Big Tech’s Remote Work Trends, Pandemic Impact, and Shift Towards Flexibility
The decision by Meta, the rebranded Facebook giant, to relinquish one of its two leased buildings in London’s west end was hardly unexpected. The shift towards remote work, accelerated by the pandemic, has caused a dramatic reversal in Big Tech’s aggressive expansion strategies. In the era of lengthy and costly commutes, hybrid working has proven to be more enduring in London than in other European markets. A company founded in 2004 opting for a 20-year lease with no break clauses, eventually paying an equivalent of seven years’ rent to exit, highlights the obsolescence of such rigid, long-term leases.
The Office Doom Predictions
Ever since the pandemic demonstrated that not everyone requires a physical office space, let alone full-time access to it, predictions of doom have loomed over offices. Last week, Jefferies noted that London’s office vacancies have reached a 30-year high, exerting pressure on rents. Occupiers are drastically downsizing their space requirements while demanding enhanced amenities and greater flexibility.
Flexibility on Steroids
The desire for flexibility in the office space has been turbocharged by the pandemic. What was once a relatively static sector is now becoming operationally intensive, observes Marie Dormeuil from industry analytics specialist Green Street. While the top tier of the market, with its “greenium” buildings, still sees landlords holding sway due to environmental scarcity and tenant fit-out investments, lease lengths are evolving.
The New Norm: 15 Years
Even within the top tier, a 15-year lease is the new 20. For instance, Clifford Chance’s recent City HQ lease includes a 20-year term with a 15-year break and additional options for space hand back during the lease. In contrast, the broader market is undergoing transformation. London traditionally favored landlord-friendly leases, with an average prime space lease length of 10 years—higher than Paris, Berlin, and Madrid. However, lease lengths have considerably shortened in recent years.
The Rise of Flexibility
The rise of flexible office spaces, including co-working and serviced offices, has played a significant role in reshaping lease dynamics. British Land’s fully managed office brand, Storey, and Land Securities’ expansion plans for its flexible offering, Myo, highlight this shift. Great Portland Estates aims to allocate at least a quarter of its portfolio to flexible space, featuring shorter leases of three to seven years, inclusive of fit-outs and comprehensive building services from the landlord.
Challenges and Opportunities
While this shift toward flexibility may entail more effort and higher costs, the sector has managed to command a premium for increased adaptability and services, helping sustain market rents overall. This demand for flexibility may soon infiltrate the prime office market, with blue-chip occupiers opting to supplement core spaces with flexible alternatives. Companies are becoming less willing to pay for “just in case” space, especially given past experiences of excess capacity. Landlords have reported interest from traditional occupiers seeking overspill or occasional space in flexible offices tailored for smaller firms.
The transformation of office leases from rigid long-terms to agile flexibility is redefining the real estate landscape, necessitating adjustments in valuations and financing models to account for increased risk and tenant expectations. The sector, thus far, has managed to navigate this evolution, highlighting the enduring importance of adaptability in the ever-changing world of workspaces.