Property and workplace suffers from a phenomenon we might call “repetitive reality” – say something enough times, irrespective of whether it has any basis in fact or insight, and it sticks like a half-eaten humbug on a mohair. Thereafter, trying to counter it is like trying to repel a plague of locusts with a spatula.
In recognition of the time of year when everyone with a snowglobe and a web browser rattles off a list of trends for the coming year, here is a list of stuff that won’t be trending despite most of the soothsayers telling you it will. They are the myths I listed in a five-minute sprint at the rather enjoyable Estates Gazette offices summit last week.
#Untrend 1: it’s a time of unprecedented change. It’s more likely a time of ubiquitous accountability, created by access to a multitude of accessible channels. Most of what we think is new is a re-hash – since we first emerged from the Gorge there have been far more significant periods of societal, commercial and technological change, and there is plenty of evidence to support a slowdown in innovation. I also love the argument that the washing machine was a more important invention than the internet – once that idea is in your head, it won’t leave. For this #untrend also read “work is changing at an unprecedented pace” – same swing of the spatula.
In this dizzying time of change, of course #Untrend 2 – the office is dead – gets a regular airing. The repetitive dribble associated with this one is the “work is something you do not a place you go”. Because we know that “work” is a verb and a noun. Demand for office space is many an urban centre is rife. And interestingly but often overlooked, the more we stress the importance of social and collaborative activities as essential contributors to productivity, the more the need for people to be in the same space increases. The “death of the office” isn’t a trend, its wishful thinking sponsored by technology companies.
Which brings us on nicely to #Untrend 3: technology will replace presence. This is also sponsored by many of the same technology companies. Yet the more tech we see in a working environment, and the more “digital” the subject matter, the greater the amount of analogue space is required for effective collaboration. Hard-baked agile culture preaches little-and-often interaction puncturing periods of earplugged solitary activity. The innately multi-sensory experience of face-to-face interaction has no rival in any technology yet invented. It’s even touted as a vitamin against depression. There’s no app for that.
#Untrend 4: everything has to look like a workshop. It’s a design fad. You know the look: exposed ceilings, rough timber, raw metal, concrete, old Chesterfields, cast-off furniture from e-Bay, stuff you found on the way in. It’s like dragging a freshly-tailored James Bond behind a tow-truck through Lagos until he looks like Steptoe. Like all design fads, it’s time-stamped. And the more we see it, the harder it becomes to be original. Eclectic is tough brief – most looks like a mess. It’s taking over our homes too. Remember the day you bought a pair of Birmingham bags the day before they went out of fashion?
And everything has to look like a workshop because apparently #Untrend 5 – the TMT sector – says so. That’s actually two #untrends. The TMT sector is an invention of uncomfortable convenience for an agency sector starved of anything interesting to talk about. It’s not a movement or a grouping with common interests and approaches any more than any other random collection of organisations deemed a “sector”. In regard to culture, management, workstyle and workplace each sector has its arch radicals and its arch conservatives and a bulk of normally-distributed folk in between. And every business is a technology business now.
And because TMT has become the byword for “cool”, #Untrend 6 – “cool” is something to aspire to. Cool is utterly and completely subjective, but we’re battered into believing that an empty, soulless, novelty-studded over-indulgent space is an aspiration. Cool is all about the aesthetic of sprezzatura, and nothing to do with the occupants. Yet the desire for cool seems to be plugged by those who, in the same breath, want us to know its “all about people”. In the imagery, people are blurs, shadows, because they don’t fit or belong. It is by definition without warmth. It’s not about cool, it’s about what works for you and your organisation, and if that means vanilla, that’s just fine.
In #Untrend 7 – in the gig economy – everyone will be freelance. This is intrinsically connected to Myth 1, where those who are freelance are convinced everyone else will join them in a Macbook-and latte-wielding frenzy of freedom from the corporate yoke. There is a darker side to the dream. What “freelance” often means to the less privileged is akin to the stevedores “standing on the stones” (in America called “shaping”) waiting for the chance to work. For the under-employed professionals, pay rates are being forced down by a market becoming ever more saturated. Unshackled from an employment contract, in all respects the freelancer is shackled to uncertainty. It’s a simple trade-off. The future is more likely a hybrid of the traditional employment model and the over-romanticised freelancer of today – but it’s a long way off.
Linked to the above, #Untrend 8 is that everyone (really, everyone) will be co-working in (wait for it……) co-working centres. That is, despite the fact that the vast majority of people work for larger organisations who provide workspace. Because co-working centres are “cool” (see #Untrend 6) and don’t look like corporate offices. That is partly explained by their being smaller, and the fact that people pay to use them – so their product has to appeal sufficiently for people to part with (ever larger) amounts of cash. While it has a place in the market and has helped corporates consider their workplace design, injecting a depth of personality from the more domestic and leisure influences, in its physical form it remains a niche product and idea. To a significant extent it is already moving away from its original ideal of workspace-as-mutually-supportive community, instead in many instances becoming a hipster version of Regus. At the end of the day, whichever way you look at it, without the spirit and practice of community, it’s an office.
Where there is mention of co-working, under the same stone can usually be found talk of #Untrend 9 – that Gen Y will change everything. That’s because from absolutely nowhere and with no foundation in anything approaching objectivity has emerged the idea that this “digital native” tranche of the population will bring an attitude and perspective that the insulted and inured hordes over whose bodies they now lightly tread could not. There isn’t a #generationblah tag for nothing – its bunkum, pure Age of Aquarius stuff. It could be argued that Generation X made a more lasting contribution to the invigoration of an era – and by that I just mean Billy Idol’s combo.
And so the last for now – #Untrend 10 – in this “VUCA” world providing a fantastic workplace is complicated. It’s not, it’s ridiculously simple if we just stop looking for problems and excuses for not doing something about it. It just requires the application of simple sense to create the #elementalworkplace. When we get to the point of taking blood samples to work out whether we’re enjoying a collaborative space, we know we’ve come too far. But we don’t like to admit its simple, because then there is nothing to hide behind. Time to cut the Gordion Knot.
Building into the future requires a flexible, functional and generic approach that can let everything else ebb and flow around it. Trends, untrends – if we keep it simple, they just don’t matter.