When the bell goes

And so France, the only bastion of the strictly coded 35-hour week on the planet, has now seen an agreement reached between bosses and unions representing a million to create a legally enforceable prohibition on workers being contacted after they have left the office. The unions will be measuring their members’ “digital working time” to ensure that the measure is upheld.

The “work isn’t somewhere we go” hipsterati will be spilling their lattes down their J-Brands over this devastating news. Were this to be applied to our own reality, one of the fattest worms in the newly-opened can is the realisation that suddenly the working day has to be long enough. In evaluating our ability to deliver on what is expected of us, we will have to adjust to considering that e-mailing after the bell has rung and we have put our chairs on our tables will no longer be a means of supplementing our 9-5 (with an hour for lunch).

And so we might look at our working day with a more healthy appreciation of the precious time it houses. We may consider the multitude of W1A-style meetings we feel compelled to organise and attend.  We may value our interactions, and ensure we listen carefully first time. We may consider the requests we make of others, and better manage our expectations of their performance.

And as France is 13th in the WHO life expectancy table, ahead of the UK in a stressed-out 29th, we could probably afford to work a few more years to make up for the absence of intrusion into our dusk.

No-one would doubt that this digital erosion of our “personal” time has been damaging, in however small a way. But the fact that it now appears to require legally enforceable measures and formal monitoring to control is itself a sad indictment.

Fat worms are the most desirable to the oiseuax on the lawn, and will inevitably be devoured. However the news will have inevitably dared many to imagine being properly permitted to ignore after-hours e-mails with a clear conscience, even a moral clarity. If it does no more than make us re-evaluate the degree to which we allow ourselves to be digitally consumed, it will have been worth the headlines.

Because the nub is that with their shorter working week, the French are also more productive than we are in the UK. At 5pm today, go home and think about that.


Limited supply

I can’t imagine being a teenager without fanzines. I have tried, but the emptiness is palpable.

They were the purest and most innocent Xeroxed rebellion. People writing themselves into history long before Cluetrains passed through the dank suburban stations we feverishly read them on. Publishing that summarily two-fingered stiffarsed seventies sensibilities, and happened through guile and balls. Who the hell owned a photocopier, or ever even paid for paper come to that? “Oh, would you like to borrow my long-arm stapler?”

Fanzines simply took up the slack of the age – under-used machines that could always manage a few thousand extra grunts, sheaves that would otherwise be destined to memo, marker pens that would inevitably dry before they had lived a little.

Distribution (because no-one “syndicated” then) was legwork, and front. Simple economics were at play, too, cheap enough to shift them yet had to be a few cans of McEwans in it when the shoe boxes were emptied. Viral meant word of mouth, because there was nothing else. No choice of channels or traffic-boosting apps. The only stats were how many were left, if you could remember how many you had actually made before you heard someone coming down the corridor.

The rawness of the ink made them smell distinctive too, lasting long after the first greedy read. The smell almost created a taste in the back of the mouth. The paper was bone dry, toothy.

I can’t imagine being a teenager without fanzines. I have tried, but I have no proof. Nothing remains from anything I read or created. No back ups, USB’s or cloud storage. Few ever thought they were important enough to keep, they were of the time. But strong is the memory of the first kindling of a belief that I could say what I wanted, in a way I wanted. Whether anyone read it or not.

The shoeboxes were always empty, at least.

When we’ve forgotten how to live

We’re in an emotional, spiritual, intellectual tizz
because we don’t really know what it is –
without a definition
we’re like a stork with a kneecap condition
a boa with a constriction
and for every attempt there’s an equal and opposite valediction
verging on contempt:
there’s nothing that culture cant surpass
with its formidable ability to disappear up its own arse –
“Its the way we do things around here”
Our way of life,
its collection of code, rule, habit, convention and permission,
our very own road to perdition….

