Creative sector reshaping workplaces generally

Mark Eltringham describes how the UK's thriving creative sector is reshaping the way we all use and design offices.

The idea that necessity is the mother of invention was first presented to the world by Plato in the fourth Century BC, and it endures to this day. We have also come to believe that creativity has roots not only in need, but sometimes also adversity. As the character Harry Lime played by Orson Welles puts it in the 1949 movie The Third Man; “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

The post war world was an ideal place to indulge in such thinking. What better time than the aftermath of a global disaster to judge the effect of adversity on the world? It’s a question that is pertinent as the world emerges from a six year economic downturn. In the week in which it was announced that the UK economy is now back to its pre-crash level and the IMF announced that the British economy would grow faster than that of any other developed nation, what effect has the downturn had on creativity in the UK?

There are some very clear signs that the recession has made the UK a hotbed for the creative industries. London, in particular, is thriving in this regard because, not only is it able to draw on a large pool of talented, edgy people who not only speak the language most common to the largest numbers around the world, it has set new standards in technological know-how.

This is also true in cities like Manchester, where Media City has shifted the UK’s creative epicentre to a large degree, alongside Cambridge and tech hubs in the South West of England and the central belt of Scotland.

According to a report published by Deloitte, when it comes to employment levels of people in knowledge based jobs in a range of high skill sectors such as digital media, banking, legal services, software development, telecoms and publishing, London is comfortably the world’s leading city. The study found that London employed 1.5 million people in the 22 sectors surveyed, compared with 1.2 million in New York, 784,000 in Los Angeles, 630,000 in Hong Kong and 425,000 in Boston. The report also predicts that London will enjoy rapid growth in employment levels in these sectors over the next seven years, adding around 100,000 more people.

Clearly, the world’s creative industries tend to form enclaves in the world’s great cities and this can have profound consequences for local skills markets but also whole metropolitan cultural ecosystems, local property markets and the way offices are developed and designed.

Of course, all of these people need a place to work and their rapid influx can deplete available commercial property stocks very quickly, especially when they have such strong ideas about what type of office they would like to inhabit as many creative businesses do. Part of the response to this lies in the use and proliferation of co-working spaces but it has implications for the more traditional forms of workplace too.

The challenge in meeting this demand is not solely about providing the right amount of office space, but also the right type and it is here that problems can arise. Creative businesses have a yearning for the esoteric. They prefer warehouses and lofts to speculative offices; exposed brickwork to plastered walls.

Already rents in London’s property market are reaching historic highs largely driven by demand from the TMT sector, which now rivals the financial services sector in the rents it is prepared to pay to be in the right sort of place. And as the availability of affordable and/ or preferred forms of space dries up in London’s tech heartlands firms are looking further afield to find the type of space they like and can afford.

They are also looking to finance buildings in different ways and using design to adapt what they consider sub-optimum spaces to something they are proud to call home according to a 2014 report from the British Council for Offices and, in doing so, are reshaping the wider market in their own image.

The report, called Technology, Media and Telecommunications, identifies five sub-sectors of the TMT market, and the three main characteristics of the emerging market for commercial property they are helping to create. These are: more flexible lease terms; the use of fit-out and design to express identity; and working cultures that are based around flexible and collaborative working styles.

It’s no coincidence that these are the characteristics firms from many other sectors are looking to find in their own offices and mark a profound shift in the way commercial property functions – not only in those creative enclaves but, increasingly, across the whole gamut of organisations and around the whole world.