Manchester was a refreshing choice for this year’s BCO conference, the first since the pandemic turned the world upside down, and inadvertently formed a workers’ revolution, a subject captured extensively during the course of the conference.
There is no doubt the workplace, and more importantly those who use it, has undergone a significant shift in thinking and expectation. At the seminar on transforming building occupancy Vernon Blunt expressed the need for workplaces and, by extension, employers, to provide hotel-like services and facilities to attract employees back to the office – a statement which rang true with many in the audience.
The new working from home ‘normal’ was also credibly attributed to the cost of commuting (not to mention carbon footprint), flexibility, convenience and comfort, with some organisations such as the NatWest group, providing all the necessary equipment, furniture and services needed by their employees to work from home in perpetuity.
This approach however might not work for all, and perhaps not in the best interest of the workplace and indeed its future. Spaces for collaboration, rest, meditation, well-being, exercise, sociability and good food were all key suggestions in reigniting the workplace offer and clearing a path to a new post-Covid era, but these tokens alone will only do so much to save our beloved office spaces.
Notably, and again a passionately debated item on the conference agenda, was sustainability, ESGs and ‘real world’ solutions. The office sector is incredibly carbon hungry, with the majority of our concrete 1960s office stock regularly introduced to the crashing ball, to make way for shining glass clad steel beacons of progress. These are extremely inefficient through construction and sourcing of material, but also fossil fuel heavy to operate, cool, heat and light.
A very ‘real’ solution to this, and something discussed at length at the BCO conference, is to instead focus on regeneration and reinvention. There are some excellent UK examples of taking existing building stock and converting into highly sought-after, carbon-saving office destinations which, whilst helping the planet, also offer character and a sense of place and community. shedkm have ourselves repurposed many spaces into new offices across the country – such as Fort Dunlop and Bunker.
This is of course only an avenue to take where the existing fabric exists and we need to find a balanced approach to ‘progress’ that can facilitate the ‘new’. CLT, timber and Glulam technologies are developing at a tremendous rate and these should be explored wherever wholesale renovation is not possible.
The conference painted a very clear picture of the current ‘state of the office market’, while succeeding in its part to offer up some solutions to the challenges ahead.
As thoughtfully explained by Futurenaut Mark Stevenson at the final session of the conference; it is up to us as industry leaders to make change, not to rely on governments or indeed expect socio-economic circumstances to self correct.
Change should be driven from within, as Mark said: “Think like engineers, play the long game, engage in projects bigger than you, engineer serendipity and police cynicism.”