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Offices of the future demand steel’s flexibility

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Twelve months ago, the first Editor’s Comment of 2020 lamented that events had thrown all sectors of the economy into even more uncertainty than usual – and that was before the unprecedented uncertainties created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, that comment stopped short of making predictions for the year, as they would have been rendered redundant by the pandemic’s hit to the economy.

A couple of sectors of the economy fared relatively well, like online retail and protective equipment for the health sector, but emergency measures made normal economic life impossible for most. Construction suffered large initial falls but quickly started to rebound, although it will surely take a couple of years or so to fully get back to pre-pandemic levels of output.

Against this background it was unsurprising that many investors decided to hold fire and delay investment decisions. At the start of 2021 investment plans are being scrutinised in boardrooms worldwide, but now that COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out the question is increasingly how quickly and to what extent the world will get back to where it was before the pandemic erupted.

Brexit will create its own reasons to pause on UK investment decisions, and as we went to press the future of the UK’s relations with the European Union remained uncertain. Trade deal or no trade deal, some readjustments to usual trading arrangements will be needed and it may take some months before things settle down again.

But with Brexit and the pandemic uncertainties soon to be behind us, there appear to be reasons to be cheerful heading into 2021. There is a level of pent-up investment likely to be unleashed once businesses have a clearer picture of the risks ahead. The world still needs offices and is short of them in many locations.

A recent report published by property specialists CBRE for example says that Grade A office space in Glasgow has reached a critically low level; just one more modest letting would leave no Grade A space available to offer tenants or investors. There is 1.4 million sq ft of office space under construction, and some 81% of that has already been taken, so companies coming to the end of their existing leases and new potential occupiers will find nothing available. It seems unlikely that developers will fail to respond to that opportunity.

Signs of recovery are already being reported in the commercial property market, and fears for the future of offices are lifting because as well as accelerating the home working trend the pandemic has exposed its limitations. Face-to-face interaction, collaboration and staff training and development seem unlikely to be capable of being sustained by virtual meetings alone.

There looks like being a strengthened focus on workspaces that foster employee wellbeing, that contribute to sustainability and organisational resilience. Workplaces with easily delivered fresh air, natural light, low energy consumption and access to space will be at premium. Older buildings will be unable to provide the sustainability and other features needed to meet the changed demand. The flexibility of steel-framed buildings will come into its own both for the new generation of aesthetically pleasing, technologically advanced offices that will be demanded, as well as for its ability to be reconfigured and upgraded.

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