Feels like home: laboratories and the flexible working paradigm

Date: 08-03-2017
By: Liam Nicholls

As I write this blog entry, I sit with a doorstep sized, homemade salmon and cucumber sandwich in front of a fire. My wife is in the next room with my young daughter and I have just walked the dog on my lunch break.

It has been a productive morning - I was able to start early without navigating Cambridge traffic, and output has been boosted by a constant supply of tea and toast (wholemeal of course, better for the brain). I love working in our offices and we are all in most days - it gives us a chance for collaboration, new ideas and interactions which simply could not happen over a conference call. But every now and again, it is definitely more productive to work from home.

Clearly this is far from a new concept, and corporates across most sectors have adopted a flexible working policy. Not only does this save money on property costs, but allows a re-positioning and rethink of how office space is used. If I have my mobile phone, laptop, IPad and landline all connected at home, with the power of video conferencing, work chat applications and social media then, one has to ask, why does the office exist at all?

The answer, I feel, is twofold. On the first (and most positive) hand, it is all about collaboration. A modern and well-functioning office should be more about collaboration space than anything else. It is what brings a culture to a firm, creates differentiators and drives innovation and extra value. The second, perhaps, is what I would clump together as a range of 'management' factors. Managers can find it difficult to turn to an output based regime from more traditional methods of evaluating staff performance, and may want to keep staff under a watchful eye. Part of this can be down to an ethos of poor time management. We have all heard 'Where is (add name here) - we need this submitted by 12 noon today!!'. It is also more of a challenge in large teams where it can be easy for staff to 'hide', and a relationship of trust is important to any flexible working policy.

Despite this second factor, my premise is, then, that many office-based staff are, due to a paradigm shift in working practices, enjoying a previously unprecedented level of flexibility in how they work. On top of this, their workplaces are becoming increasingly vibrant as employer’s view offices as an opportunity for interaction and take steps to facilitate this. Spare a thought, then, for laboratory staff and working in the healthcare R&D sector. Whilst their intellectual counterparts at digital firms are merrily programming away at home, benefitting from a revolution in office space use, they may be one group who buck this trend. Not many of us have a fume cupboard in our home office. That centrifuge isn't going to run itself, and no one wants their fridge to exhibit a Petrie dish between the mango chutney and last night's left over Spag Bol.

Yes, a certain amount of write up and administrative work does need to be done by scientists, but a large portion of their job by its very nature is going to be based in the lab. This brings challenges; Firstly, there are no savings to be made by life sciences businesses by hotdesking for R&D workers in labs. As such, there is no spare budget for that extra collaboration space which office workers enjoy. Secondly, expansion means expansion. Hiring 20 new employees to work in a laboratory means extra space. There is no flexible working workaround, and if the space isn't available it inhibits company growth.

We see this currently in the Cambridge market where there is a lack of medium sized suites for expanding businesses. My final hypothesis, (and most contentious) is that making an environment where people want to work is arguably more important for laboratory space than other space types. Staff retention is going to depend on a want to come into the lab day after day, week after week, whilst their neighbour at EY sits in their PJs and a headset.

Before all the high end interior designers among us leap from their beanbags in glee, I do not think this is all about expensive decor. In my experience, interactions in busy environments are the key to success. We see some fantastic collaboration spaces with low specification, and some empty ones which must have cost millions. Retail and leisure provision is a big part of this. Over provision seems a problem on many traditional science parks, but in some there is a mass exodus to the local Tesco express at lunchtime which leads to an unwanted emptiness.

Much of this will be dependent of density of development (more density leads to a more vibrant environment, generally, and allows for attraction of better retailers who can rely on footfall). In a recent study, we identified that significantly reducing retail offering was far more likely to drive collaboration on a site than simply a changeover of operator. Work and collaboration space inside the lab building is clearly important too. Life sciences occupiers are increasingly asking questions about workplace which we did not hear several years ago. Let's hope more laboratory workers, while they don't get to work from home as much, get to benefit in coming years from some great buildings in exciting locations instead.

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