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Oct 14, 2019

Reflections on How the Economist sees our world of Corporate Offices.


Source: The Economist 28 Sept 2019

Surely a sign of the times is when a mainstream publication such as the venerable Economist would devote not one, but three items on the Workplace sector? In their September 28th issue they discussed the profound changes regarding how we design offices, which together with the commentary on the WeWork IPO and a Bartleby piece – ‘Hot Desk Cold Comfort’; make for interesting reading. However, I wonder if these article really do depict the complete picture?

Reading all three pieces, the common thread is a focus on the building, the edifice we call the office; which for many white-collar workers is a soulless place where they spend their working lives. It is correct to say that as a result of trying to squeeze in more efficiency, space per desk is falling. I believe my friend and fellow Irishman Charles Handy really captures this in his book ‘The Second Curve’:- “Organisations, however, are just ways of connecting people and now that there are so many other ways to connect beyond face-to-face encounters we will see the physical aspect of the organisation changing rapidly. It has always struck me as odd to watch all those streams of people pouring out of railway stations in order to sit in their box-like cubicles communicating with similar folk in other boxes by email, telephone or messaging when they could do it equally well from home, or from a local work hub”

Whilst the articles focus on the design of these piles of bricks and mortar and it is observed that “office is bound to change further” I believe that a more fundamental change is sneaking up on us and it is not just about the wider use of strategies to squeeze in more staff into buildings – in fact this may be counterproductive in the longer term.

To explain what I mean, take the Bartleby article on hot desking. This phrase which is one of the most frightening terms used in my industry, does more harm than good. It underpins our misguided obsession with the building and rentable square feet to the detriment of the poor sod who has to work there. On reading this, I was reminded of the BBC comedy spoof ‘W1A’, when the BBC’s hapless ‘Head of Values’ Ian Fletcher played by Hugh Bonneville tries to find a desk in new Broadcasting House. His frustration and utter hopelessness in searching for that elusive free desk still rings true today and brings a smile to my face. Especially since I was one of the people who helped make Broadcasting House the creative powerhouse it is today, including hot desking! By working on this and other projects which helped transform the BBC from analogue to digital, I learned a very important lesson; it really is all about the people and not the desk.

While many will welcome WeWork as the panacea for an alternative way of doing office work. I think when history is written WeWork will be seen as the people who let the ‘genie out of the bottle’. They are the poster kids of a whole wave of providers of alternative spaces, who are really shaking up a pretty conservative market by providing greater consumer choice. It is the start of a much more profound evolution of how we use and consume the built environment and one where business leaders need to take a more active role in shaping this new paradigm.

I’m glad the Economist articles threw a spotlight on an area which requires much more involvement by business leaders rather than just talking about revamping design or reinventing the office. I suggest we have to ask ourselves a much more fundamental question – what is the purpose of the office in today’s business environment?

Have business leaders accepted the way we work in offices has fundamentally changed? Has the supply side, the real estate industry, really grasped that the single-minded focus on building large investment grade edifices, even with a two-tier system may not be fit for purpose anymore? Maybe it is time for a rapprochement between the now outdated worlds of landlord and tenant and think more in terms of consumer and provider? Maybe we should all start thinking about ‘People and Place’ rather than ‘Place and People’?

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