I’m Neil Usher. I’m a property, workplace and change professional with 25 years’ global experience in the unlikely mix of media. I believe everyone deserves a fantastic workplace, and that through simplifying and demystifying our profession, this is achievable. I developed the idea of the #elementalworkplace to show how it can be done.
Without it we’re homeless, rootless, pointless lost, in tatters
Not a distant downstream consideration,
a post ox-bow deviation
It’s the seat, the table, the resource, the capital,
the revelation, your humble secret hiding in the light of over-complication
No need for hesitation, HR, workplace is your salivation;
We’re talking SPACE
The expensive, expansive blank canvass
of the labouring human race
No-one there till we set the lease rates and agree start
and termination dates and open the sluice gates
All potential, opportunity and creativity to embrace,
Gravity awaiting its grace;
And we make it into PLACE
With the addition of the chaos and wonder of humanity
All stubborn, wilful self-determination and unpredictability
with half a mind on getting their shit done and the other half on fertility
Serendipitous encounters with labour’s futility
Looking for something – anything! –
to make sense of the multiple interpretations of ‘agility’….
Beyond the FUBAR of the million
and first leadership engagement seminar
And a certain HRD’s joy-filled Monday sermon from his rural escritoire
The physical Workplace:
15 reasons why its contribution to the organisation is no illusion and its
the only business partner without delusion;
Number one, it’s your mission
The purpose that gives your performance meaning, your vision
The very reason you exist, your ultimate self-awarded permission
to be different, to exert your position
Your living transition from dust to tradition
When wavering, when vulnerable, when in doubt –
your ultimate definition;
Number two, it’s the expression of you, your DNA
Everything you want to be, wish you could be. try to be,
pretend to be, may never be, everything that you do and say
It’s the writing through the middle of you,
the rings they count when they cut you away,
It lives, thrives, breathes, grows,
the point from which everything arrays
and the place to which everyone returns, one day;
You can just make out amid the landscaped choice of settings,
tumbling greenery and assorted natural mimicry
the silhouette of the unicorn of productivity
leaders unburdened of their obsession with the tacky symbols of hierarchy
needed to mark out their territory
the physical expression of an egalitarian meritocracy
and no longer the fear
that the time taken to go for a pee will be docked from your salary;
A place for team formation, maturation, energisation and contemplation,
all of this without even mentioning the tedium of collaboration
Where you can be of one or many and manage your own participation,
from isolation to total integration
Liberation at last
from the numbing desolation of your workstation;
It helps your hard pressed and over worked
and pathologically stressed people thrive
With luck they may even survive the always-on knackathon
of core hours in the hive of nine to five
with mandatory discretionary effort of another five
emerging centred, calm, and a lot more than statutorily alive;
The workplace resolves conflicts
A place intentionally designed to put you in a better frame of mind
And less likely to knife Jim in Sales from behind
even if a more conniving self-serving bugger
you’ll struggle to find
Leave him to it as you’re somewhere that being excellent
is natural, possible, probable, enshrined;
Number seven, it brings liberty
Enabling people to think expansively,
and find their inner will to creativity
Removing the compulsion to be a third-rate Banksy
and cover the toilet cubicle wall with anti-managerial graffiti
Exploring landscapes that bring a calm sense of levity,
A compulsive serenity;
Number eight, its attracts the people you rate
They’re yours the moment they’re through the sweep
of the main gate of your manicured estate
Everything they weren’t ever sure they wanted
from a workplace on a free lunch small-ish plate
If you trust them and treat them well
they might even stay long enough to germinate;
Number nine woven into the very fabric of its design
is living, breathing diversity,
everyone without exception having a fantastic workplace
no-one feeling like a special case
values lived not laminated, a universality
uncontaminated with unconscious bias, none exposed to adversity
fairness in a hard-wired circuity;
Number ten, its river-stepping, Heraclitus-quoting zen
Bringing possibility to every change programme
ever conceived and immediately disbelieved
No longer aggrieved that stuff tomorrow
won’t be the same as it was today,
no longer unsure of what should be believed
A comfort with everything being flux, finally,
through our ever-evolving surroundings, achieved;
Its activates and sustains social cohesion
Its amenities and pause-points create a natural adhesion
We seek each other out with an inclination
that needs no reason and build, grow, experiment,
a collective accretion of camaraderie
In a beta trial that will happily never see completion;
Number twelve, it is protection
It safeguards your data, your confidentiality,
your stated and not-so-stated intention
It’s the vehicle for value retention,
its boundaries drawing attention to the consequences
of complacent indiscretion
Its GDPR in a safe deposit box we will never mention,
it’s Mutually Assured Retention;
It brings wellness and its shady alter ego wellbeing
The collective comfort blanket that snuffles
the muffled hate-my-job screaming
while simultaneously stifling our breathing
Health, fitness, R&R, entertainment and thought-controlled dreaming
Useful only when we first create work with meaning;
Number fourteen, it’s a cultural tureen
The unsettling chip in the voracious human-consuming
corporate machine where flesh and soul are daily cuisine,
The hope that we might find a way
to work together less obscene
than the hierarchy that does nothing but demean
the great leveller in which we are all colleagues,
all vital, the egalitarianising vaccine;
Number fifteen, it’s the place that everyone thinks they’ve been
It’s amazing to be in and just as amazing to be out,
it lives in the ether of the imagination, the spaces in between
It connects us to the world that would otherwise remain unseen
The digital, social incarnation of the organisation’s volition
The employer of choice value proposition, the ghost in the machine;
The workplace – for HR, fundamental
The expression in physical form of every aspiration,
every reality, the enabler of every cultural machination you chase
You live within it yet daily walk right on through its potential
While chasing the intangible, the conceptual, the transcendental –
The workplace, it’s simple, universal, attainable, essential – Elemental
Somewhere between (roughly) 1990 and 2015 a gap opened for many employees in what has now become apparent was a Taylorist continuum – where the days of clocking in and out and recording time worked waned, and before the unnerving genre of AI-fired “People Analytics” emerged. Those of us who worked through this period were not aware of it at the time, and are probably not aware of it today. We might call it the Taylor Gap – where we actually enjoyed a period of relative freedom, and to the extent that it was afforded and however begrudgingly, trust.
