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Office politics

Matt Smith

October 29, 2020

Matt Smith is a director and chief content officer at WHJE and managing director of WPB.

I wrote some time ago a blog about the value of offices. Seems from the reaction at the time and commentary surfacing this week across the media that others agree.

Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane noted the shift in our working practices with both positives and negatives emerging from the change. He does not mourn the loss of his commute but acknowledges the long-term effects of home working could dampen creativity and productivity – negatively affecting working relationships and workplace creativity.

Bad news for an economy that needs creativity to foster innovation and economic growth. Haldan said, “It is well-established that exposure to new and different experiences – sounds, smells, environments, ideas, people – is a key source of creative spark.”

In agency land, Charlie McKittrick, chief strategic officer at Mother remarked how Zoom (other platforms are available) and, more generally, distributed working has worked against the creative and working culture of the business.

He said: “When you’re working on a project at home rather than a big table with all your colleagues, all of a sudden your sense of individual ownership increases, and you feel like you’re a position of the project as opposed to contributing to the project with everyone.”

Finally, no less a man than blogging legend Bill Blain wrote this week: “I am going to try and make at least one trip a week up to London.  I miss the place. I’m going to be on my Brompton Bike so don’t expect me to be wearing a business suit (jacket maybe…) Seeing people yesterday was cathartic!”

Lest we cynically think these sources are potentially the echo chamber of an older generation, we have been talking to a handful of professional under 25’s in London (more to come on that) and one of the first concerns they raise is the lack of sociability at home and at work. “How do you grow a network when you can’t meet anyone?”

Everyone is missing the office – or are they? Aren’t we more accurately missing the benefits of the office? It’s collaboration we miss, spontaneity and fun. Swapping one arena of process (the office) for another (the home office) has made us nostalgic for a place to collaborate.

Were offices ever the real ‘go to’ environment for creative discovery, innovation and revolutionary thinking?  Offices work well for delivering creative processes but when you ask around you quickly learn much of the real creative discovery and ideas goes on neither at home nor the office but with people in ‘creative spaces’ such as clubs, restaurants, bars, events etc – anywhere the tools of process are out of sight and out of mind for an hour or two.

We then have time to play, be curious, reflect and laugh without inhibition or censure with like-minded souls. Age, seniority, and other structures that often get in the way of freedom of thought melt away when we are all invited to the same gig on neutral ground.

I’m beginning to wonder if we should be addressing an alternative question. What space and time do we need to engender creative discovery and innovation in the future?

What new space will deliver it? Can a fixed space ever deliver the creative discovery piece? McKittrick’s agency has been experimenting on how office culture might look on the return to the office.

“We’ve been scouting clubhouses, where you find a space which might end up being a bar or a bowling alley where we can start getting people together again,” he shares. “No one knows the physics of what it’s going to be like. But we’ve been trying to figure out what’s going to be magnetic for people – what will show up again. We don’t need a place where everyone needs to go and work.”

I know what he means. The future may be a blend of the current hybrid arrangement but the holy grail will be creating a new space that will allow collaborative creativity and innovation to flourish on the one hand and offer a place of delivery on the other. Do you need the old model office for that?


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