May 17, 2013
I’d like to deal in this article with the arrival yesterday of the long-awaited white paper from CBRE’s thought leadership exercise, The CBRE Workshop. However, I should declare an interest for the sake of transparency. Until June 2012 I was employed by CBRE and reported directly to a couple of the people who are heavily involved in The Workshop idea. I would reassure readers that I am not a disgruntled former employee. I have a huge amount of respect and warm regard towards my erstwhile colleagues and nobody will be happier than me to see them do well.
So, the whitepaper. It is accompanied by a green and pleasantly branded website. Some nice iconography points to the central tenet. It is puffed by repetition of key points. There are plenty of wide open spaces. Giuseppe Boscherini’s illustrations are, as ever, a joy. There’s a pleasingly light sprinkling of data which one could probably counter with other data if one was that way inclined. All of what is said on trends in working habits/workstyles and the preferences of and issues facing landlords and occupiers is or has been incontestably true and said before elsewhere.
The central concept itself (that is, that places designed specifically to enable work that is convenient, flexible, and easily accessible will develop in urban and suburban centres, potentially in retail units or around retail centres, to offer access to a variety of other services, with consumers able to choose which venue to work in depending on their need, location, budget, or corporate program.) is also not new, but the proposed or predicted scale at which the concept would pervade our communities is. And it is here where I start to perceive some fundamental challenges and they are not particularly related to the commercial challenges that are rightly identified in the whitepaper.
Sartre’s best-known play, Huis-clos (No Exit), contains the famous line “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” usually translated as “Hell is other people.” And it is people issues that lie at the heart of the success of a concept such as this one. It pre-supposes an enlightened species of enabled mobile worker who is a natural collaborator with people who she meets only periodically and often has never met before and who do not work for the same business or in the same industry. It also pre-supposes a desire on the part of these people to work in a branch of Tesco, however prettily fitted out. As these knowledge workers make up a relatively small proportion of the total working population and maximum take up is impossible might not the impact in communities be relatively modest.
And what of small local independent businesses that might suffer as a result of the opening of such a centre nearby? Keeping libraries from closing is a vital battle worth fighting but the thought that they would become thriving centres of commerce and work hubs rather misses the point of libraries have been trying to achieve in the first place. I have been to co-working premises and to Jellies and I’ve heard from others who have and the feedback is not promising. Serviced offices have a rather chequered reputation as well. Co-working ventures and public spaces that work the best are heavily curated and require significant ongoing investement and staffing accordingly.
I was curious to see whether it was just me who might find all of this a little puzzling so I shared the ideas posed by the whitepaper with a number of acquaintances who are parents of children in my daughter’s class at school. All of them work, some commuting into London, some from home, some flexibly and some not. I should note that this was a hugely unscientific process carried out at the school gates and in the pub last night. Not one of the people I discussed it with could quite see the point. Nearly all of them could see that there were bound to be benefits to businesses but they could simply not see how such an idea would help them. Even those with a problematic commute to face after the school run could not see much benefit in having to hop in the car to go to the shopping centre to visit a WorkShop when a comfy sofa, reliable IT and your own choice of décor and musical accompaniment are at home a short walk away. People love choice and freedom. It seems that for some at least they would choose to be free of other people and work from home instead however impractical it might be.
You’re a person. Why not make up your own mind. You can download the whitepaper here: https://www.cbre.eu/portal/page/portal/theworkshop
Simon Heath is a freelance illustrator and commentator on workplace and facilities management issues and was formerly Head of Operations, Global Workplace Strategies at CBRE. For more of Simon’s worldly, wise and witty writing on all things work and workplace, visit his blog https://workmusing.wordpress.com.