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James Woudhuysen

This issue’s provocateur is James Woudhuysen. Previously chief of worldwide market intelligence at Philips consumer electronics, now visiting professor in forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University, he is a conference speaker, journalist, broadcaster and co-author of books on construction and energy. He is also editor of The Wiley Handbook of Design and Innovation 2030 (2020). This argument will be developed in that book.

Begin, for a change, not with offices, but with retailing. Too much of it is commoditised and boring. Compare the current crisis faced by Debenhams to the flagship it opened on Oxford Street, London, in the 1980s. That was a gleaming white temple to fun, with interlacing escalators that allowed shoppers to watch each other go by.

Unfortunately, today’s department stores can’t match that kind of frisson. And that isn’t just because of competition from online retailers. It’s also because the owners of these stores have failed to invest in all the sensuality and theatre that Amazon can’t deliver.

Now compare most modern offices. There, despite employees having plenty of criticisms of major retail and consumer brands, they tend to feel that their experience of workplaces is still worse.

But be careful. Let’s not forget that the idolisation of customer experience, at least, first emerged 21 years ago. That was before a whole series of corporate scandals, a series which continues to this day. It was also before the dissent that accompanied the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump.

Today, it makes little sense to rave on about either customer experience or the employee sort. Much more relevant is customer and employee scepticism about corporate claims. Offices very much need to improve working conditions. But that won’t be done by snake-oil salesmanship, or by resort to fads – around interior design, the employee disposal of plastics, or wellbeing. Writing about tiredness on the job, the estimable Sarah O’Connor, of the Financial Times, notes:

‘The subtext to the ‘corporate wellness’ trend is troubling: employers have pulled off a remarkable feat of complacency, assuming they are the solution rather than part of the problem.’ (‘Workplace exhaustion is a vicious cycle in the UK’, 16 October 2018)

Why don’t employees trust what employers do, or say they are going to do, about offices? Here a key factor, recognised even by Britain’s Chancellor Philip Hammond in his latest Budget, is the West’s crisis of productivity growth, and, associated with it, a general unwillingness to raise productivity – both by researching audacious innovations, and by diffusing them from large, dynamic firms (what the OECD calls ‘frontier’ firms such as Rolls Royce, GSK, Google and Apple) to the mass of mainstream employers – and, with them, to mainstream facilities managers.

So long as the crises of productivity and innovation continue, employees are likely to greet each new round of workplace change as so much cosmetics, so much displacement activity. For in 2018 it remains difficult to transfer a phone call from one part of an office to another. People still complain that they can only get real work done from home. Despite all the corporate signalling of virtue around climate change, hotter working conditions in Europe are all too rarely minimised by good air conditioning.

Take a clearly ‘frontier’ firm such as PwC. It boasts that its offices refurbish and re-use old laptops COMMA phones, furniture and employee uniforms, that it recycles food waste and that – like McDonald’s – it recruits used cooking oil in the service of energy supply. Why? Because it wants to replace what it calls ‘the existing, linear, “take-make-dispose”, global system of production and consumption, by which we extract resources (by mining or growing them), and then manufacture, transport and use products, before disposing of them’. It wants to replace that with our old, UN/Davos and Brussels Commission friend, the Circular Economy.

‘It makes little sense to rave on about either customer experience or the employee sort. Much more relevant is customer and employee scepticism about corporate claims.’

Yet to the average office worker, the disgust of elites and employers with society’s reputedly throwaway, linear model for making and disposing of things may be tempered by plebeian cynicism about what looks more and more like a vertical and hierarchical economy – with workplaces to match. Even some PwC staff may secretly feel that Circularity in the office is so much clever Big Four marketing to clients. Moreover, is it good for productivity? Waste disposal at PwC distinguishes between no fewer than 13 different kinds of rubbish, from internal ‘vegware’ cups and sugar sachets to external coffee cups. You also have to walk to the three-hole rubbish counter, not mix it up in a bin nearby, because the exercise is good for you.

Labour-intensive, yes. But as example to ABC Services Ltd, showing The Way Forward to the high-efficiency Agile Office of The Future, hardly.

‘So long as the crises of productivity and innovation continue, employees are likely to greet each new round of workplace change as so much cosmetics, so much displacement activity.’

Designers and architects also bear responsibility for the surge of rhetoric and distractions around offices. In his bestselling Change by Design (2009) IDEO’s CEO, Tim Brown, pioneered Design Thinking, and, lamentably, most designers are now trained in little else. For Brown, no fancy new tech out of Silicon Valley can substitute for the human-centred approach. Yet in workplaces as in shops, sensitivity to the employee experience – of air, light, acoustics, IT and all the rest – must be coupled with serious investment in productivity-raising technology.

Yes, in retailing, stock control logistics and fulfilment do little for customers that they can see, and won’t by themselves rebut Amazon. Yes, in offices, building management systems won’t by themselves suffice. But to prioritise height-adjustable desks, or stairwells over lifts, so that employees stand up and climb more and thus are less likely to become obese – that’s losing the plot.

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