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Donkin on Work - Hot Desking and Office Design

November 2001 - High rise offices

Before the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, the public inquiry into the proposed 37-storey Heron Tower in the City of London had been characterised as a debate between aesthetics and the business imperative.

Opponents of the development, such as English Heritage, are worried about the impact on views of city landmarks such as St Paul's Cathedral. Proponents, such as the City of London Corporation, believe that without such developments the City will fail to compete with Frankfurt and other continental cities.

The loss of the World Trade Center introduced two new factors into the debate: prohibitive insurance policies and the willingness of people to work in such buildings. This last point should not be overlooked but the employee side of the argument tends to be covered by health and safety regulations and evacuation times. People rarely seem to be asked: where and how would you prefer to work?

The question is worth asking, particularly in London, given the surge in high-rise building applications that is likely if the Heron Tower is built. One large tower - Lord Foster's "Gherkin", is already under construction. There are plans for at least six more 30-storey-plus towers in the City.

Those who work in London should have no doubt about the implications of a new era of high-rise development. Building on this scale will attract tens of thousands of other workers from outside London. What will be the implications for transport in a country whose rail network is unable to overcome "leaves on the line"?

A study by the Commission for Integrated Transport published this week shows that the UK's transport system is the worst in Europe, with average commuting times of 46 minutes a day. Previous reports have shown that traffic in London has slowed to the speeds attained by horse-drawn coaches. Is city working really the best option?

Many Americans, it seems, have become resigned to high-rise working but the attack on New York has injected new paranoia into the US workforce. ExecutiveChute, a company in Three Rivers, Michigan, is expecting to sell up to 50,000 executive parachutes in the next 12 months, at $795 (£564) each. "Hang it on a coat-rack, door or in a closet, even a desk drawer will do," says the sales literature. But what happens in a disaster if you are the only one with a parachute? What about your colleagues? And what if someone gets to your chute before you do?

The parachute is one answer to the phobias associated with high-rise working. The other answer is to say "no". More than 50,000 New Yorkers are believed to have been displaced by the September 11 attack. How many of these, once settled in their new offices or working at least part of the time from home, will want to be relocated into the upper storeys of tower blocks?

Jack Nilles, a physicist and engineer who used to design space vehicles for Nasa and coined the words "teleworking" and "telecommuting" in 1973, was recalling last week how another disaster had influenced working habits. When sections of motorway were destroyed in the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake, tens of thousands of people were left with no option but to work from home. Thousands of ISDN lines were installed in homes so that people could work online and stay in touch with their offices. A year later, long after the road had been repaired, 85 to 90 per cent of the lines were still in use.

"Disasters like this serve to accelerate trends that were already in existence," said Mr Nilles, speaking at a seminar called "Organisational Trends in a Precarious World" - held by Henley Management College's future work programme. Fittingly, he was linked to the seminar using video-conferencing technology.

With or without disasters, teleworking - the practice of working outside the traditional workplace for some or part of the time - continues to grow. In 1990 there were 3.4m US teleworkers. In 2001, according to an annual survey carried out by The International Telework Association & Council (ITAC) , the number had risen to 28.8m.

Opponents of this kind of working have often pointed to problems of social isolation but 30 years of studies, said Mr Nilles, had failed to turn up any supporting evidence. On the contrary, he said, teleworkers reported significant decreases in stress levels, felt more in control of their lives and tended to know more of the company gossip than those in the office. "There seems to be a belief that people can be more effective if they are face to face all the time. If they're face to face all the time they're not a team but a committee," he said.

Not all teleworking has been successful. A government telecentre programme in southern California had fizzled out through lack of support, said Mr Nilles, because the centres were opened in vacant or low-rent buildings, inconvenient for people who might want to use them. Today, he said, cheaper home-based technology was overtaking the need for such centres.

Asked if "teleworker" had become a label referring to a technical solution for what was a social transition, Mr Nellis said: "I guess the word 'teleworker', will appear in future editions of The Oxford English Dictionary as an archaic term from the 20th century. There will be a time in the not too distant future when this is just business as usual and we won't call it that any more."

In the light of such predictions, there seems little logic in enlarging our cities either upwards or outwards but the argument for ever bigger cities is always advanced successfully by those who design, build and live in them. The original skyscrapers were built because they could be built. The materials and engineering solutions existed to make them happen. Their height was more a matter of prestige than practicality.

When the Chrysler Building was capped with a 185-ft spire, the spire was a closely guarded secret that would allow the building to top its rival, the 71-storey Bank of Manhattan. Contracts for the even taller Empire State Building were signed just weeks before the Wall Street crash. In 1932, a year after its completion, it was nicknamed the "Empty State" since no more than a quarter of its space had been filled. The current economic downturn coupled with demographic trends across Europe would suggest that a surplus of office space may re-emerge in the near future.

Is it too much to ask that the Heron Tower inquiry consider the welfare of workers as much as that of the City Corporation and the prestige of planners and architects? Safety and commercial issues aside, what is the point of a sky-high office if we cannot move over the ground?

© 2001 The Financial Times. All rights reserved

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