The Future Science Workplace is Here Today

A Conversation with Colin Brown, Director - Development at Howard Group

December 2, 2020

Science and Higher Education Director, NBBJ

Editor’s note: From research to discovery, science buildings can be designed to encourage talent attraction, community and future flexibility. In the first of a three-part series, we speak to property developer Colin Brown of the Howard Group about a recent science project in the UK, gathering insights about what it means for the future science workplace.


NBBJ: What do you consider to be the emerging best practices in designing the new workplace research facilities of the future?

Colin Brown: There has been a significant cultural shift where property professionals, designers, employers and investors have recognised that people have to come first. In the past, some companies would describe themselves as a ‘people business,’ or being engaged in a ‘people industry.’ Employers across virtually every sector now recognise that every business is a people business, and to that end are investing properly in those people, whether it be in their physical and mental health, their workplace or their training and career development.

Strategic master planning and building design can facilitate communication and collaboration. The more I engage with R&D/life sciences tenants our market (Cambridge, UK) the more I realise that the old way of doing things has passed. The ‘arm around your homework’ silo mentality benefits very few, and the big challenges of the world require cross-sector co-operation and the sharing of insight and resource. Very few companies will get to where they want or need to be without harnessing the skills or the research of others. That raises a whole load of exciting challenges and opportunities for the property industry. It also taps into the primary source of workplace satisfaction for the highly educated research workforce – to be part of something big, positive and world-changing.

This approach was very much front of mind when considering the master-plan at Unity Campus – our new 260,000 sq. f.t (24,155 sq. m.) business park in south Cambridge which has always been about driving interaction between people and businesses. There is very little graded car-parking or internal vehicle movements, the amenity space is shared and central, buildings are much closer together and the campus feels a lot more collegiate than the standard research parks in the region. The campus approach is deliberate, and we believe it is a much more appropriate response to changing tenant demands.


NBBJ: Many research facilities are built with flexibility in mind, but how flexible have they proved to be in practice? What flexibility and longer-term adaptability strategies need to be rethought, and how do they need to change?

Colin Brown: Flexibility is seen by many as the panacea for commercial property development, but ultimate flexibility invariably comes at a cost. The risk is that in trying to be all things to all people we neglect to provide accommodation that is truly fit for purpose for anyone. At Howard Group we have had to really educate ourselves in not only the physical but also the commercial flexibility required by research tenants who often experience extremely fluid high-growth or contraction patterns. Flexibility is as much about being fleet of foot and identifying solutions to possible problems before they are encountered as it is about catering for the most demanding requirement in the market (and then being forced to charge accordingly to make the development viable). Our challenge is to understand what flexibility means across all aspects of our occupiers’ business, not just the structure or design of a building.


NBBJ: Are there any other sectors — corporate workplaces, commercial development, healthcare, retail, process engineering/production — you look to for inspiration when briefing a new space?

Colin Brown: Howard Group is active across all commercial sectors as well as having a large student accommodation presence. We certainly see the benefit in coming to a sector with a fresh outlook, although we are also very aware that we have a lot of learning to do. To that end we surround ourselves with the very best consultant teams in the business to both support and help us develop our knowledge and expertise.

In Cambridge particularly, the competition for talent is so fierce that employers will go to great lengths to create workspaces which attract the best people. Millennial and Gen-Z workforces are generally happy to spend far longer at work than previous generations, and they want that workspace to feel a lot more like home. In response to this, we are working hard to create spaces where people can relax, enjoy their surroundings, take a longer break than they might otherwise do and come back to their workspaces invigorated and inspired.

I’ve noticed myself that whilst working through the Covid-19 lockdown, the process of getting outside, engaging with people outside of our business, eating well and exercising makes me a whole lot more focused on my work when I’m back at my screen or on the phone. Given the home working that has been so much a part of 2020, we are and will continue to see the design principles from quality residential schemes arriving in many research and office environments. An excellent example of this is an AI occupier in our 95 Regent Street development in central Cambridge, who are proposing to install a breakfast bar, sleep-pods, music and games rooms into their expansion space!


NBBJ: How do you see the development of technology and automation impacting your facilities, workplace and general operations? As we move into the era of robotics, how will this define the new workplace and how do we safeguard a human-centric approach?

Colin Brown: I have to caveat my response here with an acknowledgement that in Cambridge we are in an almost unique position. Employment figures are high and a disproportionate number of those are employed in knowledge intensive industries, capable of benefitting greatly from the development of technology and automation rather than being at risk from it. We have witnessed robotics, electronics and technology doing incredible things; improving many aspects of daily life and I hope we will continue to see that evolve. Howard Group has occupiers and investee companies who are using tech to target some of the largest sustainability issues, from reducing embodied carbon in construction practices, to creating more sustainable building materials, to increasing the efficiencies in global electrical grids.

Where tech is able to create a better quality of life for all, we greatly welcome it. As cliché as it sounds, the key is to make tech work for humanity and not the other way around. This commitment to looking after people, and developing in as sustainable a way as possible is intrinsic to what we do. Through responsible investing in people, places and ideas, we are committed to improving and enriching lives whether it be developing a forgotten place or backing a new and exciting life science entrepreneur.


NBBJ: How do you see the Covid-19 pandemic affecting your developments? How do you think buildings will need to change in the future to support these changes?

Colin Brown: There has been a huge amount of discussion about what the new normal might look like. I think some of the chatter will disappear into the background and I don’t foresee a fundamental systematic change in the way that we design and construct buildings coming soon. However, the way that workspaces are fitted out, occupied and managed is unlikely to go back to where it was before the pandemic for a considerable period of time.

I have spoken to a number of tenants during the course of this year, and many have told me of their sense of frustration at not having had control over their own destiny. Landlords of multi-let buildings, secure research parks or serviced office providers have had to prescribe to tenants how (and whether) they are able to access and use their buildings, which I think could become more of an issue as we see the lockdown restrictions lifted and people start to interpret what best practice looks like. Being part of a community is great, but having your own front door also affords a degree of autonomy, which might look attractive to those frustrated at over (or under) cautious landlords or those who want to control their own environments and ensure safe working practices throughout.

I think we will almost certainly see companies giving their business resilience and disaster mitigation strategies more forethought. That might lead to greater investment in technology and agile working infrastructure, but it will also be about key-man risk and pooling of knowledge, client relationship management etc. Working remotely is great on occasion when the nature of your job allows, and we’ll all be much better equipped to do it going forward. However, working together in teams and improving collaboration internally and externally is also a critical aspect of future-proofing a business and building resilience.

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