People Analytics (PA) is all about collecting and processing data, and drawing conclusions and creating predictive scenarios from data – about you. In the office, and away from the office. The wristband that tells you whether you’ve had enough sleep can also tell someone else about your slumber, should they be interested. There will always be someone interested, however irrelevant to anything you believe the data to be. It would be like having a group of Taylor’s observers going out in the evening, coming home with you, sleeping with you. Purely to watch, record and predict, in the name of data. It is the ultimate expression of “panoptic management”. In Taylor’s day we could see the guard, the one with the stopwatch and clipboard. Now we can’t.
Interestingly too, there will always be a justifiable reason for collecting the data, a greater good. Dave Eggers’ The Circle sledgehammered this out, with the transparency that averted political misbehaviour, apprehended fugitives from justice, prevented child abduction justifying all the surrender of freedom and privacy, allowing channels to be open to all. Why would anyone object? The mass support for this openness rendered those who dared social outcasts, renegades from beneficial progress.
It’s a little like that with PA too. There is sense that because we can gather and process this data, we should. Productivity will increase, wastage will be reduced, inefficiency and slacking will be rooted out. Does this sound familiar – reminiscent of a landmark text from 1911?
PA is pure neo-Taylorism, the potential of which would have had the Winslow boy foaming at the mouth. It lights a path through cameras, sensors and trackers to everything Taylor advocated, the One Best Way, maximised productivity, everyone doing as much as they possibly can, constantly. If the ethics of time and motion studies and the identification of “soldiering” (as it was then called) were not questioned in 1911 and thereafter, they aren’t questioned over a century later.
The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica case has heightened our sensitivity to the data collected on us – that to a huge extent we have been, and are, willingly giving away. Yet the response remains muted. Claims by PA organisations to anonymity, consent (opt-in) and transparency hold the potential for the complete opposite – specific attribution, secrecy and opacity. It all depends in whose hands the control resides, as the systems and data themselves are amoral. Almost all data that is aggregated is collected from individual, point sources. It is rarely collected in aggregate form. On this basis reversing back into the original collection point is entirely possible.
PA also has a fundamental limitation to its algorithmic processing – it is unable to answer the question “why?”. Motives, reasons, drivers – all are external to the outcomes being measured. While suppositions can be made, the reality will remain masked, carefully and unconsciously guarded by the subject human being. A recent article described a system to identify “dark traits” in people to weed out “bad apples” as 75% accurate. That’s 25% inaccurate. It is being used, for real.
It is often quoted that the way to combat misuse in all its forms is to have a “human in the loop”. That is, a human other than those being monitored. And, also, that the human is balanced, decent, respectful and reasonable. Such humans seem to be in ever shorter supply. The most powerful man in the world fails almost every test of such, and is tolerated (often encouraged) in doing so, setting the worst possible example. We have to question whether we are actually ready for this technology. The temptations may just be too great.
While the development of PA accelerates, start-ups proliferate, leaders salivate at the potential and (some) HR teams see another path open to the elusive Table, it exists in a shared zone with another dialectic – the recognition of, and desire to create, the human workplace. Yet the core elements of the human workplace – trust, respect, freedom, choice – are at odds with PA. Each is entirely undone when the employer knows what we do, where and how, inside the workplace and out. We can’t have it both ways.
Yet for a short while, some did. Between the apparent passing of the idea that had prevailed for almost a hundred years and its re-emergence in ubiquitous technological form, we were free. It wasn’t as efficient or productive as it could have been, bad apples got in, processes could have been better, stuff always needed improving. That is because we were human beings, vulnerable, irrational, biased, unpredictable, wilful, creative and intuitive. The human workplace isn’t one tracked, monitored and governed by People Analytics. Such a workplace is a different thing entirely.
There is much chatter at present, accompanied by the sage and serious nodding of heads usually equated with not having processed the idea at all, that employees are customers of their organisations. It was argued this week in a piece that appeared on FMWorld about a talk at ThinkFM, that suggested that organisations are ‘waking up’ to this. What is most surprising is not the lack of critical evaluation of this proposition, as is now routine and expected in the frantic world of workplace, but that it is actually seen as a good thing.
The argument is flimsy at best, in that as customers we can make demands, and expect to be treated with respect, dare I say it even that we are always right – which of course we are not. Sometime, sure; always not. It also by extension assumes that if organisations are waking up their employees being customers that they are also becoming conscious of their role as vendors. The relationships is therefore reduced to the transactional, held together by regulation and the fleeting fickleness of brand loyalty. It assumes in addition that people within managerial and leadership roles (however junior) are both vendor and customer in the same relationship. It all starts to get a bit silly. What is really going on here is a hunch that the employee is being held in a higher regard in what has traditionally been a one-sided arrangement, a search for meaning using the only metaphor that came to hand.
Of course, a transaction involved at the outset for traditional models of employment – a contract, agreed by both parties. And, naturally, prior to this both parties have a degree of choice – the employer searches for and elects to hire the right person to fill the role, the employee searches for a role that is suitable on terms they can accept. The employee works, the employer pays.
Thereafter the relationship changes, as both parties share time, space, confidences, purpose, trust (hopefully), success, failure (once or twice) and all the emotions associated with being strangers brought together through, essentially (despite varying degrees of planning and consideration) what amounts to chance. For this relationship to be successful it relies on far more than the transactional – you know, invitation to treat, offer, acceptance, consideration. In making real progress in a workplace constructed around the human being, rather than assets and account numbers, the idea of being simply a ‘customer’ becomes ever distant. The preferred basis of this relationship? Being excellent to each other. Bill and Ted, again (no coincidence another episode is being prepared), because it works. It is not master and servant, server and served, demand and supply, take-my-business-somewhere-else. It is not a transaction, a trade. It is about being colleagues, in it together. It is deeper, broader, more complex.
