How London’s big tech firms are preparing for the return to the office

King’s Cross is undergoing a transformation. Long-time transport hub, one-time clubbing hotspot, the area is now the place that nascent startups, blue chip conglomerates and world-leading research institutes call home. Its landscape has changed drastically: the muddy canals and crumbling warehouses have been rinsed and removed, making way for boutique shopping destinations and luxury apartments.
But the district’s next evolution lies behind closed doors, in glittering, high-rise offices and trendy work studios. Layouts are being reconfigured, desks are being rearranged, and technology is being reinforced ahead of the return of employees. In preparation for a hybrid model, combining remote work with scheduled in-person collaboration, businesses are having to rethink the workplace.
And Google is trying to create the ultimate post-pandemic office. The company dominates the King’s Cross area with its 11-storey ‘groundscraper’. Still under construction, it will one day be home to an indoor basketball court, a rooftop running track and thousands of employees busy at work. That’s the theory, anyway. The interior of its current UK headquarters, around the corner on Pancras Square, is currently being remodelled for the post-pandemic era: from September 1, around 60 per cent of teams will go into the office for ‘collaboration days’ three times a week.

When they eventually return, workers will be greeted by team pods – spaces which can be assembled on-the-go with furniture, whiteboards and storage units wheeled in for individual or teamwork. There will also be an outdoor workspace overlooking the capital. A Google spokesperson confirmed that there will also be new technology to improve hybrid meetings. At its Silicon Valley campus, that means Campfire: a meeting room where in-person attendees sit in a circle, interspersed with large HD displays.
Alongside Campfire, some of the radical pilot schemes Google is introducing in Mountain View include desks which automatically adjust to employee tastes; personalised temperature settings which could finally end office air-con wars; and even ‘balloon’ walls which create on-demand, private physical barriers. “There isn’t one way people work,” says Grace Lordan, associate professor in behavioural science at London School of Economics. “That’s why open-plan offices have failed: we get distracted too easily. Rather than giving everyone the same workstation, Google is trying out different types of spaces which suit different personality types and modes of thinking – more concentration, more creativity, more collaboration.”

While Google is investing in outlandish bits of gadgetry, neighbouring King’s Cross businesses are focusing on more mundane technology. “We’re installing best-in-class video conferencing with presence-detecting cameras to support more integrated meetings, as well as a cloud-based phone system,” explains Alice Lankester of investment firm Balderton Capital, whose portfolio includes the likes of Citymapper and Depop. “Meeting investors and founders virtually will become an absolutely integral part of our work patterns moving forward, pandemic or not.”

Rather than banks of desks, meeting rooms are set to take up prime real estate in the post-pandemic workplace. “The last 15 months have changed the perception of how we work going forward,” says Terry Hosten of BaseKX, University College London’s startup hub for entrepreneurs. The space offers a snapshot of what the future workplace might look like – one that could include booths for virtual meetings. “We’re planning to purchase meeting pods to enable more one-to-one conversations over Teams and Zoom. While there is some appetite in using physical desk space, surveys show that technology and private meeting space will be highly sought after in people’s return to the workplace.”
Innovation isn’t just reserved to King’s Cross. In Canary Wharf,  Revolut may have moved to a permanent remote working model, but it’s also overhauled its office space to include Rev Labs: flexible collaborative zones for brainstorming and training whenever staff do go in. In Aldgate, Uber has scaled back individual workstations – adding in digital whiteboards for large group sessions. And over in Paddington, Microsoft is prototyping hybrid meeting spaces which simulate face-to-face interactions: cameras are being placed at eye level in order to improve eye contact, with spatial audio installed so that remote colleagues’ voices are heard from their position on screen.

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