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Adapting to new ways of working: Four case studies from Cambridge

After close to two years of unpredictable working patterns, due to the regularly changing Covid restrictions, it is no surprise that companies may feel like they are feeling their way in the dark.

Back in May 2020, the Cambridge Independent reported on how COEL, the Cambridge-based office and laboratory design and fit-out company, and Kelly Drewery, a business psychologist from Talent Glue, were conducting research into how both individuals and companies were adapting to the enforced and continuous changes, what social, emotional and physical impact it was having, what was working well and what their hopes for the future would be.

The Bradfield Centre Picture: Mantle
The Bradfield Centre Picture: Mantle

COEL and Talent Glue have aptly named their research document ‘Lost in Location: the new way we work’.

We’ll look at the survey results in a separate article, but the research also includes case studies on four very different businesses which have faced diverse challenges in establishing their modus operandi.

Through communication with staff and by implementing innovative and intuitive strategies each of these companies has laid a cornerstone to build on.

The four case studies, which we summarise here, explore how early endeavours and continued reassessment have placed these companies as thought leaders in a turbulent and at times confusing world.

You can download the full research document ‘Lost in location: the new way we work’ here.

Case study 1: How have people been able to maintain their productivity in co-working spaces like the Bradfield Centre?

The Bradfield Centre Picture: Mantle
The Bradfield Centre Picture: Mantle

Mantle Business Centres is a serviced office provider that offers an excellent range of flexible workspace, virtual office services, and meeting spaces to their clients.

The Bradfield Centre is one of their premier co-working spaces, located in the centre of Cambridge Science Park with mostly growing technology companies as clients.

Mantle, the centre’s parent company, decided to keep the centre open throughout the pandemic, functioning inside Covid rules.

It maintained a centre presence and helped keep a buzz at the centre - building a creative face-to-face culture that is so essential to the early success of many start-ups. It also had to adapt to meet its other customers’ changing priorities too, for example, offering services to support remote working clients such as forwarding post and taking calls.

It also offered advice to clients on the range of government grants that were available to help them stay afloat. This helped people to focus on their business and adapt to the changing conditions too. That’s good business for everyone.

The Bradfield Centre. Picture: Mantle
The Bradfield Centre. Picture: Mantle

The centre had seen a 30 per cent drop in income during the pandemic but did some careful financial modelling to save where they could.

During the last 18 months, the centre observed that service users were initially cautious about returning with tenants expressing a preference for open-plan seating rather than closed offices.

The centre was responsive, changing the layout, installing screens around desks, moving plants around to subtly direct the flow of people around the floorplan.

People signed up to a new Home-Flexi subscription and started to come in more frequently. This subscription was most popular for younger and international clients - those perhaps without a good set-up at home. They simply missed the social interaction and could access office facilities like good broadband.

Case study 2: Maintaining both service delivery and wellbeing at Bridge Partners

Bridge Partners' service desk team. Picture: Bridge Partners
Bridge Partners' service desk team. Picture: Bridge Partners

Bridge Partners provides top-level strategic services, which are implemented alongside its customers' in-house technology teams or existing outsourced IT support services.

Early in the pandemic, when allowed, certain teams were keen to be in the office as they were finding it difficult to function effectively when they were remote. In particular, service teams relied on fast communication and teamwork to maintain pace and responsiveness to customers who were in turn affected by forced remote working.

Mostly made up of younger workers, these teams simply found it more efficient and better for their personal situation to be in the office together.

With most colleagues working remotely, they could comfortably follow the social distancing rules around their workplace.

For colleagues working remotely, managers noticed many found it difficult to switch off from work. People were working hours spread out further across the day and it could be difficult to spot anyone working unhealthily.

To support wellbeing, Bridge Partners provided an ongoing series of webinars for its people on topics as diverse as technology addiction, yoga and setting healthy life/ work boundaries. These sessions encouraged managers to create space for colleagues to talk openly about how they were experiencing the impact of the pandemic.

Managers encouraged employees to go outside, breathe fresh air, enjoy natural daylight and maintain wellbeing routines whenever they could. This healthy ethos has lasted the test of time; in fact, a running club which was started during the pandemic is still operating in full force, encouraging staff to head outdoors during their working day.

