London’s workplaces set to thrive

Thursday 27 October 2016

Alphabeta building entrance route © Hufton+Crow

London’s workplaces face threats from permitted development rights, the lack of affordability of housing for staff and the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. But the capital is fully able to fight off all three as well as the competing cities of Frankfurt, Paris, Dublin and Amsterdam, just as it has ridden the storms of various booms-and-busts over the decades.

That was the view of Digby Flower, chairman UK & Ireland and head of London Markets at Cushman & Wakefield, speaking on ‘disruption’, deliberate innovation and Brexit at a half-day conference on the future of workplace at NLA yesterday.

‘Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower’, he said. The challenge for us in the industry and the challenge for London is to be leader’, said Flower. ‘If we’re not the leader and continue to be the leader, it will be done to us rather than us doing it; I think that’s important’. Brexit was a change that we did not control, said Flower, but was a ‘very clear and deliberate vote for disruption’. And although in the innovation dynamic London had to be leader, in the Brexit dynamic it should be a fast follower and one that adapts to the situation quickly. The city is in an uncertain place and the tendency is for such conditions to lead to delay, but London has to have the courage to move forward despite this, added Flower, with strategic investment in infrastructure including Crossrail 2 needed to ease that passage. But the likelihood of firms leaving en masse was low, with no obvious place for the banking sector to go: Frankfurt has a working population 8% the size of London’s ‘and they speak German’; Paris very complicated labour laws and a similar language problem and Dublin simply does not have the stature of infrastructure. As for Amsterdam, ‘even the Dutch don’t take that seriously’. London survived, adapted and came out stronger from the Big Bang, recessions and other major events, and so there is ‘strong precedent’ for doing that with Brexit.

But, Flower went on, we cannot rely on the financial services industry, with innovation and tech firms moving ahead in the hierarchy. The key thing as it has been for the last five years is securing and retaining talent, said Flower. ‘We have got to be able to make London attractive to that talent and they have to be able to afford that.’ For its part, London will become much more geared towards experience and interaction’, he added.

Paul Harrington, real estate director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said his company attracts graduates from universities like Nottingham and Newcastle predominantly on the attractiveness of London (including 6 Premier League football clubs and over 100 Nando’s), but has an aspiration to alter its split of 70:30 London staff to the regions in favour of its offices outside the capital. The firm runs its own headquarters like a ‘business hotel’, a theme picked up by others as being a more widespread trend. And it looks upon the workspace as a box, into which it adds ‘theatre’. But if knowledge was the key asset of the 20th century, Harrington said, imagination is the key asset of the 21st.

The conference also heard from Great Portland Estates investment manager Simon Rowley, who felt there had been a definite shift from cap ex fixed cost to operational expenditure. Battersea Power Station development Company head of office leasing Andrew Hilston said he expected to see an ‘Apple effect’ from its most recent addition, perhaps leading to the company increasing the offices component in the 20 acres still to be developed at the project. And consultant Despina Katsikakis said that many of the same choices we make about where we go to physically connect in cities – quality of experience, uniqueness, unexpected events, were becoming just as important with workspace. But perhaps the biggest impact will be to do with the integration of physical space and policies that enable people to work differently and more flexibly.

In the second session of the event, John Robertson Architects sustainability consultant and architect Colin Beattie questioned how we can provide 7.5 million m2 more workspace in London in the next 20 years. One way could be in more co-working space, with WeWork a major player in this field. Its head of Europe, real estate, Patrick nelson said that the firm had built its own in house designers, architects and construction teams and provides people with flexible, homely spaces and experience with energy. Some 70% of its members do business with other member companies. But community can never be forced, he said. The future will be more about the ‘sharing economy’, said head of the futures group at Cushman and Wakefield Juliette Morgan, and environments that fuse education and work.

Finally, Pilbrow + Partners partner Fred Pilbrow showed how density and clustering form key elements in some of the practice’s current projects on York Way and for U+I at 8 Albert Embankment, which will incorporate the London Fire Brigade Museum. 

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly 

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