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. . . or simply pacifying staff?

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Are changing office standards really providing better working environments - or just an illusion of improvement?

The work space of the future is a green, energy-saving, Web-enabled call centre, and it is coming to a government office near you.

Expect queue-free customer service on the phone and in person, delivered by staff whose satisfaction is high because the quality of their workplace environment is high. After all, their space for privacy and confidentiality will be made more rational.

They will need less space for personal reflection, and can instead work in open areas, team areas and meeting rooms.They will go hotelling and hot desking and will be infinitely flexible: elite members will work on the road or from home, and will kindly offer to visit you in yours, too.

For architects, the vision is alluring. If every extra pound spent on a building saves £200 over its lifetime, owing to the happier, more productive staff within it, then the architectural profession will be quids in. Overall, we have here what American management guru Steven ('Seven habits of highly effective people') Covey calls a 'win-win' situation. Citizens and government employees will gain. So, too, will experts in facilities management; for no less a figure than deputy prime minister John Prescott has given his personal backing to a massive study to see how, in government departments, flexible work and virtual teams could save the taxpayer money by economising still further on state-owned office space.

But there is a problem. All the new emphasis on valuing the environment, its staff and their fresh, new working methods can, despite itself, actually detract from the business of government; namely, delivering value to voters. Take the example of lifelong learning, which is now official policy within the civil service. It is a moot point whether more rooms for training civil servants will result in anything more than look-at-me qualifications.Will lifelong learning really ensure, say, the on-time, on-budget management of the latest Public Private Partnership?

What we are really dealing with here is a modernisation of government which, though conducted with the rhetoric of 'service delivery' to the outside world, in fact turns in on itself. As architecture becomes an adjunct of human resources (HR), so human resources departments, trade unions and the human resources themselves (people), will concern themselves less with pay versus output, and more with space issues. They will spend more time inspecting what other departments have to offer in terms of health and 'wellness', spend more time examining the possibility of being poached by 'better' departments with better HR, spend more time poring over legal contracts about HR and possible liabilities, and so on. Rather than creating harmonious conditions, it reinforces a sense of alienation.

The tail of architecture, in short, stands in real danger of wagging the dog of government action. And while that might sound good for architects, it guarantees little for government employees.

No doubt they should be allowed to decorate their smaller, higher-quality cubicles.

But will the new, touchy-feely office really allow employees to find and express their personal identity at work; and isn't it sad that an employee's 'Quest for Self ' becomes the only purposeful thing about their work ?

For too long, architecture has been an elite profession, with its own rules, greatand-good associations, and obscure vocabulary. At one level, therefore, today's mass enthusiasm for interiors - from Changing Rooms to the interest in workplace ambience shown by many a youthful job interviewee - is to be welcomed. No doubt, offices that are more costly because they are designed to provide therapeutic working conditions can indeed bring relief to employees. It is only fair that their prehistoric nine-to-five conditions are improved. But the relief provided by a quality environment may well turn out to be temporary. Worse still, it may distract from professional service and professional ambition, and instead encourage hopes of stress-free 'personal growth', a selfish hope which work is rather unlikely to fulfill.

At present , government is several years behind large firms in refining office space to pander to the prejudices of pop psychology. Currently, government offices have few chill-out rooms in few curvy wooden reception areas and few sofas on which to conduct performance appraisals. By following the private sector down this road, government risks pandering to employees' sense that they need a therapeutic environment.

In this scenario, the sense of alienation breeds more counter alienating devices and becomes a self-fulfilling strategy.

Of course architects will plead for higher budgets from government. They must.But they should also argue for more, not less space per employee; and for privacy, which is not 'rationalised' but rather increased. And they would do well to remember that no amount of padding can stop a cell being a cell.

James Woudhuysen is director of Seymour Powell Forecasting, professor of innovation at De Montfort University and the author of Space Futures 2000 available free on tel 01942 836073

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