The nine enduring workplace tensions to keep an eye on in the year ahead

The nine enduring workplace tensions to keep an eye on in the year aheadThere were a number of workplace issues that wouldn’t go away during 2013. And there’s no reason to believe we will resolve many of them during 2014 either. We can try to explain the recalcitrance of such things by referring to the enveloping fog that emanates from the commercial interests who promote problems to their customers so they can provide the solutions, but many are more deep-rooted. Technology and its constant radicalising effects is almost invariably the major driver of change, but it is only one thread in a complex web of social, professional, demographic, cultural and commercial changes. So here, in no particular order, are the issues we expect to spend the most time talking about on Insight over the next year.

Generation Y

Unfairly and frequently characterised as some sort of non-human species just because they are too young to remember video-recorders, typewriters and a pre-Internet world, our fascination with these Midwich Cuckoos has never abated. The attempts to pigeon-hole this particular arbitrary ‘generation’ is unfair both on its members, who are just as diverse in their personalities, motivations and abilities as any other, but also on everybody else in the workplace. As we have seen, the workforce is now older and more diverse than it has ever been, so the attempts to populate offices with slides, graffiti and treehouses to attract a Gen Y stereotype while ignoring everybody else can be both patronising and misplaced.

Technology Palaces

One of the predictions made for 2014 in The Economist recently was the potential backlash against the world’s new tech Gods. Not only are the people behind firms such as Google, Apple and Facebook rich beyond the dreams of the demonised plutocrats of the world’s financial centres, they are beginning to show signs of hubris in the palaces and grounds they are creating as offices. Over the past 12 months all three of the companies mentioned have announced eye-popping new workplaces. These are openly designed to attract and retain staff, which is an admirable goal for all organisations, but the language used to describe them can veer dangerously close to that of a cult.

The Public Sector

Proving yet again that necessity is the mother of invention, the ongoing pressure on the UK’s public finances is prompting local and central government to develop some intriguing new ways of approaching the design and management of the vast public sector estate. This has manifested itself in obvious ways such as the attempts to divest or consolidate unused buildings and introduce new procurement practices, as well as rather more intriguing initiatives such as the One Public Sector Estate scheme. None of this was ever going to be easy in such a diverse and culturally complex sector inhabiting a vast array of building types and the problems have been as manifold as the initial successes. One of the most obvious examples of this in the past year was the attempts by at least one local authority to consolidate its workforce under one roof as a way of cutting costs, while still unable to get rid of its old buildings.


As a recent article in Forbes highlighted, you can give people all the things we are told they need to become engaged members of the workforce, and they still won’t be happy. Maybe that is why repeated surveys show the startling levels of disengagement across the world. There is little question that organisations need to strive for an engaged workforce but questions must remain about how we approach this, not to mention the underlying challenge of employing the right people in the first place. As a wise man said last year, the only thing worse than employing an idiot, is employing an engaged and motivated idiot.

The Professionalisation of Facilities Management

Not even a new issue in 2003, never mind 2013, calls have been made yet again for everybody to forget the idea that facilities management is a profession rather than a discipline. This one will run and run but some things don’t help, such as the BIFM’s doomed attempt to climb into bed with trade associations that would merely have confirmed the common perception that the role of the FM is to look after day-to-day building issues. More pertinently in the long run, some of the disparate functions of strategic FM are increasingly indistinguishable from IT, HR and other professions. This is a real opportunity but one that may well turn into a threat instead.

The Productive Workplace

The first thing to say on this subject is that when a company tells you that a specific plant, light fitting, ergonomic chair or colour will make staff 10, 20 or 30 percent more productive, it’s not true. It might be true in the right circumstances and with the right people, but not always. However, there is overwhelming evidence of the effect that the right working environment can have on individuals and organisations. It’s a shame that more business leaders haven’t bought into the idea or remain  ignorant of just how strong the data but that represents the failure of people who work in the various built environments to convince them as much as anything. Even when organisations do buy the idea, they often do so as a way of minimising or mitigating the harm that the workplace can have on people rather than looking at the ways it can enhance their productivity and wellness. Then again, when it comes to an issue like wellness, they also have to pick the appropriate gems from the associated claptrap such as feng shui.


Just a few years ago, firms actively sought ways to limit the amount of time that staff spent on their own devices and social media during the day. Then, when they realised they were fighting a losing battle and, in any case, the practice encouraged people to work in new ways and new times and could even save the company the expense of providing employees with technology in the first place, they slapped a label on it (Bring Your Own Device) and co-opted the idea. But that all came at a price. Not only in terms of the practical implementation of a variety of devices and software across the network but also in terms of security. The slew of conflicting motivations, outcomes and emotions that drives the uptake of BYOD and the cleft stick organisations can find themselves in as a result makes this one of the most volatile workplace issues for the year ahead.

Flexible Working

THE big workplace debate of 2013 following Yahoo’s decision to ban homeworking in February. What transpired was that this was a decision based on hard data which showed employees weren’t as effective in specific ways when working away from each other. Yahoo weren’t even the only tech company saying this although they suffered the backlash. The new Googleplex was overtly designed to encourage people to work together, as is the new Apple building. But the debate is so skewed now that anybody suggesting that people work better in certain ways in offices is viewed as dangerous thinking. We can hope that the Yahoo debate will at least restore some measure of balance, but as the UK Government aims to extend the rights to flexible working  in April, we can sit back and await the subsequent hoo-hah, not least as firms try to wrestle with the rights of everybody to work from home on Friday and Monday but not so much on Wednesday and Thursday.

The Quest for Peace

As Dave Coplin of Microsoft memorably described in his interview with us in November, there is a flaw with the basic premise of modern open plan office design with its lack of personal workstations and personal space as well as zones designed to bring people into contact – all sound tracked by other people’s smartphones and babble. The flaw is that the best way of encouraging them to share ideas and information is not likely to involve throwing them all together like peas in a biscuit tin. Hence the recent upsurge of interest in privacy, quiet, acoustic design and – remarkably – the office cubicle. Then again, as Nigel Oseland also pointed out, the solution may not be the polar opposite of the open plan. We need something smarter and there are signs that this might well be the year we move a lot closer to it.