is a 50-year range in age of office workers and a huge disparity in their experience over the last year and how they would like to work in the future. I think the one area of agreement is that we have all missed the social interaction of the office. But on everything else there is no consensus. Personally, loneliness aside, my experence of the last year has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve avoided a 3.5-hour daily commute, I’ve seen more of my children, had better quality time with my partner, felt less tired and, ironically given the pandemic, much healthier. Of course, there are many others (probably younger than me) who will disagree on all those points.
I suspect that even those who have missed going to the office would rather in the future not do so for 5 days every week. The hybrid model – 3 days in the office, 2 days working from home – looks like a good starting point. What about adopting a four-day week – 3 days in the office, 1 day working from home and three days rest? I think that is an interesting concept, if you believe that would inspire employees to work that little bit harder and do five days work in four.
I have no doubt that companies that offer the most flexibility to their employees will be the ones that benefit. And we may see a resurgence in the out-of-town office or business park, I think. An entrepreneur that can offer a Regus-type serviced product for the out-of-town market, covering most of the UK, will make a fortune. Long commutes, packed trains, suffocating tubes are out. Localism is the future (but not excluding the annual trip to Cannes!).