But ontologically there is no such thing
just an IDEA of culture formed under historical conditions
for retrospectively rationalised premonitions,
a means of exerting control,
a drawstring on the pants of humanity,
the romance of a profanity scrawled on the bog wall
an explanation when nothing else at all is to hand –
a phantom of our own creation and justification,
a hollow incantation,
our collected frame of perception
our own personal deception
terrifying when it becomes apparent
that its paper thin, fickle, fragile, transparent
because we’ve hung so much on it being real
it can mean anything we want it to,
farmed, cultivated on demand,
because when we’ve debated, cogitated and obfuscated
but can’t prove otherwise, its irrefutably true:
“Its the way we do things around here”
But where is the dream, the aspiration,
Lost in the stagnation of inertia and a mumbled soliloquy to stability,
conservative drowning in a small sea…..

it will always be made, never the creator
never the participant, always the spectator
never the cause. always the effect
as arcane in our affection as in our neglect,
always an explanation in the dearth of intellect –
narrative, sedative, preservative, laxative,
“Its the way we do things around here”
when we’ve forgotten how to live….

We know what it is, its reach, its power, potential and opportunity
Amid the complexity and uncertainty of an ever-changing world
“Its the way things might be”
It creates situations – environments, experiences, exhilarations,
even nations have been conceived beneath
a sign-pen and crisp white sheaves,
and in the sweeping, twisting curves of its sculpture
it can create the very idea that
bemused, bruised, dazed and confused
we have somehow called culture:

What designer doesn’t hunger for a wicked problem,
a predilection for iteration
(like trying to find the exit at St Pancras station)
fearless of the myopic,
at ease with ambiguity and uncertainty
(and the promise of a BCO regional award for sustainability)
– the ultimate test of what might be….

And what workplace scheme didn’t take a wicked problem head on,
and carry in its appled eye a dream of new ways,
resistance grappled,
its contradictions untangled,
with lots of old panaceas cloaked as new-fangled,
all baggage left at the departure gate
however over budget or late;
and what workplace scheme isn’t named like a new-born
under the heady musk of a burnt orange dusk
with all the promise a pristine life brings –
For what workplace project would ever limply proclaim
lets just have more of the bleeding same?
Who would throw millions at the delight
of different day, same shite?
What Brief would ever come without an aspiration for
communication, interaction, collaboration, innovation,
Whoever thought that design wasn’t going to bring transformation?
Make real the vision of “the way things might be”,
or freeze poetry?

never the product, always the creator
always the participant, never the spectator
always the cause. never the effect
as prime in our affection as we come to expect,
always the spark in our heart and intellect -
protagonist, evangelist, sensualist catalyst,
“Its the way things might be”
the very reason, we exist….

And if you think culture has played a blinder
and gets your vote
here’s our Graham with a quick reminder
of what I wrote:
Will it be design: driving us toward a promise
A full field of vision, will and determination;
Or will it be culture, frivolous,
playacting in the back seat,
awaiting permission, a figment of its own hallucination
a hollow cheer;
You can vote for “the way we do things around here”
But me –
I’m with the way things might be”

Giving something back

I am nothing
becoming nothing
and nothing’s to be done

The longer the foggy, undulating road into my career, it is easy to feel ever more disconnected from why I started on the journey in the first place, and how it felt at the time. No doubt it did not feel like the start of a journey at all, it seemed like something to do that may just lead somewhere, or may lead somewhere else entirely.

At varying, sporadic times, but never more than now, I have wished to “give something back”. It would be easier if I actually knew what that meant: probably to help those at the start of their own journey to discover whether its a route they wish to take at all, and if so to impart the benefit of a little wisdom I wish I had received at a similar time in my life. Something of that “I wish I knew then what I know now”.

A few years ago a number of my peers and I set out to collectively do this, until it was railroaded (all too soon) by the fee-earners into just another self-important consultancy vehicle to crystalball the future of the workplace.

So I recently committed to support the graduate programme in my current role, and am off to Sheffield University shortly to give a lecture (my first ever) to a group of students that will be part “my story” and part “workplace is fantastic, you should do this”. I am not sure that’s quite enough yet, but its a start.

Giving something back is the least we can do. It defines us, and helps those coming after us to define themselves. On our own journey, at a juncture that feels right, we need to start getting out of the way to let the emerging talent through. We shouldn’t disappear into the fog along with the stories we have to tell, mumbling them over to ourselves. They need to be told. Or it will swallow us, and we will be nothing.