The company feels that the ongoing emphasis on employee wellbeing is helping people to stay well and limit the risk of remote presenteeism or burnout.

Case study 3: Rapidly adapting to remote working and a business merger at HCR Hewitsons

Inger Anson and Colin Jones, of HCR Hewitsons. Picture: Keith Heppell
Inger Anson and Colin Jones, of HCR Hewitsons. Picture: Keith Heppell

Harrison Clark Rickerbys (HCR) merged with Hewitsons in 2021, creating a law firm of approximately 800 people. Their combined strengths add gravitas to already firm foundations; the focus remains to give their clients the full range of legal services they need for their business and personal lives with the benefit of an extended regional network and enhanced specialisms.

HCR Hewitsons has focused on helping employees to look after health in three interlinked ways over the last 18 months: physical health, mental health and financial health.

The initial focus was on ensuring people’s physical health - moving people to home working and ensuring core workers who needed to be in the office could do so in a Covid safe way.

A lot of activity at this stage was ensuring a remote technical set-up, and to help maintain certain communication channels.

The focus then moved quickly to mental health - staying in touch, company communications, holding check-ins with people.

The HCR Hewitsons team at their new offices at 50-60 Station Road. Picture: Keith Heppell
The HCR Hewitsons team at their new offices at 50-60 Station Road. Picture: Keith Heppell

Managers also focused on rebudgeting the business with a short-term outlook - weeks and months ahead – doing what needed to be done to keep delivering to clients, minimising costs and keeping the business in good health. It was seen as essential for all workers that the business stayed buoyant.

Then, through the merger, the focus was on getting a full sense of the culture of the two organisations. Those cultures have both a physical and a digital manifestation and digitally, there have been lots of intro calls between people and positive ways for people to engage. The bringing together of both firms in their new central office has been a great step forward, strengthening relationships and creating goodwill. The challenges of the last year and a half, especially the winter months, have helped people to pull together and appreciate the positives.

What has been warmly welcomed has been the opportunity to have better quality conversations about the future, opportunities, careers. People are now mixing face to face, moving away from the difficulties of connecting people during lockdowns, when there was less contact and fewer opportunities for sparking conversations or finding ways to help each other.

Case study 4: Creating an agile, empowered environment at Bidwells

Bidwells House, Cambridge. Picture: Andrew Wilkinson
Bidwells House, Cambridge. Picture: Andrew Wilkinson

Bidwells is a leading UK property consultancy offering knowledge and access to high growth markets across the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Cambridge, Oxford and London. Bidwells made a significant transformation to a social agile working space in 2018, supported by COEL.

In many ways, Bidwells feels lucky. It completed a major workplace refurbishment not long before the pandemic hit. You might question then why it feels lucky. As a fast-moving business that relies on client account management, the refurbishment was intended to generate better cross team working and information sharing.

Bidwells invested in knocking down walls, brought in a bistro style café, rotated where teams were located and created relaxed spaces for clients and employees.

It even heat-mapped the office to create comfort zones. Almost pre-empting the pandemic, Bidwells wanted the space to feel more like ‘hosting clients in your living room’: professional, but more fun and relaxed.

In addition to these tangible changes, the company knew it had to nurture a high trust workplace culture. One core message was “Be where you need to be to deliver best”.

Bidwells House, Cambridge. Picture: Andrew Wilkinson
Bidwells House, Cambridge. Picture: Andrew Wilkinson

Why commute to sit at a desk when you could save that time working from home? Bidwells invested in creating a digital office too, including hardware like MS Surface, video communications and cloud-based document management systems. A continuous survey helps track changing moods of staff.

When the pandemic hit, it was straightforward for people to adapt quickly. When offices reopened, it adapted the office layout to support social distancing. The work of people in middle management has been most affected during the pandemic. They have had to work hard to replicate the learning from chats that might be overheard in the open plan office. More proactive contact across the middle manager level has taken place to avoid teams unintentionally falling into ‘silo working’.

These managers have also focused more on people’s wellbeing, such as proactively organising outdoor get togethers (when it’s been safe to do).

Throughout the culture change programme, Bidwells has focused on creating happy clients and happy employees. It is seeing business results from their programme with people being more focused and delivering on time. You could say the pandemic has given Bidwells a test of the workplace they want to have. And all the signs suggest that it’s worked and is working for them.

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