There’s no denying that COVID-19 is having a profound impact on how everybody uses – or at the moment doesn’t use – buildings and the spaces around them. These daily changes to our lives are going to continue to evolve over the coming months as social distancing rules and guidelines come in to force. As the industry responsible for owning, operating, constructing and designing these buildings and spaces, real estate has a central role to play in helping people and businesses adapt.
To do this successfully will depend on understanding human nature and how it might change in the short and long term as we recover from the impact of this pandemic.
There has been much written in the mainstream and industry press to suggest there will be long lasting and perhaps positive changes, such as less burning of fossil fuels thanks to a reduction in travel. Obviously we do all hope a silver lining will be a brighter future for our planet, however, I am yet to be convinced in a wholesale change in our habits. As a communications professional, I have been intrigued to listen to how my family, friends, colleagues, clients and contacts are dealing with the current ‘normal’. And, even putting to one side fears around health and finances, not one person has expressed jubilation at the current situation. We long to return to our real normal. A desire to interact with people and places is part of our human nature.
Therefore, in making these decisions about what our buildings and spaces will look like in the future it is crucial we consider what changes are going to stay in place for the long-term and what will just be needed to see us through the next phase of this pandemic. To do this, the industry needs to listen to stakeholders and the public on how their habits will change. Something we as communications and engagement professionals an help with.
So what is the industry saying are the biggest changes, and will they be long lasting?
1) Retail & leisure: we have already lost many high street names since this pandemic began with others announcing they will open less stores. But does this really signal a change? In reality, many of these businesses were struggling anyway and their loss has perhaps just been hastened. The industry was also already responding to this by reimagining our town centres. We are now likely to need to expedite this across many more town centres and in doing so listening to how people will use their town centres in the future will be vital.
2) Co-working: there has been press speculation that COVID-19 will signal a death to the co-working sector as businesses look to protect their staff from health risks. But surely we at least hope this pandemic is a once in generation phenomenon that we will move on from. Perhaps businesses will therefore be less concerned about it happening again as to how they can save money on their office space with staff working flexibly. That may actually drive a move to co-working spaces.
3) Smart buildings: Proptech was certainly the buzzword of 2019. However, property’s move to tech has been somewhat slow. But with technology now likely to play a crucial role in short term return to public spaces to enable safe social distancing, we may well see a much faster uptake from tenants, property managers and landlords in the real use of proptech.
4) Online vs print media: the property industry has held on tightly to its print editions of EG and Property Week. However, both have seen an increase in online readership during COViD-19, with cuts to print versions. This is due to the current challenges in printing and receiving print mags, as well as the new access to free online content. But, yet again, this isn’t new but a more rapid progression of an already growing trend as can be seen by the growing number of online trades with the launch of React in addition to the more established Costar?
5) Conferences: a key part in the comms calendar for many of our clients is the conference season. This year’s conferences have already been impacted, with names dropping like flies ahead of MIPIM in March and most choosing not to sign up, yet, to the new date and location. This year, and perhaps even next, may well see the postponement, cancellation or perhaps a move to online for other key industry conferences – particularly those requiring international travel. But, does that mean we won’t be back in 2022 or 2023? Perhaps those conferences already flagging at the seams may finally go, but it seems unlikely that with the threat of COVID-19 behind us we’ll wipe the normally packed calendar clean – real estate remain to fundamentally be a people based industry.
6) Home working: many have predicted a rise in home working post coronavirus, with some workers perhaps never returning to the office. At Redwood, we certainly miss brainstorming together (and the gossip around the water cooler), but we had already embraced a flexible approach to working long before the pandemic that has served the business and staff well. That balance of both remote and office working is unlikely to change for us, but perhaps once again the change will be expedited across businesses and office spaces with the industry needing to respond more rapidly. A situation explored by Jonathan Desmond in his latest blog.
7) Property’s public image: landlords have taken a battering in the mainstream press during this pandemic and their financial impact largely ignored by Government. No change there then… But is the recovery an opportunity to reinvent the industry as promoting positive change and creating great new places through truly listening to stakeholders? It could be if we can work with our stakeholders to communicate the good we’ve seen many in the industry doing.
8) Public consultation: the Government has made it clear development should continue apace as a vital part of our economy. To achieve statutory planning requirements it is therefore necessary to engage with stakeholders and the public virtually. Again, this was a trend that was growing with digital engagement being the key to reaching the ‘silent majority’. But will it stick? Most likely yes, it will play a bigger role, but we will also see a return to traditional face-to-face engagement when we safely can do so to ensure we are really listening – for the good of developer and community. Khevyn Limbajee gives more detail in best practice virtual engagement here.
9) Construction: “keep building where it is safe to do so” is the message. Although the majority of sites are still operational in some form, there is no doubt this has had a lasting impact on the timeline of nearly every construction project in the country. Let’s hope an economic downturn doesn’t grind construction to a halt for the short-term, but otherwise, it will hopefully be back to business as usual as soon as possible.
10) Sustainability: lastly, will COVID-19 lead us to a greener future? Certainly it is clear that the Government can impose dramatic change on public behaviour when it is absolutely vital to do so. However, in a democracy at least, this requires a significant degree of public acceptance and agreement. With most of us hankering after a return to normality, the changes Government would need to enforce in the way we use and travel around our spaces seems perhaps even less likely to be accepted any time soon. But perhaps the silver lining is that we know we can do it? We can but hope.