RLB’s Matt Brooker, Tim Spencer, Gemma Prior and Tom Giddings of the Commercial team attended the British Council of Offices (BCO) annual conference last week – here are our collective thoughts.
It was great to be back at the BCO annual conference last week, held in Manchester, where we have our North West spine office in King Street – there was a genuine feeling of returning to ‘normal’. It almost felt like meeting up with long-lost family… and we are sure we are not alone when we say that there was a sinking feeling to leave such a joyous event.
As we travelled back home, we chatted about the inspiring talks and conversations we had over the two days from ‘The Futurenauts’ hosted by Mark Kowal (Sheppard Robson) with Ed Gillespie and Mark Stevenson, a funny, philanthropical, positive and thought-provoking seminar, to the political debate ‘Game Changer, or Game Over?’ hosted by Richard Kauntze with Bronwen Maddox (Institute for Government), Rt Hon Alan Johnson and Anne McElvoy (The Economist), that discussed possible coalitions and seemed in parallel and relevant to construction right now too. With the stark economic issues we are facing as a country, as the world even, the old and faithful word ‘collaboration’ or perhaps, coalition, might be the only way to solve the problems.
The genie is out of the bottle
However, what seemed to be the takeaway, whether in a seminar room or the social events pre and post the formal discussions, was that as The Futurenauts seminar said “the genie is now out of the bottle”, with the hybrid way of working here to stay. Even if an economic downturn happens and the balance of power shifts from employee to employer, the return to the office will continue to look like a 2–3-day week, with the old Monday-Friday 9-5 a thing of the past.
We have been discussing this back in our office (and on our screens in Teams), and as Cushman and Wakefield’s Despina Katsikakis commented, 75% of all office workers now expect to have an agile working practice. This is a far cry from the situation we were in pre-pandemic, where Despina pointed out that industry studies showed that only 35% felt trusted to work from home, while post-pandemic, this rose to 90%.
But what does this mean to those managing commercial space? And how do we navigate an uncertain future? Will the new norm continue to be three days in the office/two days at home? How will we know what days continue to be popular WFH days, and will different days mean another working demographic – i.e. will Friday in the office be for those looking to go out for drinks before the weekend? And Mondays at home for those who have busy weekend lives?
The only certainty is uncertainty
The only certainty we know is that there will be uncertainty. A statement that is just as applicable to the built environment with the challenges of labour and supply chain and to the wider economy. We are entering a world where things are changing at a rapid rate. Where spending behaviours, living patterns, and working habits are being facilitated by technology, enabling us to change to fit our lifestyles and personalise our experiences.
And, of course, our workspaces and work cultures reflect this. We see sustainability and social value as more important factors in office space, driven by occupiers and investors. So how do we adapt to these changes and desires in our Commercial Fit-out spaces?
Agility is the name of the game
Agility is, of course, the name of the game. In the past, we had moved from having our own desk and set of drawers to hotdesking and lockers. This change had been gradual, and working cultures took time to evolve. It was where we were heading pre-pandemic, and like many of the working world trends, the pandemic accelerated the desire for a more flexible working space.
At RLB, we already felt this change happening. We used the opportunity during lockdown to redesign our Manchester office, taking out 30 desk areas, moving to more breakout spaces and collaborative working areas, and making our London office a 90-desk space for our 268 South East team. Of course, being in the industry we are, we were never going to be at 100% occupancy even pre-pandemic, with many of the team on-site or at clients’ offices, but we now have far greater ability to be more agile. We realised that the office space was no longer going to be solely a place to work, or even one to collaborate, but one to socialise with colleagues, check-in on their wellbeing, undertake training and CPD, and be a full-time workspace if needed. It also allowed us to provide a private working space or ‘do not disturb’ areas for task-based working and those more introverted members of the team who work better in quieter, less occupied spaces.
Likewise, at BCO, we saw a new type of space at Media City, a village of cross-pollination where there was a need and demand for flexible and adaptable spaces where tenants can plug and play with a light touch fit-out, something that we also see as popular to meet the ‘flexibility’ of the uncertain future. It brings the agility for SMEs to expand and take more space while having the benefits of being housed within the hive of gargantuan occupiers like the BBC and ITV. It also still delivers on the green agenda with net zero carbon and other sustainable qualifications being achieved.
We came away from the conference inspired, thought-provoked and exhausted. We are incredibly proud of the industry we work in and those professionals who have shown over the last few years how they have that agility and adaptability to listen, learn and create different spaces for our changing needs. We also felt optimistic and confident about what lies ahead. Although the commercial space is evolving, we believe there will always be a place for great design, construction and fit-out to allow us to be future fit for today’s and tomorrow’s commercial needs.