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The ‘Uberisation’ of the economy will require a new generation of offices

David Partridge speaking at the BCO Conference 2015 in Chicago
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A shift to freelance employment is leading clients to demand workplaces that feel more like homes than offices, says Argent managing partner David Partridge

As David Partridge settles into his presidency of the British Council for Offices, he’s got freelancers on his mind. Not because he’s hiring extra hands to help steer his two-year tenure; it’s more to do with the changing nature of employment across the board. The coming generation of office workers, says Partridge, are ‘choosing to be self-employed’. It’s a direct result of the last great recession, he says. ‘The recently qualified have never known a stable environment.’

Partridge is drawing upon a lecture given by Richard Greenwald, dean of humanities at Brooklyn College, at the BCO conference in Chicago. Greenwald presented statistics showing that by 2020, more than 40 per cent of ‘creative classes’ in the States will be freelancers.

But why should this matter to architects? Partridge knows the answer to this is the easy part: architects have to work with employers to reorganise their workplaces to accommodate this emerging, nimble workforce. The measures they will take though, and the ideas they will implement, are not so easy to predict. Still, there are signs to follow. ‘The serendipitous meeting at the watercooler, the chance encounter that sparks an idea: it’s a cliché, but there’s something in it,’ he says. But there are other factors too. That sense of well-being people feel in the places they choose to be in during their leisure time: ‘The idea of the home, and the café – helping that find its way into the office environment – that’s the challenge facing architects designing the next gen of workplaces,’ he says.

Mainstream London workplaces have yet to adopt the ‘homely’ strategy

Partridge thinks that these workers want to ‘feel like they are at home but don’t want the distractions that actually working at home brings’. It sounds obvious, and while it was a take-away theme at this year’s BCO conference in Chicago, which Partridge chaired, most workplaces in London – mainstream ones at least – have yet to adopt this strategy.

Of course there are a few examples, says Partridge. Rohan Silva’s Second Home in Shoreditch, a hotdesking venue open to all, has a ‘really lovely atmosphere’, and Bloomberg, which hired Foster + Partners to mastermind its London base, is ‘considering’ a similar approach. And Google, says Partridge, with his Argent hat on for a microsecond – the internet giant is planning a flagship office in the developer’s emerging King’s Cross overhaul – ‘will be all over this stuff’.

In Chicago some delegates said they thought 50 per cent of clerical office work would be freelanced in the coming decade. Coupled with automation, another disruptive force in the sector, it will make for a whole new relationship between companies and their workforces. Partridge calls it the ‘Uberisation’ of the economy after the taxi service Uber, which uses software to enable freelancers to become chauffeurs in their own cars and offer a cheaper service than local minicab operators.

‘The workplace – it will have to impress the employee’

There is another reason companies will have to rethink the environments they provide their prospective workers. As jobs grow more skilled (automation will see 70 per cent of legal work computerised, according to Partridge) and the demographic greys, the workforce will shrink – and therefore be able to lever more from their employers. Better salaries for one. And better physical environments in which to do your job. ‘The office, the workplace – it will have to impress the employee.’

Much of this drive however is centred on Western economies trying to plug the ‘productivity gap’, which made the news recently when health secretary Jeremy Hunt said British work rates lagged far behind those in China.

Partridge, aware of the complex issues underpinning this topic, says he ‘won’t pretend to have an answer’ although he admits to wrestling with it day in, day out. ‘I think adapting our offices to suit new working patterns is essential, but this is as much to do with the wider built environment – the city itself.’

Indeed, in a reversal of 1990s predictions that the internet would create a new landscape of homeworkers, and urbanists worried about cities hollowing out, Partridge points out that in San Francisco, for example, tech companies are now moving back into the city from the suburbs. The list of firms that have taken space in the city’s SoMa district (South of Market) is like a roll-call of top social media brands with Pinterest, Airbnb, Uber, LinkedIn, BitTorrent and Wired among them.

And where there are tech firms, there are inevitably… organic-bread shops? ‘Yes,’ says Partridge. Maker culture is another driver in emergent city spaces. The creative classes, ‘artisans’ Partridge calls them, tend to flock together. There’s a huge premium today on handmade items, which is helping shape swathes of our cities. ‘It’s very evident in the States. We’re seeing it in London. And spatially, architects are going to have to address this.’

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