London leaps into the future: eight things we learnt from 2022 event

WORKTECH’s flagship London conference didn’t duck the big issues about the changing world of work – from the scale of the smart city to the most intimate and engaging workplace experience

With more than 50 speakers and panellists covering a vast range of topics over two fast-paced days, and more than 20 exhibitors showcasing innovations, the WORKTECH 2022 London conference held on 22-23 November in the Convene event space at 22 Bishopsgate offered – and delivered – a fast track to the future of work.

Here are eight key takeaways from WORKTECH London 2022:

Solving the return-to-office puzzle

The theatres are busy, the restaurants are rammed but people are not coming back to the office in the same numbers. That was the puzzling picture in big cities presented by Nigel Dancy and Alessandro Ranaldi of the architectural firm Foster + Partners. Their design approach is to try to make the workplace a more natural, healthy, sustainable and interactive environment by concentrating on four essentials: convenience, convergence, collaboration and culture. Foster is involved in a major new London office development at 18 Blackfriars in Southwark, describing it as ‘city energy with a neighbourhood soul’. In a follow-up panel, legendary developer Sir Stuart Lipton described this community-driven scheme as ‘the new village green’. Could this be the way to bring people back?

Managing social capital

Social capital is set to be the key currency in the future workplace. Speaking from his experiences at JLL, Credit Suisse and now McKinsey, the firm’s senior expert Phil Kirschner explained that business leaders should manage social capital like other forms of corporate capital such as finance to create great places to work. Motivation, access and ability were the key dimensions to assess social capital. Kirschner suggested that ‘the future workplace must be virtual-first but not place-less’. He highlighted how mandates to get people back in the office have been unsuccessful. Instead of asking why people are not returning, he suggested turning this question around and asking why and when people should be together. His key principles: test, learn, adapt and scale – and base decisions on data.

Pop-up prototype

According to Julia Hobsbawm, author of The Nowhere Office, the ‘back office’ set up on the beach during the D-Day Normandy landings in June 1944 provides an early template for the more fluid, improvised, pop-up workplaces of the near future. This was one of the most evocative images of the entire conference. Hobsbawm also advanced a compelling solution for new professional recruits in law or finance who crave maximum flexibility but really need to learn over the shoulder of a senior partner. There should be a period of gestation of nine weeks or even nine months (like a pregnancy), she said, during which recruits need to show up every day in the office and after which they could go hybrid.

Lighting and the return to office

There is growing awareness of the role that lighting can play in the smart workplace and its impact on employee wellbeing and sleeping patterns. Lars-Gunnar Lundgren and Steve Shackleton, from Sony Nimway and Fagerhult respectively, suggested that better, more intentional lighting can offer a solution to current low occupancy levels in the office. During the pandemic we all had the ability to choose our own lighting and work in environments that suited us, so returning to the office with its traditional forms of artificial lighting could be seen as unappealing. Using smart technology, sensors and better data on employee behaviour, office lighting can be transformed, making the office a responsive space that can boost productivity and wellbeing.

Smart thinking for the future city

At the scale of the city, smart technologies are set to influence the future of work more than ever before. Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer for the Mayor of London, presented a vision over the next ten years of increasing take-up in the capital of advanced digital services such as cameras, drones, robotics, haptics, mobility services, and augmented and virtual reality. Many cities, he said, have moved beyond smart city thinking to emphasise functionality and collaboration rather than ‘showstopper’ tech. In a panel on the features and benefits of designing a 15-minute city, Ronen Journo of investor and developer Hines and consultant Tim Stonor of Space Syntax reminded us that great design matters too – they expertly analysed ​what it would take to build more compact communities with all living and working amenities in close proximity.

Socially sustainable development

Also giving a developer perspective, Michael Wiseman from British Land set out his firm’s masterplan for the development of Canada Water in London and in doing so highlighted the new expectations of communities living and working in development areas. Canada Water is expected to be one of the largest and most sustainable developments in London. Its heritage as the largest timber port in Europe will be retained in the development, ensuring that the rich history and experience of the area is not lost. Another developer, Paul Edwards of Mirvac in Australia, also emphasised the ESG agenda and reminded us that the standard metrics of valuing office space according to headcount is now outdated. His research in this area proposed new experiential metrics of valuation based on wellbeing and sustainability.

People are struggling right now

In case the future was looking a bit too shiny, Mona Balasubramanian of Gallup popped up to chart a global rise in unhappiness. Only one in two people in Europe are thriving and only one in three are thriving globally, according to Gallup’s research. This disenchantment extends to low levels of employee engagement, which Balasubramanian placed at the door of poor management. A survey of 10,000 people revealed that what they want most from leaders are: trust, compassion, stability and hope. Anyone in London living through the UK’s recent political instability could identify with that.

Time for the storyboard

Could the storyboard replace the space plan as the most important foundational document in office design? Closing keynote speaker Adam Scott, founder and creative director of FreeState, certainly believes so. Scott dynamically discussed his new publication, The Experience Book, and the pivotal role that experience will play in the future of the workplace. He explained how by intentionally designing experiences as part of an experience masterplan, we can create a better sense of connection within our workplaces and allow people to feel part of a tribe. Drawing on a range of inspirations from David Bowie to Walt Disney, who invented the storyboard, Scott took us back to the origins of great spectacles and explained why we’re wired for experiences. A great place to end WORKTECH London 2022.

View the WORKTECH22 London conference site here.
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