Belfast could see an epidemic of empty offices in future as companies downsize their need for space as the work from home habit takes root, industry experts say.
The Executive has been urged to work with business to bring a safe return of office workers to their desks to safeguard the economic future of towns and cities.
A survey by Belfast Chamber, revealed in Tuesday's Belfast Telegraph, said just 5% of office workers in the city centre are now back at their desks - a trend which economist Dr Esmond Birnie said could cost businesses in the city centre around £200m a year in lost business.
Belfast City Council said that a maximum of 30% of its office-based workers can be back at their desks at any one time to maintain social distancing.
One property consultant said that employers will be keen to use up office space as they may still have a long time left on their lease. But after leases expire, offices may remain empty, he said. "As and when leases expire, it could take a bit more time to re-let, so we could see post-expiry voids extend."
Nial Borthistle, business development manager at Glandore, which operates shared office space in Arthur Street in Belfast, said most of its member companies were still working from home.
More workers might now come back to the city as children return to schools, he said.
But he added: "I think that companies are currently in the process of re-evaluating their workforce requirements and with that comes the utilisation of current office space. In the short term whilst the majority of employees are working from home, we'll see larger companies use their space a bit differently making use of extra space to co-work, collaborate, meet colleagues/managers and clients in a safe socially distant manner."
Firms might also use their space to deliver wellness initiatives which could help maintain staff health and company culture.
Belfast City Council said that its essential frontline staff had continued to work while observing social distancing.
Most other staff were still working from home. However, some staff were now in a phased return to the office where it was safe to do so and their job could not be done remotely.
A spokesperson added: "Due to the layout of office space across council buildings, however, a maximum of 30% occupancy is possible at any time, under the current restrictions."
But the council said its short-term plans for the city would help create a lasting recovery, regardless of whether offices were left unoccupied. "While we continue to review and update our plans in response to the current pandemic, we believe many of our short-term ambitions... will have potential to be a catalyst for the city in terms of recovery and regeneration, and help to create a vibrant city centre."
Andy Stephens, a planning consultant at Matrix Planning, said he believed there would be no going back to full occupancy of office buildings but that companies would adapt a combination of home and office working.
He said office space could be repurposed as housing, a move which would chime with council ambitions to have 66,000 people living in the city centre by 2035.
He added the move towards home-working would give bargaining power to tenants of office buildings.
"Traditionally landlords have dictated rules to tenants but there will be a shift and landlords will appease tenants," he said.
"There is also an opportunity from where we are now to look at how heavily Belfast is dictated by the car. Is this a time to look at putting green infrastructure in place? It could be time to look at the public realm and how we create really nice outdoor spaces and entice people to come back in.
"You'd be a fool as a landlord or property owner not to look at the ways that people can dine outside and feel safe."
Glyn Roberts, chief executive of Retail NI, said the Executive should be working to get office workers back into town and city centres.
"Office workers provide a large amount of footfall and trade for retail and hospitality sectors in many of our high streets," he said.
"Given that both sectors are facing severe difficulties at the minute, the return of office workers is vitally important for their future viability."
A Department for the Economy spokesperson said: "The Minister holds the view that a return to office working in town centres would be of benefit to surrounding retail outlets but only when it is safe and appropriate to do so. In line with current guidance, the majority of DfE staff continue to work remotely."
Neil McShane, founder of property investment consultancy Inprio, said: "I anticipate that more office-workers will return as children go back to school.
"However, whilst this would be a welcome boost for the city, I don't expect to see us anywhere close to capacity this side of Christmas. It could take some time before we get back to pre-Covid occupancy."