Companies are placing their bets and taking a guess on how next year will look and feel. Will our cities bounce back? Will working from home be switched for “please let me back in the office now”? Will tourists return to fill our pavements, restaurants and shops? After a year on pause, it’s time to decide what you think is about to happen. And it seems that there’s a belief afoot that the current “new normal” might be packed away, put in a tightly sealed box and placed somewhere it can be quietly forgotten.
In London, Eataly, the Italian food retailer that does things big when it comes to property deals, has said that it’s pressing ahead with the opening of a huge site in Broadgate at the start of 2021. Sure, initial contracts were signed some years ago but the project is on the edge of the currently slumbering City of London and right next to the should-be-teeming-but-isn’t Liverpool Street train station. In short, it only makes any sense to take down the hoardings and hire hundreds of people if you believe that commuters will be back again – and quite soon.
Then, this week, both the CitizenM and Hyatt hotel groups signed up to be part of the redevelopment of London’s Olympia – a project that will need crowds to come to its music venue, cinema, theatre and shops if it’s going to thrive. These projects are further off but hint that hospitality’s bigger players don’t think that the fundamentals have shifted that much: people will fly in (Olympia benefits from its speedy links to Heathrow airport) to attend trade shows, see a band or have a couple of nights at play in the city. Of course, the months to come will be choppy – the UK this past week has seen the collapse of two vast high street retail groups – but companies are beginning to make their moves and reveal ambitions.
Of course, many are going to be resistant to the notion that some of the changes to the world of work that we have seen in 2020 will unravel again – in some instances, very rapidly. When you are in the midst of a crisis, it’s hard to tell what has changed for ever and what will fall away again. But we shouldn’t think about office life in isolation because what will willingly lure people back to their companies is not the nine-to-five routine, nor squeezing onto a packed train. The things that have always pulled people into the embrace of the city are what happens at the end of the day or at lunch, or what they see through the window. It’s the city’s promise of the new, of places, experiences and moments that cannot be found with ease beyond its borders. A day at the office becomes attractive when it segues into drinks, an exhibition, a play, dinner with the gang. Especially when the place you work in has all these lures on its doorstep.
And, while hard to think about now, even the thought of the crowd, the heaving unity of an audience, will one day also reassert its power and pull us back to former routines. Well, that’s my bet.