‘Hospitality creep’ is a sweet fact of modern life

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Like a benevolent plague of Japanese knotweed, it’s everywhere! Says Steve Gale

This definition of hospitality – ‘The friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers’ –   applies to any decent hotel you can think of, but it doesn’t stop there – it’s unstoppable.

A hospitable place is about comfort and social behaviour, the sort of thing you expect it in your local pub, but probably not so much in a police station.

We can easily identify types of buildings that should be hospitable – and those that are less likely to be. A bus shelter keeps you dry and a changing room holds your kit, but a restaurant should make you feel welcome. Hospitality is expanding its territory, spreading into boringly functional spaces and transforming them so they give people a warm feeling and allow them to dwell, interact, chill out and de-stress? The spaces retain their function but become humane.

Take, for example, the archetypical dentist’s waiting room. My life-long fear of dentists was forged in the awkward silence of dog-eared magazines and fish tanks, but now my dentist invites the grown-up me into a sunny lounge with John Lewis sofas, today’s papers, fresh coffee, fast Wi-Fi and friendly receptionists – and usually a cat.

This happiness is spreading into workplaces. Expectations of what you get in the office are changing, vanilla is less acceptable, and the trend is definitely accelerating.

Office upgrades migrated from America, the country that put cup holders in cars and waste disposal in your kitchen sink. So now soft furniture in the workplace is ok in a middleweight British office. The comfort will often extend, like a Mexican wave, beyond a showy reception to casual meeting areas and cafeterias. In big organisations the quantity and quality of food goes up, so a promise of biscuits and burnt coffee for meetings evolves into an onsite supermarket without tills. Full catering is no longer just for multinationals the size of Unilever.

“My life-long fear of dentists was forged in the awkward silence of dog-eared magazines and fish tanks”

People in these new workplaces are treated more like guests than employees, which is what hospitality is all about. For many of us the difference in appearance between our office and an upmarket hotel are the desks, which get fewer each year.

Why is hospitality invading the workplace? Partly because American Dilbert cubicle farms were seen as a turn-off for talent in Silicon Valley, where competition for good people raised the game to the point where now almost all daytime needs are luxuriously catered for on tech campuses. All life is there. Every leisure activity is accommodated, health and wellbeing needs are serviced and the food and drink on offer competes with the best in town, often at no cost to the consumer. It is corporatised hospitality at a grand scale, but aimed at regular employees, not clients expecting the best bone china. Some of the facilities have become comically over-provided, creating legends of excess and fantasy – like curly slides connecting floors and ski lift meeting rooms. The stakes are high in the tech sector, so big names fight for the same people and they believe the bribery works.

It’s not just about retention and stealing staff, there is a much more practical reason for less austere offices – innovation and knowledge exchange. Now that we have functioning communication networks, and the tools of production are no longer hard wired to the desk, the workspace offers new opportunities. For most knowledge workers the only reason to turn up at the office is to rub shoulders with other real people for guidance, swapping ideas, plotting and hearing stories. This shift allows us to reconfigure things to make meetings, conversations and entertainment the main attraction, with places for production and thinking around the periphery. Knowledge sharing is the cutting edge of success.

Just today I heard an interview with a newly elected Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, Dr Richard Henderson, from Cambridge, speaking about how he first learnt about his prize winning technique from a colleague in a completely different subject area ‘There’s a lot to be gained from chatting to people over coffee, lunch, tea…having interdisciplinary conversations, and often the big breakthroughs come from the boundaries between two disciplines where people are meeting. Those with their heads in the sand often make long term progress in particular areas, but the big revolutionary steps forward often come from these cross boundary collaborations’.

True that, Richard.