The Power of Place
What an extraordinary time we’re in, not only the health and economic crisis we’re facing, but we can’t remember a time when physical places and their role in our society was so widely discussed. From popular media to extensive research and think pieces, organisations of all kinds are posing questions about ‘what is the office for?’ and ‘how do we keep our culture?’.
So, let’s go there. What’s the purpose of a physical place? This simple question just became a lot more complex. From a world where there was once a linear relationship between headcount and office space, and arguably between students and seats, between events and attendance, the global ‘working apart experiment’ imposed by COVID-19 restrictions has thrown these relationships into question.
There is little consensus from organisation leaders on whether working apart is wholly effective; it’s clearly not a simple question. Feedback from the workforce, from students and start-ups alike, also falls along a wide spectrum of sentiment, determined largely by personal circumstances.
Should we flick the switch, turn off the physical place, and keep going like this forever? The complexity arises when we start to consider what the right combination of the physical and digital workplace might be for our workforce now, and the next generation too. The fact we can work apart might be a function of having established strong connections face to face before. Which poses the next question: how much face-to-face contact is the right amount for a team to continue to grow?
For many workers there have been substantial benefits to working at home. The daily commute has been eliminated allowing for more focused and productive work time and teams have connected via digital technology. But about the long-term impacts? Are we sacrificing the unseen strengthening of relationships, cross-pollination and new ideas that ultimately lead to new products and better ways of doing things?
We know that innovation will be key to the ongoing success of our businesses and economy and we know innovation flourishes in certain environments. So, does innovation need a physical place?
Let’s turn our minds turn to the legendary, but humble, Building 20 at MIT, a temporary structure built during World War II in Boston to accelerate radiation experimentation. At one time the building was appropriated by nine Nobel Prize winning physicists, making it one of the most productive and innovative places in the world for research in its time. The key concept here is appropriation, anyone using the ‘rad lab’, as it was fondly known, was able to make the space their own and were encouraged to collaborate openly with others. It perhaps was the world’s first incubator.
Today, innovation places, districts and hubs are spearheading a new wave of innovation, particularly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the Global Institute on Innovation Districts records, “Districts particularly strong in life sciences, reinforced by platform technologies (such as Big Data and machine learning) and analytical capabilities, have birthed hundreds of sophisticated medical devices and technical applications to mitigate COVID-19. In most cases, this work evolved through collaborations among institutions, companies, manufacturing plants, and start-ups. At the same time, at least ten districts globally are working on developing a vaccine. It is as clear today as it was over 50 years ago in Boston, USA, that innovation speeds up when it indeed does have a place, when collisions, collaboration and appropriation can flourish.”
So how might an organisation provide the best environments for flexibility, culture and innovation without creating a solution so bespoke to today, that it is inflexible for future modalities?
Lendlease draws upon more than 4 million individual workplace observations collated over the eight years through our X-Ray app to reflect on future patterns. As part of their strategic workplace support for customers, they observe space use as occupied, temporarily unoccupied (evidence that people are in the vicinity, but not at a desk) and empty. They have looked at office space, academic space, social and technical spaces in organisations all over the world.
Before COVID-19, office space was utilised at around 53%, inclusive of observed occupied and temporarily occupied settings (so desks, meeting rooms, breakouts, internal cafés etc). This showed us and our clients that their people were already working flexibly, moving about the city to meet, working from home and of course, taking leave. This critical piece of information was the bedrock of countless new strategies, from more shared workplaces such as activity-based working to more communal strategies like team-based working. This data showed us year after year that people worked flexibly but did not show us year after year that we only needed 53% of the workspace, we never tightly tucked space requirements around occupancy.
A good workplace strategy creates choice. Occupancy is a blunt instrument that has not dictated space requirements in the past, as leaders and strategists alike acknowledged that occupancy is a rolling wave of different people with different preferences doing different things. That to create an efficient solution was important, but never at the expense of an effective one. It’s not who is ‘in’ and when, it is why they’re ‘in’ that’s critical.
So, why are they ‘in’?
