Jonathan Mannings, founder and managing director of Rare Commercial Property, asks if business parks are adapting to the modern demands of occupiers and their staff. And he names one that definitely is.

It is perhaps too easy and (and not totally accurate) to say that business parks have had their day.

And, while a drive around many of the Thames Valley’s business park car parks would suggest that occupiers are simply voting with their feet and just not turning up, some business parks have been more successful than others in attracting and retaining a more active cohort of occupiers than others.

Post-pandemic, the office market has been constantly asking what the role of the office of the future should be and many possible solutions have been suggested.

It does, however, appear that consensus is settling on the fact that most see the advantages of spending at least some of their time collectively occupying office space to build corporate culture, benefit from spontaneous ideas born out of ‘water cooler’ moments and to train and motivate younger members of staff through learning from more experienced colleagues.

It seems widely agreed, even by those with a messianic disposition towards working remotely, that spending time collaborating is of benefit on many levels, not least a personal level by stopping them going mad due to (often self-induced) isolation.

However, when one looks at the typical UK business park, it is often characterised by a group of ‘mini fortresses’ that stand proudly displaying their corporate logos, but almost challenging anyone who doesn’t work for the company to set foot within 500 metres of the building.

Security cameras stand guardian at the entrance, scrutinising all who dare to come near. Intercoms and even the architecture of many buildings stand to challenge and to deter all comers.

These are modern castles whose heavily glazed walls will not be breached. Once inside, the emphasis is on ‘staying within’ and only venturing out if absolutely necessary.

Cafés, restaurants, concierge services, amphitheatres, meeting rooms, gyms, health suites, prayer rooms, contemplation spaces and roof gardens are all provided to retain staff within a controlled environment. So where’s the wider collaboration?

Where’s the opportunity to mix with others from other companies, to exchange ideas and to develop that feeling of a collective belonging. Recognising that Brits, by their very nature, are more reserved than their US counterparts, need even more the opportunity (or the push) to mix.

Recently, whilst driving home from an appointment in Oxford, I stopped off at Dish at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus and was immediately struck by the ‘togetherness’ of the assembled employees, drawn from a variety of occupiers. Dish is essentially a cluster of re-purposed shipping containers that have been up-cycled to provide a number of food outlets.

They’re a bit like food trucks without the wheels and, indeed, the company operating them is called Tuck Trucks! Together with a large khaki wigwam, a roof terrace and some benches, a collaborative hub has been created, apparently at relatively low cost when compared with the lavish (and largely under-used) ‘park centres’ delivered by many landlords in an attempt to provide on-site amenity.

Dish sits alongside a five-a-side football pitch, cricket field and a Fitness Experts bootcamp, delivering up to 60 ‘functional fitness classes’ a week and where ‘you never train alone’ – it’s always as part of a class led by a qualified trainer – The Harwell example was acquired by Rare Commercial Property!!).

Further complemented by a coffee shop, operated by Goring-based ‘yummy mummies’ favourite, Pierrepoints, it’s a heady combination that really imbues a sense of fun and collaboration.

Perhaps just the name of the park, using the words Innovation Campus’ helps create a more collaborative collective by subconsciously tapping in to the university student union vibe than the rather more corporately hostile term ‘business park’ succeeds in engendering in its occupiers.

I remember some early visits to Green Park when the security guards, rather than welcoming, were more confrontational and challenged you as to why you were even on the park.

This has undoubtedly changed over recent years and even more so following Mapletree’s acquisition. But perhaps an element of that original attitude lingers and could point towards why, as a park, it has failed to attract (and retain) more occupiers.

The market is holding its breath to see whether the eponymously named Reading Campus will succeed in capturing the essence of collective collaboration and turning it in to commercial success.

The quality of the refurbishment undertaken by Thames Valley fitout experts Morgan Lovell isn’t in doubt and the extensive on-site leisure and F&B offerings have exceeded market expectations.

Its location, atop junction 11, offers both excellent branding opportunities and almost unrivalled motorway links. It’s to be hoped that one of the larger requirements currently circling the Reading market will be seduced.

As for the rest of the business parks in the region, perhaps they should think in terms of a subtle re-brand, buying into the campus vibe and creating more ‘outdoor water cooler’ opportunities for their occupiers as Summer approaches.

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