The last 18 months has hit cities and high streets hard. Since March 2020 – when the UK first introduced Covid-19 restrictions – until ‘Freedom Day’ in July, Birmingham’s City Centre had endured lockdowns, tiered restrictions, and strict social distancing measures.
In that time, employees adapted to the convenience of working from home, whilst employers learnt a lot about the size of their workforces, and the need for expensive office space. Whilst some companies have found the remote work model increases productivity and reduces costs, others have struggled to cope without human interaction, contact and conversation.
The successful summer vaccine rollout and subsequent reopening of society has seen commuters returning to Birmingham City centre with a different mindset to the one they left with in March 2020. But ultimately, the preference for interacting in person remains, and is strongest among those aged in their twenties and thirties, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
More than a third – 41% – of Birmingham’s population are aged under 30, making it one of Europe’s youngest cities. The appetite to get back to working in the office should be particularly strong in the second city.
Businesses in the region and across the UK are currently experimenting with hybrid working models, whereby designated office dates are sandwiched between days working from home (WFH). Office visits are no longer everyday routines, but instead unique occasions encouraging effective team meetings, value added lunches and after work socials.
The office culture remains a priority for businesses hoping to return to full time office working and attract, and retain, the best staff. Businesses want the highest-quality offices in the best locations, with access to gyms, studios, restaurants, bars, and shops. The contemporary development of Brindley Place and The Mailbox in Birmingham has shown the demand is now for dynamic workplaces, and not just offices with desks, swirly chairs, and water coolers.
Businesses and landlords therefore need to think outside of the box. Rooftop spaces can be modernised, whilst communal areas like kitchens, galleries, lounges, and cafes must be designed and developed to provide workers with a better alternative to the comforts of one’s own home. Allotments and gardens can also be developed to encourage a more homely feel to the office.
If coming into the office is no longer a requirement, employers need to instead create new reasons for staff to work together physically.
The hospitality sector in Birmingham’s City Centre also has its part to play. Lunchtime discounts for workforce parties and after work ‘Happy Hours’ provide added incentives to those employees sceptical of making the journey into the office.
Partnerships between a business and the surrounding restaurants, bars and shops have long allowed employers the opportunity to enjoy staff discounts, gift vouchers and unique luxuries. That 10 per cent discount at the Italian across the road courtesy of an employee perk, might be the reason an entire workforce decides on a day in the office. Business can do more to work with local venues to provide perks to their staff, particularly larger firms with greater bargaining power.
It is not enough to assume that workforces will just naturally return in the coming months because employers have become more receptive to the WFH concept, along with employees. Company policies must now promote hybrid working models reflecting choice, convenience, and cost. Landlords, shops, restaurants and bars must become creative and innovative if they are to entice businesses and its workers – their biggest customers – back into the city.