The property industry has seen a lot of change over the last four months; from redefining working life to a growth in digitalisation. The COVID crisis will leave behind a major footprint on the world and we can expect to see its impacts for a long time.
Below are some of the areas where the market could see significant long-term changes.
Evolving Office Life:
After over 12 weeks of remote working, some businesses are beginning to re-open their offices with new measures to adhere to government guidelines. Brendan Geraghty, director at Geraghty Taylor commented on how some companies have reduced their office capacity to ensure social distancing specifications are met. He discussed how “workstations and the office layout will need to be optimised in a COVID-19 environment” and it is likely that a hybrid approach to working will become the norm in coming months. Employees will alternate between working remotely and in the office to optimise space, prioritise health and safety and, maintain a social/interactive element to work.
Optimising Home Working:
With increased focus on remote working in the long-term, companies may need to start directing money towards setting employees up to operate effectively. Some that chose to scale down their office space might use the cost savings to improve employee experience and efficiency from home. According to Gill Eaton, Associate at Iceni Projects, businesses will need to make sure employees are on an equal footing with good access to broadband and equipment such as additional screens and appropriate seating for boosted productivity and wellbeing. For home working to be sustainable and efficient for all, employers will have a greater responsibility to protect its workforce’s physical and mental health.
The market has adopted a number of digital practices over the COVID-19 lockdown which may stay in place for a long time. Paul Henson, partner at Irwin Mitchell, has seen “relaxed rules around signature requirements;” Mercury Rules now enable legal documents to be signed and authorised virtually. Moreover, some additional changes such as virtual hearings may be widely accepted in the long term as a viable option so that the court is resilient to any future demands.
Additionally, property sales activity was suspended during lockdown, therefore, some developers shifted to marketing their sites online to maintain dialogue with potential buyers. Arranging videos calls with interested parties and hosting virtual tours have compensated for physical viewings. Even in a post-COVID era, this process may continue for a long time because of its time saving and social distancing benefits.
Nigel Whitehurst, partner at Gerald Eve, also raised a point around the accelerated decline of retail as a greater number of people are choosing to shop online following lockdown restrictions. Shopping in a store has become less convenient with most people having to queue before entering and visitors being unable to try on clothes in fashion outlets. The benefits of in-person shopping are falling and the convenience of online retail is likely to be the preferred choice in the long term. According to Nigel, “we [therefore] need to look at how other uses can be bought in” for these spaces, particularly as we may see an increasing demand in retail to resi conversions if “council planners are flexible.” This change will create significant opportunities for the development market. Changing building configurations, however, is naturally challenging and so, developers will need to ensure they aren’t creating substandard housing, given what good quality accommodation has come to mean during the lockdown period.
We can be confident that the market will look very different to its pre-COVID era. There will be new demands in both the commercial and residential space with the pandemic accelerating some of themes we were already seeing, particularly around the need for digitalisation and the move away from physical retail space. As with any significant event, there will always be some changes that stay around for the long term. We may find that a few could be for the better in a post COVID world.