Thinking flexibly, thinking sustainably – thinking for the future

Why flexible workplaces are essential if real estate is to stand the test of time.

This article is by Richard Hutchinson

Richard is a director at LOM who leads a wide range of architectural and interior design commissions in the UK, Europe, the Middle East, the Americas and Australia.


Covid-19 has been a litmus test of office adaption. In this article, Richard looks at how we can accommodate future change and why flexible workplaces are key if today’s real estate is to stand the test – and shocks – of time.

There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 outbreak has brought questions of flexibility and adaptability well and truly to the fore when thinking about our work environments.

As employers consider how to get their staff into work safely, we’re already seeing a range of immediate adaptions being made to offices spaces – screening, one-way circulation flows, fewer doors and dramatic reductions in the density of occupiable seats.

Yet this is only the beginning. Just as acts of terror have driven the widespread adoption of vehicle standoff and bomb blast mitigation in building design, coronavirus is now opening our eyes to the space required for adequate viral ‘screening and cleaning’ and the technologies that can reduce close human contact and cross-contamination. Pandemic consultants are likely to join the ranks of future design teams.

But we need to be thinking beyond simply pandemic-proofing our spaces.

As a practice, we’ve been working with clients for years to rationalise their workspaces and accommodate rapid economic, technological and social change. The direction of travel towards remote working – accelerated into a matter of weeks by this pandemic – has been evident for some time now, and organisations have been grappling with how to ensure the relevance and efficiency of their office space.

The answer lies in the flexibility of the space. The experience of coronavirus has highlighted the risks of being unprepared for the unknown. A natural reaction to this is going to be renewed recognition that real estate portfolios and commercial buildings need to be designed to adjust and adapt over time.

Designing flexible workplaces

Being able to scale your space up and down to changing requirements will be paramount. In our design for Santander’s new workplace in Milton Keynes, we have deliberately created floors that can be subdivided and sublet. It incorporates different settings to cater for different companies and uses, not just Santander’s staff, and with a co-working provision that can increase and adjust to suit Santander’s fluctuating demand for space.

Flexible workplaces - Santander's Unity Place

Unity Place is Santander`s planned new centre of digital innovation in Milton Keynes.

It’s a foresighted approach that not only seeks to avoid a costly surplus of space, but also recognises that commercial offices can no longer afford to be closed-off corporate assets. Rather, we need to shift the dial so that they become a community as well as business assets, encouraging local connections through integration with a range social amenities and leisure facilities, and giving employees more reasons to commute in.

It’s this fluidity and flexibility of uses (and users) that will ultimately ensure the efficiency and relevance of our built environment and real estate portfolios for generations to come. And that’s critical from a sustainability perspective too.

The construction of new buildings contributes a staggering proportion of carbon emissions. We therefore need to extend the lifespan of our physical assets, and get better at re-modelling them over time. This requires flexibility and long-term robustness in our new buildings, creating spaces that are appealing and can be used in many ways, plus greater investment into retrofit work to adapt existing environments.

History shows us that spaces that are popular with the people they serve endure and get re-purposed over time. Covid-19 has shown us just how quickly adaptions to our buildings can be required. Creating more flexible spaces is imperative if we are to weather future storms, and create sustainable environments that will last.

Richard Hutchinson, is a director and workplace specialist at LOM

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