At the British Council for Offices’ annual conference in Amsterdam, a passionate case was made for Britain to become more involved with the EU, and help fix the flaws that have sparked the referendum - but it wasn’t from a Brit

Jack Pringle

The British Council for Offices (BCO) often engages in socio-economic and business life at its annual conference, but this time it was politics with a capital B - Brexit. And where better to talk about it than Amsterdam?

The city that built a global trading empire to rival the British and that now sits at the heart of Europe’s most developed set of networked conurbations, stretching from Denmark through Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, west Germany and north-east France. Any night-time satellite photograph from space shows how this whole region is burning bright and even connects over to the south-east
of England.

Clearly the good burghers of the BCO thought that the Brexit issue is pretty important for the health of the British office community and worth a prime time slot at its conference.

In the referendum debate, we’re used to hearing the Remain campaign’s lukewarm pitch which, scaremongering aside, consists of “we’ve opted out of most of the nasty things about the EU and we’re better in than out, even though we don’t really like it and they don’t speak English”.

But the BCO treated us to something else, a full-fat EU case put passionately, articulately and humorously by an ex-prime minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt - in perfect English. Yes, there is lots wrong with the EU, he told us. Yes, the borders don’t really work, we need a co-ordinated customs authority. Yes, the security systems aren’t effective, we need a joined-up security force. Yes, the Euro is a flawed currency concept without Eurozone-wide powers to control it - so let’s build them.

The UK has opted out of just about everything it can do already, he added, so there is actually not much for it to leave. If it wants to leave and have a trading relationship with the EU à la European states like Norway, Liechtenstein, Andorra, Monaco and San Marino (strange, these are mainly tax havens bar oil-rich Norway), it’s going to have to conform to all the EU regulations and contribute large sums of money anyway - so why bother? Instead, why doesn’t the UK get more involved? The EU needs reforming, lots of its members think so, and the EU needs the UK at the heart of it, driving reforms, strengthening it, not exiting and undermining it.

Miraculously, no rotten tomatoes were thrown at this strange foreigner with the temerity to put the full EU case. No walk outs, no boos, no heckling. Instead, Verhofstadt stole the show and was applauded to the echo. A straw poll of BCO delegates showed overwhelming support for remaining in the EU.

Paul Finch, every conference’s darling, was almost a lone voice opposing Verhofstadt. He launched a witty rebuttal accusing him of wishing to reconstruct the Roman or Charlemagne empire in lieu of the Belgian Congo but it was greeted with stony silence. Paul, you can’t win them all.

While the polls have veered around from 55/45 (remain/exit) in early January to 50/50 early last month and back to 56/44 later in May, the business community as represented by the BCO is resolutely in favour of Remain, fearing a five-year recession while things are sorted out and loss of access to a half a billion-person market for ourselves and our overseas investors.

My question is: why on earth did Cameron call this referendum? It won’t heal the Tory party, it will rip it apart.

Away from Brexit, the rest of the conference actually talked about offices, or rather how they are used. There is a move from talking about hardware to talking about software. That is, the BCO thinks that its members know how to design decent class A offices (hardware), having banged on about how to do it for 20 years - now it’s about how they are used (software). A compelling slide from Leesman research showed that user satisfaction slipped progressively from enclosed offices, to open plan, to hot desks (a nadir) but bounced back to a high when agile working strategies includes alternative workspaces - the choice agenda. Wellness was also a convincing newcomer to the mix. Accepting all of this, I think that the BCO must come full circle and address the design of new offices.

Rafts of tin-ceilinged, 2.75m-high, category-A space to old-school BCO standards with no common landlords amenities just won’t cut it in this new, cool, agile “sharing” world. We need much more inspiring, more characterful spaces and offices which are much more connected to their communities and the local urban realm.

OMA’s G Raw Star’s offices in Amsterdam with huge double-height spaces and removable external walls were a good example of this. Back to your knitting, BCO, the standards need updating.

Jack Pringle is principal, managing director EMEA at Perkins+Will