Kensal Rise to Borehamwood

The lift call-light flickered, flickered again, and dulled. It was the stairs again for Gavin. He heaved the riveted door and began the four-storey ascent. Those from Fitch would need to sail on past, some another five levels. Every fraction of fate worse for someone else made it a little easier on Gavin.

He was already later than he had intended, having stepped off the bus four stops early to down a potable coffee and use a wifi that didn’t strobe like an eighties disco. It was always best to get some work done before it became near-on impossible to get any work done.

When he made it through Petra’s apologetic smile to his desk, he swapped his trainers for his day shoes and spun his Nikes and rucksack into the abyss beneath, steering them into the corner with his feet. The twin sagas of Kieran’s wedding planning and Sheena’s asthma were rattlesnaking one another as they had been yesterday, and the day before. In blissful ignorance, neither was listening to the other. Gavin eased the papers from both desks back over the crumb-catching cracks and eased on headphones the size of pillows, the smallest space possible between two unfolding tragedies. In defining his estate, his set out its limit. The sound of his own heartbeat was reassuring.

The last shard of morning light between the cabinets dividing Sales from Accounts made its way across his files, thinning to a razorpoint and out. They must have nudged the pillars of Stonehenge around for decades to hit that sweet spot. The fairytale Druid in him muttered a pagan prayer, as he opened his InBox. He wondered for a moment what twentyfirst century work would be without it, as he scanned the bold items for anything from Kelly. Nothing yet. She would be bored soon and the more bored she got the less Gavin could think about anything else.

Alan was wearing a resplendent tie again. It was a form of inner protest only he understood and persisted with. After years of unofficial and demonstrative campaigning for a more relaxed dress code, he had become dispirited by the greige all around him, the variant shades of indescribable drabbery his colleagues managed to source set against a backdrop of uniformly unchallenging drabbery the organisation managed to source. So he spiked the day as only he was able, like dropping a tequila in his own drink.

He could see Christine gesticulating at Frank, the office manager – her plant had been taken away again. It made regular journeys between her desk and the storeroom or the rear yard, depending on how far Frank had managed to get with it before the protest began. It was her own confused and bemused plant, answering only to her, but own plants weren’t allowed. Greenfly. But Christine was hardwired to connect with nature, she pleaded, but Kevin on the other hand was hardwired to the Policy tablets. There was no middle ground.

Gavin’s mobile rang, it was the agency he registered with last week. He slipped out of the cans and spoke very slowly as he edged out toward the lifts, trying to avoid any suspicion. Everyone’s lives were on show, a modern curiosity shop. As he reached the redundant lobby, the signal opted out – hello? Hello? Shit. Wherever there was a fragment of privacy, there was an accompanying curse. The toilet traps were no better, and the damp cold crept into every data packet. You could almost feel the caller’s bone marrow chill.

When Gavin returned to his desk, Simone waved him over. Hacking his way Indiana-Jones-like through sticky notes reminding of calls never returned, was a website and an idea – the “living wage workplace”. Gavin read the post and shrugged, more to himself than to anyone else.

“We could do with some of that, eh Gav..?” she nodded towards the flytipped contents arrayed before them.

Gavin paused and breathed deeply. “What’s in the bloody filing cabinets anyway?”. Everyone in earshot shrugged at Gavin. “Righto. Let’s get them emptied and out of here. This has to start somewhere”.

And in that moment, everything changed.


#workstubs 3

Paths we think are new are often just dust on old footprints

The human brain – the original wearable technology

The art and science of work are married only in common sense

It is said that as leaders we cast a long shadow – if so, how much resentment and power festers in the darkness

Build relationships in an organisation from the ground up, and have a hundred eyes and ears

Its when robots start wearing “business casual” that we really have to worry

If you think your LinkedIn profile needs some work, its probable everyone else will

Careful about the statements you make – you believe you’ve earned the big car, many will think you fluked it

If you manage the company’s money as though it were your own, its doubtful that the project needed that new Prada briefcase

Thankfully, we only talk about Millennials every thousand years

Everything isn’t awesome – thank heavens

At some point we are all judged – all we want is for it to be fair

The courage to fail means having the balls to admit it was your idea

Sport is the ultimate misplaced, short-term metaphor for business, management and leadership success, as anyone associaed with Oxford United can tell you

I don’t have an elevator pitch, I use the lift

In space we wear a suit – in a suit we need to wear space


#wtrends liveblog3: blood, sweat and backache

If its #wtrends, it has to be Mark Catchlove from Herman Miller with an attempt at providing science behind making employees happy. What – you’re not happy? Oh, come on. It’s the first exposition today of the balanced office – between passion and profit, and being alone or in the company of others.

