bco conference

Community, connection and sustainability – reflections on BCO’s ‘Reset the office’ conference

Our directors joined the conversation at the recent BCO conference in Manchester – showcasing the importance of offices being aligned to new priorities.

Much has changed since the last British Council for Offices (BCO) conference in 2019, not least our attitude towards going to the office – with hybrid working proving effective and different priorities competing for attention.  So the title of this year’s BCO conference in Manchester, ‘Reset the office’, both acknowledged the new normal and acted as a clarion call for fresh, innovative thinking.

The question isn’t just what we want from our offices – which has been discussed at length over the past two years – but more presciently as designers, how do we deliver workplaces that truly reflect and understand our new preferences and priorities.

In line with our experiences and conversations as workplace designers over the recent months and years, three key themes came out of the conference: community, connection and sustainability.  Ensuring we deliver on these points will be what makes or breaks the office design of the future.

“As designers, we all have an important role to play in ensuring that workplaces work for people – and particularly their post-pandemic priorities.”

The first two themes are intrinsically linked.  It’s clear that offices need to deliver more than they might once have done.  We must create a more human experience.  A place that connects people, fosters collaboration and community within, and enhances the wider community of which it is a part.

The workplace is somewhere for us to connect IRL, as well as somewhere that should encourage and inspire innovative thinking.  Delivering this takes a reinvention of traditional spaces – offering a variety of flexible areas that maximise floorspace use and gives users choice to work and collaborate in the way that best suits them.  From focused quiet areas to casual breakout spaces, cafes, gyms and more.  Flexible design means that as the requirements of a business and its teams change, the building can evolve too – remaining tailored and optimised for people to want to use.

Encouraging this connection and designing an inclusive user experience for the workplaces of the future will require a greater focus on wellbeing.  Coming off the back of our own LOM week of sessions focused on wellbeing and mental health, we’re aware that it’s vital for a workplace to work for everyone, however they experience the world and whatever mood they’re in.

Unity place

In particular, offices should place more significance on accessibility, both physical and mental – expanding to the often-overlooked topic of neurodiversity.  This can impact our choices of everything from materials to lighting and how you travel through the building.  It’s an exercise in putting yourself in another’s shoes and one that will benefit all office users by fostering a more inclusive and pleasant environment.

It doesn’t stop there.  More than ever we should expect our workplaces to go beyond their site boundaries – being part of local communities and supporting local economies.  In our designs for Santander’s UK HQ Unity Place in Milton Keynes this became a key focus.  Its urban economic ecosystem opens up its lower floors to local businesses, both to trade as cafes or shops, or offering workspace to incubate new local start-ups.  The public can benefit from a rooftop bar and restaurant, as well as the food market and occupiers on the ground floor – bringing people in rather than shutting them out and making the building a hub for the community.

The Living Rooms conservatory

Part of making our offices work harder for us is ensuring that they deliver for the environment too, and how the drive for net-zero carbon underpins all three themes.  This thinking is reflected in the newest BCO standards which focus on utilisation rather than ‘over-specification’ to avoid unnecessary waste.

Whether building new offices or where possible retrofitting existing ones, we have an opportunity to deliver longevity, thinking beyond the current iteration of a building.  From creative reuse of existing materials and structures, to flexible design to anticipate changing future uses, or even planning for easy dismantling and reuse of parts when the structure has fulfilled its purpose.

“Offices have a lot still to offer us all – but only if we take to heart these core principles and embed community, connection and sustainability in our designs like never before.”

As designers, we all have an important role to play in ensuring that workplaces work for people – and particularly their post-pandemic priorities.  We saw and heard about great examples of how this is evolving at the BCO conference, and the clear appetite of everyone from developers, occupiers and designers to deliver challenging and innovative new schemes.  Offices have a lot still to offer us all – but only if we take to heart these core principles and embed community, connection and sustainability in our designs like never before.

This article is by Simon Bird

Simon is a director of the practice, taking a leading role on strategic, interior and architectural projects.

This article is by Ben Taylor

Ben is a director at the practice who has played a key role in the design and development of Santander’s Unity Place.


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