Manchester’s office market will “continue to prosper” rather than stagnate despite the Covid pandemic, a leading figure in the industry has predicted.
Will Lewis from OBI, the consultancy responsible for transacting 42% of all office space in the city, says his firm is confident this sector will return to growth despite the Covid-induced switch to working from home.
Mr Lewis said that because of factors including Manchester Council’s long-term economic strategy, the city now has a growing skills base driven by graduate talent, significant rises in business start-ups, and major infrastructure investments planned.
Other aspects including long-term plans to improve connectivity, place-based strategies and a push for high-quality office developments and refurbishments, stand the city in good stead.
He said: “The pandemic has accelerated changes in the workplace and, critically, the attitudes of middle and senior managers to both technology and working from home. Many companies had already adopted new ways of working and had adapted to demands from their workforces for more flexible working.
“Where companies and individual managers were once resistant to such demands, the national lockdown in March 2020 swept those constraints aside.”
He said flexible working is “definitely here to stay” – but does it mark the end of the office, the terminal decline of city centres, and, in Manchester’s context, a significant downturn in the demand for new office floorplate?
Mr Lewis thinks not – and pointed firstly to the vaccine rollout giving people the “confidence” to return to workplaces.
Describing the next factor, he said: “In Manchester our abundance of talent – particularly young, graduate talent – wanting to both live and work in the city centre is still a major attractor to growth businesses that already have or would like to put down roots in the city.
“This is boosted further by our fantastic public transport system and connectivity, another tick in the box for people and businesses that want to be based here.
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“The presence of this graduate talent and the resultant huge employment market, coupled with the enduring appeal of our city centre and its environs as a place to live, will continue to act as a major magnet for businesses.”
He also pointed to a recent survey by OBI that reported over 80% of respondents said remote working has a “negative impact” on those being trained and mentored – meaning the office still has a “key part to play” in development.
Mr Lewis also said the fundamentals of Manchester’s post-pandemic economy look “strong”.
He said: “Over the next three to five years, the economic recovery from the impact of the pandemic – along with the economic impacts arising from the departure of the UK from the European Union and a new trading relationship with the EU – will undoubtedly be felt by Manchester.
“Key sectors have been impacted already by the pandemic, such as hospitality, retail, and aviation.
“Whilst it is too early to assess the effects of any new trading relationship with the EU, the core innovation-driven sectors – centred around advanced materials and manufacturing; health innovation; digital and creative; and low carbon – are anticipated to be not only resilient, but to act as the fulcrum for strong economic growth going forwards for the city region.”
Another promising factor for Mr Lewis is that the city “has not stood still over the last 12 months” in terms of the commercial development pipeline.
He pointed to schemes such as 11 York Street, Manchester Goods Yard, Circle Square, The Lincoln and the Globe & Simpson building soon set for completion.
Elsewhere, a slew of new schemes are also due to begin works, such as 9 First Street, Mayfield, new development at NOMA, Back Turner Street and Pollard Street.
On Manchester’s future prospects, Mr Lewis said: “The secret to Manchester’s success is often debated, but its ingredients can be traced back to one simple thing: Manchester City Council’s clarity and consistency of strategy on a number of levels.
“Over the last 25 years, Manchester has been refocusing its economic base to become a post-industrial city no longer reliant on one or two key sectors. Today, the city’s economy has evolved from one that was reliant on manufacturing and engineering, to one that is robust, diverse, and growing.
“The long-term economic strategy that has been pursued by the council and its partners has sought to actively diversify the economy and play to its strengths in the science, creative and digital sectors. This approach has paid dividends with respect to employment, with growth in Manchester’s job market being consistent for more than a decade.”
He added: “It’s been a challenging and anxiety-ridden 12 months, and it’s easy to get swept up in believing that Covid could spell the end of our beloved places as we know them. Cities and the businesses located within them have suffered enormously as a result of the pandemic.
“But it’s important to stop and take stock when we can. Manchester doesn’t stay still for long, and it looks to me to be no different this time around. We at OBI are confident that it can weather this storm and come back swinging, just like it has so often before.”