At their best, our cities thrive as frenetic centres of culture, commerce and community. Covid-19 is severely challenging the vibrancy of Ireland’s cities and the latest Level 5 restrictions pose a devastating threat to our urban economy.
Under the current regime, employee access to offices is limited to exceptional cases critical to the provision of essential services. Communities that depend on the mid-week vibrancy that office employees bring to the local economy are paying a disproportionately high price for these lockdown measures.
Even under Level 2 and 3 restrictions, Dublin’s offices experienced a capacity of only about 15 per cent compared to more than 60 per cent in European peer cities. Further policy responses to Covid-19 must make allowances for the importance of the urban economy and employees’ desire to get back to the office.
The narrative of working from home as the future norm for employees is losing traction, particularly in the short dark days of winter. A recent survey by the Institute for Employment Studies in the UK showed that the home is a challenging place for many people to work from, both physically and mentally. More than half of the survey’s respondents reported new aches and pains, especially in the neck (58 per cent), shoulders (56 per cent) and back (55 per cent).
As for mental wellbeing, half of all respondents reported not being happy with their current work-life balance while a third frequently felt isolated. This is consistent with various surveys conducted by CBRE in recent months. Our homes are designed around rest, privacy and recreation – not work.
In contrast, a healthy work environment is central to the design of the modern office. Good light, reliable technology and ergonomic seating all combine to ensure people maintain wellness while at work. Furthermore, the collaborative nature of the modern workplace provides a socially-stimulating backdrop as co-workers support each other to complete the day’s challenges. In short, more people than is allowable under the current framework would prefer to return to the office than work from home.
The vicinity of the office is equally important as a hub for all of life’s daily routines and provides a crucial economic opportunity for local businesses to trade – lunches are consumed, shoes mended, and gifts purchased. Local green spaces provide a safe opportunity to meet with colleagues and friends – walks are taken, coffees bought, and sometimes even outdoor yoga is practised. While continuing to respect social distancing, we must be given leeway to reignite this activity in towns and cities before a vaccine is available.
More worrying is the impact that limiting midweek access to our cities has on the socio-economic landscape of urban communities. In contrast to high-salaried tech-enabled roles, lower-salaried jobs are at high risk of permanent damage given their dependence on a physical place of work. The effect this is having on our already deprived inner-city communities cannot be overstated.
The promise of a vaccine is too far away – the price paid by city businesses by then will be too high. The majority of city firms have already taken the necessary steps to make the workplace a safe environment for employees to return to work through the implementation of social distancing and stringent hygiene and safety protocols. Staff expect and deserve no less.
In the meantime, employers and policy makers can take steps to stimulate a safe return to the workplace and stoke the urban economy:
– Give people commuting options: Allow flexible employee hours to stagger commuting times, convert dormant carpark spaces into bicycle storage areas, identify convenient hubs for park and ride options.
– Promote local businesses: At CBRE we encourage employees to shop local and in some instances a discount is offered. Tax incentives could play a role here too.
– Engage with local community groups in deprived areas: What local community groups could benefit from the resourcing available within your firm? Leave a coin jar available for staff to help the homeless in our new cashless society.
– Grant licences for outdoor venues: Food markets, small music and drama events, Christmas markets – all will encourage workers to travel to the office and spend locally.
– Encourage great placemaking: If the past six months have taught us anything, it has highlighted the importance of providing nice places for people to live, work and socialise. Local authorities/city managers should use planning policy to incentivise employers and developers to implement the pro-social placemaking initiatives required to revive our cities.
As we exit Level 5 restrictions, we have an opportunity to re-evaluate the restrictions placed on office workplaces and workers. While respecting the undoubted threat to public health that is Covid-19, for the sake of our town and city centres we must find creative and safe ways to encourage a return to the office and allow urban communities to thrive once more.
Myles Clarke is managing director of CBRE Ireland