On Tuesday 15th May 2018, over 300 delegates descended on etc.venues at 155 Bishopsgate in London for the 2018 edition of the annual BCA Conference.
Based on the theme ‘Your Business, Your Brand, Your Future’ the Conference held a laser focus on the changing shape of flexible workspace and its place in the wider commercial property market.
From support for small business clients and wellbeing in the workplace to experiential branding, connectivity, and digital transformation, no subject was off the table. The tightly packed programme featured a stellar line-up of expert speakers, who were jovially kept to schedule by the incredibly efficient conference MC, Mike Ashton.
Jennifer Brooke, Executive Director of the BCA opened proceedings by welcoming delegates to the 28th BCA Conference, which this year included more than 70 first-time attendees.
Reflecting on the BCA’s journey to date, Jennifer recalled taking over the helm of the association in 1999, at a time when fax was the leading technology in business centres. “Back then, it was all about the corporates,” reflected Jennifer. “Tiny space was carved out for non-conventional serviced operators. Fast forward to today and we’re on an upward curve, and our industry’s future is one of expansion and innovation.”
Jennifer’s opening remarks were particularly poignant as she announced her decision to “take a back seat” towards the end of the year and step down as Executive Director, after the 2018 BCA Industry Awards. It’s the end of an era for the BCA, an association that Jennifer has spearheaded for the past 20 years and which has evolved to become a powerful movement, giving a commanding voice to the industry and to its members.
“I am looking forward to seeing our members thrive over the coming years, whatever the shape of things to come.”
Small Businesses, Powerful Spaces
Keynote speaker Emma Jones MBE, founder of startup support network Enterprise Nation, took to the stage to discuss the enormous value of small and medium-sized businesses in the UK, and how flexible workspace can support entrepreneurs on their growth journey.
Technology is the enabler for small businesses, and Emma urged flexible workspace operators to support their prospects by utilising their space to facilitate connections, host events and meet-ups, and become a voice for their clients and members.
“The UK is now home to 5.5million small businesses,” she enthused. “We’re in a great position. Our job now is to make sure they get the support they need to grow - that’s how we get a healthy economy.”
Flexible Workspace: A Permanent Trend
Following Emma Jones was Richard Morris, CEO of IWG plc (UK), who delivered an insightful presentation on the huge strides the industry has taken in recent years.
“The good news is, we’re not even scratching the surface,” he said. Citing a 2017 report from CBRE, Richard noted that 84% of respondents see flexible workspace as a permanent trend and a mainstay of the corporate real estate landscape.
“Digitalisation is changing the way people work,” he said. “Flexible space is about the freedom to move around, to go where your customers are and avoid the downtime of being strapped into one location. It is accessible and affordable, making it easier for small businesses to be agile and to move into new markets quickly.”
Taking this concept further, CBRE’s Kevin McCauley and James Pearson delivered impressive findings on the rise of flexible workspace and how commercial property landlords are responding to it.
In London alone, CBRE’s research found that flexible space has taken 6.4 million sq ft since 2013 and it is now home to more flexible space centres than any other global city.
CBRE research has found that corporate occupiers use flexible space to reduce cost across their portfolios and because it enables speed to market - and although traditional landlords have been a little slow to join the flexible revolution, they are now making up for lost time.
“Landlords are assessing and considering their options,” noted Kevin. “In many cases, they view flexible space as a complement to their existing portfolios. Our findings show that 77% of UK landlords are now considering using flexible space - so expect some competition!”
Wellbeing and Emotional Connections
In a fascinating presentation on the science and design of wellbeing in the workplace, Steelcase’s Alex Gifford addressed the importance of wellbeing in environments where long days sitting at a desk is the unhealthy norm.
“Work is tougher, it’s more stressful, and we’re suffering as a result,” he said. “Our senses receive 11 million bits of information every second, yet we’re only supposed to handle around 40 bits. We’re overloaded.”
As Alex explained, we can’t do our best work on autopilot - we need to be in the best state of mind, and that starts with the right environment. Workplaces that fulfil human needs facilitate higher levels of productivity. At a basic level, workspaces should encourage movement - which could be as simple as putting distance between workstations and kitchens to encourage mobility - and provide natural light along with easy access to outdoor spaces.
