Standing room only

Having moved out of London after 18 years of living in the capital I’m now enjoying (enduring?) the delights of commuting to work. Not five days a week fortunately, but two or three times a week I suffer an hour’s journey on a packed train into London with hardly enough elbow room to type on my laptop.

But, because I’m at the start of the line, I’m one of the lucky ones –I always get a seat (even if it is occasionally an aisle seat facing backwards). Yesterday the train was packed by the time it left Brighton and everybody from Preston Park onwards had to stand all the way into London (unless they were lucky or cunning enough to have positioned themselves next to someone with a suitcase who looked like they were getting out at Gatwick Airport). Commuting, I’ve discovered, comes with its own unique games and strategies (an encyclopediac knowledge of train times, and where the doors open to allow you the speediest exit being just some of them)

An industry colleague who regularly commutes from Haywards Heath (which is still a 45 minute trek into London Victoria) never gets a seat. When renewing her ticket she asked the station office for a ‘standing only ticket’ (as they provide in some theatres and concerts) but was told the season ticket entitled her to travel to the destination  and didn’t guarantee the manner in which she would travel. Caring customer service.

So you’ve driven/ walked or ridden to the station, stood in a cramped carriage for an hour nestled up against people you would never say hello to, let alone virtually cuddle, and then rushed by tube, bus or foot to the office the other end. And then your working day begins and you’re expected to be fully productive, add value to clients and your organisation, be friendly, approachable and above all professional for eight-plus hours and then do the return journey with people who haven’t recently had the benefit of a morning wash.

As I said I’m one of the lucky ones. Doing the journey two to three times a week (and often not in the rush hour) is enjoyable, when it’s broken up by time spent in a local office, or working at home. It also helps the ‘life’ side of the equation. When I work from Brighton I can be home by 6pm rather than 7.30pm. But is a five-day commute to a city office really the ideal way to get the best out of people? Or would working from a mixture of settings: offices in big towns, local offices/ hubs and home offices be preferable to allow people to both be productive and also get pleasure from their working (and home) lives?


Doesn’t Boris Johnson need to chill out anymore?

What a shame that London mayor Boris Johnson has bowed to pressure and axed two so-called “chill-out” spaces at City Hall. The report in today’s FM World Daily claims that the business lounges where staff can read, eat and hold informal meetings are being removed to make way for more desks.

The “chill-out” spaces have caused controversy because of the big expense to fit them out – about £25,000 (not that much when you consider the building’s overall budget but the Evening Standard kicked up a big fuss at the time). Some chairs apparently cost nearly £900 each, four high tables cost £2,000 each and carpets added another £4,170, according to the FM World report (although that may well be the list price and a substantial discount was achieved). In any case surely setting the spaces up and then demolishing them 12 months later is the real waste of money?

It’s also interesting that according to the FM World report, the original design in 2002 was for 426 desks, on handover there were 570 and this eventually increased to 697. And more to come by the sound of it. It would be interesting to know how many staff the building supports, the desk to person ratio, how many of the staff in the building are encouraged to work flexibly by time or location or whether agile/intelligent working has made it as far as City Hall.

Usually much more can be done to encourage people to work in other locations (either at home, in client sites, local offices, third spaces etc) which then frees up much-needed space in the main head office.  If people were to work in this way, then the business lounges currently being ditched would be the first thing needed to allow staff to drop in to work, meet colleagues informally. Those types of informal spaces can support many more people when they’re set up as business lounges, rather than being covered in desks.

Generation Y wants to work at work

Is it really any surprise that young people want to work at work, rather than at home, or anywhere else? An article in this morning’s reports on a study of 19 blue-chip companies, including Barclays, Microsoft, Tesco and Pfizer by Advanced Workplace Associates that revealed that employees in the early stages of their careers prefer to work at the office in order to see and be seen.

Learning the ropes, making contacts and gaining recognition are important for Generation Y and they need to do this in the office. “As people become more established and have proven their abilities, they are more likely to support working flexibly or remotely as part of their working pattern,” explained Andrew Mawson, MD of Advanced Workplace Associates.

But there’s one important point that was missed. I think that younger people prefer to work in the office, because one of the other options – working at home is just not a possibility for many.

When people talk about homeworking they mention their fully-equipped home office with the desk, swivel chair and latest technology – either in the loft extension or at the bottom of the garden where they can get away from the kids. But many Gen Yers don’t live in those types of palatial surroundings. They might be in house shares with a large group of friends or living in temporary accommodation where there is no WiFi access or quiet space to work or make business phonecalls.

