(Bloomberg) -- The UK’s regional towns and cities will be flooded with unwanted offices as businesses cut down on unused space after the coronavirus pandemic triggered a shift in working patterns. 

As much as 20% of space in the office markets in the south east of England that it covers could become redundant, according to a survey conducted by real estate broker Lambert Smith Hampton. That’s about 26 million square feet of office space, more than 50 Gherkin skyscrapers or the equivalent of more than double the entire floor space of offices in Reading, a city about 40 miles west of London.  

The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in a fierce debate about future demand for office space, as workers who were asked to stay at home to limit the virus spread are reluctant to return to full-time office-based working. While office occupancy levels have been slowly increasing, it is becoming clearer that a large proportion of businesses have accepted an element of home working as a permanent feature. 

Just 15% of the executives surveyed by LSH said their employees were back in the office for four days a week, down from 90% pre-pandemic. About 72% said employees now attended the office on three days or fewer, LSH said in a statement. Offices in central London were excluded from the survey. 

“We are now seeing evidence to support the assumption that the enforced working from home experiment of 2020 and 2021 has changed the office landscape irrevocably,” LSH head of research Oliver du Sautoy said. “This has far-reaching implications for the real estate sector and cannot be ignored by landlords and investors.”

Many of the world’s biggest real estate investors continue to bet on the office market, focusing on the best and greenest buildings, anticipating that companies will be prepared to pay high rents as they reduce their overall footprint and look to lure staff back. Private equity firm Brookfield Asset Management Inc. has snapped up a series of office landlords around Europe in the past year.

Just 8% of businesses plan to increase their office space while 72% said they would look to reduce it, LSH said. But while most UK employers have so far been cautious about demanding their workers return, about 62% said they have or will soon put in place new rules to encourage an increase in office attendance, the broker’s data show. 

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