The idea of the customer relationship also fails when we consider corporate functions providing service to other members of the same organisation, whether it be HR, FM, Property, Legal, Finance, Communications, all of them. Employees of the organisation (or the most regrettable term of all in this respect, ‘end users’) are not your customers. They don’t have a choice, they don’t consciously buy what you offer, they don’t offer you a consideration. They’re not interested in your brand, or your desire to be heard. They’re interested in you, as people, and your shared commitment to the organisation’s purpose. They’re interested in you helping them, driven by a common purpose. They recognise that you’re in it together. Their expectations are high, but they will readily show thanks for your efforts as they know you’re with them. And you’ll recognise what they are doing for the organisation too, and so actually want to help, to get involved.
If organisations believe they are ‘waking up’ to their employees being customers, they’re still in the nightmare. People, working together, respecting, trusting and supporting one another, readily and without expectation of return. Within an organisation the gift economy should operate, and you shouldn’t have to look for it. Don’t transactionalise our relationship. I’m not your customer, don’t call me that or treat me in that way, I’m your colleague. It’s so much better for both of us.
I have heard it said recently by one or two designers, as is presently as vogue as jeans with ripped knees, that they prefer working with HR leaders than property types. I am sure that the sentiment is in part due to a noble belief on the part of designers in the existence within HR of an innate people-oriented mindset…. I am also sure that a part stems from the possibility of a smoother passage through what is always emotive and anecdotal, given HR’s early wanderings through the gentle, shaded foothills of the discipline. That is in no way critical – I wouldn’t want to suddenly be responsible for designing a corporate learning programme, for example.
From a grizzled and scarred property leader are offered a few requests of designers, to help you get off to the best possible start with your new buddies – and for the new buddies to look out for. Actually, designers, please do these things for all of us too:
Make it easy for people. Define and categorise each work setting, and then add up the quantity of seats at each. Show them in a table. Make it clear – because from these numbers are extracted capacity at varying levels of agility. I have never seen anyone do it yet unless I have specifically asked. One day, I know, someone is going to surprise me.
Make sure every work setting isn’t negated by the one you put next to it. Yep, an open meeting table next to a bank of desks means annoyance potentially up to the level of paralysis for those at each. It might fill a space, but that’s not the aim here.
Keep focus spaces off circulation routes. If I am focussing I don’t want my colleagues peering over the top of my teal-felt-clad ‘I’m focussing in here, people’ pod [*another discussion entirely] and saying “look, I know you’re concentrating, but I need to speak to you for five minutes”.
Ensure form always follows function. Those pads and supports and features designed for comfort may not look as cool and slick as that just-found-in-the-garden-shed wooden chair with a curved stick for back support but they’re there for a reason, which is, comfort. And we all want to hang stuff on the back of a chair too – coats, bags, jackets. You can’t deny us.
Sometimes people want to hear other people. But most of the time they don’t. Not hearing is the default. Which means that the back height of most informal spaces need to be enough to give people the chance not to hear Jerome from Marketing telling Sadie from Finance all about his mate’s stag weekend in Riga. It’s like the ergonomics thing. Low backs look cooler, but their capacity to create annoying situations is huge. If I can see the back of a seated tall person’s head over the booth, it’s too low.
Desks are good. Desks work. They’ve worked for over 2,000 years because their simplicity makes them work. Reducing desk numbers in favour of tables with no screens, peripherals, power or cabled data isn’t a bold and creative statement of modernity, it’s a pain in the backside for those managing the space. They’re for dropping in at, or short-term work. They are not a ‘primary’ setting – as in, a seat at a table isn’t a desk for the purposes of counting. You won’t change that.
Think about finishes. There is never an excuse for exposed brickwork in an office building. Ever. Don’t just troll out what you find everywhere else, or what seems to be vogue. That’s because if its vogue by virtue of it being seen in actual places already, by the time you’ve specified it and its built its already going to start to look naff. If you’re following fashion, you’re too late. You now pay £3 for a flat white in edgy Shoreditch.
Don’t draw meeting tables with all the chairs out – or the tables will be too small. The tables are usually too small anyway. When in a meeting, people need space for their stuff, and to be able to write or doodle without sharing it with the group. We want to make sure we drink our own coffee, not someone else’s.
And while on the subject – don’t make tables and meeting tables daft shapes. They are also not statements of unbounded creativity, but are an irritating indulgence. On occasion there may be a specific reason – like a pointy bit of architecture needing a pointy table so it fits. But otherwise – keep them simple. Make them work. And as for cafes, square tables can be joined together, round ones can’t. So, go square, every time.
“Oh great! Felt!” said no-one, ever. Not even at the Felt Information Council.
Ease up on the Pinterest references, it’s all gone horribly too far. In fact, once you’ve established a preferred general look, log out, don’t go back. Forget your password, ask a friend to change it to something random. Pinterest is not an inspirational design tool, it’s a sales brochure. I’m convinced that all Pinterest images will one day morph the same one, if they haven’t already.
There are probably more. It is quite possible that making stuff work and keeping things simple is seen as dull, but give me an #elementalworkplace that works, every time. Beauty can be woven into functionality. That is design’s challenge. Just don’t try it the other way around, it won’t work.
The “HR is taking over/needs to take over [*delete as you like] Workplace” bandwagon is rolling at pace across open strategy and design country, yet has not veered off towards Personnelville, missing the hidden turning. HR meanwhile haven’t hailed the bandwagon on an intuitive-UX app due to being a bit busy doing what HR people actually do, which is neatly summarised here by the people who know what HR actually do, their professional body. This is borne out by events such as the CIPD NAP – with a range of excellent speakers, and regarded as one of the best HR events on the calendar – this year called “The Human Workplace” (I hope Andy Swann is getting a royalty) but with no-one on the roster talking about the actual workplace – space + people. In fact, there aren’t any Workplace presentations at HR events anywhere on the calendar other than a couple I’ve managed to cloak into. It seems to be a bandwagon designed, built and operated by the Workplace sector.
