The startup ecosystem is going through some big tests right now. This time has forced us all to discover just how efficient and productive we really can be working from our kitchen tables. It’s tested the limits of our patience (‘when will it ever end?’) and resilience (‘when can we go outside?’) and ability to stay focused (‘how do I ignore the distractions of home and get my work done?’).

For many SME businesses, the lockdown has rewarded employees with vital time back by removing commuting time, while others have enjoyed a chance to focus on deep work and analysis without the distraction of background music, conversations and interruptions from colleagues.

What’s fascinating to us is that we’re seeing completely different motivations behind returning to the office. For some it’s the place for effective collaboration, energy and focus; for others it’s the symbolic huddle for teams to come together behind a common goal and fight the good fight; and for others it’s about identity, friendship and a sense of belonging.

Unsurprisingly, many startups don’t want to return to the full-on office grind that we knew before. Yet we know that SMEs don’t want a purely virtual working existence either. We’re not simply craving communal gatherings, we’re craving a new type of hybrid space that allows us to engage in broader perspectives, stimulating conversations and experiences to keep us close (at a distance) to our customer and remind us why we got into this game in the first place.

The old office norms have forever changed, and with them, the rituals and expectations around how we must work.

So long, long daily commutes

We predict – and are already seeing in our own Hubs – a shift where the experience of the office revolves around how you work, not where.

The immediate priority for many CEOs and Founders coming out of the pandemic will be to pivot their businesses; they don’t have time to work out multiple workspace needs and team configurations – especially when you factor in those who are still shielding and those that have anxiety around returning to a workspace.

CEOs want options that will allow staff to work how they want, when they want, and where they want, without being tied to particular spaces for months on end. For shared workspaces like ours, this has meant reconfiguring the packages we offer to our members, giving teams adjustable, hyper-personalised options that don’t force them to jump through unnecessary logistical hoops.

We’ve missed our whiteboards

Whiteboards will be used again. And so will Zoom screens.

Physically sketching out roadmaps and plans will feel liberating after months of video conferencing meetings. We’ve always believed in the role of analogue in the new world of tech, and the role of human interaction in the new world of work.

But that’s not to say SMEs will return to the old ways of working completely; Zoom, Slack and WhatsApp proved invaluable for us during lockdown, and we won’t be in a rush to leave these behind. SMEs will look to integrate useful ‘lockdown’ technologies into office life, even when the majority are no longer working from home.

Spaces designed for empathy

Despite human-centrered design principles, some people can still find the traditional office soulless and that’s because it takes real work to create spaces that inspire empathy, energy and effectiveness. We’ve spent years working on this behind the scenes and we know ourselves that team culture cannot be built overnight over Zoom. To build a positive organisational culture you need face-to-face time, organic, unplanned conversation, but you also need a spirit of community that comes with levelling hierarchical playing fields and creating relationships that make you go the extra mile for that person you work with.

Though many entrepreneurs we know are looking to undertake complex tasks that require deep focus at home where there’s an opportunity for interrupted concentration, they are also heading into the office to shake up and challenge their thinking and develop ideas with other minds in the room. We are fast seeing a rise in in-person All Hands or Town Halls, ideation sessions, live panels and socialising to regenerate the sense of ‘togetherness’ that we’ve missed over the last few months.

No more Instagrammable spaces

The entrepreneurs in our network want to make up for lost time – particularly, the time lost making new connections, meeting new prospects and getting together with team members to push forward innovation. Productive experiences will matter more than ever, and instagrammable offices that focus on cool aesthetics over functionality and don’t maximise productivity will become less of a draw.

Yet this doesn’t mean a return to the utilitarian serviced offices without heart, colour or soul. SMES looking for workspaces will be more deliberate in seeking a community that delivers more value beyond wifi and a desk – they’re looking for the opportunity to make career connections, upskill, and be power their network.

Flexibility will reign in the era of uncertainty

The pandemic has significantly changed attitudes to working from home – for many employers and employees, working from home is no longer a nice-to-have perk, but a necessary part of our everyday lives. Some businesses, such as Google, have made working from home a permanent reality for employees for the time being, whereas others are testing a part time approach to office working. We curate our companies because we’re keeping our eye on the long-term impact of great minds coming together. That means we have to be completely flexible and adaptable in how we structure our memberships packages around the needs of our companies and sectors. What the sports tech industry needs today is entirely different to our GovTech portfolio of businesses.

Lockdown innovation is ready to hit the market cycle

The startup ecosystem hasn’t been in stasis. I know from speaking to our network of members that creative minds are ready and raring to charge through the market cycle. In the next few months, we’ll see the results of the past few months come to fruition.

While we count ourselves in the same boat as our members, we won’t forget our role within the tech and innovation ecosystem as a builder and enabler. It’s our responsibility to show up, open doors and support SMEs to make working life as simple and certain as possible, so that our members can get back to what they’re best at, making new change.