What role can innovation play in ensuring collaboration continues if we can’t be physically present?

 And how might offices be used going forward? Tom Renn, Managing Director – Bruntwood SciTech Manchester looks at how workspaces may now evolve.

I recently joined UKSPA for a webinar chaired by Patrick Bonnett, National Innovation Centre for Ageing, which looked at Innovation and the new office. Panelists included Nigel Mapp, Peter Baird, Perkins+Will, Toby Hyam, Creative Space Management. We’ve seen lots of discussion recently around what Covid-19 means for the traditional workspace and the consensus from this debate was clear, it might be slow to recover and adapt but that the role of workspace will continue to be an important one in supporting high growth teams to collaborate, connect and to drive purpose and culture.

Importantly though, there was a strong feeling that the pandemic would drive meaningful change in the way we see our workspace, our commute and our work/life balance, with agile working, technology, zero carbon and active transport all being key themes in our discussion.

What’s the future for our cities and campuses?

It’s important to consider the wider demands of the economy and what the legacy of Covid-19 means for our cities. During the webinar, Nigel used the case of 9/11 in New York where they successfully ‘built back better’ to recover from the crisis, encouraging people to return to the city and alleviating fears over office spaces on high levels, where rents for such spaces remained at a premium. 

It reminds us that whilst in a crisis our feelings/thoughts and habits can change significantly and that extreme views can start to drive initial patterns of behaviour and thoughts, but that invariably the new ‘normal’ is likely to be less extreme and more balanced than we all might currently think. It will of course take time to rebuild confidence in returning to our cities, but we need our cities to thrive again, as they form a key part of the fabric of our everyday lives.

Economically we absolutely need the cities to bounce back, we are a very consumer led economy, our economic expansion since the Brexit vote in June 2016 has been underpinned by consumer spending, and so, if our economy isn’t being supported by people using public transport, eating out for lunch with colleagues or using high street retail all of these things will stop and stall our recovery. 

The science and technology sector has experienced unprecedented levels of success during the crisis, with demands for lab space in particular being higher than ever before. As these sectors flourish, we must consider how we create the spaces to inspire innovation and collaboration and that will help drive these businesses back into our cities. As Toby’s point highlighted, proximity to talent and knowledge is now more than ever critical for success. Innovation districts are going to become much more synonymous with cities so location and amenity is key. The intensity of knowledge gathered in one place is going to be something people  really gravitate towards and relationships between key knowledge institutions and workplaces is key for the commercialisation of ideas in city centres. 

Adapting to new habits

As working habits change it’s important to note that what we actually use the workplace for may now have significantly changed. With many realising desk work can be done efficiently and easily at home, social interaction and collaboration will be the key drivers in bringing people back into offices and cities. Therefore we must be prepared to create spaces that colleagues can really enjoy and that will ultimately bring people together. Campuses with green spaces that enhance the quality of life will thrive, vibrant welcome areas will be required more and more and workspaces that inspire will be essential to encourage people to want to spend time there. The workspace will no longer be an obliged location to spend five days a week, but instead a place to experience, engage and interact with colleagues. 

A huge barrier at the moment is that we lack the educational infrastructure to enable a quick return to the workplace. With universities and schools all moving toward a digital learning environment, many are now having to balance home working with homeschooling. This has proven challenging for a lot of employers I’ve spoken to in that they don’t want to polarise their teams into those who can and those who can’t return to the office. There are worries for those with children who are unable to return to the workspace immediately, and how this could potentially isolate them. A lot of the companies we work with are telling us that they’re anticipating a much fuller office attendance from September or January onwards, however flexibility will remain key. We are in for the long haul and it will be a slow return, but people will return. 

Personally I don’t think we will return to the norms of 2019, I think there will be three main camps that emerge. There will be those businesses that believe they should have everybody back in from a cultural perspective, likely to be the minority. I think the majority will fall somewhere in the middle, something that adopts more of a flexible working pattern and empowers employees to control their own time management, where roles permit this. The third camp will most likely be those who believe remote working is the way forwards and there’s no longer a need for the office. I have had conversations with forward-thinking CEO’s who say Covid-19 has accelerated their digital upskilling which has been great, but left them with no real incentive to return to the office. 

In my view and as I think as we all concluded on this webinar, the office is not dead, it’s just changing and it’s changing for the better. Increased flexibility, a richer work life balance and innovative office spaces are all things employers must consider going forward. My outlook is one of hope, it’s a cautious and slow recovery but there is an absolute role for the workplace in the future. Science parks and innovation districts will thrive within this as we serve those with high technology needs, maker spaces, labs and the like, with inspiring collaborative spaces where people want to spend their time.