It was as far back as the mid-nineties that Britain first caught a whiff of the home-working revolution. I was studying at university and had little idea what was coming as I battled with the Dewey Classification System in local libraries.
Outside though, a raft of US-backed cable telephone and TV businesses were promising us a golden dawn of economic emancipation thanks to the shiny fibre-optic technology being laid beneath our streets. They ended up being half right.
Predictions were made about what this new freedom to work from home would mean. Dire warnings were issued about the implications for UK real estate. And the airline sector was expected to take a hit as tele-conferencing replaced the need for face-to- face meetings. Movies on demand would spell the end of the video rental sector and football would never be the same again with this new thing called ‘pay-per- view’. All this at a time when no-one had even thought to Ask Jeeves.
The promised revolution was as painfully slow in getting going as the dial up connection in my student room, however. Just because technology allows you to do something doesn’t mean the market will embrace it, after all. Twenty-odd years later, however, and the gig economy is now at full throttle, with 15% of the workforce – 4.8m souls – now considered ‘freelance’. Which, put another way, equates to foregone demand for 480m square feet of office space.
It’s one thing having a twenty-year heads-up and another thing altogether to do something about it. And so it is that the UK real estate sector was relatively slow off the mark in responding to the needs of one-man- bands. The sector had an early opportunity to show what it could do with the growth in SMEs in the early noughties, particularly in the tech and creative sectors. The demand for short, flexible leases with easy-in, easy-out terms saw nimbler landlords and those with a less institutional bent providing the solution to a growing market need and it has proved the perfect grounding for responding profitably to the freelance revolution.
The catalyst for it was a convergence of several factors: high-speed mobile connectivity; improved performance of mobile devices, including laptops; the great recession of 2008 and the distinct tax advantages of being a small and nimble limited company. All of a sudden there was a revolution.
The challenge for the real estate sector was how it could meet the needs of single occupiers with no covenant strength and seemingly indeterminant demand. The solution showed itself readily with aggregators such as WeWork or, closer to home, operators like Ziferblatt. By offering landlords their covenant strength, brand and marketing muscle they could take whole floors of buildings and aggregate the demand of thousands of freelancers by providing the services and environment they craved.
It’s been a boon for landlords in tech hotspots like Shoreditch, Manchester’s Northern Quarter and Baltic in Liverpool. We’re working with a new type of live/work operator aptly called Neighbourhood on a scheme in Baltic and early reactions to the proposition are strong. Down in London’s Barbican we’ve just secured planning permission for a 25,000 sq ft flexible working hub and there are more such projects in the pipeline.
Now that the model – and the profitability and reliability of the aggregators – have been proven, it’s making it easier for developers to factor in the design and provision of flexible space within a wider, institutionally-funded development such as the one in Barbican, which also includes a major hotel and residential accommodation. Bigger, corporate occupiers like the frisson of sharing a building with the cool kids and a happy accommodation has quickly been reached.
We’re now seeing the large law firms and accountancy practices spinning off their SME divisions and housing them in Farringdon, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch in the hope of making friends with the next tech leviathan and the trend has quickly changed the cost dynamics of the land market in Baltic and Northern Quarter, too – with obvious implications for those areas’ appeal and edginess. Nothing kills ‘cool’ like ‘corporate’ and there’s a risk that at least some of the counter-culture operators that made those places so hip in the first place are driven out – whether by cost or choice.
But, of course, not all freelancers are rootless souls, with many preferring to work from home – and herein lies another opportunity and challenge for both architects and developers. How long before the volume house builders are swapping ‘study’ for ‘den’ and building this wi-fi hungry lifestyle in to their offer? And what does this mean for plot layouts and the wider design of new homes? Increasingly, Private Rented Sector schemes start with discussions around connectivity and the same must surely follow for suburban homes.
In short, the revolution is only really just getting going and the continued evolution and development of software to support project delivery and organisational management will make the choice easier for freelancers – or, of course, for companies seeking to encourage home-working to slim back their property costs. We’re seeing more and more ‘north shoring’ as companies seek to shift functions out of London’s costly footplates, but what about ‘home shoring’? No need to pay huge relocation costs when your staff are just working from home rather than the West End, after all.
Exciting possibilities lie ahead for the bold.