who needs a desk, anyway?

Revolutionary 'campus-style' workplaces aim to turn the office into a home from home. Will they catch on? Meg Carter reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
magine, if you can, a work Ienvironment where you have neither office nor desk. Instead, you can access the computer system from one of many communal terminals dotted around the building. You carry a digital mobile phone with you at all times. You can even choose when you want to work, and where: the library, the coffee room, the canteen ...

Welcome to the office-as-college-campus, an idea pioneered in the US and being enthusiastically reproduced in Britain by a small number of companies aiming to break down the idea of the workplace as somewhere where you just, well, work.

This is the set-up at London advertising agency St Luke's. "It feels a bit like working in a post-graduate centre. There are noisy and quiet places; a range of different mood areas," explains David Abraham, the agency's marketing director. "We work to the motto 'If you change the way you work, you change the way you think'."

St Luke's is run as a co-operative. Its 50 staff have a say in deciding their pay and they all work to a centralised diary held on a computer system known as The Brain. Each morning, after leaving their belongings in lockers (the managing director's is no bigger than a PA's), they move through the building according to their jobs for the day, working in themed project rooms decorated with props relevant to a particular client: the Boots room includes No 7 cosmetics; Midland Bank's, a bank interior including customer leaflets on display. All the staff sit around a table for lunch cooked by a member of staff's father.

"We employ younger people who, by their nature, are more focused on closing the gap between work and home: exploring the idea of work as a leisure activity," says Abraham. The office is simply a resource, ruled by, instead of ruling, the worker, he claims.

Abraham's vision owes much to US software giant Microsoft, whose campus- style workplace includes designated play-pens offering light relief to jaded staff, and encourages battalions of jeans-clad techno-nerds to put in anything up to 18 hours a day. Immortalised by Douglas Coupland in his novel Mircoserfs, the Microsoft way marked a radical departure from that of straight-laced corporate monolith IBM which, until recently, required all staff to sport suits and remove all facial hair.

"Trying to make the workplace more individualised is very much a Nineties thing. It's a reaction to the pain and suffering of restructuring and reorganisation," explains Professor Rob Goffee, chairman of the organisational behaviour group at the London Business School. In practice, individualisation can take many forms.

Rather than installing play-pens, some employers are offering customised company benefits to staff. Syntegra, the BT-owned business system consultancy, recently introduced a points-based salary scheme which allows their 3,000 staff to select benefits - from extra holidays to a company car or family medical insurance - to supplement basic pay. "We wanted to create a feelgood factor," says Gwen Ventris, Syntegra's director of organisation. "Eighty- five per cent of our staff come to us with a degree. We aim to reflect that in our remuneration terms and in the way we treat them - as adults."

Carphone Warehouse is another company which has adopted the "adult'' approach to its predominantly twentysomething workforce. An Employees Benefit Trust offers loans or gifts to staff for a range of needs from mortgage repayments to help with the cost of having a baby or buying a car. Managing director Charles Dunstone also pays for a Friday night out for staff every week. This weekly "beer bust" entitles everyone to free drinks at a selected bar near their branch. Attendance is not compulsory, but most employees go. "Many internal frictions can be resolved in this way," he claims. "It's people working together as friends instead of being just colleagues."

Whether staff share the employers' vision remains open to question. "An opportunity for a free piss-up," is how one ex-employee describes the Carphone Warehouse beer bust. At St Luke's, dissenters are hard to find: "It's like the difference between school and college - at one you're told exactly what to do, at the other you're treated as an adult, allowed to plan how you do it, so long as you get the work done properly and on time," gushes one employee.

Not everyone is convinced. "Undoubtedly, firms get greater flexibility," says Prof Goffee. "But the worker only benefits if the employer has a vision beyond one short-term necessity - putting everyone on to temporary contracts simply to reduce costs." He also points out that employers may find encouraging individual style has a less-than-welcome effect on employee loyalty. Far from feeling grateful for being treated as grown-ups, workers become more self-interested, more likely to shop around for the best benefits.

"This presents a new challenge - to redefine the traditional idea of commitment," says Prof Goffee, who thinks it's an attitudinal shift we aren't ready to make. "Do people really want it? The jury's still out."

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