The Forum round table on February 9 at The Dog House in Reading brought together expert voices from a range of property backgrounds to discuss the industry’s pressing concerns.

Changing working practices continue to disrupt the workplace, especially within the office market, delegates heard at the latest Forum round table event.

Members of The Forum’s panel of experienced industry specialists explained how the post-lockdown era had changed the way in which workers want to interact, both within their own businesses and in those of their clients.

Philip Waddy, managing director of WWA, proposed that the UK has a productivity concern with people wanting to continue to work at home after lockdown, furlough and homeworking.

He said: “A lot of people are not going back to work, deciding that they would rather have a part time job.”

“My view is, for our business it doesn’t really work because you need to be together in a group. And, similarly, if you’re in a lab situation you need facilities.”

Karen Jones, partner at Blandy & Blandy, said some employers experience a disconnect where people who have worked from home in lockdown want to continue.

Blandy’s, she said, had done well at attracting staff back.

“We are pretty full. We, perhaps, do work that demands that we come into the office a bit more. I don’t think we’ve got any problem justifying our office space but clearly there are businesses that do.

“We have recently tried to innovate to get people back on a more regular basis on the basis that we need to be together at certain times to make our business as successful as we want it to be.

“So I think there’s going to be a move toward core times when everybody has to be in the office.”

John Silversides, partner at Carter Jonas, said: “That’s not without its challenges through. Certainly a lot of the practices we know have got lots of people in front of screens, working on leases, who don’t need to be in an office. A lot of lawyers are saying ‘what’s the point of going into the office to do that?”

Brian Dowling, partner at Boyes Turner, said the firm continues to be flexible but sees the value in staff coming back to the office more, which he said is important for junior staff who often learn by osmosis or by overhearing more experienced people discuss matters with clients.

Canines, however, are making an appearance.

He said: “You can bring a dog in these days. There’s different things we are trying to do to nudge people to come in. When we’ve got new starters we are trying to say ‘obviously we’ve gone through Covid, we think you’ll want to be in three days out of five but when you get further along you can read a lease and talk to someone about it from wherever’.”

He said about half the staff are currently in the office at any one time but pointed out that clients also tend not to come in as much.

Mike Righton, regional managing partner Thames Valley for RLB, said: “It’s quite a fine balance because the reality is a fairly significant proportion of the kind of people we are trying to recruit still have an expectation and a desire that they want to work from home a certain amount of the time.

“We have implemented a hybrid working policy, which has given people a bit more freedom to come into the office as they like but on the premise that it’s two to three days a week.

“I think it’s different for different people at different stages of their career so some of the mid-senior level guys and girls probably have family commitments so they are working from home .

“Personally, I think for the young guys, it’s better for them to be in the office so that they are around people and they are learning.

“I think that’s quite a big problem in certain industries. But it’s quite a big problem for young people being around people in the early stages of their career and being able to learn and pick up things, which is quite important.”

However Nicola Webb, associate director for SEGRO, pointed out that the young could only gain that experience if the more experienced were themselves present.

She said: “We had the same conversation with people who are quite young but they say ‘what’s the point of me coming in if you’re not here?’

“We have set days now. We have one day where everybody is expected in, then other days where we’ve agreed, when to be there.

“We’ve done a similar exercise where we were thinking about these sorts of issues. No-one has got the answer at the moment. Perhaps we’re over thinking it.”

Nigel Horton-Baker, chief executive of REDA, said it is necessary for businesses to think differently about their workplaces.

He said: “If you work in retail you can’t really work from home so it’s been very divisive in that way. There are a lot of people in retail who think, ‘I’d like a bit of that hybrid working, I’m going to get an office job where I’ll get better paid and, to boot, I can do some home working’ so you’ve got that drift away from the front line staff and we’ve got to rethink it.”

He argued that property should be regarded a tool in the same way as laptops and telephones are.

But he added: “The difficulty come when the COO or the FD says we are covering x sq ft in rent and we’re only using it 50 per cent of the time. So how do you blend that and make the extra use of it work financially?”

Jade Uko, senior account director for DevComms, said: “We do a hybrid where we have set days (in the office). I think it’s very useful to be in the office, particularly someone like me who only joined three months ago.

“We all know how useful it was being in the office when we were younger and also there’s the socialisation.

“We know that loneliness is an issue with lots of demographics, particularly with younger people. I think it’s really important for them to be able to socialise with people and build up a culture as well. Having said that, the market has changed.”

A full list of stories from The Forum round table:

Image (l-r): Nicola Webb, John Silversides, Nigel Horton-Baker, Brian Dowling, Karen Jones, Michael Righton, Matthew Battle, Mike Shearn from Haslams, Jade Uko and Philip Waddy.

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