Mark says he has seen a lot of data and asks ‘so what?” which takes us back to the infrared bleepers under the desks.

HM have been working with Paul Zak (“Zakula”), who has been measuring oxytocin which is a mammalian neurohypophysial hormone produced by the hypothalamus and stored and secreted by the posterior pituitary gland. It acts primarily as a neuromodulator in the brain. Right. They are trying to get to the nub of how we feel about space, not just how we claim to think about it. They wired people up, set them to work on individual and group tasks in a plaza, cove and touchdown space, swabbed sweat and drew blood. So nothing unusual there, very Taylorist. Out of the lab came some counter-intuitive results, and a lot more questions than answers.

Mark had an important message – don’t design an office to win an award.Perhaps there should be awards for spaces that actually work well and support people in their work, rather than how it looks. But that wouldn’t make for much of a magazine splash or a chardonnay-fuelled night at the Grosvenor House. The conclusion – space matters. But we trust ourselves to know that, don’t we?

Tony Dickens from Hassell came all the way from Melbourne to speak today. The case study was Medibank so one could have been forgiven for expecting more swabs and syringes. By most standards at 26,000m2 it’s a huge project. As you would hope, the organisation sought a “healthy” workplace as an overriding objective. The space looks beautiful so not sure what Mark would make of it – but we have greenery, we have light, we have a semblance of calm (possibly because the pictures don’t have any people in them other than the photographer’s mates), and a lot of stairs. But with Veldhoen preparing the brief its no surprise to find 22 space types and layers of complexity that add – well, layers of complexity.

All of the people in the video loved it. That always happens, doesn’t it?

The feedback against the health objective is commendable though, which is encouraging. It would have been great to have seen more reference to this – perhaps as the story unfolds.

Tim Hanwell from Officeworks is an osteopath, whose patients have back, neck and musculosketal problems, many resulting from or exacerbated by sedentary office work.
Did he mention his company was Officeworks? Tim uses the marginal gains approach to reducing absenteeism through his top 10 osteo issues (and fixes) – hip flexors and hamstrings (stand up, move around, stretch), thoracic spine stiffness (same again), carpel tunnel syndrome (keyboard and mouse aids), eye strain, so today’s slides wont have helped most (give your eyes a break), disc bulge leading to sciatica (chair with lumbar support, stand up, maintain good core strength), RSI (right mouse size, and mini keyboard), tension headaches – from physical stuff and stress (right chair posture, less noise, keep hydrated), lower back pain (lumbar support, move around, core strength), neck pain (screen position, posture) and[drum roll] No 1 – levator scapulae pain (you saw that coming, didn’t you? – support arms on desk). Good practical stuff, at last. If you remember, its what we were looking for today.

Just in time for me to talk Living Wage Workplace.

My total, unqualified respect for the speakers – and my thanks. Its been fun.


#wtrends liveblog2: distant birdsong

Back in the room and seated, we’re talking sedentary behaviour (great isn’t it?) with Chris Lees of Zurich Insurance and William Fawcett of Cambridge Architectural Research. Hopefully we will avoid the preposterous “seating is the new smoking” suggestion. Refreshingly though, Chris is an occupier – the only one of a kind here today talking about their workplace, but he still brought his own boffin with him. I’m envious, I don’t have one.

Chris’ team at Zurich installed 700 infrared sensors under desks bleeping whether someone was there or not. Interestingly no-one seemed to have minded, or covered their sensor in tin foil. The great thing about academia is the terminology applied to the ordinary – so we have people sitting at desks being an “episode”. Its never going to be the same again.

Amidst the waterfall of graphs, the surging swell of trends and the crash of correlation, what did we learn? People sit at desks for short episodes and long episodes. Chris added some interpretation in that we need to support the provision of a choice of settings with the appropriate technology and complementary management and operational culture – and that combined, this approach is aligned with a wellbeing agenda. I’m still not sure where the sensors contributed, though.

