Has Covid-19 reshaped the property industry? Director Clare Hartshorne explores the lasting legacy, one year on…

It has been 12 long months since we entered our first lockdown. It felt inevitable but, we hoped, short lived. At the time, I wrote about the 10 ways Covid-19 might shape the real estate industry. With the end of our third lockdown almost in touching distance, I have been reflecting on whether these predictions have been more reliable than the hope for a swift end to the pandemic.

My overriding conclusion last year was that Covid-19 wasn’t in itself changing things, just accelerating changes that were already underway. But that still meant a lot for the real estate industry. We need to understand the changing ways we interact with each other and places if we are to curate future cities, town centres and buildings.

To do this, I said then, the industry needs to listen to stakeholders and the public on how their habits will change. Something we as communications and engagement professionals can help with. That certainly hasn’t changed.

So were the 10 predictions correct?

1) Retail & leisure: there can be no doubt Covid-19 has hit this sector hard. Some household names may never return to our high streets, either because they have gone online or gone bust. But that wasn’t a surprise a year ago and it certainly isn’t now – it’s just happening a bit quicker. That does however mean it is even more imperative the industry takes note, listens to communities and responds.

2) Co-working: 12 months ago there was some press speculation that COVID-19 would signal a death to the co-working sector as businesses look to protect their staff from health risks. Our prediction at Redwood was the opposite, with businesses realising their staff can work remotely (at least say two days a week) and immediate health risks diminished thanks to vaccines (fingers crossed), businesses may realise they can save on overheads by reducing office space – thereby potentially increasing co-working spaces.

3) Smart buildings: Proptech was predicted to have a significant take-off thanks to COVID-19. There are a few tech entrepreneurs who have definitely seized the moment, but the boom for proptech is probably when we return to buildings other than our home with occupiers looking to prioritise more flexibility in their spaces and teams.

4) Online vs print media: a year in and the property industry is still holding on to a couple of print magazines, but surely with most of us now consuming the magazine online, this is in name only. The challenge to print media has certainly increased and a recent poll of the Redwood team would suggest most of us think print deadlines are significantly less important – we would rather get our client at the top of the daily news bulletin. Once again, this trend was happening without Covid-19, but when the print edition isn’t being passed around the office anymore it’s certainly accelerated.

5) Conferences: we predicted a clean calendar in terms of conferences in 2020, and that is set to remain for much of 2021. However, we felt the successful ones would return and according to MIPIM, Revo and Completely Retail at least, that moment is September. If the UK’s vaccination continues at pace that looks likely for the joint Revo and Completely Retail event. MIPIM? Well, that perhaps depends on Europe’s vaccination effort and the UK government’s stance on quarantine. At least there’s always March 2022…

6) Home working: the press is reporting a complete mixture here. Some businesses have confirmed all staff will continue doing some home working, while others cannot get back to the workplace quick enough. It’s probably the same for staff. Balance will therefore probably win out, a 2:3 home work ratio. I’ll let you decide which is the two and which the three.

7) Property’s public image: landlords took a battering in the mainstream press early on during this pandemic and their financial impact was largely ignored by Government. We wondered if the recovery was an opportunity to reinvent the industry as promoting positive change and creating great new places through truly listening to stakeholders? The property press has certainly picked up on this, but sadly it doesn’t seem to have made it much further – so far.

8) Public consultation: digital engagement has certainly come in to its own over the last 12 months with developers determined to continue. There’s no doubt this will continue to play a huge role moving forward, but we would predict there will also be return to traditional face-to-face engagement when we safely can do so. Digital may give more balance, but face-to-face signals genuine engagement to many.

9) Construction: there is no doubt COVID-19 had an impact on the timeline of nearly every construction project in the country – even if it was just in terms of supplies. However, that hasn’t lasted the whole of the pandemic and most sites are now continuing apace again. Hopefully the lasting impacts will therefore be minimal.

10) Sustainability: lastly, we asked how Covid-19 would impact the green agenda. A new study for BBC News and Kings College London, conducted by Ipsos MORI, suggests walking will replace driving post-pandemic. And it certainly seems to have given landlords an opportunity to bring their buildings up to date. So perhaps the silver lining to Covid-19 is a greener future?