I’ve been working in one office or another since 1981, although in the last 15 years this has expanded to include hotel rooms, coffee shops, airport lounges, trains, holiday cottages, the gym and all the usual (plus some more unusual) venues for mobile working.
I thought it might be interesting to look back at the more formal workplaces – at their design and management, my experience and what they might say about habits and trends. These are not, apart from the first, bespoke offices but the sort of workplaces familiar to many. I’ve written more about the early offices because the contrast with today’s workplaces is much greater.
1 1981 to 1983
Financial Times, Bracken House, City of London
Keywords: Corridors, newsroom, smoking
Key technologies: Typewriter, telephone, photocopier
My first job, fresh from university. Bracken House was essentially a “newspaper factory”. Built in the second half of the 1950s to house the Financial Times, it was named after Brendan Bracken, the founder of the modern FT and Minister of Information under Churchill from 1941 to 1945.
Bracken House was designed by Sir Albert Richardson (1880-1964) with “a curious mixture of Italian Renaissance and Swedish twentieth-century neo-classical elements,” according to Dan Cruickshank. It sits on a sloping, irregular site near St Pauls which gave rise to some strange floor levels.
Before the FT moved printing off-site, huge rolls of newsprint were delivered on one side of the building and vans left carrying the paper from the other. So for those who worked there, the connection with the physical, printed product of all our endeavours was tangible and exciting. On one of the basement levels were row on row of noisy “hot metal” linotype machines, already on their way out in the rest of Fleet Street but hanging on at the FT.
When I joined, in 1981, the main newsroom had already gone open plan. The unpatterned carpet gave it the nickname the Blue Lagoon. On a strong news day it was buzzing but you needed to be there in the hours before the paper was “put to bed” to experience the controlled, frenetic activity of a major daily newspaper office.
Outside the newsroom it was a different story, endless corridors of mostly cellular offices. Journalists are notoriously disorganised and the FT’s lived up to the stereotype – tottering towers of paper threatening to slide off metal desks. In fact there was so much paper that ordinary waste bins would have overflowed in hours, so oil drums, painted bright blue, dotted the building.
Information technology had yet to make a real impact but a specialist unit to index the paper had a room full of Wang “minicomputers” and the research desk used a single IBM PC.
Hard to believe now but every day I had to put up with a chain-smoker at the next desk. Smoking in the workplace wasn’t outlawed until 2007. We didn’t have a gym but there was a bar and a cinema!
2 1983 to 1985
Online Leisure Information, Covent Garden, London
Keywords: Stairs, leaks, leeks
Key technologies: Photocopier, Apple Lisa computer
In 1983 I moved across town to join a start-up providing information on leisure opportunities to the public and local radio. This was my first experience of working with owner/managers trying to create a business from scratch.
The central building of the old fruit and vegetable market had only recently re-opened with cafes, pubs, small shops and a craft market. Covent Garden wasn’t yet the tourist destination it has become and the whole area had a great village vibe.
Online rented space on the top floor of an old banana warehouse on Earlham Street. The roof leaked and it was freezing in winter. One year we had to hire industrial heaters that sounded like jet engines – tricky for a phone-based business. The building was full of interesting people – celebrity photographer Mario Testino (recently arrived from Peru) had his studio next to our office and on one memorable day I shared a lift with George Michael – he still talks about it.
The business was built on a database of leisure opportunities available across Greater London. The information was stored on a brand new computer model, the Apple Lisa, a precursor to the Macintosh. We only had one (they were expensive – the first ones cost about $10,000) and it took too long to retrieve information online, so each morning we printed out the day’s activities and events so that we could answer the phone lines.
Vegetarian food was booming and the office was a few yards from the epicentre of all things organic, Neal’s Yard – home to a bakery and several cafes as well as the animation and recording studios of Monty Python. I recall that, going somewhat against the spirit of the place, they hung a sign reading ‘Neal’s Yard Abattoir’ outside their offices!
3 & 4 1986 to 1989
DEGW architects & planners, Marylebone and Kings Cross, London
Keywords: Windows, light, benches
Key technologies: Kodak slide projector, IBM PC
Unemployment was still stuck at three million in 1986 but that year also saw the deregulation of financial markets, an event known as Big Bang. It turned out to be a good time to join an ambitious architectural and planning practice as demand for research, space planning and office fit-out began to accelerate.
Former RIBA president Jack Pringle said that DEGW, co-founded in 1971 by Frank Duffy, Peter Eley, Luigi Giffone and John Worthington, “really invented what we now see as the modern discipline of space planning and workplace consultancy. There was a time when DEGW was the academy that trained everybody that came into the business.”
At the time I joined, the practice was based in a robust four-storey brick building in Bulstrode Place, just off Marylebone Lane. The ground floor slab had been cut away at the perimeter to allow light into the basement. The space was refitted in utilitarian design practice style – long benches, basic filing cabinets, storage cupboards and plan chests.
It really was an academy. The theory was that the research informed the design and the design fed back into the research. Learning was encouraged to the point that, for a few years, Friday afternoons were given over to seminars; the practice gathered once a year at a residential training centre; and on Events Day the building hosted talks, exhibitions, games and even performance art.
It’s the most creative environment I’ve worked in and shaped my working life in many ways.
