The Blog

The Place: It's a Privacy Thing

There is rich irony in the fact that the spanking new, uber-modern office block, The Place, dwarfed by The Shard in London Bridge, is to be occupied by the staff of both the newspaper arm of New Corp and the publishing folk of HarperCollins.

There is rich irony in the fact that the spanking new, uber-modern office block, The Place, dwarfed by The Shard in London Bridge, is to be occupied by the staff of both the newspaper arm of New Corp and the publishing folk of HarperCollins.

The promotional video for The Place stars a vibrant, sharp-looking young lady extolling with great enthusiasm the virtues of the vibrant, sharp-looking building named 'The Place': its very essence is determined by the idea that the office in this highly developed technological era should not be thought of a post-industrial production line with emphasis on efficiency and productivity but on open spaces, 'hot-desking' and creativity.

In the video Bill Gates is credited with bringing these ideas to Microsoft although the intrinsic study of the relationship between the physical structure of institutions such as offices, schools, prisons, lunatic asylums and army barracks and their very purpose is more accurately sourced to the writings of the French historian Michel Foucault and the American-based sociologist, Erving Goffman.

Hence it is not uncommon to notice structural commonalities between institutions of very different types - my old secondary school in Glasgow bears more than a passing resemblance to the 'H' prison blocks in Northern Ireland. The boys occupied one 'half' and the girls the other. The very design of the building had 'segregation' at its heart: every entrance, every staircase; every means of access from one point to another was driven by the essential dynamic of keeping several hundred mixed sex children under control by a relatively few 'guardians'. And of course, ultimately to achieve annual targets by reference to grades of the final exams and the percentage of leavers attending University. The structure of the school had a profound relationship to its purpose, as does The Place.

Therefore it's only fair to point out that The Place is new but the ideas behind it are not. It is only common sense that the process of creativity (as opposed to mere repetitive, mindless functionality) is best served within an environment that stimulates, inspires and promotes the creative process. Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House in the seaside resort of Broadstairs, not in a call centre.

It is also a fair point that the name - 'The Place' has considerable form. A Google search for The Place is more likely to take you to 'the premier centre for contemporary dance' in Duke's Street than the Sellar Group's newest office space.

Here I should point out my 'strange but true' connections to The Place. I wrote over 20 years ago in biography of my late father: 'The search for 'the place' had been going on for years and years, for as long as anyone could remember'. At the time I was writing of the revolutionary anti-establishment asylum 'Kingsley Hall', an experiment in alternative ways of dealing with those afflicted with serious mental health issues in general and existential angst in particular.

More recently, in my novel Rehab Blues, a comedy centring around the whacky treatments for emotionally challenged celebrities. The 'action' is firmly set within 'The Place', the name of the rehab centre run by a trio of 'chancers', constantly under siege by serial tabloid hackers.

I should also disclose that at one I was the Director of Legal Affairs at Harper Collins, in their current offices in Hammersmith. I recall only one conversation concerning 'open planning' and mentioned just one word: privacy, combined with the well-honed look of a battle-seasoned lawyer that says 'are you being serious?'

This brings me to the irony of Rupert Murdoch's decision to decamp his Wapping staff and his Harper Collins staff to 'The Place'.

The reasons behind the demise of The News of the World and the ultimate bringing together of all UK New Corps personnel are encapsulated in concepts of privacy and business.

I expect most people moving from Wapping and Hammersmith to The Place will, in time, feel energised and excited by 'the shock of the new'. But it's an evolutionary change rather than a revolutionary one. The planners have caught on to the very real shift in the way employees - particularly the youngest, brightest and newest recruits - are now able and willing to fulfil their function with a handheld device, connected to the internet, whether they are at home, on their way to work or 'at work'.

In fact the very concept of 'being at work' is fundamentally different to what it was only a few years ago. So, to those moving to The Place, I wish you well and good fortune. But I would still insist on having a respected private work space because although the 'openness' and 'hot-desking' of it all has many advantages for some, that 'system' does not work for everyone.

The exposure of open planning is fine, provided at some point those who routinely deal with sensitive issues or who are engaged with old-fashioned 'people therapy' can close a door; it's a privacy thing.