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The Toxic Office – guest blog

A guest blog by Nigel Roberts

By Simon Heath

By Simon Heath

I spent the early part of my career in mildly toxic offices – the camaraderie of the news room was only slightly marred by the constant fug of cigarette smoke, the mildly epileptic flicker of ecologically unsound neon lighting and an unhealthy lack of ventilation.

The environment was a bit smelly and noisy. RSI and chronic backache were perennial problems but it was basically a good place to work. Plenty of opportunity for water-cooler and tea trolley moments, the odd burst of aerobic exercise running up the stairs and the feeling that our open plan office was a playground for a community of interest who had a very clearly defined short term outcome – producing daily news programmes and documentaries.

Fast forward several decades and the physical environment may be more environmentally sound and ergonomic but from my analogue perspective the modern office is a distinctly more sinister and toxic place to spend 8 hours a day chained to a key board staring at a screen waiting for inspiration until your forehead bleeds.

You might have guessed that I am not a fan of the modern office environment. It makes me feel uncomfortable, alienated and disempowered. The toxicity is not in the fabric of the building although there are still plenty of examples of late 20th century ‘sick buildings’. The problem is not in the ‘place’ but in the increasingly bureaucratic ‘process’ that serves to alienate the ‘people’ who work there.

Marx’s notion of the alienation of the working class came about after studying textile mills in Lancashire. Before the industrial revolution came along, weavers and spinners were, quite literally, a cottage industry. Their machines, which they owned, were located in communal attics of their two up two down cottages. It’s ironic that, apart from a decent WiFi, cutting edge zeitgeist live/work spaces in Clerkenwell are much the same as the 18th Century cottages.

As the textile mills of Lancashire became the workshop of the world the workers themselves became wage slaves – metaphorically chained to their looms. It was in this disconnection – alienation from the means of production – that Marx identified the revolutionary potential of the proletariat to rise up against the shackles of capitalism and the middle classes.

But in today’s global offices it is the professional middle classes who are now chained to their computers. The much vaunted ‘knowledge workers’ of the digital revolution are now the ones who feel alienated and want to escape from the shackles of the modern office. Dare I suggest that the new generation of ‘digital natives’ are fermenting a revolution against the modern toxic office. It’s a revolution that could threaten the very existence of many 20th century companies in the 21st century.

Isn’t that a rather sensationalist, apocalyptic view of the future of the workplace? No. If anything it understates the scale of the problem facing most companies. If only corporate leaders would poke their heads outside their heavily defended offices they would see that their workforces are not just fed up with being on the hamster wheel of work, but positively seething with revolutionary fervour.

These days’ disenchanted workers are more capable than ever before of voting with their feet. Before the CEO realises that their greatest asset has walked out of the door for good, that very same digital native is running a virtual company and raising mezzanine finance from their laptop in a Starbucks.

The fact is that today’s knowledge worker doesn’t need a traditional siloed workplace any more. They can get all the infrastructure and logistical support from a virtual workplace of their choosing. Or they can choose to become semi detached from the workplace and choose when they want to engage with the corporate mother-ship. The second (digital) industrial revolution is sending a whole generation of digital natives back to virtual cottages where they can weave their own bespoke work matrix.

Unless companies realise the potential damage that this revolutionary potential could cause to their reputation and bottom line, they will rapidly be overwhelmed by companies that take more care in providing an engaging rather than an alienating environment for their people.

One of the most depressing things about the modern office is the deafening silence. Row upon row of people at workstations communicating solely with the world through a key board. I quite miss the messy, noisy and un-sanitised analogue world of the old fashioned Manchester newsrooms where I learnt my craft. It may have been rough at the edges and a target for a litany of criticism of the ineptitude of management, but it was also an environment that nurtured creativity and gave us prototype knowledge workers a degree of autonomy that is unheard of today.

That is until I returned to the place where I cut my journalistic teeth – the BBC in Manchester. The new BBC North complex has moved just a few miles west of the old site to Salford. But in terms of the environment that has been created it is light years away.

Not only does it provide a comforting echo of the old analogue BBC where creativity flourished and curiosity was encouraged, it does so in a truly digital environment that is anything but toxic. No organisational silos and empire building, but rather a place that engages and enriches the community, the local economy and the people who work there.

One BBC insider who moved to work in Salford from London, called it ‘the modernist wing of the BBC.’ He wasn’t being ironic since BBC North does indeed represent a radical revolution where a new generation of broadcasters can seize control of the means of production and change their world for the good. And it is helping turn a derelict dock area into a thriving culturally hub that enriches both the local economy and the cultural life of the North. It also has a great salad bar and the coffee is actually not bad, which is more than you can say about the old BBC HQ.

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