What the endless debate about HS2 can teach us about how we work

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A man working on a train

A man working on a train

One of the most fascinating aspects of the debate about whether the UK should spend £50 billion (or whatever you think it might be) on the new HS2 rail network, is the way in which it has formed a touchstone for a discussion about how we work. But people on both sides of this debate can have things either spectacularly or misguidedly wrong. On one side, the people behind the scheme, including the Government, used the jaw-dropping assumption that nobody worked on trains as the foundation of a business case. That was the familiar sight of large organisations working their relentless way towards a number they wanted, regardless of inconvenient facts. This idea has now been so widely discredited and mocked that it has been dropped completely from the latest business case, tellingly the sixth in just three years. And yet on the other side, we have people arguing that we should travel less and use videoconferencing as an alternative to face to face meetings, which can be almost as problematic.

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Global urbanisation trends present UK cities with new opportunities

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Country_Mouse1There is a great deal of talk about the growing urbanisation of the world right now, and its effects on societies, economies and individuals. The numbers of people involved are daunting, especially in the developing world.  As a  result, many countries are currently experiencing the sort of upheaval we in Britain experienced nearly 300 years ago, and they are doing so in a very compressed time span compared to the 150 years it took in Britain. But the changing nature of cities is also apparent in the UK where it is having an effect not only in the country’s only megacity but in regional centres too.  For places such as Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow the challenges presented by a new generation of initiatives focussed on urbanisation can be profound and mark an opportunity to shift at least some of the UK’s economic focus away from London.

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Only culture change will prevent the sexual harassment of people at work

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Culture change needed to tackle sexual harassment of both men and women at work

Are we dangerously unaware of or perhaps even becoming dismissive about the nature and extent of sexual harassment in the workplace today? A recent survey, commissioned by a firm of solicitors, has thrown up some statistics which point to significant levels of harassment being experienced by both men and women at work. In the poll of 1,579 working people 60 per cent of women and 40 per cent of men reported that they had experienced “inappropriate” behaviour with much of it classed as persistent, degrading and embarrassing. The behaviour that most people complained about involved some degree of unwanted physical contact but also included colleagues watching pornography in the workplace.

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The Great Gatsby and the rehabilitation of the office cubicle

The Great Gatsby and the rehabilitation of the office cubicle

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F Scott FitzgeraldThe finest closing sentence of any novel in my opinion is that in The Great Gatsby. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”  It is a reference to the futility of our attempts to escape the past, even as we look to the future, dreaming of how “tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther”.  F Scott Fitzgerald was referring to people when he wrote it, and Jay Gatsby in particular, but it’s a passage that resonates in a number of ways, especially in those areas of our lives that deal most intimately with what it means to be human. And one of these is self-evidently the workplace, where any articular attempt to define the ideal office for a particular time, including the future, is complicated by the fact that we must always meet the needs of the beasts that inhabit it. Regardless of the tools we have at our disposal with which to work more effectively, or just plain ‘more’ we remain fundamentally the same animals we were thousands of years ago.

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Economic recovery, the changing psychological contract and the future of the office

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display_img_01There has always been a link of one sort or another between the labour market and office design. So, as the UK’s unemployment statistics continue to fall, they remain moderately high and there continue to be structural changes in the nature of work, typified by this year’s debate about the growing use of zero hours contracts. You have to wonder what impact structural changes,  levels of unemployment and redundancy (around 4 million in the UK since 2008) have had on the way we manage and design our workplaces. There is no doubt that the downturn combined with the structural changes in the way we work have had an effect on demand for commercial property, but what will it all mean in the longer term?

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Germans prove that long hours and productivity are often two completely different things

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german-flagEarlier this year, Insight published the results of a survey which showed that the World’s hardest workers, contrary to what Jeremy Clarkson might say, are Mexican. But that poll told half the story because it only measured the number of hours people work. When it comes to productivity measured by output against time spent working, it turns out that it’s the Germans who are the undisputed champions according to research from the PEW Trust. This won’t come as a surprise if you believe the Teutonic stereotype, as many people assuredly do. The survey also found that, when asked which nation had the most productive workers, respondents in the UK, France, Italy, Spain, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany itself all believe that Germans are Europe’s hardest workers.