Workspace is by definition uninhabited – offering the potential for something to happen with in. A place of work – a workplace – is inhabited. It has people in it.
From this, the inference to date has been that property and workplace professionals need the deep understanding of people from the people who are responsible for people for people to function more effectively – or “perform” as is the vogue term, overwhelmed as we are in the modern era by sporting analogies – to be successful; that a workplace would otherwise not be “for people”. The assumption from mainly property and workplace people is that property and workplace people don’t “get” people and need help. Quite how this self-doubt emerged is puzzling.
That HR need to inherit responsibility for workplace is fundamentally not the same as taking a people-centric approach to space. They are two entirely different considerations. It really doesn’t matter which function is doing or leading this, as long as it’s done – with a collaborative approach always taking precedence over an isolated initiative.
While a sense of inevitability is whipped amid the dust of the wagon’s wheels, it is worth considering the route the other way around. The emerging discipline of Workplace, valid and viable in its own right can help HR in a number of ways. Simply because HR is already an established function and Workplace is not does not rule out the possibility that HR might become subsumed in a broader function led by Workplace, or simply called Workplace, that reflects a landscape in which traditional functions dissolve into those that are emergent: we cut out new shapes all the time. The sign on the front of the bandwagon may actually be indicating where it’s come from, not where its heading. Start-ups do this – so why not in the world of professional delineation. The professions are not immune from a shake-up driven by an upstart to which initially no-one attached much of a hope.
Here are some of the contributions in which Workplace is actually helping HR do what HR needs to do in ways that a thousand workshops, presentations and coaching sessions cannot.
Change is experiential – what better way to create a sense of possibility than to actually build it, and immerse people within it. Creating physical realities can have a hugely positive impact on behaviour. This doesn’t have to mean a full-scale transformation – prototypes and spot treatments can sometimes be enough. I recently witnessed the incredible impact of a pilot space on shifting a solidified pessimism.
Where space can be readily reconfigured it also allows a tangible invitation to experiment and re-orient, allowing people to interact in different ways. It invites people to think in different ways and manage their own inhibitions, creating a more innovative mindset.
It can make people want to work for the organisation, and stay when they’ve arrived. Let’s stop talking about “attracting and retaining talent” shall we? A fantastic workplace can create an instant and unconscious bond of trust, an assurance that people are valued and that their ability to best at their best every day is vital.
It can help the generation and sharing of knowledge. For many organisations the need to hang onto people (talented or not) is usually driven by the amount of information held between their ears – never documented, stored or shared. They know stuff no-one else does, even if they get a box 5 marking on the performance management dartboard every year. Even modern, tech enabled businesses allow this to happen. Through a combination of space that allows for the right form of interaction and enterprise social networks that enable knowledge sharing and expertise-linkage beyond geography, this can be avoided.
It can invite people to resolve differences and blockages themselves, willingly. Through the creation of neutral and non-judgmental spaces such as a café or lounge area it can avoid the need for intervention within the grim austerity of a meeting room with the blinds down, box of tissues on the table, waiting. No need for arbitration or neutral party intervention. People just sorting stuff out for themselves because the environment makes it possible, and encourages it.
It can create a sense of being valued, the foundation of engagement. The clear provision of work settings, amenities and technology that enables people to be at their best every day, that works all of the time, tells people their presence and ability to work is valued. They feel positive about the organisation, and respond accordingly. They become advocates internally and externally.
It can create and cement a sense of trust. If the physical allows the exercise of choice of when, where and how to work, it opens the way for the permission to exercise it. Handled in the right manner, with open dialogue in conditions of psychological safety, it can break the hold of panoptic management. Trust becomes innate, unspoken.
Day-to-day connections can be created through the careful planning of amenities and points of intersection. Silos are broken down far more readily in these situations than through adjacency planning.
A fantastic workplace can energise its occupants. It can enhance presence – physical, intellectual and spiritual. In being the place people want to come to work when faced with viable alternatives, some without the sapping commute, by making life simple and easy, and by enabling social interaction, it can elevate people from the mundane. The idea of people leaving work feeling better than when they arrived might be a little fanciful, but it’s a lovely thought.
Finally, it can enable future flexibility, as the organisation grows and changes with time, adapting to new markets, innovations and technologies. As HR are asked to support this activity with sourcing the right people, they can do so with the certainty that the infrastructure will allow it.
These contributions considered, trying to be even remotely effective in HR when the organisation resides in a crap workplace must be nigh-on impossible.
To a huge degree HR may have been cognisant of, and reliant upon, this often-unacknowledged contribution anyway. But the discipline of Workplace is out of the shadows and isn’t going back. It’s not a case of finding a home for it, rather for how many – and who – it will come to be seen as home.
Painting ‘Secondhand Daylight’ by Doug Shaw, created live at Workplace Trends, 8 March 2018
In a wood panelled hall on the fringe of Regents Park that will have echoed to the raptures of collegial congratulation and seated at distressed leather dining chairs that have likely supported many a doctorally-distinguished backside and nonchalantly shrugged off the spills of unaffordable claret was the Research Spring Summit of the bi-annual Workplace Trends. I’m a friend. I’ve been to every one of them, or so I tell myself on reflection. I bear some responsibility this time around too, having reviewed some thirty-odd abstracts, and wondered quietly to myself what many people think was meant by the word “research”. Call me old fashioned but I tend to assume it’s usually hypothesis – enquiry – data (perhaps) – proof (or not) of hypothesis – conclusion – (possibly) ideas for further study. We may issue a template next time.