Paige Hodsman of Saint-Gobain Ecophon (a manufacturer of acoustic products) brought us a psychological approach to resolving office noise distraction – psychoacoustics to you and I, of course. “Noise” being unwanted sound. As we evolved outdoors, it’s the outdoors that provides the sound absorption we need – but we built sound-trapping boxes to live in. The hypnotic beauty of birdsong, bubbling brooks and the ocean shore replaced with the irregular disruption of phones, keyboards, copiers,traffic and the generally-less-than-choral human voice, all of which we cannot habituate to. But we all instinctively know how annoying “noise” is – don’t we?

Some useful practical solutions [huzzah!]- dedicated quiet areas for focus, acoustic treatments (*available from Ecophon, probably), meeting tables separated from work areas, visual cues as to how to use space, control density, education through etiquette around courtesy, and taking a weighty mallet to the dreaded squawk box. Actually, I added the last one. Common sense but sadly rarely considered.

Strangely, a mobile phone hasn’t sounded all morning.

Gazing out of the window at the metropolis, we are a long way from birdsong. A post-technological tragedy.


#wtrends liveblog1: dangling carrots

Workplace Trends events always have a slightly academic leaning, and so we come to expect a rational dialectic, supported by credible research. Until my talk at the end of the day, at least. Nothing wrong with that, I hear you say. Today’s line-up promises a lot of data (and talk about data) underpinning our approach to workplace wellbeing such that we are generally happy in our labours and stand a chance of producing something of worth. Excusing organisational and management culture for a moment, which have a weighty say in the matter.

That’s all without me trusting myself to know that it’s probably good to stand up, exercise, eat healthy food most of the time, drink water, find a quiet spot when I need to focus, and get some fresh air during the working day, all for the benefit of my own health, sanity and output. The mind is a wonderful thing for letting you know when something’s right, or something’s wrong. We just have to trust it a little more. Its the original wearable.

So we’re looking for simplicity, clarity, common sense, practical advice, attainable solutions, action-orientation. You know, all the things you would expect from a doctoral thesis.

And we’re in a noisy, stuffy room where we can’t hear much, so living the problem.

Workplace wellbeing? Alexi Marmot urged us to consider the Doha stadium construction for starters, with an average two fatalities a day. Positive mood from the caffeinated networking, crushed. But fifteen minutes in, and we’re into stress and musculoskeletal complaints more familiar to the assembled. Its “health”, Alexi offered, the definition that captures it all – wellbeing is a misnomer, yet one that the workplace community has commandeered. For all those present with the eyesight of a fly, lots of little tables and charts to support this, and references to various reports and studies, and a lot of other peoples’ work. We even had a picture of a man eating a pasty which brought back fond memories of the irony of Ginsters presenting on wellbeing at #wtrends a few years ago. But Alexi, with all that intellectual wealth, we would love to have learned what you think about it – other than “don’t panic”.

Its sometimes tough to separate insight from a pitch, so Bridget Juniper avoided the challenge with an intro to Work and Well-Being Limited. Bridget offered one overriding point – it’s the employee’s interpretation of an event that prevails. Ergo, if I feel stressed, then I am. We may wish to reach for our well-thumbed copy of Bertrand Russell’s “Problems of Philosophy” when pondering the proposition. Refreshingly wellbeing at WWBL is seen as a broad-based issue, but survey results saw the physical workplace and its amenities as a key factor in addressing wellbeing – like putting the vending machines eight floors away for when your people have a ten minute break. So….a better thought-out workplace, focussed on people, makes a positive contribution to wellbeing. If that a surprise to you, it’s a worry – but it needs saying, and needs responding to.

Its data, data, data with Tom Helliwell, revolving around varyingly supersize proportions of people not doing much at all, and lots more slide-based eye muscle training. Eat healthy, exercise regularly, take breaks, see the family = feel better, take less time off, be more productive. The action point – incentivise: rewards for health. The real meaning of dangling a carrot. It’s a sad place to be starting from, but we need to start somewhere, to create a momentum. Tom left us with the killer question – whose responsibility is workplace wellbeing? We’ll come back to that later.

As we break for buns, croissants, biscuits, and cakes – getting the picture? – we’re mulling over the nub of the wellbeing issue. We intuitively know when something’s right, and when something’s wrong, but we justify it away. We need to trust ourselves a little more.



In praise of dumb objectives

After a recent development session that was both inspirational and different, I was rather horrified to be shuffled into a room to prepare an action plan based on SMART objectives. Not only did the idea of an “action plan” seem entirely incongruous with material centred on a raised state of awareness of ourselves and the effects of our behaviour on others, but SMART sounded like fingernails on a blackboard. We don’t use blackboards anymore.