In 1988 DEGW moved to canalside offices at King’s Cross to bring everyone together and allow for growth. The location had a poor reputation and many of the staff, particularly the women, were concerned about the move. The area was scheduled for major redevelopment which would have put the firm at the heart of a vibrant new London district. Unfortunately, by the time development started on what is now King’s Cross Central, DEGW had been absorbed into Davis Langdon (eventually to become part of Aecom) and moved to the City.
The fabric of the robust brick warehouse, with its forest of columns, was left largely intact. The exposed brick combined with surface-mounted services, painted steel and glass office fronts and new systems furniture created a Manhattan loft vibe.
5 1989 – 1999
PFM magazine, Tonbridge, Kent
Keywords: corridors, commission and company cars
Key technologies: word processors, fax and a modem
In 1989, three years after we’d moved house to Kent, I finally tired of commuting and joined Industrial Media, a 10 mile drive from home, to work on what became PFM magazine. The small publishing firm occupied a medieval era house in the High Street with connections to Jane Austen. It later expanded into the adjacent modern office development.
Blair House is a rabbit warren of small rooms, sloping ceilings (and floors), beams and stairs. When I joined, it was common practice to group all sales staff together, at least as much as the building would allow. The logic was that commission driven employees would thrive on the competition. The walls were covered in sheets showing sales targets for that issue, that month, that year. Us editorial staff were also grouped together where we were spared the more outlandish claims of the sales team and could discuss the finer points of grammar and syntax.
In later years this arrangement was unwound. Editors now sat with ad managers as the whole operation became even more commercially driven.
For the first few years at IML the magazine was produced using a mix of old and new technology. Copy, produced on word processors and a few second generation PCs, was typeset to produce galley proofs that were then pasted onto layout sheets. Images and illustrations were colour-separated and the whole lot then combined to create a page proof. I have a clear memory of walking down Tonbridge High Street to the typesetters with the odd letter falling off to be blown away on a passing breeze.
I introduced the company directors to email and the “world wide web” – one of them said I should take up fishing, as we watched a page load in Netscape. By the time I left, copy was being sent electronically to typesetters in Cornwall but page proofs were still being delivered back to us by courier. Now virtually all magazine pre-print work is done in-house and editorial staff must be familiar with design and publishing software.
6 2000 – 2004
Enigma, Islington, London
Keywords: connected, agile, coffee
Key technologies: server, iMac, PHP programming
After ten years with IML (the longest I’d spent in any job) and with the jolt of the millennium I jumped ship and joined a tech start-up shortly after it started up. I swapped sleepy Tonbridge for hip north London and bizarrely ended up working just a mile or so from our first house in Islington.
Enigma built websites and provided communications services for clients. I joined to edit i-FM.net, the first dedicated online news and information portal for facilities management. I was only 41 but now the oldest person in the company and my fellow-workers seemed umbilically connected to their Macs and headphones. The office was a light industrial unit, with basic facilities but a great view of the canal – unsurprisingly the site has now been redeveloped as apartments.
Like most start-ups we were making it up as we went along – an idea dreamt up in the morning could be implemented by the afternoon – I learnt a lot very quickly! Like many small companies Enigma upgraded frequently as technology evolved, often faster than its much larger clients.
The company ethos was to work hard and have fun doing it.
At Enigma I began working “remotely” – going into the office once a week for business meetings. The rest of the time was a mix of working from home and reporting from industry events. The news site’s web technology and the company’s server made it easy to work from anywhere, at any time.
7 & 8 2004 – 2012
BIFM, Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford
Keywords: market town, quiet, lunch break
Key technologies: Blackberry
Like many organisations BIFM’s first proper office was located near the home of its leader. 67 is an unassuming house amongst the late-Georgian and Victorian buildings that line Saffron Walden High Street. In some ways it was like being back in Tonbridge – rooms that were either too small or too large for the teams that occupied them, poor communication and inadequate parking.
Driven by growing membership and the desire for a better connected location, the institute moved to one open-plan floor of a rather dull brick complex in the centre of Bishop’s Stortford, just down the M11. On the upside it brought the organisation together and gave us a proper meeting room at last plus other facilities. On the downside, it had no character, you couldn’t open the windows and it was as quiet as a library!
9 2012 – 2014
Keywords: seagulls, coffee shops
Key technologies: iPod dock
The offices of specialist communications agency Magenta Associates are in a classic Georgian townhouse on Brighton’s Grand Parade. I only popped in once a month or so but it’s a great location – lovely light and you always have a sense of the sea not far away. It’s a little creative community where companies can take on more space as they grow, without leaving the building.
In many ways it typifies the way agile organisations work today – a small base that can support a number of people, all connected by cloud-based applications and good coffee.
10 2014 to date
Home office, Kent
Keywords: view, dog, Radio 4
Key technologies: iPhone, Skype, kettle
I’ve been working in a home office on and off since 1989. My latest, at the top of the house, is wonderful, especially in the summer. With views of nature and birdsong filtering in, it meets many of the criteria for “the perfect office”.
Of course homeworking can be isolating, especially for a freelance. So it’s important to get out and meet clients or just keep up-to-date with developments at conferences and other events. The local independent café and the gym are alternative spaces when I need more of a buzz.
It seems to me that the best offices will combine elements of all the places I’ve worked. Even the largest corporates try to inject some of the spirit of smaller organisations and the start-ups attempt to match the support offered by the largest through smart use of ICT.
Most people still don’t have a choice about where they work but for “office-work” at least, times are changing. It’s all about choice … and a view.
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