Your career has been good to you. Give something back.

#SM4Biz liveblog 4: the Last Chance

Sartre only wrote the first two chapters of the last book in the Roads to Freedom tetralogy, and so it seems fitting that with the EY case study presented by Charlie Elise Duff (@charlie_elise) the story of the day seems incomplete.

The transition of social media from a once-exciting, edgy, dangerous, rebellious open-source wonder to a another limb of the corporate leviathan. When huge organisations send reps to #SXSW and blog overhipstered nonsense, when careers are forged and job titles straight out of Alice in Wonderland become mainstream, and when we reduce all of this creative energy to analytics and pie charts, it is hard to decide whether something has gone horribly wrong, or whether this was always likely to be the natural evolution. A corporate case study at a social media conference might just be the beginning of the end.

But Charlie Elise is one of the early adopters, and a star – so EY have the right person, doing the right stuff with what’s available and what’s possible.

I attended this same event two years ago, and even in this time the shift to the mainstream is marked. I am going to join the panel at the end of this event, and may get a chance to offer this overly-romantic perspective. I haven’t got any pie charts and haven’t got an SEO tips. I can’t offer a corporate study, and can’t tell you how to market your stuff. I don’t get millions of hits and I haven’t got Twitter followers expressed in “k” or “m”.

But I have loved being able to say what I feel I have to say, and having the channels to say it. That will just keep me going as I get misty-eyed over how it used to be – because something else will probably be along soon. Hello somewhere.com……

#SM4Biz liveblog 3: Iron in the Soul

Angus Grady (@AngusGrady) makes the bold statement that “we do social media wrong”, which is bad English of course, for those still at school. He certainly “does PowerPoint wrong” because its impossible to read a word of his wordy slides from the cheap seats unless you are a fly.

This talk might just be about marketing. Apparently we are obsessed with social media, which reminds me its been about fifty five seconds since I checked my Twitter feed. The word “feed” is quite accidentally appropriate really. As this is the start of a two-hour session and panel discussion, I am relieved to have been asked to put my hand up. Keep fit for social media fanatics.

“No-one ever listened himself out of a job” – perhaps, but doing nothing does nothing for you. I can’t imagine Angus listening for too long, he’s far too excited in a davidbellamyesque way about all those “amazing” tools and resources. He’s definitely more excited about LinkedIn than anyone, ever. Its the only time I have used the words “LinkedIn” and “excited” in the same sentence. I think the slides are going to be useful.

And so to social media disasters, from Paul Skeldon (@Mrskeldon), the conference equivalent of You’ve Been Framed. We have eight Titanics – HMV’s live-intern-tweeted redundancy-fest, BA’s Chicago lost luggage 9-5 customer-service fail, Luton airport’s bad-taste bad-weather crash, Starbucks unmonitored twitter-wall tax oops, Tescos horsemeat hay-raker, Benadryl’s hayfever hotspot sneeze, the British Gas price-hike tweet-up cock-up, and – for the second time today – the 8,000 responses to the Ask JP Morgan kick-me invitation. Please, keep sending us your unbelievable gaffes, they remind us that we are human, all too human.

And we cannot forget that Ed Balls’ first tweet was – “Ed Balls”. The modern equivalent of Colemanballs.

And so don’t forget – 28 April is now Ed Balls day. Forever. Get it wrong, and that’s how long it lasts. Using social media for business? Get some iron in your soul.

#SM4Biz liveblog 2: the Reprieve

Massive expectation around Pritesh Patel (@priteshpatel9) speaking, given he has been quoted several times this morning. He does SEO, and we all want more, don’t we? It was with great regret that when I googled him I actually found him. That robbed me of my livelihood, but proves he’s good.

He does have pies, and lots of them, to explain our “page experience” – and why nobody shares mediocre content. I find myself resolving to try harder. Be aware of the “links effect”, and especially those that are earned from the creation of great content. But….be wary of self-over-indulgence – engage, converse, be social. Its not all about you. Pritesh also had “ten things you can do right now” – which sounds like one of those listy blog posts you ritually ignore, but was full of great tips. Especially the underliner – “you are what you publish”.

Management summary: do great shit, or crash.

