The British Council for Offices has enjoyed such success it might be forgiven for resting on its laurels. But at a time when most of Britain's wealth is created inside offices, the chance of reaching out to a wider business world is one it must pursue with vigour
In late November 1989, 23 people came together to debate the, then very tentative, suggestion that a new body should be created to focus on the office. The following May the British Council for Offices was born, with 70 founding members, and the late Sir Nigel Mobbs, who chaired that meeting in 1989, as the BCO's first president.
What a distance the BCO has travelled since then. We are now rapidly approaching 1200 members, have a market-leading annual conference, an awards competition widely recognised as defining office excellence and an ever-expanding research programme, valued at home and abroad. As Paul Morrell, our immediate past president, remarked towards the end of his year in office, the BCO has settled into the rhythm that characterises lasting institutions: a series of regular events that embed themselves as tradition; a number of purposeful projects which keep the art and science of office development moving forward; and the steady momentum of a deep underlying purpose.
But no successful organisation can rest on its laurels, and the BCO is not inclined to do so. Yes, we feel we have been very successful in recent years, but what of the future? Where could the organisation go next?
Under the chairmanship of Simon Ward, our president, a group embracing a broad cross-section of our members is about to look at just this.
Many issues will be up for consideration, including the possible expansion of the BCO's work to a European, or even a global, platform, the development of the annual conference (in 2007 we travel, for the first time, outside Europe to New York) and the enhancement of the research programme.
A bad business in a bad building is unlikely to change. But put a good business in a better building and it will be a much, much better business
Simon's group will conclude its discussions in the summer. However, one change I feel sure the BCO will wish to pursue with added vigour is the desire to make our thinking relevant not just to the property and construction communities, but to the wider business world. This really does matter. Like it or not, UK plc now generates most of its wealth, and therefore earns its living, through people who work in offices, not factories. Outside the realm of high-value engineering (and even this is coming under ever greater pressure), we can simply no longer compete against the massively cheaper manufacturing costs on offer in other parts of the world.
We can, however, prosper by using our heads, and those who do so need to work in environments that will maximise their potential. Crucial for the BCO is to demonstrate to businesses that they need to think about the office environments in which their people work because those environments really do have an impact on the way their people perform. In financial terms it is also, to use the current phase, a no-brainer. The biggest cost faced by almost any business is its people (generally about 85%), with the remainder being the cost of property. How that 15% is spent can have nothing less than a massive impact on that much bigger cost, the 85%, in terms of employee recruitment, retention and, crucially, performance. A bad business in a bad building is unlikely to change. But put a good business in a better building and it will almost certainly be a much, much better business. Chief executives and financial directors listen up: a better building can make you more money.
Although the BCO has changed in so many ways over the years, it has remained true to the principles set out by those 23 people way back in November 1989. We are a genuinely broad church embracing all of those with an interest in the office, be they owners and investors, developers, contractors, occupiers or advisers, private sector or public. We have no hierarchy - all of our members have exactly equal status within the organisation - and we have a positive impact on performance: where would we be without the BCO specification?
The next few years look to be just as exciting.
+The British Council of Offices comes into existence
Richard Saxon, adviser to construction clients
“Hammerson hosted the inaugural meeting – just two months after we’d decided to create the BCO – and 100 people were invited. We all trooped round to 100 Park Lane just as it was starting to get really breezy – it turned out to be the day of the 1990 hurricane. This meant nothing like 100 people actually turned up – there were only about 25 of us there. At this meeting we set the BCO up and declared ourselves as founder members. I think the fact that it happened in a hurricane was really appropriate.”
+The first of the BCO’s annual conferences is held in Bristol
+The regional chapters are created, focusing on the Midlands, Scottish, Northern and South-west and Wales regions
+New Labour comes to power
Ken Dytor, founder of Urban Catalyst
“I realised the BCO was starting to make an impact when New Labour got into power. I went to see them as president and got in at cabinet member level to see ministers, including Gordon Brown: there was a real willingness for senior ministers to engage with the BCO. The story we had to tell about raising the standard of the design of offices was one the government wanted to hear. I think that has stood property in good stead and is part of the reason why there is more of a dialogue these days between politicians and the various property organisations.”
+Richard Kauntze is appointed the BCO’s chief executive
“I arrived at the BCO at a point when the organisation was hungry for change. Part of my role was to hold a mirror up to the BCO to show its members what it looked like from the outside, and what it might become. The membership fully embraced the need for change, which manifested itself the following year with the relocation of the administrative office from Reading, where the College of Estate Management had provided sterling support from the earliest years, to central London, the recruitment of an new secretariat and a clearly defined purpose – to research, develop and communicate best practice in all aspects of the office sector.”
+The BCO central office relocates from Reading to London and a new secretariat is recruited
+The BCO’s new brand is launched and email becomes the primary communication with members
+The BCO’s first conference in mainland Europe is held in Berlin
+The first awards dinner is held at the Royal Lancaster
+Links are created with CABE and English Heritage
+The research agenda is reviewed to create three main areas of focus
+Membership tops the 1000 mark for the first time in the BCO’s history
+Paris is the first sell-out conference
+Sir Nigel Mobbs, first president of the BCO, dies
David Turner, non-executive chairman, WSP Group
“Nigel was a remarkable man. Although he wasn't the sole creator, as the first president he had a lot of foresight and became quite a figurehead for the council. He was a man of real stature – professionally and literally. He had the enviable qualities of being very likeable and always interested in everything.”
+The 15th annual conference is held in Dublin
Richard Kauntze is chief executive of the British Council for Offices
Skyline May 2006
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So where next?