The boom in coworking and flexible offices in the past five years has to a large extent been a city-centre phenomenon. The big brands like WeWork, IWG and The Office Group have focused on central London and big regional cities like Manchester and Birmingham, targeting growth at those areas with a high density of companies and workers. But one of the myriad impacts of the coronavirus pandemic might be to see coworking come to the suburbs. Companies like Bizspace and IWG’s Regus have long provided a flexible offer in suburban locations. But the fact that the coronavirus is limiting the number of journeys people are taking into city centres could make other operators willing to look outside of the centre of major cities.
“I think you might see a change in location preference from customers,” IWG UK chief executive Richard Morris said. “People want to work closer to home, in a dispersed way, and companies might not just want that big cluster in the middle.” The “hub-and-spoke” model is being chewed over constantly in discussions in the office world today. The model involves companies having a smaller central London HQ that is travelled to less frequently by staff, and smaller satellite offices closer to where people live. The theory is that people will be far less willing to travel into city centres on public transport, because of the potential infection risk that being crammed on to a busy commuter train, tube carriage or bus presents. The use of transit is indeed down. TfL said that on Monday this week, 164,000 journeys were taken on public transport in London, a 17% increase on the previous week because nonessential retail was allowed to open for the first time since March. But that figure is still an 85% decrease on the 1.1 million journeys taken on the equivalent Monday in 2019. As long as there is no vaccine for the coronavirus and government advice remains not to travel to work unless necessary, journeys to central London will be vastly reduced. Right now no one knows to what extent this behaviour change will stick. On the flip side, while working from home has not been as bad as many people might have imagined, many say there is still the need for the kind of third space provided by the office: people’s home working setup might not be optimal, and there is still a need to interact with colleagues. One solution to these two conflicting forces is the hub-and-spoke model.
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