I met up with a potential client the other day at his swish offices in More London. His private Regus office had stunning views over gardens and towards Tower Bridge. The price tag was also impressive for what was essentially a start-up arm of an existing business. When I asked why he didn’t work remotely he pointed out that he lived in a house share with five other people, many of whom worked shifts and so were at home during the day watching TV or sleeping. Working from home, or using home as a base, wasn’t an option if he wanted to set his stall out as a professional business. I take his point. As a Gen Xer with young children, I’m not a big fan of homeworking when they’re also at home – and have been known to pack up the home office and decamp to the local library or café when the school bell rings for home time.

So it’s little surprise that the office is quite a draw for many younger people – and it puts the onus on the employer to look after these people, providing them with decent sustenance and a good environment to work and socialise.


Things you rarely see in the 2011 office

Despite renowned architect Frank Duffy claiming that the modern office is on its way out, it remains the base for the majority of people from 9 til 5. But new ways of working combined with new technology have made obsolete pieces of furniture that were, until recently, stalwarts in the office – and home.

1. The Desk
Experts (read consultants) in new ways of working would have us believe that the humble office desk is dead. Instead of being chained to our own personal bit of mdf, we will work in everything from office break-out spaces to cafes, drop-in meeting facilities and the kitchen table. But nothing has quite replaced the desk for sheer ergonomic comfort, as anyone who has spent a day hunched over a laptop in Starbucks will testify.  The size and shape of the desk has certainly changed – gone are the massive L shaped desks which took up half a room. Instead smaller desks, or collaborative benches are popular. And even the big law firms where massive mahogany desks were passed down the generations from father lawyers to son lawyers, have gone (but probably only to the home office).

2.Tea trolleys
The distant rattle of the tea trolley was the highlight of most office workers’ afternoons. The steaming aluminum tea pot would hove into sight, and all work was forgotten as workers queued up in soup-kitchen style for their brew and a slice of, often homemade, cake. Sadly the nearest most workplaces get to the tea trolley is the sandwich man and his crate of tepid sandwiches which have already been polluted by a circular London commute at exhaust pipe height.

3. Clocking off machine
Clocking off machines were a permanent fixture in most offices, ensuring that you were measured not by what you produced, but by the minutes you spent chained to your desk (or at least in the office). While some factories, and even places like MacDonalds, still have them, they have largely disappeared from most offices meaning that workers may actually get judged by their performance, and not their ability to work the system – did bosses really think we didn’t share clock in cards?

4. Office nameplates
Back in the day before even the CEO sat in an open plan environment anyone who was anyone had an office, and even if you didn’t get a view, you always got a name plate – usually with both your name (not first name of course because that would be too friendly) and job title. They were designed partly as a source of information about the occupant, but mainly to instill fear and awe in any subordinate forced to knock on said door. The most fearsome name plate always belonged to the head secretary whose office overlooked …

5. The typing pool
Although you could argue that the modern-day call centre is very much like the post-war typing pool, it doesn’t come close to the uniformity both in dress and behavior of 100 touch typists in perfect synchronisation being watched by a matron in her 50s to ensure that no gossip, mistakes or short skirts left the typing pool to distract the rest of the business.

6. The telephone table chair
Remember the telephone table? It sat in the hall from the early part of the last century until the mobile home telephone made the sofa a more preferred spot to take a long call. Ebay is now deluged with hundreds of ‘vintage’ models.

Next for the chop will be filing cabinets (paperless office anyone?), pedestals will be replaced by those funky lockers and in-trays will become obsolete in the new paperless mobile world. Are you feeling nostalgic yet?


What does success look like for women?

Last night I attended a BIFM Women in FM event at Capita Symonds where Mirella Visser, author of the Female Leadership Paradox, talked about the role of women in organisations and the specific traits and skills women bring to boards.

Visser, a hugely successful businesswoman who has been the first woman on many boards around the world, seemed to be describing success for a woman as a seat on the board of a major organisation.

But what does success look like for women? It’s easy to get bogged down in clichés when you talk about women in business – Nicola Horlick’s book cover depicting her with an FT under one arm and a teddy bear under the other is a classic example.

The reality is that success is very much in the eye of the beholder. For some, it will be staying at home and creating a loving, nurturing environment for their children. For others it will be an all-encompassing career. For most of us it’s something in between those dichotomies with all the juggling and to-do lists that involves.

The important thing for me is that we must respect whatever choices women (and men for that matter) make and support them. Too many women get to their idea of ‘the top’ and then do whatever they can to prevent other women following in their footsteps. Others look down on full-time mums as if they’ve taken the easy option (and as most working mums know, a day in the office is often the easy option).

To ensure that all women achieve their idea of success, women (and men) must support them and create a nurturing, inspiring environment, so whether they’re jetting off to New York to instigate a major takeover,  dashing home early from work to get to parents’ evening, or taking a career break to look after children, they feel accepted and supported in their decision. As @sarabean2 said to me on Twitter “when Dad’s stay home with sick children, proves they care, with Mum’s seen as not reliable” .