Coming to a high street near you: why repurposed flexible office space is the perfect fit for our high streets



Cal Lee, Global Head of Workthere

The idea of repurposing space in the real estate sector is nothing new. You need only look around our offices in central London to see a plethora of office buildings which were once used for residential purposes, or indeed to other areas of the city where large warehouses have been converted into homes. More recently, however, the repurposing story has very much been focused around the retail sector which, for some time now, has been buckling under the triumvirate of an increase in online shopping, rises in rents and business rates as well as a global pandemic.

With our daily news being dominated by the closure of yet another high street retailer, it is easy to lose sight of the opportunities that it presents to the rest of the market. Yet opportunities there are, and how we grasp them will very much dictate the future of our high streets and how we retain that sense of community they have so long been famous for. 

So what relevance does this have to the flexible office sector? The key is in the name; with Covid-19 acting as a catalyst for change in terms of where we work, the very real expectation is that we will not return to the office five days a week in the near or long-term, with flexible work patterns becoming standard practice for many of us. The opportunity here for the repurposing of redundant or underutilised retail space into flexible office space is huge. Co-working is now seen as a viable means to bring people back to the high street, as workers seek somewhere they can work locally, yet still get the perks of an office; a social scene, good transport connections and an abundance of amenities.

Putting this into a wider context and we revisit the concept of hub and spoke/roam; the idea that a company will have a large centrally located HQ, with smaller spokes in more suburban locations. If this concept really does take off, building on a few examples that exist at present, then there is a massive supply gap on our high streets, with the potential for vacant units to be filled with work spaces. The opportunity here for rejuvenating the high street, via higher levels of footfall and more spending potential, is significant and will only serve to act as a catalyst for other occupiers.

Although this might all sound straight-forward, it’s not to say there are not a number of obstacles to navigate our way through if this is to become a reality. In this case, size really does matter. Co-working can operate at 5,000 sq ft, but it does really need economies of scale to ensure margin, and therefore we see more success at 10,000+ sq ft. In addition to this, there is often a challenge with regards to sufficient natural light; most retail units are located on the ground floor and with only one large window, light becomes an issue as you work your way back.

Despite these practical issues, there is the potential to work around them with clever design ideas and architectural nuances. If we are to see the advent of flexible offices on our high streets, we need to remain nimble and reactive in our approach, simultaneously responding to the requirements from businesses, consumers and workers. With new office buildings in suburban locations having been few and far between in recent years, the repurposing of retail space into flexible office locations presents a huge break for the flexible office sector to firmly establish their footprint. With the explosion of flexible working still ringing in our ears, this could just be the moment the flexible office sector has been waiting for.