Manchester’s United

Like most of the Mix events in June we started off the proceedings at our Manchester Roundtable with a show of hands on the EU referendum. We asked how our guests thought the country would vote, and needless to say, like many, the result on the 24th June was somewhat of a surprise.

Regardless of what the Leave vote will have made to the culture and psyche of the country, what most business people are keen to understand is what impact it is going to have on their business. 

We were gathered at Tattu, in Manchester’s relatively new kid on the block that is the Spinningfields district, along with some of the best-known protagonists in the architectural and design community.  Supported by Gresham, the Bolton based manufacturer who is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Showing no sign of resting on any laurels, it continues to invest in its manufacturing plant and in some wonderful new designs.

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We kicked off by flirting with a SWOT of Manchester. Not surprisingly, we spent most of the time on strengths. Most around the table accepted that Manchester’s civil leadership of Howard Bernstein and Richard Leese, with a combined life at the top of 38 years, is one of the key reasons for its success. 

Jill: Stability has played a massive part in this region’s success. It’s a stable platform – businesses don’t like uncertainty. As you can see at the Manchester stand at MIPIM, relationships and trust have been born through longevity.

Gavin P: Manchester’s leadership has been faultless.

Nicki: Manchester’s brand is a strength as is the awareness of it. Manchester has USP’s that stand out. Civic leadership, transport links and universities.

Richard: That’s what Manchester is good at – making the link between public and private sector. You have to differentiate yourself between your competitors, no matter how big or small, public or private sector

Joe: For the last five years or so property investors have viewed Manchester as the only alternative to the London market. Manchester is undoubtedly viewed by many as a ‘can do’ business environment. (Editor’s note: It is perhaps not surprising that the Remain vote was similar; London at 59.9% and Manchester at 60.4%)

Richard: Greater Manchester does act together. You see that in so many things across the city region. Yorkshire can’t agree. Birmingham has more of a construction culture but Manchester has a design culture. 

The question was posed does Manchester have a ‘design’ advantage over other regional cities because of its industrial / creative heritage?

Nicki: With one of the largest student populations in Europe, Manchester is vibrant. Student retention here is huge and graduate opportunities are here – there is a young and vibrant culture. There’s a certain attitude, spirit, daring that has to have an impact.

Jill: Manchester offices have their own identity, and they are prepared to apply this with confidence unlike some other regions.

Gregg: I think many companies are prepared to say that they are unashamedly from ‘Up North’ –that has to do with the inert confidence in the region.

Andrew: Manchester clients are unashamedly proud of being from here and want Manchester to be reflected in the design.

Joe: But has the subculture of Manchester gone?

Nicki: When a place becomes trendy and expensive and everyone wants to live there, it gets pushed to the next place/city by the young creatives. Northern Quarter is an example, just as Shoreditch is in London.

Gregg: The beauty of Manchester is that it does keep an open mind. I am not sure London is so open-minded as it almost doesn’t have to try.

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The question was asked, who has a designated desk? The response was that 4 out of 11 do not (36% – imagine if that were typical of the UK workplace). 

We asked, broadly speaking, what are the major trends in the workplace? Are sit/stand desks, agile working, third space and ergonomics just fads? Or are they being embraced by the client? Gregg kicked off by saying that his team have ‘fitbits’ to encourage them to move around the workspace and added that, just because the desk is there, it doesn’t mean you have to do all your work from it (Greg being one of those without a desk).

Richard: Breakout spaces – places where people can really connect and collaborate are now the focus of most workplace schemes.

Andrew: Companies might be taking less space, but they are spending more money – most projects now have ‘social space’ as they realise that staff retention is key.

Nicki: Nobody has done away with the desk. It’s about offering variety in the workplace for different activities.

Gavin K: There are challenges to an open plan workplace, not least of all noise. Wooden floors may be cool but they add to the noise level. Acoustics is definitely high on the agenda and will become more important in the minds of the client.

Joe: Do you allow employees to work with headphones on? It’s not efficient but apparently more efficient than all the interruptions people have without headphones on.

Gregg: Universities have been driven by technology.

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Gavin K: Some clients are starting to ask for technology free zones – to improve creativity.

Joe: There is a danger that technology can nullify you.

Andrew: We are seeing innovation in the workplace mainly through technology but it is important that we are innovative when it comes to problem solving for each individual client.

Julian: Business is unrecognisable from five years ago. Our furniture has to have sources of power to work in today’s workspace.

Richard: As the demographic changes in the workplace so does the way people work, this is driven by different experienes before they start in a work environment.

Gavin K: Third space is the new first space!

Jill: Universities have been doing agile working for years and therefore leading the way.

So is the next generation being stifled by traditional office environments where agile working isn’t being adopted?

Gavin P: Agile working isn’t about forcing people into new ways of working, it’s about opening their eyes to the possibilities.

Andrew: You have to have workspace that works for everyone.

Gregg: Some organisations aren’t prepared to change – if they haven’t got respect for the people who work there…

Jill: People at certain levels hold on to the ways they know.

Gavin K: Its not about changing people, its about making them know their possibilities.

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