Remote working is here to stay – but it cannot replace the office’s creative energy
Covid-19 has raised questions over the future of our cities, but planning expert Tim Stonor is confident we will still need physical spaces to innovate.
You can’t always wait for things like Covid-19 to come along to implement big changes,” says Tim Stonor, Managing Director of architectural consultancy firm Space Syntax, “but when they do, you need to be poised to take advantage of them.”
Stonor is a trained architect and town planner, but he’s devoted his career to using science-based methods to analyse and predict human behaviour patterns and the future of cities. “Typically, architects don’t have many tools to predict how the buildings they design may work and what might happen in them. It’s often down to guesswork,” he says.
The premise of Space Syntax is to show how spatial layouts can be optimised to enhance economic, social and environmental value or, as Stonor says, create places that “thrive”. His work at Broadgate in London helped to coax bankers out of pubs to encourage activity in between buildings by Liverpool Street Station. Over the past three years, he’s been rethinking Kazakhstan’s capital Nur-Sultan.
Modelling is done by analogue and digital survey work, mapping and counting aspects such as the flow of people, where they stop, where they have conversations, as well as measuring the “spatial attraction” of street networks – how the length, straightness and connectivity of different streets makes some better used than others. The data is combined to create algorithms that give rigour to arguments and reveal spatial behaviour.
Modelling a pandemic
Before Covid-19, Space Syntax had never modelled the possibility of a viral pandemic. It had considered the spatial circumstances of loneliness and even obesity as part of Exeter’s Healthy New Towns programme. But like the Barclays CEO Jes Staley, who said that flexible working would become the norm for 70,000 of the bank’s staff, Stonor believes the implications of the pandemic on the built environment will be profound, although not necessarily linear. “The financial Big Bang created greater centralisation, despite everyone thinking it wouldn’t,” he says. “There was massive floorplate expansion and city centres started repopulating. Results are often counter-intuitive.”
For London, Stonor believes the impact of homeworking will be dramatic, but he is betting against offices fully moving out or going all-remote working. “Many of the social and business skills that have had to evolve over the past few months are still rooted in the language of the physical office like ‘going into the next meeting on Zoom’,” he explains. “Going back to the physical office will be a huge challenge and they didn’t suit some people anyway.”
Instead, offices will change. Companies will reduce footprints, and they will be less about deskstuffing and more about creating places where people socialise, meet and expand networks. “The purpose and success of offices is to do the unexpected by bumping into someone,” he says.
“Technology hasn’t particularly got to the point of introducing people in a social way or having productive chance encounters. That’s an intricate and delicate process that is fundamental to business.” Stonor’s analogy is that offices will become like youth clubs, with table tennis and other spurs for social interactivity. The back office will instead become the home back bedroom – aspects that will affect office values. Yet for the same reasons, Stonor doesn’t believe the changing nature of the office will contribute to a hollowing out of the city centre.
He says: “We don’t just need offices, but drinks parties, events, launches. In London, the centre will always have the institutions of government, historic heritage, culture and so on, but it may not have the intense pressure for space that there has been.”
London has a centrality and village structure. Transport deposits people in the centre. Unlike American cities, it is continuously connected by streets and you are never far from a local centre. If you can no longer use transport, local places take on greater resonance; but London may not experience a migration out of the middle. Post-pandemic, office space might be converted to residential, which could make city centres more mixed places where people want to live. But it won’t be without significant shock for services such as Transport for London.
Hubs and spokes
This scenario led Space Syntax to develop its SoftHub concept, which addresses how to commute without the Tube by creating stations for parking and pickingup bikes that are also places to grab coffee, do the dry cleaning or act as local co-working or hired meeting spaces. Local office space would also move us towards the varied high streets we had before everything was stretched out by transport.
The pandemic is an opportunity to improve quality of life and the public realm by making local areas more animated, thriving places that could be promoted more for tourism too.
“People have had to have an open mind during this period,” says Stonor, “and approach it with a mindset of being ready to accept slight changes… I’m more confident about positive change for London. It already has a fluidity. I’m more concerned for highly car-dependent cities such as Milton Keynes, looking at how you encourage people towards walking and cycling, not only to deal with Covid-19 but also to address the climate emergency.”