Still, enough got through the net to justify a day away from the health, wellbeing and performance-enhancing office. Interestingly most people who did get through the net have got through before. I may also have a second interest her too – validating what I hear against what I put in The Elemental Workplace, a test of whether we’re all saying the same things. I can’t help it, I’m stuck with this now – listening out for stuff that’s in my book.
What we did hear all morning were considered, well-reasoned and articulated talks – massive credit to the speakers for a super job. If you’ve ever wondered – it’s not easy up there.
Is it just me or are buzzwords sounding really young these days? Wouter Oosting of CBRE Workplace managed to gift us “corporate athlete” in the first five minutes. He has read 120 studies to arrive at his proposition so clearly has a really long commute. We are at an interesting paradox where we are at one end of the spectrum seriously and rightly focussed on the increase in, and devastating effects, of stress, and at the other intent on wringing the last ounce of performance out of people in the workplace. Wouter concluded that sugar is bad – while what is good are plants, daylight, relaxation and activity.
A warning though. We are not “corporate athletes”. It’s a dangerous expression. As Dean Judge tweeted during proceedings – talks about maginal gains often miss the fact that we haven’t had years of elite sports coaching. We won’t be coming to work in metaphorical tiny shorts and spikes. We are just people trying to create a decent life for ourselves. We will have the good stuff, we’ll try and control the bad stuff (promise). The good stuff will help us feel and work better, which will benefit the organisation, and respects the dignity of humanity which organisations should be doing anyway. The rest is a bonus. The key question is, that the study has not answered, is whether an undue focus on performance with the lexicon of performance and monitoring technology, even with the good stuff added, will increase workplace stress. Perhaps if we use the lexicon of dignity and respect, and add the good stuff because it’s the right thing to do, we may find a longer-term and less harmful outcome. The use of “performance” is one of those terms we have adopted and repeat endlessly without questioning the impact. We may need to have a think.
Charlotte Hermans of AECOM reiterated the focus on performance with a complicated model that most couldn’t read unless they have the eyesight of a fly until they download the slides later. It sounded intense and detailed – and concluded the same as Wouter, which is that what is good for us are plants, daylight, relaxation and activity and they rightly threw in job control and autonomy, and a supportive culture. We’re very much in Elemental Workplace territory. Intellectual wellbeing didn’t feature with Wouter, as it did with Charlotte – but while we heard an emphasis on the contribution that managers can make, we didn’t get a mention of psychological safety, which is a shame as its probably the key contributor.
A decent study however, deriving some Elemental conclusions – focus on the core elements in creating the physical space, and make sure there is an equal focus on Bill & Ted’s 1989 wisdom – which still never gets quoted anywhere nearly enough because its scarily simple – be excellent to each other. It’s about both culture and physical space. No mention here of technology – it’s about that too. It has always been about all three.
Nicola Gillen, co-presenter here raised the importance of change management (an oxymoron) and protocols, the latter of which drive the fundamentally flawed adoption-oriented approach to workplace change. Nicola’s predictions – organisations will need to think about the “whole” person (we’ll take that one, completely), the vogueish claim that RE will become part of an HR-led “employee experience” function (but only one declared HR-related person in the room – so no evidence today), line management will become a profession (interesting as some organisations are trying the extricate themselves from this approach altogether through self-organising approaches such as holacracy) and FM will become a data science discipline (not quite where BIFM sees itself going, which is more the lynchpin of the “employee experience” function).
Interesting that the questions after the talk were back to hot desking and noise in the office. High-intellect studies often come down in the dedicated lift to the ground floor of what it means for me.
Clara Weber, a psychologist at the University of Applied Sciences Zurich presented her team’s research on the effects of privacy impairment (deprivation?) on stress through physical and emotional fatigue. Yep, I know what that feels like. They created the Privacy at Work framework (PAW). Realistically – if we want privacy we should be able to find it – physical and digital. To be honest it all got a bit too technical but from the study came the conclusion that 15% of our stress comes from privacy impairment. Choice of setting with permission to exercise it and job autonomy can resolve this. But that doesn’t apply to everyone – our mission includes making sure it does. A great question was asked that the study didn’t cover, do dedicated offices guarantee privacy? That’s a good one for the journalists who all miss theirs.
Sally Augustin of Design with Science claims to live in the real world. Just to clarify, as far as we know and ignoring some philosophical abstractions, there isn’t another one. Sally says perception trumps reality. As an aside, it’s how Nietzsche proposed it – the real world is the apparent world. Sally claims the Allen Curve is still relevant (which is a relief as it’s in the book) – and other related research reinforces that closeness matters, 100ft2 of zonal overlap = 20% increase in collaboration – and Clara might say a 15% increase in stress. However, Clara might disagree if someone’s closeness impacts their privacy. So, closeness is a good thing and a bad thing, depending on whether we are talking about the upside of collaboration or the downside of privacy impairment. It’s also the case that we behave worse in an untidy space – which might be debated by the myriad of writers comparing a chaotic desk with hyper-creativity. It’s about balance. It always has been – and the rest of Sally’s talk through an anecdotal weave suggests this.
And then something completely different. Robert Bishop, of Cabinet Office/Arcadis, with no slides but a script, using an 18th Century text as the basis for the talk – The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne, a story characterised by the avoidance of explaining anything simply through diversionary tactics. Ideal for workplace, then. Robert, wearing a wig so as to be in character, compares change management to social coercion – back to the protocol/adoption approach again. We rarely hear that description of shoehorning people from one environment into another, but from here we might. He claims that the design of change is contingent upon culture, in which language is the essence. Interestingly, Marx was a Sterne fan and wrote a novel (not published) based on the book, Scorpion & Felix. Robert quoted “who has not picked up a book of guidance and not regretted it that very minute”. I hope no-one heard it, there are a lot of copies of The Elemental Workplace downstairs.
You could hear a pin drop. There were no tweets during the talk – what to say? I might try this approach with Confessions of an English Opium Eater next time.
It’s a wrap for this excellent morning – I’m chairing the afternoon so the write-up will be tomorrow.
