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What the UK’s pharmaceutical firms taught the world’s tech giants about workplace design

Posted on September 11, 2017 by admin

When we talk about the UK’s success in creativity and innovation, one sector is frequently overlooked in favour of cutting edge digital and media firms. The UK’s pharmaceutical industry enjoys a reputation as one of the world’s most innovative and successful business sectors. Its tale can best be told in numbers. It includes the fifth and sixth largest companies in the world in GlaxoSmithKline AstraZeneca and GSK. It directly employs around 72,000 people of which around a third work in research and development. In 2012, the pharmaceutical sector’s contribution to the balance of trade was the third greatest of nine major industrial sectors and in 2013, its trade surplus was over £2.8 billion.

This is not a parochial industry. The UK is a bit of a hothouse for the global sector as well as related fields such as life sciences, polymers and materials technology. That is why there has been a great deal of mergers and acquisitions activity focussed on the UK in recent years and a growing number of overseas owned businesses have also made it their home. These include Pfizer (whose only research facility outside of the United States is based in Sandwich), Novartis and Hoffmann LaRoche. The upshot of all this activity is that one in five of the world’s biggest-selling prescription drugs were originally developed in the UK.

As with other creative industries, when it comes to designing office space the main challenge is to create a space that strikes the right balance between collaborative and private work. This is especially important for creative and knowledge based businesses because they must allow people to find the right balance between their need to find somewhere they can focus and get things done and their other need to collaborate and exchange ideas.

Astra ZenecaThe related challenge for them is how they use offices to engineer serendipity. This is not about the creation of any supposed watercooler moments but something far more sophisticated. It’s about creating an informal but well-designed workplace that understands and reflects the organisation’s networks and facilitates the occasionally chance and chaotic exchanges that support the creation of new ideas and relationships.

This is also the challenge facing the world’s largest tech firms who are focused on striking the same balances between productive time alone, serendipity and collaboration. One of the interesting things about the way that companies like Facebook, Apple and Google have gone about striking this balance is that they have drawn on an idea that large pharmaceutical companies have been using for years: the creation of a campus.

The campus idea creates a community by its very nature but also creates the environment people need to be as productive, collaborative and innovative as possible by taking advantage of different kinds of spaces.

That is why, for example, Astra Zeneca’s research facility at the Alderley Park campus in Cheshire which it first occupied around forty years ago is such an obvious progenitor of Facebook and Apple’s much talked about new offices in California. They are facing similar challenges so it’s no surprise they’ve developed similar solutions.


Alderley Park has recently been sold to Manchester Science Park as the company plans to relocate its research function to Cambridge. It’s telling that the firm’s new £330 million development just South of Cambridge city centre designed by Herzog & de Meuron also employs a campus structure. They’re doing it again because they know it works, including as a way of attracting and retaining talent in an area in which there is plenty of competition for the best people. A comparison of the Astra Zeneca building in Cambridge, which topped out this Spring, and the much talked about Apple headquarters in Cupertino California makes the comparison clear, as does the clustering of smaller business around the giants.

It’s important to recognise that the features that make a campus work are not dependent on the size of a workplace. This is, to an extent, a scaleable solution. It is just as relevant and just as possible to create spaces in smaller, self-contained buildings that achieve the same aims. They may not necessarily be housed in separate buildings, but we can create spaces for collaborative and private work, develop knowledge hubs and use public and shared spaces to engineer serendipitous encounters that result in those all-important Eureka moments.