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Reinventing office space in Cambridge to embrace the latest technological revolution

Opinion | Nick Finlayson-Brown, who combines his role as head of Mills & Reeve’s Cambridge office with a seat on the Cambridge BID board, looks ahead to the post-pandemic future of office space in Cambridge.

Nick Finlayson-Brown, of Mills & Reeve. Picture: Gary Rowsel Photography (56794904)
Nick Finlayson-Brown, of Mills & Reeve. Picture: Gary Rowsel Photography (56794904)

During the second industrial revolution of the late 19th-century, employers such as Bournville created a seismic shift in working practices: they built model villages to house their workers away from the city smog and in close proximity to purpose-built production lines in the leafy countryside. Employees enjoyed access to leisure facilities, such as swimming pools, and high-quality schools for their children. It was a dramatic transformation.

Here in Cambridge, and indeed across the world, Covid has precipitated a change of similar magnitude in our own working practices.

Accelerating the pace of the latest technological revolution, the early Covid lockdowns forced companies to adopt an agile approach to home working. And as we emerge from the pandemic, companies are evolving and reinventing their office spaces in order to negotiate a new normal that is attractive to employees while remaining beneficial to businesses.

Building connections across the globe

One of the benefits has been the accelerated use of technology to facilitate connections over an extended distance.

I run the China desk at Mills & Reeve, where there’s no doubt that Zoom technology has helped us to build deeper connections with our client base. We used to take the team out to China once a year but, more recently, technology has enabled us to meet up with our Chinese contacts much more frequently – and without the environmental impact created by multiple flights.

We’ve also seen an internal transformation. With more than 1,200 employees spread across seven UK offices, our training content used to be repeated seven times with members of staff travelling between offices by train. Now, we can gather everyone virtually and deliver professional development events to everyone at the same time, while again minimising our carbon footprint.

Clearly, the challenge is how to retain the best elements of virtual meetings and events without losing those ‘moments of value’ that come from in-person collaborations and chance meetings.

High-quality hybrid working

Some banks such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan feel so strongly about the importance of in-person working that they have chosen to promote a full return to the office, and at least one London firm is reported to have asked its employees to return to the office for a minimum of three days per week with a 20 per cent drop in salary for those who would prefer to work from home full-time.

However, most companies still find themselves with a less definitive strategy, as they try to get a sense of what’s to come. We’re undoubtedly at a tipping point.

Current technology is no substitute for picking up the ambience of a room. If a conference room is full of people and two others join by Zoom, there’s no question that the virtual attendees will miss some of the nuance associated with being physically present. Although there is a lot of chatter and excitement around Metaverse and holographic meetings, the reality is that conferencing technology will continue to evolve at an exponential pace. While few companies are prepared to invest in technology before it has been tried and tested, office spaces will need to deliver IT infrastructure that is on or ahead of the curve if they are to remain relevant in a hybrid landscape.

The days of desks assigned to one individual are probably over. What matters more is the ability to have functional, zoned and flexible touchdown space so that employees enjoy coming into work.

Office floor plates are likely to be smaller and focused on a more agile way of working, unless the space is to be used as a company HQ. And there is a growing desire to create more collaborative space within desk or bench work areas, rather than as separate spaces, which also reflects the fact that collaboration is a key reason for coming into work.

A considered commute

At Mills & Reeve, we don’t have a mandate on hybrid working. We have seen a much faster return to our smaller city offices, such as Norwich, whereas our metropolitan offices in Leeds, London and elsewhere have a greater proportion of employees working flexibly.

In Norwich, a compact city, people live closer to the office and the commute is relatively straight-forward. In Cambridge, by contrast, the phenomenal cost of housing pushes many people out to live in the villages. This makes for a longer commute and is therefore a much bigger consideration when it comes to lifestyle decisions around hybrid working.

Making sure we have a fit-for-purpose transport infrastructure across the region is more important than ever. It’s for politicians and local government to decide the logistics – which is challenging when preferences change as often as elected officials – but most people would agree that there needs to be a suitable, viable and regular alternative to the car.

Interestingly, the Wellcome Sanger Institute to the south of Cambridge is addressing this issue using a throwback to the industrial days of the model villages. By building sustainable, mixed tenure housing on fields alongside their campus, they will eliminate the commute altogether for some employees while enabling them to enjoy the benefits of countryside living and reduced house prices.

Eddington, to the north west of Cambridge, fulfils a not dissimilar function, as private property sits alongside lots earmarked for graduates and post-graduates.

Spaces that promote well-being

Office space continues to be in high demand within Cambridge. This was the case before the pandemic and is unlikely to change.

However, there is a greater focus on the sustainable agenda and developers are responding to an increased demand from office workers for more green space. Planners are alive to this, and more office developments are incorporating roof top gardens or other pockets of green space that improve quality of life by giving employees a place to find refreshment and boost well-being during the lunch hour.

Led by technological advances

Cambridge remains a magnet for technological and life science companies – both in the science park clusters around the edge of the city and in the more central CB1 district. Where technology leads, demand for professional service firms and the requirement for high-functioning office space will stay strong.

As we continue to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of these post-pandemic times, we need office space that is flexible enough to respond both to human change and technological advancement. And Cambridge, with its global reputation for innovation, is the ideal place to find that balance.

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