Merchant Square move 'absolutely the right thing to do' says PwC's new regional head

As PwC is handed the keys of its £70m Merchant Square headquarters amidst a home-working versus office-working dilemma, its new regional head Kevin MacAllister tells Irish News business editor Gary McDonald that the move 'will be a real catalyst for good for Belfast city centre'

Kevin MacAllister, the newly appointed regional leader for PwC in Northern Ireland
Gary McDonald Business Editor

ON his first morning as a rookie accountant 32 years ago, Kevin MacAllister was given a briefcase, pen and some stationery.

Fast forward to day one of his new role as regional leader for the north's largest professional services company PwC (its current revenues are £170 million-plus), and he was handed the keys to the firm's sparkling new £70 million headquarters building in Belfast city centre.

And as the Irish News was given exclusive access to Merchant Square, he now has the unenviable dilemma of juggling how to manage a safe return to work for PwC's current 2,300 employees, versus the continuing government advice that people should continue to work from home where possible.

At a macro level, the accountancy and consulting firm has set itself a target of having more than 50 per cent of its 22,000-strong UK workforce back in its offices by the end of September, if it is safe to do so.

“People have asked me if we're making this move in Belfast at the wrong time,” Kevin says of the cross-city flit from Waterfront Plaza to Merchant Square, the firm's largest office outside London (it will provide 200,000 sq ft of grade A offices spread across nine upper floors, which will ultimately accommodate up to 3,000 staff).

“But my answer is that it is absolutely the right thing and the right time to do it,” he insists.

“As one of the largest office occupiers in the country, there is an onus on us to have our people back in the city.

“We’ve long promoted flexible working, but we also know right now that many of our people want to spend at least some time in the office.”

And, of course, he's swift to reiterate the caveat that safety must be at the heart of every decision PwC is making and the precautions it is putting in place within its offices.

“We're very lucky in that we can modify this building exactly as we want, and we are going to be pretty pioneering in our fit-out, which will have social distancing at its heart.

“This will be a 'destination workplace', where our people won't just work, but can socialise.

"We'll have restaurants; we'll have our own GP and psychologist on site; there'll be pilates classes, yoga, physio sessions.

“Indeed there will be parts of Merchant Square which more akin to a five-start hotel than an office space.”

He added: “Firms in our sector have often been associated with long office hours that eat into evenings and weekends.

“But that age of 'presenteeism' - the fear of leaving your work desk - has been obliterated by the pandemic and I believe will never return.”

Kevin MacAllister chats with Irish News business editor Gary McDonald

Kevin, who replaced Paul Terrington in the top role at PwC in the north at the end of June, believes the lure of what Merchant Square offers will make it attractive for employees.

“Curiosity alone will bring them back, but I must stress categorically that we will never mandate homebound employees to permanently return to their offices if they don't want to.”

But he's equally adamant that moving into Merchant Square by next summer (it has been pushed back from Christmas this year) will be “a real catalyst for good” for the city.

“Our employees will be arriving here via public transport. They'll be using coffee shops and restaurants. They'll be nipping into the shops at lunchtime and after work. Part of their salaries will be pumped into businesses and communities here, and that will have such a positive economic impact,” he said.

“There are many other factors to take into consider with the reopening the office, like issues around mental health and stress ones.

“We’ve long promoted flexible working, but we also know many of our people want to spend some time in the office. Though, again, if staff feel vulnerable or apprehensive, then clearly they don’t have to come back, because flexibility remains key.”

Kevin has been with PwC for 32 years, from its earliest days in Royston House, which has been subsumed into the current Merchant Square complex (“I remember there being carpeted walls, and when workmen stripped back this building they found some, which we will keep for posterity!”).

He will now be focused on supporting the firm’s regional clients as they navigate the dual challenges of the economic recovery from lockdown and prepare for the UK to leave the EU.

He added: “This is a critical time for Northern Ireland as we move towards a post-crisis world where digital transformation is no longer a challenge but a critical need.

“But what gives me great confidence is that PwC was ready for unprecedented changes with our drive to become a digitally-led firm, and our investment means we’re in the best position to help clients of all shapes and sizes navigate this new normal and realise their potential.

“With Brexit also back in focus, we know the pressures will increase as businesses prepare the end of the transition period, and we continue to encourage clients to prepare any scenario.”

When the Merchant Square idea was conceived two years ago, coronavirus didn't feature in Kevin's or anybody's vocabulary, and lockdown hit PwC and all businesses like an express train

But Kevin insists: “If you asked me would I do this again, it's a categoric yes. We's sign the lease again in the morning.”

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