A different positive mindset towards today’s changing business sectors and employee workstyles is required if Reading and its urban satellites are to continue as a successful sustainable Thames Valley community and economy, writes John Burbedge.
That was the underlying message from keynote speakers at the ‘Reading Number 1 City‘ breakfast seminar held at the Madejski Stadium in July.
Boyes Turner development and housebuilding partner Derek Ching expressed the mood best, ending his presentation with the words: “Don’t stumble on something behind you.”
“We got here by learning the lessons of the past, but we need to be prepared to tear up some old assumptions to achieve our 2050 aspirations.”
Ching highlighted as 21st century change-examples, the rapidly altering retail and logistics sectors, home-working, flexible and millennial workstyles, increasing private rental rather than property ownership, greater mixed-use development, and broader transportation requirements.
He called for local policymakers not to build their future decision-making around what is currently being provided, but the expected long-term demands of evolving lifestyles and business needs.
Together with a re-imagining of Reading’s future, historic perceptions of suitable land use, investment and development norms, planning regulations and laws surrounding them, all needed revisiting and revising as required.
Ching suggested simplifying planning procedures, more flexibility on property usage, less reliance on legal precedents or restrictive terms and covenants, and perhaps greater use of statutory powers such as compulsory purchasing to ‘unlock’ key sites.
Modern cities such as Reading may well need even greater fluidity of land-use than existing local plans allow, he noted. “We can choose to follow the trend or catch the wind of changing occupation and get ahead of the curve.”
Creating attractive spaces for modern workstyles
Workstyle change was already being reflected in workspace design linked to business needs, highlighted Chris Allen, head of workplace consulting at office design and fit-out specialist Morgan Lovell, and Katrina Larkin, co-founder of Fora, the co-working exponent.
Allen suggested that in tomorrow’s business world, the work-life balance quandary will not exist. Work and life is already blending together as an individual’s holistic lifestyle. The 21st century workplace model is fast becoming an attractive ‘destination village’ providing employee-important aspects such as human contact, community, culture and choice.
Wellbeing (ranging from fulfilment and belonging to purpose and security), permission and organisational support, a diverse choice of workspaces, and good technology links were also key to employee needs.
“The workplace is no longer where we go to work; it’s where we go to connect.” Creating attractive purpose-driven places for employees would be the aim of agile businesses in the future.
Recent research revealed that purpose-driven workplaces provided 30% higher levels of innovation, 64% more employee fulfilment, 40% greater retention and even a 15% lower risk of death. A 2016 study on time spent versus value created at traditional workplaces, said Allen, had indicated that 42% of an employee’s time could be spent on emails while creating only 6% of work-value.
Mentioning a research forecast, Allen ended: “By 2023, zero office environments will be normal among knowledge workers across industries.”
In 2016, Katrina Larkin and Enrico Sanna co-founded Fora, which aims to provide flexible workspaces enabling cohesive and productive work environments – ‘places where great minds meet and work’.
Successful entrepreneur Larkin had previously shied away from traditional business models and workplaces: “Then I discovered co-working and operators who truly cared beyond providing a desk; they cared about the end-user, and that was fascinating to me.
“Throughout my career I have sought to elevate people’s experience of leisure-time, opening their minds to new expectations, and I believe that work-time is crying out for the same kind of creativity and innovation.”
Operating around four founding pillars – design, service, technology and network – Fora is building new ways of working by reimagining the office experience and employing premium hotel-style service and design, innovative technology plus a curated approach to occupier activity.
How do you attract and retain talent; get the best from your people; really develop your business?
Larkin suggested the answer was “offering attractive flexible spaces that really relate to the working-day flow; areas within a building where people can choose when and where to work.”
Co-working environments and forum events enable individual identity alongside networking, collaboration opportunities among like-minded businesses, the sharing and solving of business concerns, and formation of working and social friendships.
Reading’s attractiveness for modern businesses was highlighted in February when Fora leased three floors of Thames Tower, opposite Reading Station, as its first flexible and co-working location outside London.
Reading acclaimed as a market leader
Co-Star Group’s analytics director Richard Yorke confirmed Reading’s attraction with market-leading data and his insight into the status of the town within the UK commercial property market.
Declaring Reading as the No 1 ‘city’ of the Co-Star 50 Occupier Index covering the UK’s most dynamic office occupier markets by stock, activity and demand during 2017, Yorke said: “It shows that Reading is the kind of city that occupiers want to be in.”
Yorke also noted: “About £480m was invested in office stock in the Berkshire and north Hampshire market over the past 12 months and about half of that went into central Reading.” The Berks and north Hants market provided about one third of the biggest 2017 deals across the whole southeast, he added.
Southeast property investment volumes in 2017 were “extremely robust, a phenomenal year with some outstanding deals,” said Yorke, around 30% up on 2016. “So far this year, that momentum has been maintained.”
Office and retail remain the dominant core, but there is growing investment towards industrial and private rented (PRS) sectors and alternatives such as healthcare, hotels, student accommodation, etc.
“Investors want modern or refurbished stock and Reading is supplying a good number of those properties.” Yorke highlighted developments such as The White Building, Abbey Gardens, The Blade, Nine Greyfriars, R+, Thames Tower, and Station Hill. “There is a really strong tail-wind behind the Reading market.“
Yorke summarised: “t’s an extremely positive story with waves of investment coming into the southeast’s commercial real estate; much of it attracted to the local Thames Valley market and much of it concentrated upon central Reading.”
Reading must continue to embrace change
Award-winning Reading, one of the UK’s fastest growing business centres, has already come a long way and is continuing to evolve as a vibrant ‘city’ fit for 21st century business, stated Peter Brett Associates partner Scott Witchalls.
“We already operate on a world stage, and we should congratulate ourselves on what a great place we’ve got here in which to live and work.”
Major change can be achieved successfully, stated Witchalls, exampling the new Reading Station, Green Park, The Oracle, town-centre pedestrianisation, leading-edge office workplaces, and M4 J11 restyling. “We mustn’t be afraid of change; we’ve got to embrace it. Be confident about where we have come from.”
‘Coming soon’ to Reading, he highlighted the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) and rail electrification, Green Park’s new station, M4 ‘smart motorway’ work, improvements to mass rapid transit, and the promise of Heathrow expansion allied to a western rail link direct to Heathrow from Reading. “These are things other regions only dream of,” Witchalls remarked.
Reading’s new Science Park at Shinfield and extensive south-of-M4 housing developments are also well underway, but Witchalls focused on the proposed Royal Elm Park development – set to enhance Reading’s global reputation with its regional facilities and services that enable national and international activities.
Along with 600 new homes, Royal Elm Park will provide a major convention centre holding 6,000 delegates, a 1,200 place-setting banquet hall, exhibition space, a 600-seat ice rink, cafes, bars and restaurants, plus free event transportation services.
Witchalls accepted that Reading needed to keep managing and resolving its accessibility issues as the town evolves, but added: “Don’t dream of an uncongested environment, because it will be dull, lacking dynamism and unsuccessful. You need people within a thriving town.”