The life of a SMART objective is rather Hobbesian – solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. It doesn’t stand a chance.

It can be as Specific as it is able but in turn will be less able to take into account complex and ever-evolving circumstances that will impact the ability to deliver on the promise. It might be Measurable but without pure data, uncontaminated by others, it is unrecognisable. In a world suffocated by data, there is always a stat to support its success, and a stat for its failure. It might be considered Achievable but in reality it will either have been too easy, or too difficult – as the aim states, by definition it will usually be the former. But then again if the measurement is flawed, how will it prove itself anyway? It may strive to be Realistic but faces a fundamental philosophical challenge over the idea of reality. If “there are no facts, only interpretations” (as Nietzsche might say) it’s in some deep water. And finally it can be Time-bound, but that depends on the unfolding complexity of the journey – our map of the unknown is only good until the first bend.

But this isn’t another hopeless circular punch-up like that over the annual appraisal where no-one seems to like them nor have a workable alternative. Force-feeding an acronym, how about DUMB objectives?

The objective could be Dynamic, embodying change, able to sustain twists and turns, to adapt to the contributions of those we engage with and the effects of other uncontrollable circumstances. Even Chinese butterflies. It could be elastic and nimble, rather than hewn from granite. It might even acknowledge the likely contribution of others rather than being stapled to our forehead. It could be Understandable, stated in simple, human terms, rather than “business” guff – so we are able to relate to it, as can everyone we share it with. The ultimate test – you should be able to show it to a friend in the café, and they get it without the need for a rambling contextual explanation. Imagine if it was Motivating, it made us want to try harder, achieve more, improve ourselves, benefit others rather than sigh under the weight of the expectation, or dread having to do what’s necessary – to make you want to get out of bed, not get back in. And consider if it were Believable, having a direct relationship with us and what we do, capable of an emotional commitment, rather than a quest dreamed up by a corporate gandalf.

We might then be able to look at aims that we think are reasonable, flexible, will stretch us and we’ll enjoy achieving.

Being free of snappy acronyms might be enough to make this possible, but I didn’t start it.

While it might be saying that SMART objectives are dumb its not saying DUMB objectives are smart only that it might be smart to stop thinking SMART is smart and considering that a DUMB approach might not be so dumb and might be smart. Could be a tricky sell, though.


On returning

There were two skies. One crystalline, balanced on a blade, the waterfall of light enveloping Astrid’s gaze; the other bleached, shy and aloof, a pale reflection across the smeared and rain-pocked windows of Worcester House. As her gaze ascended the copycat storeys to her own, Astrid wondered why they ever named such awkward, unhomely beasts a “house”, like calling a pitbull “poppet”. But she was back, standing as she did repetitively, unconsciously, for so many years, taking a final moment before crossing the revolving threshold, a long slow breath to straighten the nerve endings.

Yet this was the first time since the team were sent into the caffeinated wilderness to work, left to their own devices with their own devices to embroider a spirit. Curiosity had snaked her here this morning, the train as cloying as ever, the glazed gaze of sallow faces upon her. Astrid wished she was a mirror. On the street, people walked by Worcester House without so much as a glance, as though it were a collapsed drunk. The revolver was jammed, but trying the fire exit door at the rear corner of the building Astrid was surprised to find it give. She found herself in the unforgiving concrete stairway, moving against the invisible track to the seventh floor, a chill rushing through her like a thousand ghosts in a hurried evacuation.

Having been cast to the fifth wind, it had transpired to be directionless, erratic but weak – it was not so bad. Her team had moulded a routine from the vacuum, given themselves a structure to cling to, and found they had more time and far less intrusion. They spoke, but shared little. They corresponded, but with the unobtrusive warmth of pre-teen penfriends. Yet they realised that they had mostly craved time when there was none, and that in even the earliest stage the glut became a millstone. So Astrid created her own pressure, layer upon layer, until she felt the denial bite. Her gains and losses from the transaction had no exchange rate.

Astrid’s footsteps echoed, reminding her with each of her trespass. She arrived at the oversized plastic “7” with its chipped corners, and pushed against the door to the floor. Again it opened with more than expected ease. The office was a thicket of doors. There was rarely any sense in lowering the outstretched palm. A distant visitor may have wondered if humans defensively flat-handed their way through life. When two palms met, it might have been a kiss.