I wrote The Elemental Workplace because I had to. There was no compelling reason, just a mesh (mess) of several. It’s probable that no-one who writes a book really knows, despite believing they must. If anyone is reading this thinking to themselves “hmmm, I’ve always thought I’d like to write a book” its doubtful you will. You have to know you have to do it, and everything else has to get out of the way. Even the day job. Especially the day job.
Writing is something you do on your own. That may seem obvious but you don’t know the feeling until you create it for yourself, so given are we to working with others. You’re alone even when you’re surrounded by others.
I was writing it for some things, and because I needed to rail against others. I often couldn’t distinguish them. Writing is friction, drag. The mind is way ahead, thoughts morphing like storm clouds, that the forming of words and the typing just can’t make out before they have altered again. In the rare instances the writing catches up, the thoughts are vapour.
I always get asked how long it took. It took eight months. The initial draft took six weeks and the rest was editing, checking, additional research, re-reading, reference checking, peer reviews, doubts and anxieties, more anxieties, sleepless nights and more edits.
Yet it’s here. I can say – there is nothing quite like holding the actual book in your hands. It’s an incredible feeling. Some of the reasons why it’s here follow.
To get what was in my head out there. Some people call this giving something back, which often sounds with a professional practitioner like dressing something self-promoting as charitable. I thought of it more as leaving something here. I’m saying there is stuff in my head and I think it’s important and so I’ll heap it up for you to rummage through, and if you think it’s useful you can have it and I will be delighted.
To counter the never-ending torrent of BS, babble, gobbledygook, whatever term works for you – that perhaps proliferates through a pathological fear that workplace might actually be simple and achievable after all, or perhaps because it is perceived that there is no value in ideas expressed in easy words. On the contrary, that’s where the value really lies. Most of us work in workplaces. They should be great. We should know why they need to be, when they are, when they’re not, and what to do to make them so. No-one having a chat with a colleague ever ponders the wonders of the “serendipitous encounter”.
To reverse the direction whereby we take thinking around workplace into ever-increasing complexity. In the search for the golden ticket, the silver bullet, the bronze thing, we only seem to move in one direction, ironically getting further away from what we are looking for with every step. Most of the time we’re actually sitting right on top of what we’re looking for. No wonder we get so frustrated. Well, no wonder I do, anyway. Others seem to just keep on happily burrowing while loudly telling everyone within earshot that they’re burrowing.
To explain that a fantastic workplace is possible for everyone, not just the lucky, wealthy “top 10” few. Top-tenism has been incredibly unhelpful. No-one on the hipsternet is going to feature a workplace improvement project on the outskirts of Bolton that solved some key issues – connectivity, choice, catering, toilets and inclusion – but doesn’t look all that and during which no-one used a beehive metaphor or pondered the wonders of the serendipitous encounter. Yet for the occupants it can make a massively positive difference. If the book improves the working lives of even a few people, it will have been worthwhile.
To draw together the disparate threads of practical advice that for most new to the subject (and quite a few who are not) can be daunting, as for the most part it is vacuous, lopsided and conflicting. Of course, there is some great insight and knowledge out there, and I have tried to reference as much of it as possible, but finding it amid the flotsam is a tough job. I’ve just tried to make it a bit easier. It’s still a snapshot in time, and in this sense the book itself is like the workplace, a perpetual beta. I’ve already found things I’d like to change, which is a bit late now. I’ll save that for later.
To add an occupier voice to the available material. Most – if not all – of the commentary out there has been created by consultants and academics who have never delivered a major workplace scheme. It’s understandable as its part of their offer, and is not a criticism – it’s just a thing. I have massive respect for many of them, as thinkers and super people, they’ve helped me along the way, with encouragement and ideas. Yet it’s extremely difficult, being an “occupier”. Even saying that seems a dreadful understatement. Its emotionally, physically and intellectually draining. It can frequently make you want to walk away from the industry altogether. It’s a deeper belief that pulls you back again. Occupiers need a voice, too. I hope a few others will speak up.
To create something accessible: I had a hunch that if a workplace book is affordable it might be. You get 25 years of workplace creation and management experience for the price of two pints of lager. That’s not to say that after (or during) a particularly stressful day the lager might be more useful – but once gone, its gone. The book will still be there.
To tell a story, in words. Quite old school. I think that workplace texts are undermined by the inclusion of photographs of what is deemed to be the fiction of “best practice” at the time, dating them within months of publication if not immediately. Every completed workplace is already a couple of years out of date, given the design and construction lag. Our tendency to move through the important stuff straight to what it looks like ensures that we repeat the same mistakes over and over, because we never explore the ‘why’. We love looking at the pictures, and think the outcome is the solution. So, I didn’t put any pictures in, and left room for a little imagination.
To see if I could turn a 500-word blog post into a 50,000-word book. Yep, it worked.
I’d like to sincerely thank my early reviewers for giving of their time to provide amazingly useful feedback that helped shape the book – in no particular order Dr Kerstin Sailer, Dr Nigel Oseland, Ian Ellison, Antony Slumbers, Paul Carder, Gill Parker, Mark Simpson, Mark Eltringham, Anthony Brown, Will Elgood, Nick Green, Simon Heath (also for the amazing illustrations), Dr Anne Marie Rattray, Perry Timms and Jeremy Myerson (who most kindly wrote the Foreword).
I wrote The Elemental Workplace because I had to. It’s time to shake it all up, for the better. It starts now.
Let’s imagine an interview for a role with a large organisation, the sort of interview that will probably never happen. In a relaxed setting in a room bathed in daylight of muted ochre, enveloped in chairs that feel part of you and with a plentiful supply of green tea in china cups, with no time limit, the discussion set for as long as it takes to determine the outcome, without a hint of got-somewhere-to-be anxiety in either voice. Consider pauses for thought taken when needed, clarifications sought and freely given, understanding agreed before proceeding, no ambiguity left for later regret. Picture relaxed attire, free expression without judgment.
