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A return to the office - but what environment will employees demand?

Central Saint Giles development in London (designed by Renzo Piano)- bought by Google for $1 billion in January 2022 - viewed from St Giles-in-the-Fields Church - described by Peter Ackroyd as 'a place of entrance and exit for those visiting the great (medieval) fairs of the City of London'

The UK government has urged employees to talk to their employers about returning to work in the office as Plan B measures against Covid-19 have been lifted. Future Cities Forum discussed the return to the office and the environment that employees might demand at the January forum 'The Making of the Modern City' held at abrdn PLC in the City of London.

On the morning of the forum, Google announced it was acquiring for £730 million ($1 billion) the Renzo Piano-designed Central St Giles mixed-used development in central London, where it had been renting office space. This vote-of-confidence and commitment to a central business district, as London and the UK emerge from a global pandemic, was discussed by the developers, investors and architects present.

Principal at Grimshaw, Angela Dapper, commented:

'We are still processing the pandemic, as Matthew Vickerstaff said. We keep talking about hybrid working, but no-one is really doing it as we are working mostly from home. At the start of the pandemic people said 'I don't want to commute' but people now say 'I will commute if I have a nice station with a coffee shop and it's twice a week'. Look at Google at Central Saint Giles, for instance - it's near a major transport hub with facilities. Their staff won't come in every day but organisations like Google fly in the face of the 15 minute city as they will draw people from further afield. They want to be in London for the talent pool. Places like Google and our cities are defined by the talent. People will say they don't want to join (an organisation) if they are in five days per week. We need to change to accommodate what people want. The processing phase will go on longer. This is important and we have seen places like King's Cross as quite resilient in the pandemic as they have different uses - trains, retail, education, offices in a hub, so we are trying to create a similar thing at Euston. We are not just talking about buildings. It's about people-led design and that will shape our cities.'

Director at architects Chapman Taylor, Gavin King described how he thought that behaviour change has led to how we think about 'the office', in that it becomes a place now for reconnecting with colleagues and reflecting the core values of an organisation:

'The whole idea of hybrid working is not new, and the technology has been available for some years. The blinkers have been released from a number of clients. Everyone is now asking - what is the purpose of an office? However, the pandemic has taken twenty days to do what it has taken me twenty years to achieve - when I have been saying that that work is something you do, not something you go to. The office is not dead. The behavioural change wrought by the pandemic is about how we think about going to the office. It needs to be a destination. Therefore the physical office becomes a 'gang hut' for reconnecting with colleagues, a place for understanding who you work for, with the design of the office embodying the core values of the organisation. The workplace post-pandemic will not be that different - not a reduction in space, but occupied less densely for health reasons. We have just completed a research project for the European Space Agency, as there is now a new attitude to how space is used because of health concerns. We have also worked with AstraZeneca who were totally flexible before the pandemic, so they migrated to the Covid-19 status without any problems.'

LDA Director and London Studio lead, Ben Walker - who has been working on the landscaping and exterior spaces of the new Apple campus at Battersea Power Station - described how the move to hybrid is not new but that time in a physical shared office favours different personality types:

'The social aspect (of hybrid working) comes from the fact that some of our team are happy to come in and socialise and then there are those who don't want to. For some time now half of our office has been designed for social and group interaction with sofas and space to talk. What I have noticed in the recovery phase from the pandemic is that people now come back in to go to a show, and to meet friends after work. Therefore they arrange their working week in a cleverer way so they can be focussed on their engagement time, their social time, having perhaps spent the early part of the week typing away at home, getting their 'real' work done.'

The topic of workspace unifying developments was taken up by Managing Partner at Yoo Capital, Lloyd Lee. He commented on how the project for the remodelling and opening-up of the fortress-like Olympia London had been impacted by the pandemic. At first he described the initial vision as one of entertainment but as time progressed, the importance of adding in workspace to make it 'a place in all senses' came to be defined:

' We settled on the conviction that we needed to separate the short term effects of the pandemic from the fact that Covid-19 will put a magnifying glass on shopping centres, for instance. The pandemic has forced all of us in real estate and destination management to think about what the magnifying glass has done to our spaces. We were fortunate that we thought about Olympia London pre-pandemic and concluded that it had not worked hard enough as a conference and exhibition centre operating 10 to 4 for half the year ('We have coffee!'). We then worked - with our creative team - on the basis that we should take what used to be just an exhibition hall and turn it, so to speak, on its head to create a destination so vibrant, operating seven days a week until late, that people would think 'this would be a great place for an exhibition!' We told the restaurant guys to create a destination for food so sensational that people would come for a meal but be surprised to find so many other things at Olympia including retail, theatres, workspace, hotels and entertainment - as well as exhibition halls. The final piece of the puzzle was that you needed places to work, but also entertainment and hospitality, public realm and somewhere to walk the dog on the weekend. That really defined a place for us. A place does not always need a purpose. We needed all of these elements to join in a singular vision, that would still make money.'

Our discussions on the evolution of the work place will take place this spring in Leeds, where the issue of investment in the levelling up agenda as companies move their staff to the regions of the UK, will also be on the agenda.


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