Working life: Brave new workplace

The deconstructed office may be the last word in trendy, but does it really work better? asks Tobias Jones
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Indy Lifestyle Online
There's an office equivalent to the political Third Way. It's a holistic solution to all the industrial bust-ups of the past. It promises to open up an era of seamless communication and meritocratic promotion. It will usher in fluid physical movement to the greener grass of the desk next door, aided and abetted by flash new technology.

Well, apparently. This is a brave new world where the static, hierarchical office is deconstructed and pulled apart by buzz-words: hot-desking, down- sizing, out-housing, in-thinking. Then there are "touchdown areas", small desks where there's just a socket for a lap-top. In a few weeks' time, there is even a European Telework Week, in which - encouraging us to make the office more malleable - BT wants us to "flex a little".

The friendly, flexi-office involves nomadic working, moving desks as the tasks demand, using only mobile phones and open plans, lap-tops, intranets and e-mail. Companies like British Airways, Rank Xerox, Barclays and British Gas have already pioneered the approach. The results, they say, are a breakdown of hierarchical barriers, and expansive, innovative thinking because the surroundings are rarely the same.

"We work," says John Lane, a Director of the IT and business consultancy, Pagoda, "to make interior design reflect the nature of the work being done. It's about people using conventional office spaces in unconventional ways. PricewaterhouseCoopers or Arthur Anderson employ four or five times as many staff in London as they have desks. Consultancies like these, and advertisers and management consultancies, are assignment and project- based, so the fees come in from outside work. You don't need desks for everyone. Your work can be self-monitoring."

The trouble with such high ideals, as with the Third Way, is that they often seem, in practice, gimmicky and faddish, like the Tories linking up with Ikea at their conference. The accountancy firm Arthur Anderson has at its Strand offices in London a floor with areas christened "chaos" (for brainstorming), "zen" (for contemplation, complete with aquaria), "hub" (reception) and the "touchdown bar" (see above). Rooms also have a variety of colours to induce the right kind of thinking (red for energetic and so on).

The practicalities can also be less endearing than the exciting ideas. Technologies and network systems break down, phones and desks become double- booked. Open-plan offices - where hierarchies are supposed to be broken down - can feel artificially friendly, part of a pretence that work is painless. "The reason it's so prevalent in advertising," says an industry insider with the AMV agency, "is that there exists an ethos of 'hey, we're so fantastically creative'. But it's a lot of bluff and wank, more to do with presentation than pragmatism. Trendy offices aren't about overhauling the way we work, but about having a 21st century shop-window to attract 21st century clients: the big spenders like BT, Sony or Microsoft.

"Companies like St Lukes and Howell Henry have cult-like atmospheres, where they're oh-so-terribly anti-establishment: there aren't meetings, only 'huddles', and often without chairs in order, they say, 'to cut out the crap'. In reality, this is the ultimate capitalist nightmare for employees: rooms are dedicated to brands and clients, not people. Offices are rootless and noisy, with minimal storage space. They're so impersonal that you feel like a permanent refugee."

What also emerges is that the "new offices" are often more cost-cutting, rather than barrier-breaking, exercises. In central London, the pressure on space because of office costs is immense: rents are as high as pounds 70 per foot per annum, with rates on top of that. Given that each employee might require 125 square feet in the office, hot-desking and teleworking are attractive financial solutions.

Nick Isles, director of development at the Employment Policy Institute, sees office flexibility as "very much the 'hire-and-fire' end of the market. Because movements are so fluid, there's much less security of contract; employees working from home often bear the costs, miss out on socialisation, and so there's minimal unionisation.

"Behavioural studies," Isles continues, "show how territorial people are, and that often gets more pronounced in the workplace. I spoke to people at BA, and asked if people really do sit at any terminals they want. They said 'no, people generally sit at their own desks'. And of course there's resistance from senior management, who want barriers, the ability to pull rank; either for reasons of efficiency or confidentiality."

Bridget Hogg, a chartered occupational psychologist with Development at Work, agrees: "I think that very few employees prefer hot-desking to having a fixed desk. Usually, employers impose this way of working to provide a desk for as many people as they can in a limited office space. The downside is the noise level, lack of privacy and a possible detrimental effect on concentration."

Working from home also has complications. "A self-employed person," says Hogg, "working from home (such as a consultant) will need to balance the solitude of working from home one day with the full glare of being in the public eye during marketing activities the next (for example, conferences, proposals to clients, and so on). It takes a special kind of person who can switch comfortably from one to the other."

The technology has also been increasingly fetishised. New products this autumn, like Nokia's exquisite chrome phone, and Apple Macintosh's sleek and stylish i-mac computer (slogan: "sorry, no beige"), show technology turning into fashionable, rather than utilitarian, accessories.

"Technology," says Hogg, "enables us to contact others from wherever we are - home, our office, around the world - but it causes those who use it endless stress when it goes wrong. For the self-employed it is a 'necessary evil' - and one which needs to come complete with a full support package and a friendly expert on call. Technology can cause other less obvious problems - sometimes we let technology dictate the method of our communication rather than being guided by the needs of the recipient."

For some companies, though, the flexi-office is a perfect solution. Charlie Robertson is the MD of the brand consultancy, Red Spider, a firm which started out with only a virtual office. Now, with nine full-time employees (based in, for example, New York, Glasgow and Madrid) and clients including the BBC and General Motors, the company does have a "drop-in" centre in London. "We can compete," says Robertson, "with the talent of London without having to pay the horrendous running costs. We're very slow to recruit people, because it's difficult to manage people remotely.

"It only takes one bad apple to spoil the barrel, and an employee could be out walking the dog on the heath rather than working towards client satisfaction. There are those that get it, and those that don't. But you'll find that very talented people are very independently minded, and they will want to live - and work - wherever they choose. In the end, all they need is access to a computer, a phone and an international airport."

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