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Workplace Trends 2013 – the debate continues

Last Thursday,  I attended the Workplace Trends conference, the 11th annual, get-together for people interested in how to make smart use of space (otherwise known as Workplace strategy).  Overall, a useful day and one that provided some insights to reinforce my take on a number of issues.

Walking back to the Underground Station, on my way home, I chatted with an exhausted, “King of the Workplace” bloggers,  Neil Usher.  He had generously undertaken the task of live blogging during the conference and issued   some well-crafted posts, throughout the day.    I’m sure that those who weren’t able to attend the live event will enjoy his witty, poetic wrap-up, when it appears online.   Having had another look at his handiwork, Neil captured the mood of the day. For me, while there is a lot of healthy debate on how to deliver smart workplaces; these ambitious plans remain within the conference room.    I couldn’t help feeling that this was ground that had been covered in the past.  Indeed Frank Duffy’s opening keynote bemoaned the fact that we have been grappling with lots of issues about making the best use of the workspace for years.  To cite Neil’s view on this: “Frank left us a question – how do we justify “place” in an increasingly virtual world? I think it’s time to answer this question.” – See more at: http://workessence.com/#sthash.7CyMyvuX.dpuf

Tim Oldman gave the audience some ammunition on the importance of being able to back up advice on workplace strategy with hard data.  His core proposition is that: “the world of workplace is a mess.”  It seems that more than half of the office occupiers he surveyed don’t feel that they can be productive in their current work settings.  I agree with Tim’s view that we really need to consider the role that the workplace plays in today’s economy and who exactly are those places really working for: the employer, the employee or the landlord and his institutional investors?  I left without receiving a clear definition of: “who is the consumer?” and “does this person have a voice?”….

Nigel Oseland, the brains behind this conference, took us back on a trip through the ages to debate the elusiveness of proving the connection between office design and improved productivity.  It’s been a long time since I studied ancient history; but Nigel made his case.  I agree with his view that it’s not just about demonstrating cost savings and efficiencies; it’s really about the potential positive impact on business performance.  For me, however, his contribution was notable because the text of his speech was posted on the blog for all to read and reflect upon: more evidence of the changed world in which we live.

Still, at end of day, it was the workplace industry, continuing to talk introspectively, on topics that have been on the table for decades; as Frank Duffys speech reminded us.  We live in a world which is full of change, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity and yet we continue to debate rather than take action.  It was heartening to see the virtual exchanges between those attending in person and those linked in via Twitter.  According to Sue Butcher there were 874 tweets during the day with a reach of 182,000 people.   Surely this is clear evidence that we’re trying to adjust to the new order of   the networked world in the 21st century.  Yet I couldn’t help but groan when reading Nigel Oseland’s response to a comment about using imperial /Sq feet in his presentation – that whilst we live in a “metric world this side of the Atlantic; he’s just following the Lawyer’s lead and pandering to the agents….”

So… the merry-go-round continues and we’re no further forward.  We need to hammer home the message that it’s time to move beyond cost control and efficiency and nail responsibility for effectiveness.    This, for many, may be outside our comfort zone; but as Frank, so eloquently put it: we live in an increasingly virtual world and we need to justify the role of “place” in the overall jigsaw.  I contend that the virtual world is approaching far faster than most of us realise and the time for debate is over. 

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