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How coronavirus is changing where businesses work

Often overlooked for the bright lights of the big cities, smaller towns and rural areas could see a revival as services businesses consider a change of location and pace after coronavirus.

Last updated: 16 Nov 2020 7 min read

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Burrough Court in Leicestershire has a well-being studio and designated routes for ‘walking meetings’.

Workers at a West Midlands business park can brighten up their lunchtime walks through its 122 acres of parkland by borrowing a dog to accompany them. At a similar space in west London, employees can borrow bikes, visit the pop-up open air cinema or even ride a zip wire. Meanwhile, a recent survey has found that 90% of those who worked at home during lockdown don’t want to return to the office. They might if more offices looked like this.

The impact of coronavirus may have given some small businesses, especially those that provide services, pause for thought. As people plan for a future that enables more remote working, a change in location away from a city or large town towards a more rural location, village or market town could mean a potential improvement in quality of life, workspace and access to a more diverse pool of talent.

In turn, when entrepreneurs are given the chance to thrive and scale their businesses, they contribute to stronger local economies that ultimately create employment opportunities for local people of all ages. The £2bn Kickstart Scheme aims to create valuable jobs not just in cities, but in all areas of the UK. If small and growing businesses do decide to relocate, they will be enhancing opportunities for residents and businesses and contributing towards the revival of rural economies.

Toby Parkins, co-founding director of Headforwards in Pool, Cornwall, made the decision to base his software firm in an area not traditionally associated with tech and innovation nearly 10 years ago and hasn’t regretted it. The South West has since become a hub for tech companies.

He says the environment suits people looking for more in life, and he thinks many tech firms have recently realised they don’t have to be based in London paying premium rent. “A chance conversation with a global blue-chip company identified the need to attract and retain quality staff,” Parkins recalls. “These people are highly driven professionally and technically, but, more importantly, they manage their own lives to obtain the correct work-life balance. Headforwards now has over 110 people working for clients.

“We have found that a great location, combined with a strong company culture, will increase staff retention, and that will improve knowledge retention. When people spend less time commuting, and exchange that time for spending time in a beautiful environment, they become happier, inspired, and more driven towards delivering success and quality. That is what most businesses need, after all.”

Promoting well-being

Businesses have increasingly embraced the idea of not just a more peaceful, calming setting but also facilities and activities that promote physical and mental well-being. At Burrough Court, which is also a 1,200-acre arable farm, there are designated routes for ‘walking business meetings’, a gym and a well-being studio offering yoga and Pilates classes, as well as essential business services such as 1Gbps broadband across the site.

“We’ve found a huge surge in interest since the pandemic began,” says Becky Wilson, Burrough Court’s marketing manager. “Where people once just did the city-centre commute unthinkingly, businesses are now realising that, with Zoom calls and remote meetings, there’s no need to be in a city centre when you can be in a space that offers more flexibility and possibility, which improves well-being and workers’ productivity.”

“We run a league table of our companies for sustainability... We have bee hives, sustainable fish in the lake, and even a wormery with 100,000 worms to compost waste” Matt Coulson, CEO, Chiswick Park

One of its small business customers, Andy Galpin, director of Motion Retail, says he relocated there because everything is on-site and there’s no traffic: “Moving to a rural development makes a huge change in the dynamics of our business operation and staff well-being. Getting out of the ‘rat race’ and being more relaxed helps with being more productive, and the views can only help enhance our clients’ visiting experience.”

Rob Hemus, asset director at IM Properties, which owns Blythe Valley Park in Solihull, says lots of firms are taking a step back and assessing what sort of space they need, and want. So what is it that they want?

“Environment, technology and sustainability,” he says. “They’re looking for a pleasant, clean, modern, spacious environment. Our business park is in stunning parkland, but we offer our businesses activities that enable them to enjoy it and bring people together. We have had a regular ‘Foodie Friday’ with stalls, street fairs, ceramic painting classes, horticultural workshops. And we are keen to promote physical and mental health – one hugely popular activity is when a local kennels brings its greyhounds for people to walk.”

Clean and green

Sustainability is also increasingly a priority. Modern out-of-town business premises are built around greener principles, with more direct public transport links, provision for cyclists and electric car charging points.

“Consumers want businesses to be allied to a sustainable ethos, and it’s becoming an increasingly important factor in recruiting and retaining staff, particularly millennials and Gen Z workers,” says Hemus.

Greener working influences Filwood Green Business Park near Bristol, which was designed specifically to achieve a 40% CO2 reduction and includes solar panels, a sedum roof – even 84% of its furniture is recycled. But its design still focuses on community.

“A key part of our brief was to facilitate chance encounters between the users,” says architect James Horner. “Kitchens and toilets, unusually, were put outside the units; there’s an external staircase. People have to move around the site, and end up bumping into each other.”

Chiswick Park, set in hundreds of acres of green space on the fringes of west London, describes itself as having an “all-pervasive belief that if people enjoy work, they do better work, and if they do better work, you have a better business”.

Here, the focus is firmly on community. “We normally deliver about 30 experiences a year,” says CEO Matt Coulson. “Everything from bake-off competitions and tea parties to our November fireworks. There are outdoor film nights; we even have a zip wire from one of the buildings.” The site, says Coulson, is always looking for new ways to engage its clients and make their lives as convenient as possible.

Like other business parks, it is keen to look after the planet. “Sustainability is hugely important,” he says. “It is on companies’ checklists. We run a league table of our companies for sustainability, and we have bee hives, sustainable fish in the lake, fantastic biodiversity, and even a wormery with 100,000 worms to compost waste.”

Long live the office

There may have been talk about the death of the office, but the opposite is true, says property developer Guy Marsden. “The role of the office is vital to reinforce the culture of an organisation, to work collaboratively and to build connections.”

Marsden, whose company runs the new Magenta Park just outside Glasgow city centre – set amid three separate green parks and offering riverside walks along the Clyde – says the move towards different office working was there before coronavirus, but the pandemic accelerated it.

“Developers, investors and occupiers need to consider future design solutions that place employee health and well-being firmly as the top priority,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to improve the way we work to redefine the future of the workplace, making it a space where employees want to come, rather than being seen as a necessity.”

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