Only way to levitate office workers is to liberate them from the office
Once upon a time in America, gazing out over a sports stadium a hundred times the size of the Baths of Caracalla, I asked the architect who designed it what would have to be done to attract investment on this scale into the design of an ordinary office building. To my surprise he replied without hesitation: 'Leverage the value of the ordinary office worker to the level of the celebrity athlete.'
I have had occasion to reflect on this answer ever since. Obviously it can be interpreted as a way of stating the impossible - how could two-apenny office workers command the sponsorship heaped on the heads of international footballers?
But, somewhat less obviously, it can also be taken at face value - office workers could be 'leveraged' to the value of sporting stars if only someone could work out how to design a new kind of building for them. These days I favour the second point of view.
From the acres of budget 'sheetrock wizardry' still going up in the US, to the 150-yearproof parliamentary building by the Thames in London, you can hear the levers of leverage grinding and the status of the office worker rising with each passing day.
Right at the heart of this process is the office landscape/space planning/IT alliance, a bundle of marketeers made up of old office furniture industry types, survivors of the old interior design profession, and bright sparks from the still-full-of-surprises computer industry.
These people spend much of their time unveiling 'offices of the future', like fishermen hoping to hook the first millionaire office worker.
So far there have been no sightings of this beast, but that may be because today's 'offices of the future' simply don't go far enough. Take IBM-Steelcase, whose latest attempt at mulching one out of architecture, furniture and technology is called 'BlueSpace'. This office of the future is stuffed with information gimmicks, from urgent messages that beam onto the wall and signs that light up when you walk in and go out when you leave, to chairs and tables that automatically adjust to the height and correct angle of repose for anyone who sits at them.
Portentously, IBM announces that 'BlueSpace' marks the beginning of a blurring of the distinction between animate and inanimate devices in the office. So it might, but is this what the millionaire office worker of the future will have in mind? Surely the idea of allowing employees to 'customise their cubicles', no matter how dressed up with new technology, is always going to be just another version of pin-up pictures in a prison cell. Even today's office workers express little interest in it. They prefer a gym, real coffee and free child care. As for the prototype millionaire athletes who gave birth to the great stadia of the 1990s, they could hardly care less about the office towers of the 2010s. They are already deep into messy divorces, multiple homes, private jets and five-year sponsorship deals.
The sportsperson has a problem with liberation because he or she lives or dies by their performance in the stadium.
But why should business be similarly tied to the office building?
No matter how much real business is done on the telephone, on mobiles, at home, from cars, from hotels, from aeroplanes, the focus of business design is always the office. 'Like the mother ship in Star Trek, ' a Bluespace enthusiast reverently described it.
This is bunkum. What the office of the future designer has to grasp is that liberation in the office is not real liberation at all. Whereas liberation from the office is halfway to being a millionaire.