“So, we would agree annual objectives with you, and conduct a formal appraisal with you at the end of each year that would determine your bonus and salary, and suitability for promotion.”
“OK – so how about we agree my purpose, my reason for being here, where you want me to take this. You’ve seen a gap, you’ve perceived a need. So much is going to change in the course of the year, and most of my work will be in teams and with others, some of them not even here yet and some unknown to you, ever morphing, forming and re-forming. You and I will both know if it’s working, and if it’s not we’ll talk when we need to about what we might do to re-set or what else is needed. Why don’t we agree the overall aim, steer it, correct it together as things change, and maintain an honest, open dialogue about how we are going, how we are working out for each other?”
“Well, yes, we can do that. Your grade – we think this will be a Director role.”
“Right – so how about we skip the grade and just call my role what I do, based on the purpose in my being here? I’m going to work with people across the business, some senior and some junior, some senior who don’t know what they’re doing and some junior whose wisdom and insight belies their years. I’ll be here because I have proven experience, I’ve been through the corporate mill for many years and get the politics and understand how to avoid getting drawn in. I don’t need to be invited to meetings with Directors because I’m a Director, but because I’m needed. My peers are who they need to be at any point in time, whatever I’m working on. I’ll just be ungraded, and people can take my input or leave it. That means you don’t put me in a hierarchy chart, in a layer, you just hover me off to the side – until we’re all hovering. Imagine that?”
“Well, yes, we can do that, I suppose – we haven’t done it before, but I’m happy we give it a try. Anyway, you will report to me as your line manager.”
“How about I don’t have a line manager? I’ll work for everyone I come into contact with in the business, so they’ll all be my line manager for that moment and sometimes I’ll be theirs or someone else’s. I can save you the bother of agreeing formal 1:1s every week, of filling in forms, of approving stuff you can trust me with like holidays. I can also save you the bother of everyone who deems they are above my grade cc-ing you on everything they send me to make sure they are acting their grade because everyone just does that, don’t they? Think of how much time we’ll recover for better things. Your Inbox won’t know what hasn’t hit it.”
“Yes, I see. So, people. I imagine you’ll need people and we have a process for recruitment and approval for new hires. I can’t promise you at this stage everyone you think you may need.”
“You’re considering bringing me in to do some work you need doing. How about I decide who I need and when in order to do it, and justify the costs at each step – and make the call as to whether we are talking full time people or contractors, based on what’s needed. Otherwise you’ll be expecting me to get stuff done that I don’t have the resources to get done, and then you’ll be back to thinking if only I have an annual set of objectives you could hold me responsible point by point and when I say it’s because I didn’t have the resources you’d mark me down for not being resourceful which we all know just means doing it myself. We’ll waste time, energy and emotion on trying to resolve something that wasn’t ever right in the first place. We don’t need to.”
“Yes, I see that. Anyway, the salary for this role….”
“Why not pay me a blend of market rates, a consideration for my experience and the value you think I’ll bring, and we can agree something that works. After all you won’t have to worry about scale because I’m not a Director. If there is a bonus I’d like it to be a team reward because we’ll be working as a team, if we can even pin down who the team is – and if it’s not easy we’ll suggest a share-out based on what seems fair. And that will be based on our contribution rather than arbitrary annual targets that aren’t relevant by the time we remind ourselves of what they were because it will seem like they were agreed in a different lifetime. You’ll know and we’ll know if we are worth a bonus. And we’ll know early because we’ll talk a lot.”
“So, you’ve basically re-written the companies processes and based it all on trust?”
“Yes. The question is, do you trust yourself to make the judgment that it’s the right thing to do, and trust me enough to take me on, to prove your trust was well placed?”
Do check out The Elemental Workplace – out now http://elementalworkplace.com
As Workplace emerges as a discipline in its own right, drawing threads from a number of existing disciplines, its leadership needs a set of identifying principles.
At least, that is what my friend and collaborator Ian Ellison of 3edges and I agreed late last year. So, we set about co-creating something we both agreed with (not always easy, in a constructive sense), with the help of Ian’s business partner James Pinder. It took a while. We then thought – what do we do now? We were both wondering whether there might be a bigger initiative we could float them on, or a publication that could feature them – but then, in the spirit of immediacy, decided just to publish. Ian did this one a day over the first few weeks of 2018 and they can be found in a poster form on the 3edges website. They’re here for good measure. Hopefully they’ll be here for a long time, as Workplace forms around them.
Workplace is a discipline. Fed by many other disciplines, yet with a unique personality, characteristics and capabilities of its own. It is new and emergent, still discovering itself. The quality of its knowledge, leadership and education will underpin its growing impact.
Workplace exists to enable work. Our rasion d’etre is to create places that enable organisations to thrive through their people, however and wherever they need to work. Workplace is the stage where organisational activity plays out, because everything happens somewhere. We never forget this.
Workplace leaders enable communities. They do not just manage facilities or functions. Organisations achieve their objectives through their people. All facets of workplace are in service of this. If not, their purpose is questionable at best, and inappropriate at worst.
Workplace and workspace are not the same. Workspace, the physical element of workplace, has a significant role to play. But space and place are not equal. An organisation’s culture, space, technology and purpose all intertwine to create its unique sense of place.
Workplace is physical and digital. We create places for our communities that are both tangible and virtual. We understand that the physical and digital affect each other, near and far, wherever people work. Our remit stretches beyond the boundaries of organisational premises.
Workplace is more process, less product. The workplaces we create are an ongoing journey, not a final product. They will always be work in progress. The changing needs of people working drive workplace provision, not the other way around. Our work is never finished, and this drives us on.
Workplace is not neutral. And neither are we. The workplaces we create impact organisational performance, either positively or negatively. We strive to ensure this is understood, so organisational decisions include workplace consideration.
Workplace is functional and symbolic. It helps or hinders the work people do, not just by tools and resources it provides, but by what it means to them and how it makes them feel. While less tangible, the symbolic often outweighs the functional. We seek to understand what people value, and why.
