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We still don’t know how the working from home trend will affect real estate owners in the long term
Thursday 29 Apr 2021 Author: Tom Sieber

As restrictions are eased attention will turn from a return to shops and pubs to the somewhat more humdrum reality of getting back to the office.

Working from home has been one of the big themes of the Covid-19 – for office workers at least – and there is still a debate about the lasting impact of the virus on this trend.

The most likely outcome seems to be a hybrid approach judging by the comments from major organisations and the preferences of their workers, with at least a portion of the week spent at home.

The implications for owners of commercial property may not be as cataclysmic as some had predicted early in the pandemic but, at the very least, owning the right kind of offices in the right places will be important for some time to come.

Investment bank Morgan Stanley has been running surveys on working from home over the past 12 months and its latest data shows that in mainland Europe expectations of a return to work have shifted to later in the year but are unchanged in the UK, potentially reflecting the head start seen on vaccine rollout domestically.

Interestingly UK workers appear to be slightly keener to spend more time working from home, although the average appears to be a preference for around two days a week.

You can understand why employees and employers might want a return to the office for at least some of the working week.

Collaborative working just makes more sense face to face than it does over video conferencing and people may well be missing the social interactions which come with being around other people in their working lives.

However, when it comes to getting to the office people may well be less than keen to use busy public transport. This makes owning office assets with ample car parking space an advantage, at least in the near term.

Providing this kind of facility is harder in more built-up environments and central London also faces the complication of the congestion charge.

Flexible office space is also likely to be in demand, given the hybrid situation we appear to be moving towards, and this could be good news for serviced office group IWG (IWG).

As the table shows owners of commercial property are trading well below their net asset values, perhaps because the market believes the buildings are now worth less and so the book value in a company’s accounts could be overstating the true value.

Morgan Stanley observes: ‘Current discount levels are wide, but understandably so for a flat/downwards drift scenario (for rental growth).’

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