I am I plus my surroundings

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Occasionally the press will have a bit of a chew on some high(ish) concept such as asking what ‘the office of the future’ will look like or whether we must even face ‘the death of the office’.  Most of the better trade magazines steer well clear of taking this sort of stuff head on, figuring correctly that hardcore deskheads such as me have already had a bellyful of it.

Since I first tried banging on about this sort of thing in the mid 1990s, a period of time which saw a great deal of feverish speculation of this sort, an innocent world in which you still had to explain what you meant by ‘hot desking’ rather than sneer at it and before we all learned to spell Millennium properly, I’ve learned how naïve the debate can be. Whatever the business case, whatever the legislation, the demands of employees and whatever the potential of the technology, the workplace is valued far too much to be disposed of completely.

I’ve tended to frame my thoughts on this with reference to an idea from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which states that the history of almost every major civilisation tends to pass through three distinct phases; those of survival, inquiry and sophistication. The first phase is characterized by the question ‘how can we eat?’, the second by the question ‘why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘where shall we have lunch?’

I think the comparison is clear. At the most basic level, owning an office is largely about survival. You need to have an office because you need somewhere to work. It doesn’t really matter that much what it’s like, so long as it doesn’t cost too much and it provides a basic level of comfort and a rudimentary sense of style. Maybe not what you’d consider style, but if we all enjoyed the same internal quality control systems we’d never have heard of James Blunt.

At the enquiry level, people question what they expect from their offices or even why they need an office at all. This question is not as prevalent as it once was, so the inquiry stage is nowadays largely about what to expect from the workplace.

Then, at the most sophisticated level, we have a group of buyers who know exactly what they expect, take it for granted, act on it, don’t mind paying for it if necessary and then just get on with the business of whatever it is that they do.

It would be nice to think that the office design and management industry in the UK would be square behind this design-led and added value proposition, that most firms would rather not get themselves embroiled in a long term price-fight that they can only end up losing to people with lower costs and a willingness to make things a little bit cheaper and a little bit worse than them. It would also be nice to think that every UK based firm would look to talk up the industry whenever it could, through magazines and events and exhibitions and all the other opportunities it has to communicate to its customers.

Now, of course, a large part of the sector that actively does this. But I still think there is too much negativity about, too many people sniping at their own contemporaries, at the media and events, at individuals. In so doing, they are damaging the industry upon which they rely. They are sawing off the branch upon which they themselves are sitting.

A too large part of the industry needs to be more positive and it needs to be more sophisticated in the messages it sends out. It needs to do this not least because buyers themselves are becoming more sophisticated. Customers may not necessarily know at which of Douglas Adams’ three stages they currently are with regard to their property, but they do at least understand at some level that you can always be better. And that includes the desire to work in better surroundings.

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