Workplace experiences are diverse. Perceptions and interpretations are as diverse as a workforce. As the nature of work changes, so does the nature of workplace. Assumptions, and ‘one size fits all’ approaches are outdated and potentially damaging.
Workplace is social, and therefore political. We all experience our workplace, and – given the chance – we all have opinions about it. Some voices get heard more than others because of power, status and influence. We seek all perspectives, especially the emotional ones, to understand what is really going on.
Workplace is simple and achievable. While there are complex forces at play that we must understand, we can create and sustain an effective and efficient workplace with simple ideas, in everyday language, without excuse or prevarication. We commit to create understanding.
There is no ‘right’ reporting line. All organisations are unique, and so is every workplace. The leadership approach of an organisation should determine which function is best suited to champion workplace for all its beneficiaries. It is more important that it is done well than who does it.
Workplace is inherently connected. Decisions made by those responsible for different workplace facets will always have an impact wider than their particular remit. Workplace is interwoven, creating dependencies between others and ourselves. We are never an island, but equals together – never above, never below.
We stretch beyond overtraded terms. We know what we stand for, and help others see beyond the polarised headlines, fads and pseudo-science. We challenge, critically evaluate, and in turn accept critique as essential to the development of the discipline.
We balance science, art and opportunity. To create workplaces that work we synthesise data, research and inspiration, and we unlock the imagination of what might be possible in others. We think critically and systemically. We are agents for change.
Workplace leadership is not design. Great workplaces and design aesthetics are not mutually exclusive, but pre-conceived solutions and fashion detract from fully appreciating organisational context and need. We never let the cart get before the horse.
We embrace curiosity, not hubris. We are ambassadors of an unfolding discipline in an interconnected world. There is much to learn, and much that can be improved. We can always share more. We can always know more. We are open to possibility.
Workplace leadership is active, not passive. It is a mind-set that underpins the organisational contributions we make, not the sole realm of ‘thought-leaders’ and conference pulpits. Whether introvert, extrovert or somewhere in-between, we find our voice and we use it proactively. We live workplace, through the communities we enable.
It’s a shame that trend spotters aren’t more like Giant Himalayan lilies, flowering once every seven years – it’s an irregular enough interval to forget, too. Seven years might actually be enough time for a trend, as opposed to the lurches they’re looking out for. But fear not the internet will soon be safe to return to.
So, below I’ve pitched five workplace-related things that I hope will happen, at least a little more of. Unlike with a trend, which washes over us rendering us helpless but to follow, we do actually have an opportunity to contribute. It may seem quite frightening, that this isn’t a game of spotting what might happen to us, but a challenge to actually help out, individually and collectively. You might even have decided to do so. If so, huzzah for you, please feel free to play Outdoor Miner as loud as you possibly can.
First, that we, as an entire industry, adopt a more critical mindset, a greater preparedness to challenge assumptions and oft-repeated statements with which we are regularly beaten into believing are truth. There are always a few in play at any one time. With this comes the equal responsibility we bear as the givers of ideas and hunches to accept critical thinking and comment as a well-intentioned wish to develop a deeper knowledge, and not a personal attack to be ignored or dismissed. We could start with the ridiculously one-sided view that all activity in service of wellness and wellbeing is automatically a good thing. For some that will sound like heresy – for others, an interesting challenge. Perhaps we can iron out the former. That’s the next post, by the way.
Secondly, that we might start to reject overpuffed self-important gobbledygook on sight. If you see it, simply refuse to accept it. This is not another point about ‘business BS’, its deeper than that. Saying things with flouncy corporate words that would never actually pass our lips does not make an idea or statement more important, or more impressive, it actually devalues it entirely. They are often written as though it is what we want to read, but really, we don’t. Phrases like “enhance user experience through engagement, empowerment and fulfilment” just means be excellent to each other. Everyone has a different view of what each of the three big words means. Trying to agree would occupy several hours of impassioned debate after closing time (in February). The statement therefore confuses rather than helps. It takes more courage to state things in simple, plain language. It says you can understand it, too. It is humble.
Thirdly, it would be fantastic if we could see a greater independence of design thinking, rather than the mimicry we are usually treated to. Yes, certain materials colours, surfaces and the like are in vogue at a particular time, but we get into a bind. Do we want them because we like them, or do we like them because they are what we are given? I maintain that tools like Pinterest have actually had a deadening effect on the design industry through their saturation. And no, exposed interior brickwork is never the right answer. Ever.
Fourth, it would be massively helpful if the property and workplace industry developed a better understanding of what other business functions actually do, and so where workplace fits into the landscape as it actually is, rather than make up its own version of what they do. The current claim that HR should run property and workplace is based on not having done any research into what HR does. There is a belief that IF HR = people AND workplaces are for people THEN HR should run workplace. All functions form part of the corporate landscape. They overlap, they dovetail. It’s not about who you report to, i’s about what you do. It’s not about who does it, as long as it’s done.
Finally, and it is a long-term hope, we need to encourage more occupier leader voices to be heard. We hear from a lot of consultants and academics. That’s normal for most functions. Academics and consultants write stuff, they have blogs, they speak at events, they advise. All of these activities are in service of their offer, so it’s going to happen, no use getting upset about it. Occupiers meanwhile are overwhelmingly busy, under-resourced, travelling relentlessly, and often balancing on the knife edge of confidentiality. Yet their experience is invaluable, and their voices need to be heard. Case studies like that by Tony Grimes of Investec at last year’s Workplace Trends event have been hugely refreshing. They also need to be heard outside of the confines of the self-contained echo chambers of professional bodies, to reach a wider audience and in return benefit from a richer network. Being heard can have an unexpected a payback, the gift economy is alive and well. It is time.
Five things worth hoping for. And waiting for – but not for too long. I’ll let you get a cup of tea, then let’s get on with it.
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