There, amidst the abandoned skeletal remains of the seventh, were her team, making do. Amidst the trailing workarounds, the home surplus, the trestles, eBay steals and cuddle of the smell of toast, were the easy smiles of delight that said stay. The familiarity was dusty, tardier than she recalled, but the space had been filled. It worked, but it was a different work. Her favourite spot was free, it had been left with the expectation of her return, everyone else had and they weren’t so different. There had been no doubt on anyone’s part that her heart beat as theirs. The agoraphobia had just taken a little longer to percolate.

From the window, there were two skies. One bumbled along the accidental and pockmarked horizon, a hazy and familiar outline. The other, crystalline, balanced on a blade, was where it should have been, outside, beyond. Astrid unpacked. So much to do. 



‘Bye darling, I’m off to AntiWork

You’ve done your day’s grind – it’s gone brilliantly, you nailed your to-do list, explored a few new ideas with trusted colleagues, and set up your diary for the next week. Its also possible you may be kidding yourself.

It’s a paradox of the modern, large organisation that much of what we believe to be work is – unbeknown to the performer – a total waste of time. The roots of this are complex and particular , and no-one specific is to blame, but the efficiency and purpose that is being lost to nothing more than bluster is breathtaking.

While its nauseatingly hip to stick “anti” (or “un” for that matter) in front of of something to give it ice cold credibility, this is AntiWork, and its not a Kindergarten Press badge of honour, it’s a Bad Thing – as with Andrew Koenig’s 1995 “AntiPatterns”, from the field of agile software development, a term he coined to describe defective processes and implementations within an organisation. AntiPatterms have come to have commonly-used names derived from their recognisable characteristics. So in paying respect, under the banner of AntiWork the below have each been ascribed a name. I’m sure there are many more (and I’m sure there are some overlaps):

The Rottcodd: old habits, stuff that has always been done, the meaning of which has been lost over time – like the rituals of the Hall of the Bright Carvings in “Titus Groan”. Occasionally ridiculed or derided but never challenged, living under their own energy, laughing at their own improbable immortality.

The Rochdale: dead runners, projects that don’t get the “buy-in” (yeuch) or more importantly funding (buy-out?) required, yet by the time of the opening of the trapdoor have sucked in vats of feasibility, assessment, enquiry and planning under spurious instruction, misplaced optimism or an inability to read the corporate tealeaves, all in the mistaken belief that approval is a con-cal away.

The Cameron: u-turns, scope changes that nullify or reverse everything you’ve done to date, worse when they are a reversal of a previous reversal undermining any dwindling optimism that they may go in a direction other than that above.

The Boltzmann: projects and tasks that despite you having been recruited for your expertise, track record, insight, proven ability to get stuff done (at all, and well), consultants “with credibility” are required to do all over again with additional levels of misunderstanding given their removal from the nuances of the organisation. And they get the credit, too.

The Plato: invisible duplication, where after years of ploughing your furrow you realise that an identical furrow has been ploughed at another location, like a parallel universe with similar results.

The Aesop: the institutionalised avoidance of decision making, the ever-decreasing circles of certainty required by the designated approval chain or process. A little more analysis, a few more checks, a re-run of the numbers, another opinion, a peer review, another round of sticking needles in your temples just to be absolutely certain you’ve de-risked the risks to the risks, to be damn well sure. By which time the opportunity and the enthusiasm has gone.

The Doves: corporate archaeology, the painful piecing together of lost records, where no-one had the decency to write history for the benefit of their successors, or it was just wiped from old drives without even looking for it. At least in the days of paper records files were usually visible and retained – whoever looks at a leaver’s electronic files? They are just erased with the memory of the departee.

The Lindenstrauss: reports that don’t get read other than for the executive summary, because they are unnecessary, tedious, arcane, pointless, habitual, or are necessary but the recipient just doesn’t have the time to read or process them. For all of these circumstances, the asking of the “So what?” question usually decides the matter, but that takes a little courage.

The Bob: the evaluation of new technologies, suggested to you as possible benefits in efficiency and effectiveness that actually would never work without a team of implementers on excruciating day rates that will mean you do nothing else with your time but try and make sense of the anomalies.

The Lucan: senior management directives made on the basis of too little information or unconsidered judgment that are not challenged through fear of being perceived negatively, or simply due to fear of the consequences (real or not).

