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Office politics – BCO looks ahead

June 2010

by Gareth Price

Experts at the BCO Annual Conference were in prophetic mood as a number of industry voices gave their predictions on the future of the workplace.

Speakers from the worlds of property, architecture joined writers and economists in presenting to delegates what they saw as the factors set to change the face of the office in the decade ahead. The deputy mayor of London Simon Milton opened proceedings at the host venue, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, stating that the ongoing resilience of the capital against the global financial crisis, combined with the UK’s new moderate government makes the city a more attractive investment opportunity. And the recent general election should boost London’s investment potential, Milton claimed, as the rest of the world sees it as a safe place to put its money.
Later, Francis Salway, chief executive of Land Securities and Chris Grigg, chief executive of British Land, warned the commercial property industry that it will have to respond to the financial crisis by changing the way it handles development. Salway stressed that development is about renewal and that the government’s role will take on more importance in the wake of recession, as developers needed to brought out of “semi-hibernation.”

“The danger is a sustained period with no investment, particularly as it is hard for the public sector to step into that gap,” he added. Meanwhile, Grigg foresaw a less speculative approach by developers and that the pool of players would shrink as they sought to share the risk: “There’ll be less chips on a single bet.”

Looking ahead
In a session that posed the question, how will things be in 2020, BCO chief executive Richard Kauntze said: “Prediction is a dangerous game, but my guess is that we will continue to reinvent what we do and how we do it to produce a successful formula. The vast mountain of debt will need to be reduced, and the new government is making a start.” Kauntze noted that the impact on the public sector will be very severe, not least in terms of office space requirements. The private sector, in Kauntze’s view, would pick up, with London bouncing back quickest. Only New York, Kauntze said, is a serious rival as a world city, and that will not change soon. But he warned “it certainly won’t be pain-free for anyone but never underestimate this country’s capacity to recover and revive.”

Global competition

Speakers at the session stressed that, while a banking levy in the UK was necessary, the coalition government must ensure the level does not leave London an unattractive option compared to its competitors around the world.  Sir Howard Davies, director at the London School of Economics, said this was the biggest threat to London’s status as a global financial centre. He foresaw a shift in the balance of the financial centres reflecting new economic realities, with Asian countries such as China and India becoming more powerful. “It’s going to happen,” he said. “We shouldn’t lose a lot of sleep over it.” Davies predicted that the crisis had accelerated the eastward trend but that London will remain robust and productive.
Echoing Davies’s confidence, chair of Volterra Consulting Bridget Rosewell said that there will be a recovery, and the pace of it could prove surprising. Rosewell, who is chief economic adviser to the Greater London Authority, drew on lessons learnt from previous recessions, and stated: “There is always a recovery. The pace usually takes people as much by surprise as the pace of the downturn did.” Rosewell warned against scaling back on transport schemes, such as Crossrail, yet she felt that big cuts, not freezes, were required in public sector pay.

Lively debate was witnessed in the session led by Jack Pringle, senior partner with Pringle Brandon. Under the heading How and why we work Pringle was joined on stage by architect Roger Zogolovitch, futurologist author Magnus Lindkvist and journalist Jonathan Margolis.
Addressing the point, Pringle’s view was that we work to meet people, get motivated, managed and have ideas. But he was less certain about the youngest group in the workforce: “What about the ‘Facebook generation’? They talk to 20 people at one time while playing  video games, listening to music and doing ‘work’. It is that generation that will set the agenda for the office of the future.”

Lindkvist, author of The Trendspotter said that there had been a “vote of no confidence  in the horrible, drab place we call the office. People are abandoning it”. But Margolis’s felt there was a place for it: “It’s still important to physically meet with people, which is why the office is alive and kicking”. Lindkvist rejected the world of deskbound work, challenging the industry to identify the meaning in work, saying that “work needs to be more than just about a paycheck – there needs to be some meaning.” Zogolovitch responded by saying that workers must find their own purpose, urging office workers to “take control of our lives and the work we do, which in turn will help to give work meaning.”