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We explore what it takes to develop creative hubs, discuss how workspaces beyond our capitals can continue to nurture community, and ask if decentralisation is ultimately the pathway to better results and happier teams.
Feature in partnership with Amtico Flooring
Words: Harry McKinley
There’s more to Bristol than Banksy. While this city has, in recent years, garnered a reputation as something of a hipster honeypot, it’s also been ranked as one of the UK’s top startup destinations and is among the fastest growing tech hubs in the country. Satellite offices for colossal, often London-headquartered companies are sprouting, while a boom in co-working spaces nods to a demand for flexible, remote working. It’s an apt setting.
We’ve assembled in the Pivot + Mark building, home to AWW, to discuss hub-and-spoke and decentralised working – a hot topic for the post-COVID age, when seasides, suburbs and regional centres are proving more appealing for many than life in our dense capitals.
“I think it’s important to put these new ways of working in context,” explains McFeggan Bronn’s Lucy Martin. “Because for many there was previously no flexibility at all. What we think of as office culture now didn’t exist before the pandemic. It was expected that everything would happen in a very static way in one office and, actually, our team structures didn’t allow for anything else. So the change has been seismic and, in terms what the future is, we’re still going to be feeling our way for a while and seeing what actually works in practice.”
For Amtico’s Oliver Roberts, however, decentralisation was – perhaps unusually – already the norm. Based in Devon, he oversees a broad region with only occasional jaunts to the UK HQ in London.
“I’ve always worked remotely and never had an office,” he says. “So I’ve experienced first-hand how more flexible and less centralised working models can be successful. The reality is, a meeting in a coffee shop in a regional location, like here in Bristol, can be just as productive as in a main office.”
Melanie Meale, Steer Design, notes that while the office has played a crucial role, design firms have long championed diversity of working practice in terms of how much time employees actually spend there.
“We’ve been pushing for clients to work in a more agile manner since before the pandemic; angling to design environments that facilitated that and even arguing with them,” she opines. “But I don’t think many of us – in our industries – were doing five days a week, 9-to-5 in the traditional office space, because we knew the benefits of doing things differently. And it’s arguably the dismantling of that five-days-in-the-office week that helps to make a case for satellite (or spoke) workplaces, that are closer to home and allow people more balance.”
The concept of work-life balance is widely credited to psychologist and engineer Lillian Moller Gilbreth – whose work in the early 1900s and onwards reshaped how we consider wellbeing as it pertains to productivity. In short, it’s far from new. And yet, perhaps the biggest pandemic pivot isn’t the rethink in working environments and their geography, but in the power balance between employees and employer – the former now demanding better and, having shown that it works, getting it.
“Employers realise now, more than ever, that the happier the employee is, the more productive they’ll be,” AMH Projects’ Melody Hill says. “Comfort has to come first and if an employer is expecting people to commute into a central office, in a city like London, five days a week when they live elsewhere, they’re going to lose staff and even find it difficult to recruit.”
“That recruitment point is important,” continues AWW’s Sarah Pasquall. “There’s been a redressing of the balance between company and employee and to get the best graduates onboard it’s vital to offer workplaces that are appealing to be in and don’t necessarily involve the kind of commute that has previously been standard.”
Hub-and-spoke, then. Another term that isn’t new, but which has been thrown into prominence in recent times.
Essentially, companies can operate a central ‘hub’, a more traditional office space, where workers can collaborate, congregate and avail of amenities in a destination of relative scale; while, in tandem, ‘spokes’ could be smaller satellite offices, coworking spaces, coffee shops or even – as one more fluid definition encompasses – our homes.
The positives, seemingly, are bountiful and well documented: less time and money spent on commuting for employees; an ability to reach and tap talent in other parts of the country for employers; and a greater emphasis on agility, that allows both employee and employer to respond and adapt quickly to changing market forces. But what of the negatives?
“It’s really important that we’re able to switch off,” says Interaction’s Lucy Symons. “Work begins to creep into the rest of the day when there isn’t that clear distinction between being ‘at work’ and being ‘at home’ or even close to home. I think it’s necessary for companies to have a focal point and an identity. We also have to ask: if employees aren’t all coming into the same office regularly, what impact does that have on the culture?”
“But the culture of offices needed to change,” Martin continues. “The days of designing with rows upon rows of desks is gone and never coming back. We do need to come together, but we don’t necessarily need to come together all the time.”
For Faber Design’s Tony Matters, identity building is still an issue. He works primarily in hospitality design – a sector increasingly being looked at and learnt from to arguably lead workplaces out of the doldrums.
“In hospitality design, there’s a focus on creating experiences and atmospheres; on building ID. We are seeing a merging of workplace and hospitality, but in a satellite office or coworking space it’s difficult to create integration or a consistent company culture. Hubs where everyone is sitting around eating lunch together are where that’s built. It’s fantastic that companies are seeing the benefit of investing in social spaces, but people need to be there, together, for them to make sense as environments for spontaneity and collaboration.”
Michaela Churchill, Claremont, offers an alternative perspective: “A company culture and identity isn’t just about environment, it comes through being part of a team, through feeling invested. I’m based here as part of a Bristol team, but our head office is in Manchester. That means we make communication a priority in a way that, actually, it sometimes isn’t if everyone is in the same building together.”
As conversation draws to a close it’s clear the room is torn; that we are living in a time of discovery and experimentation and the best route forward is still unclear. For Roberts, hub-and-spoke worked then and works now, so long as ‘collaboration is managed’; for Meale, the management of culture is key but it’s a positive step forward; while for Hill it’s a terrific halfway house between all-remote and all-office working.
“Travelling for an hour and a half into a city like London isn’t always ideal. So if someone has the flexibility to work closer to home at a smaller office, or even at home, then they’ll undoubtedly be happier. And if that means that when they do have to come into the ‘hub’, they do it with a smile, then who wouldn’t want that?”
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