Even The UK Government Is Now Selling Its Offices

In April this year it was reported that government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg was visiting civil service offices in London and leaving notes on desks saying ‘sorry you were out when I visited.’ The implication was that the government wanted the civil service back in offices as soon as possible.

Spin forward to August and Mr Rees-Mogg announced that over £1.5 billion worth of government buildings in London are to be sold. The announcement also said that a further £500m will be saved by no longer managing these buildings, handing the government a very welcome saving of over £2 billion.

The government offices were characterised in the announcement as ‘half empty”, although a quick look at the key government buildings shows they are 44% full on average, with occupancy levels ranging from 30% at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to 72% at the Ministry of Defence.

Some might question the government for its sudden conversion to remote work. Others will say they  saw the light. Why should a modern organisation – such as a national government – own or rent billions worth of offices in central London?

Professor Nick Bloom of Stanford University recently presented an online lecture where he explored the impact of working from home on offices in city centres – you can read his lecture notes here. He suggested several trends:

  • Offices that remain must be high quality, to attract employees to use them
  • Cubicles and meeting rooms are being added – the office is becoming a much more purpose built meeting space
  • Support services such as IT, payroll, HR benefits are being outsourced or moved out of offices completely

What Professor Bloom and the British government are both indicating is that the days of the office as a factory for professional employees to sit in row upon row of desks is finished.

It’s better for many professional employees to work from home. They can focus more. They can be more productive. They no longer need to spend a large chunk of their day commuting and creating congestion. When we look back on the twentieth and early twenty-first century it will seem astonishing that workers who spend all day on calls or answering emails would happily endure the time and expense of long commutes to do this.

In very many respects, working from home is better for the planet and better for our cities. As offices are emptied and sold – like the government offices in London – there is an opportunity to rethink how our city centres look and feel. People used to live very close to their workplace – it was the development of railways that created the opportunity for people to live some distance from their workplace. Now we are seeing an important shift as the need for offices is disconnected from employment.

As Nick Bloom suggests, it is likely that many companies will retain some office space, but it will have a very different purpose to the offices that were designed to be everyday workplaces. Modern offices will be designed for meetings and events. They are places that will be only occasionally visited – they are for teams to get together after a big sales win or for a department town hall.

Sensée has always focused on work from home as a natural way to work for many people. It’s good to see that so many researchers – and even governments – have now seen the light.

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