LONG READ: Magenta’s 2020 anti-vision

2020 is here yet some small part of me could be convinced that it is still decades from now. This might have something to do with the peculiar place that 2020 occupies in the imagination. So often, it is an abstract idea that seems to exist only in the visions of writers, filmmakers, and even marketers.

This feeling isn’t helped by the fact that these visions almost always bear little resemblance to the present. We don’t have flying cars and we haven’t colonised Mars, as this 1997 article in WIRED predicted. “They will chronicle the 40-year period from 1980 to 2020 as the key years of a remarkable transformation. In the developed countries of the West, new technology will lead to big productivity increases that will cause high economic growth,” the authors wrote. But even these less than fantastical predictions fail to match the staid reality of our time. Yes, the world has developed a tremendous amount in those 40 years – the internet has changed the way we consume, communicate, and participate in society beyond all recognition – but productivity, pay, and living standards are flatlining across much of the West, and technology has not yet delivered either fully automated luxury communism or The Terminator’s Skynet.

Of course, some predictions have come closer than others. It might not feel like there is a domestic robot in every home – a Rosie from The Jetsons – but try telling that to the person who has time-travelled from 1980 and is now standing in your living room listening to you talk to Alexa.

Thirty-seven years ago, the Toronto Star asked science fiction writer Isaac Asimov to imagine how the world might look in 2019. As this piece points out, the I, Robot author was remarkably accurate in some ways and overly optimistic in other aspects. Asimov argued that the ‘mobile computerised object’ would penetrate the home, that robotics would kill assembly-line jobs, and that everyone would need to be computer literate. He also suggested, however, that humans would by now be back on the moon, running mining operations, factories and solar power stations. The last time a human stepped on the moon was in 1972, during NASA’s Apollo 17 mission.

We’re bad at predicting the future thanks to our bias and because it is impossible to conceptualise the future outside the framework of our past experiences. These ‘2020 visions’ are rooted in myths, assumptions, and a conventional wisdom that too often relies on overly simplistic explanations. As Paul Deane, a research fellow at University College Cork, Ireland, writes in this article, it also depends on who is in charge of the narrative. Ask a scientist what causes climate change and they will argue greenhouse gasses. A spiritual leader, on the other hand, might say that it’s our relationship to consumption.

I was reminded of this curious quirk of human nature while reading Mark Eltringham’s latest piece on Workplace Insight. Mark – in the way that only Mark can – delivers a stinging rebuke of the workplace trends listicles that tend to pollute webpages around the Christmas period. (Disclaimer: As a PR agency, we accept that we may have been guilty of this crime in the past.) “The problem with many of the most commonly accepted narratives about the world around us is that they are low resolution,” Mark writes. “They lack detail, nuance, layers of complexity and expertise. They are like a child’s drawing of a helicopter. We can all recognise that it is a helicopter, but we wouldn’t want to build and fly in one.”

For PR agencies like Magenta, the challenge in predicting the future and identifying trends – if it’s even possible to separate these two things – is the same: the onus is on us to cut through the noise and understand why certain myths or narratives gather momentum. The Magenta team spends a great deal of time attending industry conferences, trade shows, and panel debates to support clients and in our various voluntary roles with professional bodies, which means that we’re exposed to a lot of trend-spotting and future-gazing.

So, inspired by Mark Eltringham, I thought I’d look back at some of the biggest narratives of 2019 and deliver my own anti-vision for 2020.

No, open plan offices aren’t innately bad

But they’re not innately good, either. Eltringham includes the war on open plan offices in his list, arguing that blaming the design concept for low productivity at work is too simplistic. He’s right of course. Read the opinions of workplace or real estate experts and not broadsheet journalists who have just lost their personal desk and that’s what you’ll learn.

Criticism of open plans has almost reached fever pitch. Barely a week goes by without another news site or business title bemoaning open plan designs for being noisy, disruptive, bad-for-wellbeing productivity killers. Yet all the available research suggests that this simply isn’t true. Magenta client Leesman, a global assessor of employee workplace experience that now has data from more than 700,000 surveys, has been unable to find proof that open plan – or any other workplace design concept for that matter – guarantees success or failure. Many of the highest-scoring workplaces on its index have open plan concepts, support employees who need to work individually, and deliver adequate noise levels.  