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What happens in a designer’s mind and Mac can be very different to reality

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Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel

Social media is inarguably closing the gap between organisations and consumers of their services. Advances in the way we interrogate the opinions of building users are lifting the veil on some sharp practices in management and the negative impacts of poorly thought out design or badly executed installation of designs into the built environment. The positive impacts of this new, more open world are evident in changing attitudes to mental health and other wellness issues that affect us in the workplace. And it is becoming ever more evident in the response to a clear disconnect between what happens inside the designer or architect’s MacBook and its effect on the physical spaces with, and within which, we interact.

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Video: reimagining work to help people become happier and more productive

Video: reimagining work to help people become happier and more productive

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Most companies are engaged in an attempt to help employees become happier, more productive and – yes –fitter at work. Firms do this because they are nice people or in the commercial interest of the business, or both. The problem is they are not doing it with a fixed set of criteria. Not only do they have to cope with changing commercial and economic conditions and legislation, they have to do it while the very nature of work evolves rapidly and in very different ways for different organisations. This is not so much like somebody moving the goal posts as it is like one of those games on It’s A Knockout where a contestant tries to do something while other people are shaking the platform they are standing on, squirting them with water, running into them, hitting them with things and yanking them back with ropes.

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Why the serviced office sector needs to put more effort into its customer service

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Serviced offices at Cheapside

Serviced offices at Cheapside

It’s National Customer Service Week, a week-long initiative set up to inspire businesses to take a step back, look at their customer relations and promote excellence in customer service amongst their teams. Across every business in every sector, excellent customer service is key to gaining and retaining custom, and this is particularly the case when it comes to the serviced office industry. Average customer retention rates are just eight months in the officing sector, so addressing this through improved customer service can have a huge impact on the bottom line. I believe the serviced office industry can do more. There is a danger that low retention rates cause companies to place a greater emphasis on winning new businesses, with existing clients’ needs coming second place. More →

More than half of twenty-something UK men would like all male offices, claims survey

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boys-clubsAt Insight we report surveys from firms on an almost daily basis. We generally do so without too much comment, trusting that readers are smart or jaded enough to apply their own filters based on whichever company is responsible and the number of people surveyed before dusting them all with a liberal pinch of salt and coming to their own conclusions. Even so, here’s one that may need more seasoning than most. According to a new survey from business supplies company Expert Market, slightly more than half of the UK’s male workers under the age of 30 would like to work in an all male environment, mostly based on the idea that this would mean less flirting, fewer arguments and more work.

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United States and Europe; closing the gap on flexible working law

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Tortoise and hareVermont became the first U.S. state to enact a law requiring employers to consider workers’ requests for a flexible schedule without fear of retaliation. The law, signed by the governor in May, includes a statutory process which requires “good faith” discussions relative to the employee’s needs and the company’s business operations. Despite Vermont’s efforts to make the workplace more accommodating, the United States still lags behind Europe when it comes to flexible work schedules and accommodating family life issues. For example, Vermont is already a decade behind the United Kingdom which passed similar legislation in 2003. The reasons for this are not cut-and-dried either.

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Don’t let the sofas fool you; work can still be red in tooth and claw

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Herbert James Draper: Ulysses and the sirens

Herbert James Draper: Ulysses and the sirens

We keep filling our workplaces with sofas, coffee shops and other lifestyle touches while our homes are being slowly eroded by the trappings of work. First it was the fax machine. Then the mobile phone. Then working from home. The places available for us to work is seemingly more diverse than ever. But does this acknowledged trend towards domesticity make the workplace a kinder, gentler place? Maybe on the surface but beware to those who dare succumb to the siren song of these things. Using them could mean the end of your career.A recent conversation I had with an executive highlighted the problems inherent in the mixed messages this “softening” of the work environment brings.

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