Charles Davies, MD ISP, Hyperoptic looks at how the property sector has been affected by the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic period has for the majority of us been the most disruptive period that we have ever experienced. The ‘norms’ we have associated at work and our everyday lives have been uprooted and may never go back to how they were. But as the proverb states: ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ and any crisis can have the extent of sharpening decision making. In doing so it can act as a catalyst that brings forward plans that may have already been in train, driving innovation and lasting change for the better.

With that thinking in mind, we recently decided to ‘test’ some of our thinking and how specifically the property sector had been affected by the pandemic and the recent advances in technologies. We researched a representative sample consisting of 2000 members of the UK public whilst also asking some 311 key members of the UK property industry for their input in both a research survey and in-depth interviews.

Some of the questions we asked were ‘how well prepared were the public and property sector for an event such as the pandemic;’ and, crucially, ‘what changes we will see in commercial property as a result of the disruption caused by the pandemic and measures to control it?’

What has emerged is a picture of both people and the property sector rapidly embracing the changes that have been forced onto them. There is a widespread consensus that whilst the world will not go back to how it was before, what might evolve is one that is far more aligned to their individual circumstances and one that affords them with new ways of living and working with others.

A key finding is that flexible working is here to stay. The general public want it and the property industry expect that the flexible working ‘genie’ is firmly out of the bottle. Some 49% of the general public stated they want to continue working from home full-time with a further 18% indicating they would like this arrangement to be part time. Incredibly, less than 10% of respondents said they want to return to their place of work full-time.

Many predict ‘the death of the office’ yet, our respondents indicate that instead a ‘hybrid’ model will ultimately evolve. Nearly half (49%) of our respondents say that they are more than happy to continue working from home, and that they prefer it. However, some 17% of our respondents say that whilst they understand the need to continue working from home, they ‘don't really enjoy it’ and almost 7% say they are ready to return to the workplace full time and they've had enough of working from home.

Our property industry respondents were keener on at least a partial return to office working; 61% wanted to work at home part time while 22% wanted to work at home full-time. Nearly one in five (18%) of our respondents say they are most happy working part of the week at home, and part of the week in their place of work. The next generation, 18-24s, are the least likely to prefer working from home (35%) and the most likely to want a hybrid approach (29%). Combined with the desire of almost half of our respondents to continue working from home to some extent, this suggests that a hybrid approach is most likely for most organisations. But this too is not without its challenges. Our panel pointed out some of the challenges of managing a hybrid workforce, not least in ensuring that the office isn’t overcrowded on a Monday and empty on a Friday.

The pandemic has exposed the limitations of some of our broadband connections. Whilst maybe we could tolerate the occasional buffering on Netflix, we do not have the same patience with an important Zoom call with our colleagues. This is why over half of the general public said that having quality broadband was more important than ever, with 52% stating that wi-fi quality was something they could not compromise on since working from home.

And those that work in the property sector are frequently on the end of complaints with 54% stating they have noticed an increase in complaints about internet providers. Only 35% thought that the property industry had been responsive to the greater need for home internet speeds, suggesting the industry has a lot of catching up to do.

From a commercial perspective, the disconnect is even more acute. Two in five (40%) Brits would feel more positive about returning to the office if their business broadband was upgraded. This is because of the disconnect between the performance between their home and business broadband. Despite many people being frustrated with the limits of their home connectivity, only 12% of office workers believe that the broadband in their office is better than the provision they have at home.

Many office workers believe that the issue with business connectivity is a long-term problem, and a big hinderance prior to the lockdown. The survey respondents said that they used to waste an average of 13.98 minutes waiting a week waiting for files to upload or download. Three quarters also experienced weekly issues with video calls, with the average office worker dropping out of at least three video calls a week whilst working from the office.

Another reason Brits would like to see better connectivity is for it to enable new smart technologies that will enhance their job performance. Nearly two thirds (59%) of Brits would like to see an introduction of new technologies in their workplace in the next 12 months. 20% would like more IoT tech (e.g., smart lights, smart toilets), 16% would like smart display whiteboards, 14% would like to see 3D printing and 13% would like to try VR teleconferencing.

As the countdown starts to speed up and the horizon for the return to the office finally comes into view, its crucial we learn the lessons of the last year. To trust and listen to our co-workers and embrace the technologies that make our jobs more enjoyable and efficient.