Is community-first office design the answer for the changing shape of modern work?

At the Bloomberg Intelligence and EPRA Real Estate Summit 2019, Sir Andrew Sentance MBE mused that “Having commuted up to London for most of my life, I’m simply amazed that people continue to do it”. The ex-Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member alludes to a poignant problem for Central London commercial developers. As younger homebuyers are famously priced out of London, and as technology and social trends increasingly promote out-of-office working, what must developers do to keep people working in London?
The intuitive solution is simple and is one that some firms have been enacting for some time: focus design around the employee. Free gyms in the basement, paid-for canteens and, most recently, on-site childcare facilities seemingly guarantee that employees continue arriving before the sun rises and leave after it's gone down. While this is arguably good for the business, it is not good for the city itself. Workers come flooding into the capital, but instead of contributing to a vibrant business hub, the result can be a sterile, quiet and isolated environment. The intuitive solution perhaps lacks some holistic virtue.
At Foster + Partners, architects of the much-heralded Bloomberg HQ on Queen Victoria Street in London, the landscape is changing. And at the Bloomberg Intelligence and EPRA Real Estate Summit 2019, Michael Jones, Senior Partner and lead architect of the project, talks about how, instead of focusing commercial office design around the needs of the employee, developers with a longer-term view are migrating towards considering the community before design and construction begin to take shape.
While this concept is not new, Jones’ version is the latest philosophical shift in this strain of development that, while only a nuance, is quite radical. One must only look at London developments still under construction to see how quickly the landscape has changed.
For example, there is a lot of good happening at IQL in Stratford, London, which makes up much of the residential and office space being put up under the Stratford City project. Here the developers have focused on mixed-used space, combining office and residential with the existing and iconic Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield shopping centre. This mix provides all the elements that British Land Head of Campuses, Juliette Morgan, shows us are so vital to effective placemaking.
Yet, there is a sense that each of the different elements has been made as good as it could possibly be and then brought together at the end. This process is currently the norm, but in light of the work undertaken in designing Bloomberg’s HQ, it is difficult to argue that the process for holistic design is not evolving rapidly.
Indeed, what is happening in leading developments now is fascinating. Instead of relying on heavyweight retail developers to provide the pleasure and leisure for a location, developers are beginning to work on a more granular level to build thriving communities. At Bloomberg HQ, almost the entire ground floor of the building has been occupied by a variety of restaurants, eateries, bars and more, all of which have been individually holistically incorporated into the development.
Additionally, the building is designed with no internal canteen or gym (local staff gym discounts have been brokered separately), so where once staff never had to leave the office, now they are forced to busy the streets before, during and after work.
This is fine for now, but it is important to consider what the future may hold for developers. Foster + Partners, among others, points to more holistic developments, but holisticness is clearly not the only factor at play.
Angus Boag, Workspace Group, and Nigel George, Derwent, agree that employers increasingly look to the feel of a place rather than simply its location when choosing office space. The result has seen a distinct increase in Zone 2 workplaces, far from traditional central business hubs. This may in part be attributable to an overflow of workers in central hubs, but this is not the whole story, and developers should not ignore the technological, social and economic trends that suggest business locations even further out than this may become the norm.
One suggestion put forward at the Bloomberg Intelligence and EPRA Real Estate Summit 2019 from Sentance is that employers could begin to explore truly out of town hubs. Rather than warehouses, imagine shared office spaces placed strategically outside of London, Paris or Madrid. This vision certainly goes against many of the basic principles of the central business hubs that have been operating for hundreds of years in most countries around the world. And yet, when considering all factors, this option is both viable and surprisingly sensible.
Agile workforces are something business often claim to foster, but how agile are we beyond a laptop and permission to work from home? Imagine a market in which businesses can provide employees with access to flexible workspaces with all the necessary facilities in 15 possible locations 50 km away from a smaller headquarters in London. The notion of a younger workforce, from a wider catchment area that is unconstrained by the economic strictures of a capital city, is maybe more agile than anything we can imagine today.
For forward-thinking businesses and commercial office developers, this may not be the solution, but it surely points to the possibility of a shifting landscape and a major opportunity to shape an entirely different way of working.