The business districts of Manhattan in New York, the City in London or La Défense in Paris are condemned to reinvent themselves at the end of the pandemic. Telecommuting has radically changed the game.
The pandemic has emptied offices for two years, particularly in the financial and commercial districts. Today, the situation is normalizing, but companies are still hesitant about the policy to adopt vis-à-vis their employees who aspire to more telework.
The image of an army of bank clerks in three-piece suits heading to the offices of the City in the morning has no doubt lived on. Brexit had already shaken the financial heart of London a little and the pandemic has been there. It has emptied the towers, like that of the venerable insurer Lloyds which plans to redevelop its emblematic headquarters.
More than 300,000 people worked in this London district. Today, they are coming back, but in dribs and drabs.
Do businesses need fewer offices? That’s the big question.
“At the beginning of February, it was estimated that an average of 20% of staff had returned to work in the companies, which is considerably lower than the pre-pandemic occupancy rate where around 60% of the staff were present in the companies. offices”, underlines a representative of the specialist in commercial real estate Savills Monday in the program Tout un monde of the RTS. “Does this mean that companies need fewer offices?” asks Matt Oeckley. “That’s the big question.”
Offices available on the rise
Companies are still in full reflection. This is why the rate of available offices on the market has climbed (8% in London, 12% in Manhattan) but has not yet reached peaks.
Be that as it may, the extension of teleworking will profoundly modify the use of professional spaces. “Many companies did not allow it, mainly banks which have a highly regulated activity”, recalls Matt Oeckley. “But the last two years have shown us that working partially from home can be just as effective as being 100% in the office and quite a few employees prefer a degree of flexibility in their work. The first reason they give is that they don’t like to spend too much time in transport”.
In London, journey times are indeed very long. This is why, before the strict confinement at the end of 2020 already, the British were those who worked the most from home.
Many companies are looking for the same type of building, ecological or zero carbon.
Still, the prices of business real estate have not fallen for the moment. In London, New York or Paris, they remain stable whereas they had increased considerably in recent years.
According to Matt Oakley, it’s because companies – to attract employees – are willing to pay more for offices that are different, more spacious, better equipped and above all less energy-intensive.
“The real challenge in London, Paris or Berlin is that a very large proportion of companies are looking for the same type of building, rather ecological or zero carbon, capable of creating a healthy and stimulating environment for their staff”, says -he. “But these good buildings are still rather rare.”
In the meantime, the businesses of the City – which depend a lot on the daily presence of employees – do not really know on which foot to dance.
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And if employees do not return as before, business districts will have to reinvent themselves. All major cities are thinking about it.
In London, the City plans to convert offices to create 1,500 homes by 2030, prohibit access to cars on weekends or launch cultural events at night. In Paris, other projects are being developed for the La Défense district, which is not really suitable for housing.
New forms of residential real estate
“There are forms of residential real estate that can correspond to an expectation of employees today, and in particular all that is called ‘co-living’ or hotel residences”, explains Pierre-Yves Guice, director of the society that oversees this movement of transformation. “In particular, this allows workers who only come to their place of work a few days a week to have accommodation with services nearby”.
We are going to ‘de-concrete’, disartificialize a whole part of the forecourt of La Défense.
Pierre-Yves Guice does not forget the environment. La Défense, bristling with towers, is a very concrete space and he wants to make it an asset. “We already have transformation operations underway,” he explains. “We have an old motorway interchange which we are completing the transformation into an urban park, a pedestrian promenade. We are going to launch a greening operation in the coming months, so we are going to ‘de-concrete’, disartificialize a whole part of the forecourt of La Défense to create the largest urban park on a slab in France”.
“This work of changing this public space will allow us to catch up with, or even precede the expectations of employees and residents”, he underlines again.
So downtown districts, like the City, or outlying but resilient districts, like La Défense, have opportunities for sustainable development. Others, badly thought out like the one near Zurich-Kloten airport, will have more difficulty.
It makes you wonder if this model, which has just been inaugurated, has a future.
The business complex “The Circle” in Zurich-Kloten. [Christian Beutler – Keystone]“It’s a territory quite symptomatic of what we produced a little badly”, notes Marc-Antoine Messer, urban planner and professor at EPFL. “It is on the outskirts of the city and extremely monofunctional: they are office towers designed to be rented to large groups, with ground floors designed above all for luxury retail”.
And it is today a territory almost fallow, whereas it has just been delivered. “Most of the towers are not occupied, or even not finished,” he continues. “And it makes you wonder if this model, which has just been inaugurated, has a future when we have trends towards teleworking and mixed and sustainable territories”.
These neighborhoods, already outdated before even being operational, risk remaining fallow for a long time to come if the trend towards teleworking and the reduction of home-office journeys is confirmed.
Francesca Argiroffo / orange