Reimagining workspaces – how COVID-19 and the life sciences’ ‘land rush’ have transformed workspace design

While the pandemic has hit every sector in a different way, for pharma and life sciences the sheer scale of demand that businesses have faced in the last two years has been exponential. Before COVID-19, the sector was already going through a period of change, with the likes of digitalisation and the slow move towards personalised medicines driving rapid change.

The global COVID-19 outbreak, however, accelerated the pace of change significantly, leading to an uptick in resource and lab footprint demands. As firms sought to tackle this spike in pressure, we witnessed what is now being referred to as the life sciences ‘land rush’ as businesses battled to increase their lab footprint.

In the third quarter of 2021, we saw firms such as Bristol Myers Squibb announce plans to take over 360,000 sq. feet in a Massachusetts development. In Boston, CRISPR Therapeutics also announced the leasing of a new 263,500 sq. foot lab space. The list is extensive.

One particularly interesting trend that this has created, though, is a focus on redeveloping existing footprints. Where new spaces have been unavailable or an unachievable option, we’ve seen more firms look at alternative options. This has included converting other existing spaces to suit the new needs of the business, including turning commercial units into clean rooms, labs or research and development spaces.

Achieving this is by no means easy. As professionals across the sector will attest to, these areas require a wealth of specialist equipment and complex designs. Ensuring the appropriate biosafety levels are achieved, air quality is appropriately managed and segregation spaces are built into the design are among a few of the requirements. But with the increased pressure facing the industry, these large-scale repurposing projects are absolutely necessary.

It’s not just the access to space itself that presents a challenge for firms. The sector is experiencing an increased demand for personalised medication which, in turn, creates a need for flexible laboratory spaces that can easily shift to allow for the development, testing and production of a range of products on a varied scale.
While the developments in the sector are creating a need for new approaches to office space usage, so too has the macro environment.

Remote control

Indeed, that’s why we saw firms in the sector shift to allowing working from home for so many staff during the initial lockdowns. Despite the easing of restrictions in the UK, it would appear that many employers in the sector are still looking at allowing some form of remote working to capitalise on the benefits this brings to businesses.

The hybrid approach to working certainly appears to be a big appeal for much of the industry. In fact, in a recent study – the Reluctant Returner – which combined the results of an in-depth survey of 3,000 office workers and 2,750 employers, we found that 75% of staff in the sector wanted the option to work both remotely and in the physical workplace on an ongoing basis.

While this is certainly being driven by the vast number of professionals who are reluctant to make a return to the office (with 71% of people working in pharma and life sciences revealing some reticence to go back to the workplace), the office itself also appears to be contributing to a desire to work from home where feasible.

Changing rooms

When we asked staff in the sector how they feel about the workplace, just 8% said that they were happy with their working environment in its current form. That’s a staggering number of people in the sector who do not believe their workplace is up to scratch.

Diving deeper into what professionals want from their office, the changing habits that have been built during the course of the pandemic have certainly contributed to altering workplace needs. The majority (75%) of office workers in the sector indicated they would be much happier to return to the office if they had dedicated areas for collaborative and private or focused work.

When we consider that a number of professionals have been able to work in a quiet environment at home (depending on their personal set-up, of course), it’s perhaps no surprise that so many individuals want to replicate this in their place of work as well.

Other reluctant returners cited a need for a reason to go back to the workplace rather than stay at home. What is perhaps rather unusual in some of the responses, is the desire from staff for ‘office perks’. When asked what would encourage them to make a return to the physical workplace, 77% of employees in the sector would be enticed by free drinks, coffees and snacks in the office. When we asked staff what they would change in their workplace, 25% also stated that they wanted more amenities in the office.


While there may be some firms who are reluctant to make drastic changes in a post-COVID landscape, it’s important to add that the set-up of the workplace will be a significant driver of talent attraction strategies in what is already a tough hiring landscape.

Pharma and life sciences businesses have long faced a dearth of talent and the current skills crisis that we’re experiencing on a global scale is only exacerbating this issue. With increased competition for talent, those employers that can create a working environment that is both appealing to professionals and conducive to productivity, will be the ones that come out on top.

With COVID-19 still having an impact worldwide, it’s impossible to predict with any certainty what lies ahead but, for now at least, a change in workspace design and usage that supports a hybrid workforce should be a significant priority.

Lawrence Mohiuddine is CEO EMEA at Unispace. Go to