James Woudhuysen: Sceptical employees and the office of the future

"We need productivity and innovation in workplaces, not eulogies to the employee experience, wellness or the circular economy."

James Woudhuysen's take on the office of the future:

"Please note: this argument will be developed further in The Wiley Handbook of Design and Innovation 2030, to be published in 2020.

"To understand the future of offices, it can make sense to begin not with them, but with retailing. Too much of it is commoditised and boring. Compare the current crisis faced by Debenhams to the flagship it opened on Oxford Street, London, in the 1980s. That was a gleaming white temple to fun, with interlacing escalators that allowed shoppers to watch each other go by.

"Unfortunately, today’s department stores can’t match that kind of frisson and that isn’t just because of competition from online retailers. It’s also because the owners of these stores have failed to invest in all the sensuality and theatre that Amazon can’t deliver.

"Now compare that to most modern offices. There, despite employees having plenty of criticisms of major retail and consumer brands, they tend to feel that their experience of workplaces is still worse.

Let’s not forget that the idolisation of customer experience.

"But be careful. Let’s not forget that the idolisation of customer experience, at least, first emerged more than 20 years ago (B. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, ‘How to Profit from Experience’, Wall Street Journal, 4 August 1997). That was before a whole series of corporate scandals, a series which continues to this day. It was also before the dissent that accompanied the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump.

"Today, it makes little sense to rave on about either customer experience or the employee sort. What's much more relevant is customer and employee scepticism about corporate claims. Offices very much need to improve working conditions but that won’t be done by dubious claims, or resort to fads (around interior design), the employee disposal of plastics or wellbeing. Writing about tiredness on the job, the estimable Sarah O’Connor, of the Financial Times, notes:

"‘the subtext to the “corporate wellness” trend is troubling: employers have pulled off a remarkable feat of complacency, assuming they are the solution rather than part of the problem.’ (‘Workplace exhaustion is a vicious cycle in the UK’, 16 October 2018)

Why don’t employees trust what employers do, or say they are going to do, about offices?

"Why don’t employees trust what employers do, or say they are going to do, about offices? A key factor, even recognised by Britain’s Chancellor Philip Hammond in his last Budget, is the West’s crisis of productivity growth and associated with it, a general unwillingness to raise productivity both through researching audacious innovations. The unwillingness to diffuse them from large, dynamic firms (what the OECD calls ‘frontier’ firms such as Rolls Royce, GSK, Google and Apple) to the mass of mainstream employers and, with them, to mainstream facilities managers.

"So long as the crises of productivity and innovation continue, employees are likely to greet each new round of workplace change as so much cosmetics, so much displacement activity. Today it remains difficult to transfer a phone call from one part of an office to another. People still complain that they can only get real work done from home. Despite all the corporate signalling of virtue around climate change, hotter working conditions in Europe are all too rarely minimised by good air conditioning.

"Take a clearly ‘frontier’ firm such as PwC. It boasts that its offices refurbish and re-use old laptops, phones, furniture and employee uniforms. It boasts that it recycles food waste and that – like McDonald’s – it recruits used cooking oil in the service of energy supply. Why? Because it wants to replace what it calls ‘the existing, linear, “take-make-dispose”, global system of production and consumption, by which we extract resources (by mining or growing them), and then manufacture, transport and use products, before disposing of them’. It wants to replace that with our old, UN/Davos and Brussels Commission friend, the Circular Economy.

Tempered by plebeian cynicism about what looks more and more like a vertical and hierarchical economy.

"Yet to the average office worker, the disgust of elites and employers with society’s reputedly throwaway, linear model for making and disposing of things may be tempered by plebeian cynicism about what looks more and more like a vertical and hierarchical economy with workplaces to match. Even some PwC staff may secretly feel that circularity in the office is clever big four marketing to clients. Moreover, is it good for productivity? Waste disposal at PwC distinguishes between no fewer than 13 different kinds of rubbish, from internal ‘vegware’ cups and sugar sachets to external coffee cups. You also have to walk to the three-hole rubbish counter, not mix it up in a bin nearby, because the exercise is good for you.

"Labour-intensive, yes. But as example to ABC Services Ltd, showing The Way Forward to the high-efficiency Agile Office of The Future, hardly.

"Designers and architects also bear responsibility for the surge of rhetoric and distractions around offices. In his bestselling book, Change by Design (2009), IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown, pioneered design thinking and lamentably, most designers are now trained in little else. For Brown, no fancy new tech out of Silicon Valley can substitute for the human-centred approach. Yet in workplaces as in shops, sensitivity to the employee experience of air, light, acoustics, IT and all the rest must be coupled with serious investment in productivity-raising technology.

"Yes, in retailing, stock control, logistics and fulfilment do little for customers that they can see, and don’t by themselves rebut Amazon. Yes, in offices, building management systems won’t suffice by themselves, but to prioritise height-adjustable desks, or stairwells over lifts, so that employees stand up and climb more and thus are less likely to become obese – that’s losing the plot."

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