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Telex speak, Dolly Parton, toxic coffee: the workplace in five objects


To mark the 23rd anniversary of founding IRS, it was with a hint of playfulness and nostalgia that Brian McGee and I worked together on this second in our series of articles together.

From stewing coffee to telex machines (remember those?) via that 1980s song by the queen of country, a hard day at the office has an enduring place in the modern psyche.

Gone are the lines of filing cabinets and golf-ball typewriters, while the size of mostly open-plan offices is shrinking with the increase in hot-desking and working from home.

At IRS we have helped our clients get the most from their work space for more than two decades. Join us on a brief meander around the office… as we keep an eye to the future too.

1. Cup of ambition?

Not so long ago, filter coffee in an office was left to stew in its own unfortunate juices on what was called a hotplate. The lukewarm concoction would often languish there for hours at a stretch.

A far cry from the Instagrammable beverage of now, or paying for a cup of joe in exchange for a poem of your creation as part of the latest World Poetry Day.

Admittedly, not every office in the UK will serve Vietnamese weasel coffee (it’s a thing) or use beans that have, ahem, transited through an elephant in Thailand.

But you may well find a design-conscious machine by providers including Nespresso Office. (George Clooney is probably away on a work trip, so may not be able to help you decide between a bottle-green capsule – Capriccio – or its more intense, dark blue cousin called Kazaar.)

Talking of design, over a fifth of millennial workers have turned down a job because they found the office space uninspiring, according to a March 2018 article in the Independent, which cites a study by workspace provider Mindspace.

2. Tales of the telex

Telex machines, which trace their development back to the 1930s, used language equivalent to text speak now. Nothing new under the sun, and all that.

An article in the technology section of The Telegraph in 2003 – that was the future once – includes examples of how language was used on the bulky machines.

“Bibi” for goodbye, “Tks ntd” for thanks, noted, wrote Hugh Saville, who in the 1970s and 1980s worked for a Japanese trading company that used telex for all global communications.

Still, the telex hasn’t gone the way of the dodo quite yet. The secure lines, as well as the verification protocols between sender and receiver, mean that financial institutions and merchant ships still use the system.

A telex message is a legally recognised document. You can also now send a telex from an iPhone. Who knew?

3. Get your fax straight

Snigger if you like, but the facsimile machine was once at the cutting edge of workplace technology and took the place of many a telex machine.

Feeling nostalgic about the noise a fax used to make? A 13-second recording on YouTube has almost 120,000 hits…

Fax paper that was thermal (shiny on the printed side) used to fade so quickly with the passing of time that people had to photocopy important messages they needed to keep.

A cactus logo on the back of another type of fax paper means that the image lasts far longer, The National Archives explain. A factoid to amaze your friends on the pub-quiz team

Most fax machines probably languish in a broom cupboard these days, gathering dust along with the office Christmas tree and those boxes of company brochures.

Some people continue to have fax paper – cactus included? – on their stationery list.

Film producer Ridley Scott still faxes, according to an article on the U.S. cultural website vulture.com, partly because it’s confidential. (Someone can, after all, forward an email in a heartbeat.)

4. True to type

There’s a certain romance about the typewriter.

Museums devoted to the carriage return lever and ribbon indicator have graced Liverpool to Figueres near Barcelona, Bournemouth to Shanghai (that one set up by a Chinese-Czech businessman). Now there’s a niche world tour.

IBM launched its Selectric typewriter in 1961, becoming an instant hit, according to the tech giant. More than 13 million of the golf-ball typewriters were sold in the following 25 years. With no more type bars to jam and hamper progress, productivity for a typist went through the roof.

The typewriter gradually evolved, of course, to become a word processor with a screen that – to the eyes of now – seemed to start on Monday morning and finish by Wednesday.

Writing a masterpiece at a typewriter to avoid the distractions of Twitter, Facebook and all the rest?

It’s hard to say to what extent that’s an urban myth. The enduring appeal of the carriage return and the QWERTY keyboard, in English at least, is hard to deny.

Laptops, tablets and smartphones are the mainstay of countless 2018 workplaces.

But the pace of technological change is breakneck. Dictation software has made great strides recently, according to TechRadar. (About two-thirds of people in the UK are happy to use voice activation to control technology, Mintel says.)

Just as we marvel these days at the size of TV wheeler-dealer Del Boy “mobile” phone, perhaps the robots of the not-so-distant future will laugh, during a water-cooler moment, at those ungainly, antiquated bricks of laptops…

5. Beyond the spider plant

A to-do list that never quits, especially on the days when you’d love to? We’ve all been there. The stresses and strains of office life can jangle the most zen-like nervous system.

Don’t underestimate the calming effect of a spider plant near the photocopier, or the money tree in reception, on that tortured soul in accounts. Especially as month-end approaches.

The psychological and physical benefits of indoor plants in the workplace? These range from improved mood to lower stress, via improved air quality and less fatigue, according to studies cited by the Royal Horticultural Society.

Dolly Parton’s on-screen manager – who could charitably be said to lack empathy, or else struggle to see beyond boss-island – may have been able to reduce stress levels in the Xerox Room just a little with a well-placed yucca.

A well-placed yucca... That may have fuelled fantasies, too, among the long-suffering employees of the cigar-smoking tyrant.

Brian McGee and Bob Dickinson

(Images by milivanily, Free-Photos, GDJ, rawpixel and StockSnap on Pixabay.)

To find out more

If you would like to find out more about how we can help develop your dream office space, give us a ring on 020 8405 0555 or send us a message.