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“I’ve seen the future and it works”

Photo credit: Level 39, Europe's largest "Fin/Tech accelerator," Canary Wharf, London (Gensler).

Following his participation as a panelist at two Gensler The Office is Dead seminars at the Developing Cities Exhibition and the 100% Design Exhibition in London, Neil Usher (@workessence) returned the favor by inviting our own Philip Tidd to participate in his "Virtual Cuppa" series published in December’s edition of On Office magazine.

Virtual Cuppa with Philip Tidd

NU: "The office is dead. We will all be working in the cafe or at home, we have the technology needed to effectively replicate interaction with colleagues, we are saving our companies a fortune and boosting productivity through vastly improved work-life fit." And so it's trundled on for the last decade. Is the declaration of the death of the office simply premature, or have we seen a Snow White re-run where it was presumed dead but a princely kiss and hey-ho it's alive, well, and likely to be happy ever after?

PT: You're spot on about the predictions of the future of work over the last 10 years. We've all talked about how pervasive and ubiquitous technologies would unlock the recalcitrant office worker from the shackles of their desk and finally set them free to roam. The paradox here however is that the promise of mobility has triggered a potential rebirth of the office – the mobility in this case is inside the office.

NU: So is it a second coming for the office or did anything really change? We seem to have almost been willing and talking a change that has never really happened. I have argued that the revolution hasn't even started yet, because the underlying Taylorist infrastructure remains. What we are doing in the office now reflects what we’re doing 20 years ago, with a few technological changes, because the management culture and linguistic has been constant. If that's true, where does the office as we know it go from here?

PT: Fundamental change in the office has been slow to materialise, which is understandable – breaking a habit of 100 years is not easy. Nevertheless, I think now is different and something really fundamental is afoot – and we are witnessing significant changes percolating to the top – not just the demographic of the workforce, but crucially, a change in leadership mindset and attitude which will transform the traditional office environment.

NU: Given that it hasn’t changed much in 100 years, what makes you so confident of a change in the near future, and of what sort? Why will the office as we know it not simply let the changes you speak of pass it by, in the same way that it let seismic societal change pass it by over the last millennium?

PT: I think the office will continue to play an important role in people’s working lives, but it will be repurposed and take on a new appearance and meaning. One of the principal areas of change will be about providing better areas to support the multitude of working methods and styles throughout a typical day – this will include areas for extreme focus and extreme collaborations.

NU: Is this just one of my principal bugbears – the overblown notion of “activity based working” that is just flexible working? And I am not sure what makes focus or collaboration extreme, as opposed to simply a lively meeting or heads down, frowning (as in “leave me alone”) with the earphones on.

PT: I’m with you on ABW – it’s the new new way of working (which is not new) and is just the industry’s way of maintaining interest in the subject. One of the main complaints we hear from those we work with is that the relentless drive for space efficiency has reached a negative tipping point: too many people crammed into too little space, which delivers a buzzy atmosphere but at the cost of individual focused work – which is one of the motivations of some people to work from home, getting “real” work done.

NU: Designers have gone breakout-crazy and put all their energy into collaborative spaces and forgotten about where people spend the majority of their day. So I guess what you are saying is, that as long as the office achieves a balance between all of the various activities we perform in a day, to the extremes, it still has a vital role to play, even after the revolution?

PT: Yes, and those funky breakout spaces are not a generic solution for all companies – they have to find what works for them and on what level. The days when you had to physically go the office to work are ending, but the reason millions of people still put themselves through the daily commute is for the social connectivity they get in the office. This will continue. The office should always fulfill this critical function in any healthy organisation, but it will just hopefully look quite different from today.

NU: I think we can agree on that ...

Philip Tidd is Gensler’s Head of Consulting, EMEA and has spent the last 20 years working across Europe at the sharp end of where business and buildings/spaces meet. He regularly works across the city and office scale and is a passionate believer in harnessing the power of creative insights to solve clients’ complex problems. Contact him at philip_tidd@gensler.com.
Neil's career spans twenty years in various UK and international FM and property roles in a variety of sectors, on both the supply and demand side – it’s all on LinkedIn. Neil also tweets and blogs about work, the workplace, HR and social business. Follow him on Twitter: @workessence.

Reader Comments (2)

Do you have any pointers on how to extend this concept to Indian IT companies? Here teams of the size of 50 to 200 members are seated together. Almost everyone having his/her own dedicated desk and almost every one needing his space for extreme focused work (coding/testing/data management etc). Please also share your views/experiences on cultural challenges?
12.14.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJayant Deshmukh
Philip totally agree and that is the challenge I am undertaking in assessing the various work settings and how we can better reflect the work that is taking place with space that supports this activity.
12.20.2012 | Unregistered CommenterIan Humphray

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