For the past 14 months, Londoners have become used to working from their bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms. The office has been written off, in some quarters, as a relic. Working from home is supposedly the future.
I firmly believe the overall balance needs to be tipped towards working in offices. Many business leaders, such as David Solomon at Goldman Sachs, are recognising the pivotal role the office still has to play.
I have a bias towards the office, born of my experience as an investor in the central London property market for over a decade. I was chairman and majority shareholder of The Office Group for seven years and my ongoing faith in the market was demonstrated last year when I acquired a new office development above Tottenham Court Road station. I have worked for almost 50 years in central London, and I have been shocked at how quiet it has been over the past year.
Thanks to the rapid vaccine roll-out the number of cases has been brought down radically, and it is now time to return to our offices. We need to resume being together to enhance collaboration, innovation and education.
I believe those organisations which have people in the office will be more successful than those who don’t. I also notice that many of those who are encouraging WFH head large established corporate machines rather than being builders of businesses.
Granted that some will strongly prefer WFH, particularly as it will save on commuting times. A BBC survey last week showed that almost all of the UK’s 50 largest employers did not plan to ask staff to be in the office full-time. There may indeed be advantages of adopting a more hybrid model, mixing home working and office working for some employees - parents for example. But marginalising the office risks us drifting towards a half-hearted work ethic, when we need precisely the opposite at the moment.
There are a number of good reasons for returning to the office - at least for some of the week. We are more productive when we have face-to-face contact, working in teams. There are huge benefits to be had from “chance conversations” and routine in-person chats. My own journey as an entrepreneur benefited from those unscheduled spur-of-the-moment encounters. It is hard to build teams and company culture that while remote working. Camaraderie and chemistry do not transmit easily over Zoom or Teams.
Working in an office is also critical for the younger generation. I see how much younger employees in my businesses learn and grow from being surrounded by senior colleagues.
Let’s not forget too that returning to offices will also support the “secondary economy” which relies on office workers. The cafes, sandwich makers, dry cleaners, have had a really tough time over the past year. We owe it to these businesses, many of them tiny independent ones, to revive central London and our other city centres. These act as vibrant and diverse social hubs which cannot be replicated in the suburbs and we need workers to play their role in the recovery.
To build world-class companies and organisations, we need to be together. It will help us regain our economic mojo and accelerate our recovery post-Brexit and post-Covid. In the year since March 2020, the economy has shrunk by 10 per cent and more than 700,000 people have lost their jobs, so we have a lot of ground to make up.
The office itself is changing, with more flexible offerings, often with attractive and dynamic interiors. They are a world away from the tired places of the Seventies, when I started my business career. The pre-pandemic trend for ever denser office occupation will reverse as occupiers realise that people need to spread out.
The founder of Tesco, Sir Jack Cohen, was fond of saying: “You can’t do business sitting on your arse.” I think if he were around today, he would say, “You can’t do business just sitting at home on your computer all day.”
There is the danger of our economy sleepwalking into mediocrity. In order to bounce back strongly, we need drive, urgency, action — and the office!
Sir Lloyd Dorfman CBE is an entrepreneur and a philanthropist