With high streets and workplaces near-deserted, questions over their future have raged on throughout the pandemic.

Hit by lockdown restrictions, plenty of retailers have closed stores across the country while some big names like Debenhams and Topshop have been lost from the high street completely. And countless large employers have announced their intention to ditch full-time office working when the pandemic eventually comes to end, favouring a full working from home approach or striking a balance with hybrid working. 

What does it mean for the future of office space and the high streets? It was a question posed to a group of industry entrepreneurs on a (virtual) roundtable hosted by the Great British Entrepreneur Awards and haysmacintyre

Workers driving change

Like many entrepreneurs across the UK, the group agreed that workforces will not go back to the way things were before, and that naturally has large implications for office spaces. 

Nick Donnelly, founder of WorkClub, suggested that the make-up of office space and how it is used is being driven largely by staff rather than employers. 

He said: “As we’re speaking to more and more teams about their back-to-work strategy, we’re finding more often than not their staff are leading the way in telling them what they want. And the big thing is convenience. 

“They want to be able to work from home when it suits them, they want to be able to come to the office when it suits them. But when they get to that office, they want to know what value it gives them, whether that’s childcare, breakfast, collaborative spaces, or just an environment that provides a positive experience.”

Helen Butler, founder of Cove Enterprise Hub, agreed, and called on a recent experience viewing a shared office space. 

“I’ve been in this little room on my own for well over a year and I feel ready to get back into an office environment and start mingling with people,” she started.

“I went to view a space but it was a space full of individual offices and a small kitchen area. It wasn’t collaborative at all. I didn’t want to move out of this room on my own at home to go and sit in another room on my own.”

Nick added: “When people do go into an office, they don’t want it to be a stale experience. They want somewhere that is going to make you feel productive and make you want to go there.”

Khiloni Westphaly, COO at Infogrid, revealed an apparent generational divide in how employees are driving back-to-work strategies. 

“We did some research recently and found a big difference between what younger people want and what older employees want,” she said.

“Younger workers definitely want more collaboration, more space, more greenery, more outdoor space and more facilities. Older people, on the other hand, actually tend to want things to remain how they were before the pandemic. I really think the amount of change in office space will really depend on who the workforce is.”

She added: “It seems that the big corporates are the ones that really want their staff to come back, more than their staff want to come back. But everyone appears to be happy to strike a balance. They all want to see value through collaboration.”

Environmental concerns

Naturally a consideration in the immediate post-Covid return, William Stokes, co-founder of Co-Space, suggested that air quality and cleanliness will become a factor employees look for in their office spaces long-term.

He said: “Air quality and cleanliness is becoming a big talking point, even down to things like the toilets.”

“We’re installing tech and sensors in our toilets so that rather than being cleaned on a maintenance schedule, they’re cleaned after a certain number of uses so we can make sure that environment is at the highest possible level,” William added.

“These types of things will be massive selling points going forward,” Nick agreed. “It’s this type of thinking that people are looking for and it’s really exciting to see all these new ideas coming into office spaces. 

“Air quality is one that really intrigues me.”

Khiloni suggested that air quality is an important factor in productivity, which makes it something that employers and building owners will have to consider in order to attract staff and tenants in future.

“We have totally underestimated the difference air quality makes to productivity,” she said.

“If you look at humidity, temperature and CO2 levels, you also get a good indication of virus spread risk as well.”

Infogrid provides a range of smart building solutions, including various sensors. 

“Obviously we have sensors everywhere in our office and the data points we get from them help us to understand what sort of space we’re going to be working in and helps us to improve the air quality.”

And, as Khiloni explained, common office activities can have a dramatic impact on air quality. 

“We painted a pillar in the office to make it a bright, fun environment. But the VOCs from the paint were picked up on our air quality sensors - they went way off the charts into unhealthy territory. It’s those types of things that you wouldn’t otherwise consider.”

Offices to drive high streets

With office spaces and high streets struggling throughout the pandemic and facing an uncertain future, could they combine to save each other? 

Nick explained that there is a third option open to employers and employees - working from co-working spaces in locations outside of the big city centres. 

“A lot of spaces are now looking at ways to put their best foot forward to provide that service and provide the convenience and experience that remote workers want, maybe once or twice a week,” he said.

Helen, who was due to open a co-working space in a formerly commercial property on a high street early on in the pandemic, said: “People were interested because they didn’t want to travel to big business parks. They wanted to be able to walk home, cycle home, catch a bus, pop to local shops on their breaks or after work.

“There’s a growing demand for that. So we definitely need to think about how we utilise the spaces that are available to us on the high street.”

“I definitely think people want to spend more time on their local high street,” William added. “But there’s going to be a balance in taking over those empty retail spaces.

“We’ll see some converted to residential property, others for pop-up stores and restaurants, office space. I don’t think we’ll see any retailers taking on 30,000 sq ft spaces in future.”

Nick suggested the pandemic has made people think a lot more about the distances they travel, and spaces will need to adapt. 

He explained: “Everyone wants to be able to access everything they need within 15 minutes of their home. That includes where they work, where they shop, where they exercise, go out for food. And these are the things that are really going to help the high street thrive going forward. That’s a huge opportunity for empty retail space.”

Flexibility and adaptability

Reflecting on the roundtable, Jake Pearlman, senior manager at haysmacintyre, said: “Reimagining how space will be utilised going forwards is key, and it was fascinating to hear both the similarities and challenges the entrepreneurs are facing at the moment. Whilst it was evident that no one can quite predict the future, the need for flexibility and adaptability is clear to achieve future success.”