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Anticipating defeat

13 June 2014  

I have come to realise that the most enjoyable part of the World Cup is everything that happens before the first ball is even kicked; that magical time before the tournament when everything seems possible; where snatched conversations around the water cooler reveal even the unlikeliest of colleagues as the biggest fan of Adam Lallana’s work rate, or how the quiet bloke in accounts is, in fact, a staunch proponent of Argentina’s solid 5-3-2 system.


It’s a time to succumb to that uniquely heady sense of expectation tinged with patriotic delusion. And of course it’s all that hope, all that innocent, glorious hope that gets us in the end – before Germany go on to win (vs Argentina on penalties, I reckon).

Given the value of office space and the often dramatic ways in which its use is increasingly determined by ever-changing IT, it’s easy to wonder whether we’re witnessing a similar period of great anticipation followed by crushing disappointment; a time of infinite possibility in workplace productivity, borne of technological revolution, which is soon to be tempered by the ugly reality of brutal cost vs occupancy equations coming our way in the months and years ahead. 

The cost of running offices – in particular the cost of empty desks, is looming ever larger on the boardroom agenda. Meanwhile, new legislation coming into effect at the end of this month will, if a recent YouGov/Croner report is to be believed, lead to a quarter of employees asking their employers for flexible working arrangements. As the way in which work changes to this new reality, so must the workplace adapt. Will we reach a tipping point? Will the way that some businesses downsize their office portfolio around a new flexible working paradigm become the standard for that sector – forcing competing businesses to adopt the same approach, and a much reduced office portfolio?

It’s easy to underestimate the role of the office. It gives a business a place in which it belongs, a place from which it can develop a sense of corporate cohesion. How can businesses hope to offer the new generation of digital natives that sense of togetherness when offices are just touchpoints rather than destinations? 

For all the investment in ‘smart buildings’, with workspaces designed to eliminate desk-based working in favour of ad hoc ‘sit-and-go’ networking (both social and technological), there’s still no sign that we’re headed for a resolved state of digital maturity any time soon. Far from it, in fact. We’re all redefining the workplace every time we redefine our workflows – the latter typically the result of business models under seemingly endless revision. The dizzying fluidity that all of this suggests, coupled with those new figures that again throw the potential impact of flexible working into the melting pot, do not make for a stable scenario.

That’s certainly what it feels like at the moment – a period of excitement caused by new and empowering ways of working that could in fact end up with knowledge workers (in particular) forced into ‘flexibility’ instead of benefiting from it when they need it. 

So – a worrying time for those of us with a perhaps overly fond view of what an office provides to a business? Perhaps. But then, if England win the World Cup, it’s not as if we’ll care.

Martin Read is managing editor at FM World