Trends seem to go in circles

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Stuff changes, but people stay the same, muses Steve Gale

Industry trends are a hot topic where I come from – they keep us busy, giving us things to talk about as we attempt to cultivate guru status, and claim to have a finger on the pulse of our client constituency. The trends discussed at beer and pizza sessions in furniture showrooms are visible and real, but is there a trend in human behaviour? Do we actually want different things?

We constantly tweak designs to cater for the usual desirable outcomes, like efficiency, communication, happy people, flexibility and so on. We invent tools and facilities to service these needs and, when they change over time, we describe them as a trend.

We’ve had fax machines and flat screens, CAD systems and mobile phones. Some trends burned like magnesium and fizzled out, others continue to roll. Now we have the rapid spread of adjustable height desks, bench desking, messenger apps and virtual chat rooms displacing expensive video-conferencing kit.

What about less tangible things like the perceived increase in extensive kitchens, games, gymnasia and showers at work? Do these things qualify as a trend? And, if so, what change in behaviour do they cater for?

I am not sure who coined the ugly but comical phrase ‘the workification of home’ to describe changes in domestic arrangements to accommodate doing a job in your own house, but we are equally seeing ‘the homification of work’. Boundaries get a bit fuzzy and the difference between the two get a bit less. This is a really interesting adjustment – and it is still going strong.

“Some trends burned like magnesium and fizzled out, others continue to roll”

There is no change in human behaviour or expectation – people do the same things as always but more often now in their workplace. Here are a few examples, not universally taken up, but definitely trending.

Want a beer at the end of the day? Dig one out of the fridge – and one for your workmate while you’re at it. Feel like relaxing on a sofa to read a report? Find one in a sunny position and put your feet up. Need a shower? Use the one downstairs. Want a game of table-tennis? Form a queue with the others. You get the drift.

Maybe my point is that we are seeing a simple redistribution of space – is this a trend? People want and expect the same things – and many workplaces are adapting to allow them.

Presumably we have a long way to go before the workplace offers sleeping accommodation – that would be weird for most people, but not unknown for military or emergency services.

Do employers offer these facilities to keep people on the premises or to make workers feel valued? It’s probably a bit of both. In the Bay Area in northern California, employers frequently offer full catering with high end choices all day, pilates and yoga classes every morning and space for ping pong, table football and computer games – and even music rooms with a wide selection of instruments supplied.

We can only gawp at Google’s plans in Mountain View, Apple in its old home of Cupertino and the inevitable plans for Facebook in Menlo Park. These provide pretty much everything for the discerning techie, except, as far as I know, a bed for the night. It’s all there.

These workplaces are almost entire communities, a bit like the cradle-to-grave employers that I thought had all but disappeared. So much for the gig economy – these developments seem to belong more at the other end of the employment scale. Think of mining communities where the company once provided housing, social clubs, cheap beer and co-ops, or railway towns like Eastleigh, or many county authorities across the UK, or Quaker towns (without the beer). So is this a trend or recycling an old pattern?

In my recent trips to San Francisco I see a different trend. Young people prefer to live in the city, with all the choice, danger and variety it always offers. Rush hour traffic perversely goes in reverse – out of the city in the morning and back in the evening. There is palpable resistance to the mono-culture of the tech campus. How will the ultra-generous all-providing omni-potent mega-firms deal with that?