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Office politics

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The Twenty-first Century Office By Jeremy Myerson and Philip Ross. Laurence King, 2003. £45

This is the latest in a long line of studies that parallel the evolution of the workplace. As a sourcebook it is an exemplary collection of the best designs and designers and a bellwether for current fashions and preoccupations. This book shows just how rich and varied interior architecture has become.

It is also the most succinct review of trends in office design since Frank Duffy's The New Office. Duffy structured his analysis around four distinct modus operandi, and the use of simple nouns: cell, den, club and hive.With Myerson and Ross, it is still in four modes, but the lingo is new. It is now adjectives and adverbs: narrative, nodal, neighbourly and nomadic. The case studies illustrate more and better ways to encourage office workers to stay 24/7 within the office, the firm, the culture, and the production envelope. We live and breathe the brand in the working environment - narrative.We let employees work on the road - nomads; we make hubs where they can touch down and be mentored - nodes.We give them cosy corners, make it home from home - neighbourly.

But here's the rub. Duffy's 'new office' was like New Labour. His thesis was optimistic: he saw the evolution of the office in a historic continuum, and revealed a palpable fascination with it as a 20th-century phenomenon - how it evolved and where it was going. The workplace could only get better. But his book pre-dated the images of 11 September; the collapse of Enron; the dot. com bubble; the anti-globalisation movement and Naomi Klein's No Logo.

Myerson's book is on the other side of the apocalyptic extreme event. Everything has changed: optimism has been replaced with uncertainty and vulnerability. The beautifully photographed, staged, clean-desk images have a ghostly feel, and are hard to read without a post-apocalyptic take.

All kinds of spaces can now be used for offices, particularly for the small and medium-sized enterprises that make up the majority. Advances in hand-held cordless phones and laptops have presented us with a menu of new and more effective ways of working: live-work; the desk-less office; the business lounge; serviced office suites; and hotels. Set against this, millions of square metres of urban office space have been converted into apartment and loft-living spaces as many businesses have located out of town to business parks, generating more car journeys and longer working days. The perpetual workplace revolution continues apace; the call centre boom that began in sheds on industrial estates in areas with soft regional accents is being shipped out wholesale to Mumbai and Bangalore.

Office design is only one part of the continual upheaval that is in the nature of the contemporary workplace, and it should be seen against the other - the texture of working life, what really goes on in these environments. This is most acutely observed by commentators like Scott Adams, creator of the Dilbert comic strip, who can make any audience roar with laughter, just by walking up to a lectern and saying 'people are a company's greatest asset'.

So when I read the neighbourly office described as 'a social landscape to bring people together in a community of purpose. Its repertoire of town squares, garden fences, entertainment zones, quiet spaces and lively bars increasingly mirrors the dynamic of the modern city', I imagine this being said by Ricky Gervais, replete with hand gestures.

The sassy office is both an ameliorative and a palliative. It is needed to attract and retain workers who are increasingly on short-term contracts in a demography that is alarmingly insecure, youth-oriented and global.

Stephen Greenberg is director of Metaphor

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