The Covid-19 pandemic has caused disruption on a global scale, radically altering our lives and moving us rapidly into a ‘new normal’, which we’re still coming to terms with.
The movement to ‘work from home’ has entirely shifted thinking about what the office is for – and even if it is needed at all. The speed with which some of the tech giants have announced sweeping and large-scale changes is breath-taking.
Twitter and Facebook have publicly announced they will embrace remote working forever, and Facebook expects 50% of their workforce to make this choice.
Whether this is the right decision remains to be seen. Apple, for their part, have made it clear that as a creative business they believe the office remains critical as a driver of collaboration and innovation. For Apple, in-person meetings and hands-on product development are core values.
Ultimately, the ‘new normal’ is unlikely to be one or the other, but a hybrid form of working.
At Plus X, we recently partnered with Knight Frank to survey our team and understand the thoughts of other workplace teams. What was perhaps surprising is that, while home working was definitely celebrated by respondents for its many benefits, we only saw a slight shift in preference towards home working in the future. Most respondents wanted a blend of home and office work, it depended on their role and the particular work they were doing at that time.
What is certain is that #wfh is not right for everyone. This is especially true for start-ups and other SMEs at that critical stage of development where they are seeking to scale-up.
We know this from experience. Of the varied businesses, large and small that we welcome at Plus X, many are developing ideas that may become the ‘must have’ product of the future, or that will change industries or manufacturing forever. For these innovators, working out of a kitchen or bedroom is simply impossible.
At our newly opened Plus X Brighton, developed in partnership with U+I and the first in a national network of innovation hubs, we provide prototype product making and testing facilities including precision CNC milling machines, laser cutters, UX test suites, electronics laboratory, image, video and podcast studios.
Not the sort of facilities you’ll find in the average home – or the average co-working space, for that matter. This equipment helps cater for our members like Lucy Hughes, the winner of the international James Dyson Award for her use of fish waste and algae, as a biodegradable solution to single use plastic.
It’s not just tech that our members need. There is no more difficult step for any new business than that from start-up to scale-up: the truth is between 10 and 20% of start-ups don’t make it past year one and 50% fail after five years.
Take Brighton for example. While the city is often ranked as one of the best places to start a business in the UK, compared to other cities and regions it performs far less well when it comes to scaling up those businesses and putting them on a sustainable footing.
These businesses need support that is almost impossible to provide in a #wfh environment. So at Plus X Brighton we have a new three-year business growth and innovation programme called BRITE (Brighton Research Innovation Technology Exchange), which has been developed in partnership with the University of Brighton, with funding from the Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership and U+I.
It will bring £10.5m worth of support to hundreds of businesses in the Sussex region, providing them not only with access to our high spec machinery and equipment, but also business expertise, with specialist design teams to assist with new product and service development and partnerships with local and global businesses.
The BRITE programme will also give members access to the University of Brighton’s unique, dynamic and impact focused innovation tools and programmes, developed by the University’s Centre for Research and Innovation Management.
Amid the economic crisis, the challenge of scaling (back) up also applies to businesses that had established themselves pre-pandemic and are now trying to find a way back. In a recent survey of businesses by Brighton Chamber of Commerce the top response, after the most pressing demands for cash and returning customers, was the request for innovation support.
This is no ordinary downturn where the goal is to get back to where we were, this is a moment of great customer and regulatory change. Without the culture and skills of innovation, many businesses will never recover. That is bad news for high streets, bad news for landlords, bad news for developers – and bad news for Britain’s economy.
‘Work from home forever’ may work for some, but we believe firmly that although ideas may be born in a bedroom, turning an idea into a viable prototype, a prototype into a product or service, and then cultivating a sustainable business model, requires extensive collaboration and support.
Collaboration ignites creativity and innovation and enables our businesses of the future to grow and thrive. And if Britain is to recover from the disaster wreaked by Covid-19 on our economy, our start-ups, scale-ups and businesses of all sizes and kinds will need all the support they can get. They must not be forgotten in the debate about the future of work. Because without them Britain’s new economy will fail to spark.
Paul Rostas, co-founder and co-CEO, Plus X