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The desk job is dead: how a workplace revolution is set to change London for good

The desk job’s dead — and that’s only the start of things, says Kerry Potter

Credit: The Collective
Credit: The Collective
By
26 May 2016
E

verywhere you go in London today you see them. Tapping away on laptops in cafés and restaurants, taking conference calls in the park. Our capital city is turning into one big mobile office, while fewer and fewer people seem to have proper desk jobs. What’s going on?

‘I’ve never had a “proper” office job in my life. Instead I’ve had about 25 different jobs so far and that’s the norm now,’ says Hamish Jenkinson, 38, the creative director and co-founder of art agency The Department and co-founder of the gallery Lights of Soho.

Jenkinson’s ‘office’, when he needs one, is based at the Moorgate branch of co-working space WeWork, a set-up that allows him to rent between eight and 20 desks, depending on the size of the project he’s working on. ‘We rocked up on our first day with laptops in our rucksacks and could immediately get started. That’s the kind of easy flexibility I like.’ The thought of having one boss fills him with horror. Hell, even the word ‘boss’ fills him with horror: ‘I like working for lots of different inspirational leaders. I don’t want to have all my eggs in one basket.’

His brother, he says, is a corporate lawyer who battles through morning rush hour every day and sometimes doesn’t leave his City desk until 2am. ‘That’s not what I want for myself,’ shudders the Peckham resident. ‘Instead I can put my house on Airbnb for a month and go sit on a beach in Greece writing a treatment for a film.’

Nomadic working patterns and locations? Slashie job title that won’t fit on a business card? Disdain at the thought of doing the 9-to-5 Tube hell schlep? Jenkinson might sound like one of the thousands of hipster freelancers you find hanging around the capital’s cafés and hotel lobbies but, in fact, he’s at the heart of a social revolution.

Lights of Soho private club

The way we work is changing — and it’s changing our city. We’re quitting our desk-jobs in droves: ONS figures show that 4.6 million people are now self-employed, the highest number since records began 40 years ago. This translates to 15 per cent of the UK workforce, rising to 17 per cent in London. It’s not just the usual suspects such as graphic designers and bloggers, it’s the ‘suits’ too who are now going solo. Administrative work, IT and accounting/finance are the top three industries for using freelancers, according to a FlexJobs study. A survey by Deskmag.com shows the number of co-working and hot-desking spaces worldwide increased by 36 per cent in the past 12 months. London has seen hundreds of such spaces (they are always ‘spaces’) springing up around the city. Adam Blaskey, founder of The Clubhouse, which has two sites in Mayfair, says: ‘Freelancers, entrepreneurs and some businesses are now consuming office space as a service, rather than acquiring the product, in the same way we use Uber or Air B’n’B as and when we need them.’

At the same time, the traditional workplace appears to be dying. Corporate office space is being sold off, transforming London’s landscape. In 2013, in an attempt to tackle the housing shortage, the Government relaxed rules to make it easier to convert offices into residential property. The result is that Westminster alone has lost 4.4 million square feet of commercial space, while the Government itself recently announced plans to reduce the number of its own office buildings from 800 to just 200 over the next six years, with the future of even the iconic MI5 and MI6 buildings under threat. Blaskey, a former residential property developer, says: ‘If you walk around central London and look at all the cranes it’s not office blocks they’re building, it’s residential property. Big businesses and the self-employed need to think differently about where, and how, they work. Blaskey cites Tesla Motors and Samsung — both companies have UK HQs outside of London and, instead of signing a long lease on an office in the capital, both use The Clubhouse for their staff to work and hold meetings.

Businesses no longer expect all their staff to be permanently in situ, in one centralised office with an allocated desk. Tony Crabbe, business psychologist and author of Busy, says: ‘The big companies I work with say they want to get their people out and about more, talking to clients, innovating. The office is becoming more of a community hub for meeting and talking, rather than the place you sit down and do the bulk of your work.’ Which means we’re working in a far more fluid way.

‘It’s remarkable how long the traditional idea of office working, commuting and doing 9-to-5 has clung on, given that research shows that people consistently say they don’t like it, that the technology to allow us to work remotely has been around for almost 10 years now, and that many of us work globally,’ says Crabbe. And these companies are relying ever more on freelancers rather than staffers: ‘It doesn’t make financial sense to have an organisation of 100,000 employees when you can do the same work with an organisation of 20,000 employees and 300,000 freelancers who you engage from time to time for their precise skill sets.’

Millennials entering the workplace are driving the trend — they’ve witnessed their parents slaving away, tied to their desks, beleaguered by their bosses, and they want something different, a life beyond being a corporate drone.

That’s not to say there aren’t many of us who love the security and regular income provided by a 9-to-5 job. ‘You just don’t get the life you want in this city without the financial security that a proper job brings,’ says Jeremy Lansdale, who works for a Soho-based production company. ‘A lot of my friends are freelance and I don’t know how they ever relax not knowing where their next pay cheque is coming from. Not to mention the constant stress of always having to think about what work they have next.’

Nonetheless, a common question now asked by graduates at interviews, says Crabbe, is: ‘How can I integrate this work into my life?’ Lauren Armes, 28, from Surrey, runs the wellness-industry site welltodolondon.com from a communal table in The Den, a chic co-working space in Bloomsbury.

‘About 90 per cent of my friends work for themselves. We hate that whole idea of clock-watching and working set hours. Although it has taken me a while to lose that mentality as I used to work in business development in a very traditional cubicle-based role. I want to have children in the future and that was key in driving me to set up on my own. I want to be able to work part time and play an active role in bringing them up.’

David Goodchild is a 33-year-old freelance graphic designer from Catford who works at The Trampery, a co-working space in Shoreditch. He became a father two months ago: ‘Being able to manage your own time is a huge plus. If I want to spend an afternoon at home looking after my son, I can,’ he says. ‘I think it’s about adapting to the way the working world is now.

‘You have your skill and you deploy it flexibly, collaborating with different teams. I used to work in a corporate environment and everything took so long — red tape, approval processes, so many emails, so many people involved. It’s much more rewarding to work in a nimble way.’

The ramifications of this movement are far-reaching. The flip side of flexibility and freedom is financial insecurity — no holiday or sick pay, no paid parental leave beyond the government statutory amount, plus a lack of control; you just don’t know where your next job will come from.

Those I speak to all concede to concerns about the future at the back of their minds, but all also point out that their peers in ‘proper’ jobs have very little security either, with piddling pensions and home ownership merely a pipe-dream. That’s just the way it is — so bunging some cash into an ISA whenever you can is the consensus.

Then there’s the matter of how, when not working set hours in a set place, you can maintain a work/life balance and the stress that can ensue when it’s off-kilter. Crabbe believes that the power freelancer approaches this in a different way. ‘They simply don’t have those boundaries to fret about. They’re happy to work late on a Sunday night and then go to the cinema on a Tuesday morning. Rather than seeing work and life as two separate pillars, they see them as integrated.’

And as we increasingly embrace the idea of self-employed people co-working alongside each other, how about co-living, too? The Trampery is launching Fish Island Village, an ‘all-in-one facility for entrepreneurs’ in which to live and work. The six-acre site at Hackney Wick will open in 2018.

As for the future, Jenkinson is clear: ‘I’m the architect of my own career and lifestyle,’ he says, and I won’t have these things dictated to me.’

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