In one of the 10 most-read articles on Workplace Insight in 2019, Leesman CEO Tim Oldman argued that a piece in the FT (subscription needed) attacking ‘agile’ working was yet another example of a journalist reducing workplace design concepts and employee experience to a one-dimensional issue. Again, plenty of open plan spaces with unassigned seating arrangements produce excellent results. However, Oldman asks designers and real estate leaders to stop throwing stones at the journalists writing these stories and instead recognise the glass house that surrounds them.  

“That the workplace industry has scant evidence and proof of the impact of their conceptualisations is poor,” writes Oldman. “We live in a data rich world and the excuses are going to start running out, opening the floodgates for journalists to pitch sensationalist headlines against workplace strategies. And rightfully so if employees are to be merely thought of as lab rats in an ongoing unstructured experiment.”

Let 2020 be the year that organisations stop treating workplace designs as a fad and start listening to what their people need.

It’s time to stop believing in tech unicorns

Before the bricks came tumbling down at WeWork last year, the global commercial real estate firm had built its castle on excellent employee experience. The business moved the goalposts in chic office design and helped to popularise a whole movement of craft beer, artisan coffee, kombucha and ping-pong at work.

An aggressive growth strategy coupled with a zealous marketing campaign saw WeWork grow to a valuation of $47 billion and become the largest private tenant in London and New York. The firm has marketed itself as a tech company and its stated mission is to “elevate the world’s consciousness”. And for a while everyone was drinking the Kool-Aid offered by cult-like leader Adam Neumann until the company filed for an initial public offering. Faced with cold reality of the market, plus the fact that it was haemorrhaging money to the tune of a staggering $219,000 every hour, WeWork’s valuation dropped by 80% to just $5 billion. The company’s rent bill was unable to offset the costs incurred by its rapid growth.

WeWork may yet recover if it follows a more conservative growth strategy. Its main investor, Softbank, recently handed over a $9.5 billion lifeline. But its rise and downfall should serve as a warning to treat companies whose growth looks too good to be true with more scrutiny and scepticism. Other start-up unicorns have similar issues. Ride-sharing app Uber is still losing money 10 years after it was formed. Meanwhile, its food delivery sibling, UberEats, loses an estimated $3.36 on every order.  

Many of these tech unicorns are vaunted for the experience they offer customers – and in many cases they undoubtedly offer quick, reliable, comfortable services – but this often belies the chaos and instability that lurks beneath.

Take purpose with a pinch of salt

In the autumn of 2019, Magenta MD Jo Sutherland travelled to the US to attend FM conference IFMA World Workplace and corporate real estate conference CoreNet Global Summit. She found two industries now worshipping at the altar of human experience. “Much like ‘human resources’ is now ‘people services’, it seems ‘employee experience’ has been upgraded to ‘human experience’,” Jo writes in i-FM. “The onus is on improving life for everybody. If businesses benefit, well, that’s a pleasant side-effect of a worthier cause.”

Across both events, Jo recognised that at the heart of the human experience was providing purpose. This is an idea that has gathered steam in recent years. Plenty of surveys suggest people want meaningful work. They want to choose employers that have clear values and operate according to a certain set of ethics.

But there is danger in this, too. The founders of American travel and lifestyle brand Away (the company designs and sells luggage) found themselves in hot water in December when an exposé by The Verge revealed that they had put employees under extreme pressure at work under the guise of purpose. The company promised a “lifestyle of inclusion and nice vacations” and asked its people to believe in its mission. However, employees began to feel that that mission was “just a smokescreen to get employees to work harder and faster”. In one especially alarming message on the company Slack, the founder guilted employees into giving up paid time off by claiming that this “does not embody Away’s core values (customer-obsessed, empowered, in it together)”.

For the same reasons, the topic of wellbeing at work, as well as phrases such as work-life balance, often leaves me with an uneasy feeling. Can we trust the organisations introducing wellness initiatives that are designed to provide employees with home comforts and meet their everyday needs at work not to put extra pressure on their people? This may all sound a little too negative (yes it is an anti-vision) though I don’t mean it to be. Wellbeing isn’t inherently toxic or dishonest. However, there is a real danger that wellness becomes a tokenistic endeavour in the new decade. In 2019, UK citizens were still working longer hours than everyone else in the EU. It may be 2020 but we’re still humans, not robots.   

The future is now. It doesn’t look like how we imagined it. But it is real.

Simon Iatrou