3 June, 2021

As we head back into the office, the jury’s still out on the pandemic’s long-term impact on our relationship with the workplace. We know it won’t be the same as it was before; a year of working from home has done that. Now, as restrictions ease, employers everywhere face the task of encouraging their staff to return.

The futures all about knowledge social cardProviding everyone with an environment that promotes their wellbeing and their productivity will likely be the key to re-energising the workforce. At the same time, it will give organisations the momentum they need to move forward at pace. What that looks like in practice may be harder to imagine. Help comes from some recent CBRE research into the ways in which the workplace is evolving. This builds on trends that were already emerging pre-pandemic and shows how they have been influenced and reshaped by lockdown. The move towards greater flexibility - in both working hours and the character of work settings - is already well-established, so we’re likely to see an increase in employees wanting discretion about where and how to perform their work. If this leads to better integration of our work with our home life - and less congestion at traditional commuting times - then improved mental health and greater productivity might both be valuable dividends.

Knowledge Sector organisations have, in the main, embraced this change where it’s been possible, but unlike corporate business they typically have broader and more diverse workplace needs. This might include hosting membership events, invigilating examinations and providing resources to promote the specialist sector of science, medicine or professional practice they represent. On top of that, their premises are often used to generate external revenue through room hire or event hosting.

Even though the move to greater flexibility will be felt by many, there are other themes that may have greater influence on shaping Knowledge Sector organisations in the future. By working closely with our clients, we are seeing major changes in employee sentiment emerging. Newer generations are shifting away from being motived by financial reward and turning instead towards more purpose-based employment. This coupled with the predicted replacement of administration and process-based functions by artificial intelligence, means that values-driven organisations like those in the Knowledge Sector will be seen as increasingly attractive places to work.

This new workforce will need a workplace that reflects its values and supports its needs. That means the end of old school desk-based space planning and a new focus on space that fosters collaboration, team-based activities, and a richer experience. These new workplaces will need to be healthy environments with a focus on sustainability and occupant wellbeing where there is generous natural light and views of the outside world, biophilic design and plentiful fresh air. If there is less formality than we are used to, less organisation in the geometry of space use, that’s because the workplace is competing with our homes as places in which we’re able to work. In many ways these qualities describe what the Knowledge Sector is already doing. Its agenda is the promotion of life-enhancing ideas, being open and encouraging to collaboration and knowledge sharing, welcoming others into its buildings, and being standard bearers for ethical and rational ideas.

Our work with the Royal College of Physicians at the Spine in Liverpool highlights how committed knowledge sector organisations can be to changing the workplace paradigm. Combining a strong investment in sustainability with a desire to create the healthiest environment for staff and visitors means the College’s new northern hub signals its own values strongly by exemplifying them in the space it occupies. Whilst there’s probably a more eloquent way of saying it, that’s really putting your money where your mouth is. Find out more about the project here.

So, as we dig out some office clothes and look for the season ticket again, there’s a big opportunity for a much-needed fresh start. We’re not the same people we were before. We’re learning the importance of striking the right balance between work and life and recognising the impact the working environment can have on our health and wellbeing. Using the objectivity that a long absence has given us, it’s time to rethink our buildings. It’s time, as well, to recognise that the Knowledge Sector is better positioned to embrace the new workplace paradigm than many others. For a new generation of employees looking for a purpose, what better place to work than for an organisation that’s driven by its very own values.