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As we’ve said before, if there’s one great thing we should expect to emerge from the events of the last few months, it is the creation of better offices for more people. In particular there is a renewed appreciation for the things the office is best at – bringing people together to forge a sense of shared identity and purpose, to structure their times and places of work, to foster creativity and to collaborate and share ideas and information.

There will also be a clear acknowledgement that the offices we create should offer people choices about where to work, on which task and with whom. And, because people are freer than ever to work away from what was once commonly called their main place of work, the office should be a better option for at least some of the time. Especially for those organisations who rely on the dynamics of physical locations for their competitive advantage.

A couple of sectors that are ahead of this particular curve are the pharmaceutical and life sciences industries. For decades now these and related sectors have based their primary office design models on a campus, and not just because of their associations with universities.

A campus or agile working model not only gives people choices about where to work, it is dynamic in the way it creates ever changing teams and engineers serendipitous encounters. It is designed to allow people to share information and develop relationships with each other and the organisation.

It offers a sense of shared purpose, so is the quintessence of the 21st Century office. Yet it also enjoys a long history of development and improvement. The current conversations about the future of work and the places we do it will seem very familiar to firms in sectors with a focus on innovation.

So, it’s no surprise that the tech giants of Silicon Valley typically follow a similar model. Towers are of no use for an organisation that wants people to move around and encounter each other. Theirs is a horizontal place of work, both physically and organisationally.

The model is also scalable. It doesn’t have to be the Googleplex or Astra Zeneca’s £330 million Cambridgeshire campus to work. The features that make an agile working environment the best option for many organisations are just as relevant and just as possible for smaller organisations that have the same aims as their larger contemporaries.

Regardless of the size of the space you are talking about, you can create spaces for collaborative and private work, develop knowledge hubs and use public and shared spaces to engineer those serendipitous encounters that result in eureka moments.

Location matters in other ways too. Because the sector relies on creating these kinds of physical environments as key drivers of their business and need to draw on a pool of exceptional talent and resources to innovate in a global market, there has been little let-up in their demand for space, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s telling that two reports in the local markets for commercial property in the UK’s R&D hotspot between Oxford and Cambridge, commissioned either side of the lockdown, paint a broadly similar picture.

In February, at a time when Brexit was the biggest concern we had, a report from property consultants Bidwells found that demand for space in Cambridge remained ahead of long term averages and that than 80 percent of the space taken was split equally between the life science and tech sectors. Many buildings were leased ahead of construction as firms sought to stay ahead of the game in a seller’s market.

That demand has not let up over the last few months. A July report from the same consultants, found that the so-called Oxford-Cambridge Arc needed 20 million sq ft of new R&D and office space over the next two decades to keep pace with demand. It also warns that a mismatch between supply and demand would drive up rents and calls on the government to acknowledge the issue and find bold solutions.

The importance of this region for the UK cannot be overstated. In the short term, Cambridge-based Astra Zeneca is working in partnership with Oxford University to develop a vaccine for the virus while Milton Keynes’ National Biosample Centre has been converted into the UK’s biggest coronavirus testing centre.

Longer term, the region will be essential in maintaining the UK’s role as leading R&D centre and home to some of the world’s largest and most innovative firms. This is not just a matter of prestige but of economic necessity.

Providing the right physical locations for this to take place will be essential, both in macro terms with the development of new buildings and also in the micro sense of people’s relationships with each other. The pharmaceutical and life science sectors are fortunate that they have already pioneered many of the ways of working that we are told will define the future of work.   

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