Undoubtedly people are in a workplace for reasons that are the hardest to measure in business and organisation analysis. People are ‘in’ to connect with others, they are ‘in’ to feel that sense of collective effort, they are ‘in’ to feel part of something bigger, to feel safe or secure in their role, or just to hear what’s going on between meetings. For new employees, particularly young or graduate employees, this connection is particularly critical.
Sometimes people are ‘in’ for a change of scenery, for a place to focus that’s not home. Other times, in the hope they might bump into their manager and share what’s on their mind about a project or put up a hand for a role or task.
Crucially, people are ‘in’ to build relationships both within their team and with new collaborators or clients. Face-to-face connection is key to building trust and the ability to invite people into a space allows them to share in an organisation’s culture and values. Despite the increased comfort and familiarity with remote meeting technologies, the COVID-19 pandemic has given us, meeting in person remains the gold standard for these high-value, and at times complex, fundamental human interactions.
Each of these reasons is hard to plan for and almost impossible to measure. How many sqm per person might providing a sense of community take?
Although we haven’t yet worked out the exact algorithm to answer that question, it’s becoming clear that the places of the future will need to be more social than ever, with leadership and collaboration more visible, and learning and connection more part of its DNA. Values will be front and centre – as organisations embrace the power of being together as a precursor to innovation.
Lendlease are designing places that deliver on this brief, and we welcome this acceleration of a trend that we saw coming some time ago as we took a bold step to deliver on with our partners at University of Melbourne.
Melbourne Connect is purpose-built to facilitate community and connection. It is gloriously mixed use, with A-grade office tenancies that will co-locate organisations of all sizes with the University of Melbourne faculties, students and start-ups. Together we are curating a community with a shared interest in creating a thriving future digital society. Purpose is at the heart of the project.
The precinct has been designed to provide the spaces these people need to collaborate, including the c.3,000sqm Superfloor. The Superfloor is a meeting, event and workspace that will bring together the diverse community of Melbourne Connect every day. And with our newest partners Telstra, the
Telstra Creator Space will provide access to space and technology prototype new ideas – a playground for modelling a thriving digital society at the heart. But it’s not all built space. Womin Djerring (meaning come together) is a central landscaped open-air atrium, activated by retail and enabled with flexible seating and Wi-Fi, and full of fresh air and light. Womin Djerring visually and physically connects all people who use the precinct, including graduate accommodation, childcare, the Melbourne Entrepreneurial Centre and Science Gallery Melbourne.
Workspace is an activator and an enabler of communities and cities alike; its role cannot be underestimated in creating thriving businesses and vibrant cities. As a developer, investor and asset manager specialising in mixed use places, we know the mix is what matters. Melbourne Connect will deliver a new kind of mix of spaces, people and communities.
We have always believed the workplace is a critical tool for organisations to activate their culture, to show their people they care and will support them to do their best work. The dawn of this new era of working flexibility will call on organisations to determine what role they want to play in their industry and their city, and the unique combination of space and technology that will speak volumes about their values.
To be successful, the new model for flexibility needs to provide workers with options that extend beyond simply the home or a central HQ. Diverse environments, accessibility, appropriate support for different workers and working practices as well as practical measures such as business continuity considerations will, we believe, see organisations move towards ecosystem of accommodation solutions including de-centralised locations. Melbourne Connect is poised to accommodate this trend providing A-Grade accommodation in Melbourne’s inner-North, highly accessible by public transport, active transport and car. Onsite childcare, retail and serviced accommodation provides amenity for workers and visitors to create a truly liveable precinct.
We acknowledge that physical places need to work harder in the future to draw people in, so an activation and liaison program at Melbourne Connect will connect the community with ideas, with expertise and with each other. The experiences of place in the future will be a unique combination of place, people and program.
Through events, relationship support and access to the University of Melbourne’s world-leading experts, organisations will be able to grow their culture and capabilities at Melbourne Connect. This connection to a shared precinct as an incubator of culture, collaboration and innovation will create a vibrant and engaging place for people to be and work – in the best places.
Watch this video to learn more about Melbourne Connect.