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Life and work 2020: Seminar five

14 February 2011

Cathy Hayward

The fifth seminar on Life and Work in 2020, organised by Advanced Workplace Associates, explored how the workplace itself will change over the next 10 years and the implications and new capabilities needed by organisations for sustained success.

“The modern office is an unsustainable folly” was the blunt message from Craig Knight, head of the Prism team at the University of Exeter which explores the psychology of working and living space. The office has changed little since the beginning of the last century, Knight said, comparing pictures of Sears’ Chicago office in 1906 which was almost identical to a typical UK call centre today.

If anything, the work of the office had become demeaned, he added. “From the Pharaoh’s scribes, to medieval monks and on to Dickensian bank clerks, office work had considerable prestige, so why are office workers treated so badly today?” Knight compared the office to Panopticons, a type of prison designed by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham in 1785, whereby all the prisoners can be observed without knowing whether they are being watched creating a “sentiment of an invisible omniscience”. Office layouts are being explicitly used to reduce or remove places where workers can pursue unsanctioned non-work identity activity, Knight said.

In addition to creating an observed environment, thanks to Taylorist principles of consistency, standardisation, and efficiency, offices are increasingly becoming lean with little personalisation or decoration. “A happy rat sits in a luxurious cage, a sad rat in a lean cage, so why do we create lean offices?”

Knight pointed to research his team had conducted which concluded that control over your immediate office environment improves concentration, wellbeing and productivity. “It’s a lot more hassle for the facilities manager and the organsation more widely to allow people to personalise their own space and have control over the environment, but the increases in productivity and wellbeing make it worthwhile,” Knight concluded.

But Wes McGregor, director of Advanced Workplace Associates, predicted a decoupling between work and workplace. “Today people generally think of work and the workplace as synonymous but we can separate them. People feel shackled to their desks but this will change by 2020 thanks to ever-advancing technology. The world Apple is predicting won’t need a desk.”

Showing pictures of people working in a school classroom, a library, a tutorial room and an office, McGregor asked why if from the age of five we get used to not having our own desk, we need to own a space when we enter the office in our mid-20s. The idea of people meeting and working in coffee houses is not new, it goes back to Victorian times and beyond, he said.

But McGregor agreed with Knight in arguing that many of today’s workplaces aren’t working. “I recently saw someone grabbing a fellow office worker by their throat because they were being disturbed and just couldn’t concentrate in the office with an important deadline looming.” He argued that we must focus less on what the workplace is, and more about what it can do and avoid polarisation or universality. “A diversirt of needs requires a diversity of solutions.” The workplace of 2020 needs to be integrated, McGregor concluded, with physical, information and service environments supported by appropriate protocols. “The individual is king.”

Predictions for 2020

Craig Knight

Monitored majority        Privileged few
•    Less money            More money
•    Increasing surveillance    More mobility
•    Lean but ‘fun’ office    Less office time
•    Less space            Free address space
•    Fewer rights            Sexier offices

Wes McGregor

Agile working in some form will be demanded by almost all employees
•    Major corporations will debunk the centralist, aggregate approach for employee location in favour of dispersed, stress-free, low-carbon approaches
•    Workplace performance will assume much greater criticality, leading to real-time workplace performance measuring
•    Circadian rhythms will feature prominently in planning the way we work
•    The first reality TV programme centred on an advanced working model

The 2020 seminar series aims to build a picture of how life, work and the workplace will be in 2020. The inaugural seminar, focused on the likely macro-economic, demographic and social context for the UK in the world in the next decade, took place in April 2010; the second explored the future of sustainability; the third looked at the role of virtual worlds and social networking; and the fourth, held last November, explored how work itself will change over the next 10 years.