Two-donuts Doug (@DougShaw1) asks “what’s in it for me?”. This is the man with 666 blog posts to his credit, part-fuelled by a period of over-investment at the expense of more productive (and revenue-gnerating) activity, possibly part-fuelled by the food additives found in pink donut toppings. For a man whose stuff is in the top 5% on Slideshare he doesn’t have any slides. Nothing to share here, move along.

The thorny subject of ROI surfaces, like a dorsal fin just off Bondi – but talk of this is out-sharpened by the razorlike collective wit of twitterfolk with the post-Budget #torybingo viral banner, and the “respected banker” careers advise Q&A: two of the myriad social media gaffes that a little thought may have easily averted. Back to ROI and its about value, not cost – like everything where the ROI question is not easy to answer. Not sure I really know what’s in it for me, but great fun listening to Doug, all the same. “My brain is no different to anyone else’s”. Oh but it is, Doug.

Management summary: don’t be an idiot, like Grant

We are reprieved.

#SM4Biz liveblog 1: the Age of Reason

Oxygen – a great combination of gases for sustaining life as we know it. Social media – a useful collection of tools to aid your business. Yes, stating the bleeding obvious as though it were a revelation. Yet there is a gig, and I am blogging from it. When we have finished talking about everything else on social media, we can talk about social media. And while contemplating using social media for business can seem like wearing your favourite jeans to the office on a Tuesday, it is rather a fact of life. Like oxygen.

First up, as its essentially his conference, is Dr Nigel Oseland (@oseland), independent poacher turned corporate poacher – “a bit old skool” in his own words, the subject of his intro “the psychology of social media” reflected in his exponentially expanding collection of online personalities and brands.

My biggest problem with typologies is that in our desire to ascribe meaning, we trivialise instead. The recent mindnumbing flurry of excitement (really) at the “discovery” that introverts might not like open plan offices typifies our staggering from one stepping stone to another when actually the stream is only three inches deep and is quite refreshing. Being a social scientist, Nigel did what all social scientists do and posted a survey, because that’s about the only place social scientists are allowed to get any data from. What does it all mean? It means that online, it probably doesn’t matter.

Su Butcher (@SuButcher) is statistically about half of social media. She’s as interested in concrete as Daddy Pig – which is, very. As social media is about social (conversation) and content (subject matter), its about people. And of course the Doors were right. But in a world of b2b referral, property and construction need social media, whether they like it or not. Which its finally starting to like.

If you ever wondered about the science of social, even without a survey, then enter the world of social objects, status updates, platforms, “the viral” and SEO – the stuff that could itself have given rise to the complex adaptive system, if it didn’t spawn social media in the first place. The potential reach at our disposal via social is daunting enough, but when Su charts it for us it looks more frighteningly possible still. It may look and feel simple, but its technical – easy to goof, hard to do it well.

Paul Wilkinson (@EEPaul) goes back to 51BC and Cicero for an early example of social media – papyrus passed across the lands around the Mediterranean with commentary added as they travelled. Huzzah, Paul is talking blogging, but sidesteps the wonderful and immortal phrase “writing ourselves into existence”. There are 400m blogs out there, apparently – 250m on tumblr and WordPress alone. And I thought this was special. Apparently 86% of influencers blog, so one wonders how the other 14% manage to remain influential. Its all great stuff, but might have focussed a little more on the why rather than the how and what. If we don’t feel a compelling reason or desire, it doesn’t matter how technically able we might be, we just won’t.

And its 11.15am before the first mention of Google+ – surprisingly early, one might say. With that, the age of reason passed.

The thinner the air

In the days when travellers laid their trail only by postcard, I once asked a friend as to the best part of her irregular mungoparekesque forays into Asia and the subcontinent. “Coming home” she said.

I was reminded of this by Andrew Mawson’s reply to my last blog post, in which he opined that the displaced and confused distribution and exercise of power and authority in modern organisations – and the resultant imbalanced structures created – has rendered the contribution of workspace to allowing people to be at their best, irrelevant.

This blog has often taken an existential position in relation to work, considering that it is up to us alone to attribute meaning to our endeavours, and not a responsibility of our employer or organisation. The relationship we have with work is necessarily a subset of our relationship with our life in its entirety.

