Democratising the New World?

Everyone says the internet revolution's over, but I say it never even happened. The dot-com commers weren't individuals against the system, but the very corporates who own the brands that make the world go round. How do I know this? Easy. The whole new world thing balances rather unsteadily - like on of those café tables in Islington - on three pillars:

1. office casual

Office casual is either the bane of your life or an opportunity not to have to buy boring clothes any more. But whichever way you look at it, it's clearly backed by one of the biggest brands in the known clothing universe: The Gap.

Because office casual means chinos, open neck shirt and a blazer. Otherwise known as gap-wear. Frankly just changing one uniform for another. Except guy's bums look better in chinos than they do in Jaeger suits.

Of course there's a subsidiary industry growing up around this fad; women (largely) who help guys with no confidence/taste/shopping genes purchase the necessary effortlessly-put-together-ensemble. For 10%, no doubt.

At Andersen Consulting a memo had to go round delineating that office casual means exactly that. In my office - a little more old-economy though we'd rather not admit to it - a memo arrived to smooth the brow of concerned consultants. Office casual means just taking off your jacket and tie. So now I sit in meetings with a bunch of half dressed middle aged men.

2. doing meetings in coffee bars

This is clearly because once you are attired in your coffee-bar best you ought to be in one. And it just seems so much more informal. Almost like being friends.

I think if you added up all the time people in offices all over the country spend getting the team together and going down to Coffee-on-the-Corner and doing an errand on the way and forgetting their notes and not all fitting round the really small tables or squashing up on the sofa, you'd find that the nation would be damn more productive if we had our meetings in - call me old fashioned - meeting rooms. They're quiet, they have plenty of chairs, and it never rains on the way to one.

And we all know who started this trend: Starbucks. Because if everyone stayed in the office all day, there'd just be my Mum in Starbucks, trying to work out where a skinny latte to go goes.

In the future, I think our children will laugh at the image of us queuing for our addictive fix and paying a 400% markup and using paper cups and thinking that handing over the money made us part of the experience economy.

I say buck the trend, buy a kettle and some decent instant coffee - o philistine me! - there's global warming now and people don't want to go outside.

3. The whole virtual office, hot-desking, flexible work solutions thing

Diversified office services is the new buzz sector on the tech market, with Regus plc just floating last month. That's because companies turn over so quickly in the boom and bust of the internet age that it's hardly worth taking a three year lease on a place. Better to pay £1000 per desk per week to one of the new stars of the business world: Regus, MWB Business Exchange or Argyle Business Centres.

(Here's an interesting aside: when I looked on the internet for "serviced offices" I came up with a great site called the London Office Guide, which actually divides London into three areas: City/Docklands, Greater West End, and that well known business district Midtown. Midtown? What is this? New York?)

Across the street from my house there's a new development of luxury loft-style apartments in what used to an office building housing the telephone exchange. The flats were way overpriced, despite the gym and pool in the basement, so they've turned a bunch of them back in to, yes you guessed it, offices, and re-branded it the Jubilee Business Centre.

So a whole part of the new economy is companies who've been holding onto expensive property since the last recession finally getting a chance to charge over the odds for the space and keep the city happy.

And that's the truth: the new economy, whatever that means is firmly based on some pretty old economy, pre-democratisation ideas. It's a strategic business plan masquerading as a hippy fest. It's two hundred thousand pounds worth of strategy consulting saying flexible working is more talent-centred. And it's grey hairs (old people) coming back from buzzword bingo sessions reliving their youth, and getting to wear cool clothes with it.

© Sasha Frieze 1999

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