A healthier workplace creates positive experiences, and this topic was explored further with the help of Mark Stringer and Jess Hargreaves of Pretty Green, who together discussed the importance of experiential marketing and how emotion helps drive ROI.
“Emotional connections are your competitive advantage, and that drives return on investment,” stated Mark. “But you can’t just rely on an emotional connection - you have to make an emotional difference.” Customers remember experiences much more than they remember products or brand names, and the trick lies in building long-term experiential memories.
“An emotional connection is not a faceless mission statement on your website. It’s how you behave, how you drive your business, and it’s about giving customers what they want,” said Jess.
“Your brand should be a servant to your customers - that’s the real difference you’ll make to your bottom line.”
Confidence Drives Economies
The afternoon session started with a bang thanks to Justin Urquhart-Stewart, founder of 7IM and a frequent (and favourite) speaker at BCA Conference. He certainly lived up to expectations with an engaging whirlwind tour of the global economy that was characteristically insightful, cheeky, and hilarious.
But there was also a serious message, as he noted that business confidence is currently waning ahead of Brexit. “One word runs an economy, and that’s confidence. If you don’t have any confidence, nothing happens.”
There is also a slight drop in the number of new business startups, a fact noted by Emma Jones earlier in the day. However, this is not necessarily a negative indicator - these numbers have most likely flattened due to a drop in confidence, which may in itself be short-lived.
However, Justin reminded Conference that the UK is a force to be reckoned with: it is the world’s 5th largest economy, the 8th largest manufacturer, and the 11th largest exporter.
An advocate of the flexible workspace industry, Justin re-affirmed the industry’s ability to support and nurture small businesses, and to help drive new connections in order to facilitate growth opportunities and bolster business confidence as the UK navigates Brexit.
Connectivity and Digital Innovation
The day concluded with two excellent speakers who discussed two very different yet closely linked fields of technology: connectivity and digital innovation.
William Newton of WiredScore, a platform for testing and rating the quality of connectivity in buildings, discussed ways in which technological evolution and changes in human behaviour are transforming the way we access knowledge and data: “The knowledge that we have access to has totally changed our life habits - we can tap resources totally unimaginable just a few decades ago.”
But in order to reach that information, we must have connectivity - and the quality of that connectivity determines how easily and how fast we can utilise the data our businesses need. “Demand more information from your landlord,” William urged. “They should be able to tell you about every aspect of connectivity in the building. They must be transparent.”
On developing technologies, William explained the potential for light fidelity (LiFi) - a technology for wireless communication developed in Edinburgh, which uses light to transmit data and poses a fascinating opportunity for serviced office operators.
Concluding the afternoon’s technological tour was Antony Slumbers, founder of Estates Today, who discussed digital innovation in the current workplace.
Key to his presentation was the concept of ‘old work’ and ‘new work’. ‘Old work’ is based on repetitive, repeatable tasks that can be automated, leaving the human workforce free to concentrate on ‘new work’ - which utilises our creative strengths and ability to make judgements.
“An office designed around ‘old work’ will become obsolete,” he said. “If you want to future proof the office, you need to think about designing environments for ‘new work’.”
Relating this to the flexible workspace industry, he said: “The more we understand our clients and the jobs they do, the more we can tune and optimise our space to suit their needs. Businesses don’t want an office, they want a productive workforce.”
He finished by reaffirming that our sector has the potential to move up the value chain, to blend the key digital innovation elements of data, real estate, technology and hospitality to provide great space as a service.
“Just like software, no workplace is ever finished. Keep building, keep measuring, and keep learning. Our sector is gathering momentum and it’s going to get bigger, stronger, and better financed than ever before,” he added. “Put your foot to the floor!”
The 28th BCA Conference concluded with a wrap-up by BCA Chair, Andrew Butterworth of Bruntwood, who summed up the day’s enthralling content by alluding to the over-riding sentiment that flexible workspace isn’t just here to stay; in a way that we have never seen before, it has become an invaluable, exciting and inextricable part of commercial property. As Jennifer stated at the start of the day, not so long ago flexible space was confined to a tiny hidden corner of real estate - now it’s a commanding movement that’s attracting more investment, more demand, and more interest than ever before. As for the shape of things to come? Flexible space isn’t restricted by shape - it is as agile as the businesses that use it, and the future possibilities are limitless.