There are several trends contributing to the accentuation of this existential position, each one providing a necessary challenge to the existing order yet not without alternate consequence.

Like the agoraphobia of social connectivity, whereby we can meet, connect, maintain and develop relationships across continents and timezones without a need to rely on locality. Or to be anywhere at all, really.

Maybe the faustian Techno-Social Contract in which we are free to work from anywhere (with wifi, of course) and at any time, in exchange for unparalleled levels of intrusion and loss of privacy. With ever more features, ever less control.

Perhaps the dismantling of the certainties associated with hierarchy through the passive – either through the inevitable, as in the ever-increasing complexity of our relations in the postmodern world – and the wilful, in the championing and implementation of ideas such as holacracy.

Such forces at play remind us of travels in the world’s backwaters, stifled amid the mangroves, where the air is thinner. The tangled swamps could just as easily be the organisational structures in which we are lost today, our shortness of breath our struggle to understand.

Contrary to what many now claim, the more that we are pushed away, place – and the comfort, connectivity, contact, relevance and warmth it brings – may have never been so important.

The workplace: a human resource

Is a “human-centric environment” the stating of the bleeding obvious? If a workspace is intended for habitation by carbon-based units, why would there be another type? Yet we often wear our built environment like a hairshirt. We write our brief in machine-code. We dream in lacquer. Our best intentions lie motionless in a gulf between what we say and what we create.

The workplace is fundamentally a human resource. And so a truly human-centric workplace….

Reflects the needs – stated and unarticulated – of people, not the compelling vision, ego or preconceived intent of a key sponsor or designer (more often than not the former, albeit the designers get most of the blame) such that it is a creation for and of itself. It means delicately balancing what works now with a constructive challenge to future expectations.

Is a journey, not a product – albeit is presented, packaged and sold as one – a permanent beta trial. A good chunk won’t work on its own, and some stuff won’t work when you put it together (lots of good bits does not always an effective whole make).

Is bathed in light – as we love to be bathed in light. Illuminate us, and we illuminate. Light pours in, light pours out.

Has ergonomics at its core, as our bodies rely on their core for strength, balance and composure. Sight lines, touch points, ease of navigation and use.

Supports personal respect and dignity – dispensing with gates, badges, and all of the signs and impedimentia of not being welcome or wanted – providing discreet security only where it is needed. In all other respects, trust of its occupants and visitors is to the fore.

Deals effectively with the “back end” of technology – not the glamorous front end that so much is made of – but the cables, the signal, the bandwidth, the boot-up, the things that make or break our consideration of the space we exist in, and that which we now come to expect.

Respects complexity and unpredictability – setting aside  the swirling BS about “collaboration”, which is merely one (important, and rare) mode of interaction,

Sweats the small stuff – lockers, wardrobes, staplers, all of the things that if ignored or forgotten can have us looking at the space through the wrong end of a telescope.

Cares sensitively for novelty – understanding that what creates impact most quickly loses its appeal most quickly. So the space either facilitates regular change in its jangles and bling, or deploys it sparingly.

Gives back control – allows behaviour, rather than constraining or compelling it. The space doesn’t tell you how to use it, but allows for a myriad of interpretations… it provides opportunity rather than instruction. If you don’t prescribe behaviour in people, they may well surprise you.

Delicately and evenly balances the masculine and feminine – in aesthetic, mood, amenities and support. Most new schemes still lean towards the masculine even today, while some could have strutted their way straight out of the pages of Loaded. Design still unfortunately skews towards the masculine.

Understands that the rich variety of settings it offers meet the needs of activity AND emotion – we are complex creatures, we don’t just “do” stuff we feel it too. Sometimes our emotions are out of kilter with what we are doing. The space allows us to be disconnected.

Allows time and space for people to do things differently, and opportunities for them to gather to talk about it. In doing so it also provides inherent permission for this activity.

This is subtle learning, rather than the grandiose gestures too-often made of glorious transformation. It is also not the easy pickings of gadget-driven probably-on-the-moon adolescent futurology. The workplace has always been for people, and always will be.

Listen to its heartbeat.