The Sarajevo: getting needlessly dragged into things through the liberal and unconsidered use of the”reply all/cc”. Of course you could always leave them alone but your operating system has been tampered with so you can’t. We often blame the tool, but e-mail doesn’t send you e-mails. E-mail is not the demon it is made out to be, the problem is how it is used. It is the practice of spreading responsibility and/or involvement (back to fear again) that generates the noise you can’t ignore.

We might evaluate our day and our contribution differently with an eye to what has been useful, and what has been bluster. It may also herald a more constructive conversation about “work” if we stop lumping in every bit of huff and puff conducted between sunrise and sunset, and start looking at what makes a difference set against that which merely evaporates.

And remember, AntiWork isn’t somewhere you don’t go, its something pointless you do without either being aware of, or challenging it.


Who killed Mr Moonlight?

“Someone shot nostalgia in the back
Someone shot our innocence”

[Bauhaus – again]

At some point in time – now lost – our ability, and our ability to be honest about our ability, became decoupled. We have become masters like never before of over-inflating our own possible contribution, or that of others, and more worrying actually believing it. Marking our own exam papers. We have eroded to danger levels stocks of words and expressions able to hold our activities and output in proportion. We are untethered, adrfit.

We are used to people selecting cheese and onion crisps expressed and enacted as a food consumption strategy.

And we’ve loosened the nuts on the self-congratulatory myth of the era of unprecedented change in a recent post.

But every time two people are in conversation its collaboration, when for the vast majority of time they are co-operating and co-ordinating under instruction. Or heaven forbid just talking turkey. What did this collaboration output? Or was it just a damn good conversation, and you’ve agreed to keep it going?

If we have a new idea, develop a work-around, a clever new addition or modification, think of a different way to do something that we used to stuff in the Suggestions Box, its innovation. We have rooms, groups, teams, departments, job titles and awards for the honour. Obviously innovation is the output of collaboration because no-one thinks of anything on their own.

Whipping up a storm in an ergonomic task chair with a cheeky hashtag or blog post, a provocative tweet or turning a bit of #thingshavetochange attitude and its disruption. Not the annoying, confusing and unsettling type that got you lamped at school, of course, but the stuff that gives you that tingle of being naughty because you never were at school. Like stealing two kids’ masks in Breakfast at Tiffanys.

When we’re pursuing an idea that’s interesting, popping off at a tangent, considering we may have a different take on things, or breaking the mould by wearing socks of different colours (at the same time!) we’re game-changing. Even though its exactly the same game, the same metaphors, all in the safety and security of the boundary fence.

When we’re incrementally developing a thought, idea, product, it’s now a revolution. Let’s just check – is anyone on the streets, has power changed hands, systems been overthrown, institutions come crashing down, are we re-evaluating everything we ever held to be true?

And the stupidity loses control even of itself and we end up with… a “mind grenade” as insight (I have Jane Watson to thank for this gem). Just dwell on the irony in that for a moment.

Ideas, work-arounds, incremental development, healthy provocation, working together, they’re all vital to progress. That’s not enough in this age of sensation though, is it? If you’re not collaborating, innovating, disrupting, game-changing and revolting, you’re just a reactionary old fart by default. That’s me then.

The difficulty with that proposition is that having dragged every one of these terms from their rarity and lustre into the mediocrity of the mainstream, made them so accessible that we’re in the zone just as soon as we are out of our pyjamas – sometimes even before, given the “home-working revolution” – we’ve exhausted and nullified all perspective, lost the reference points for our thought and actions. We are untethered, adrift. Its time we listened to ourselves. Its time we grew up.

We all killed Mr Moonlight.


Hidden forces

“Life has its own hidden forces which you can only discover by living” – Soren Kierkegaard

A couple of weeks back I was delighted to be invited to host a seminar at Sheffield Hallam with the FM Masters group led by Ian Ellison. This is a write-up that summarises our discussion, with the liberty of some blog-owners’ license.

Scene set: we are at a standing start, with the intent of creating a fantastic workplace that enables our colleagues to work productively and to support the success and growth of the organisation and individuals that comprise it. As we survey Raglan-like the undulating landscape, what of the forces arrayed are likely to be working for us, and what are against us?


Googleisation: we have a far greater awareness of workplace “possibility” that at any time. The major contribution of the ubiquitous youth club is (fortunately) not “The Intern” but the permission it is has given us to think beyond muted greige. Careful with those toys, Eugene.

Instant gratification: as many brands have discovered the hard way, there is less tolerance of poor quality and negation of responsibility than ever before, as there is no longer any hiding place. While it doesn’t explain the mysteriously enduring popularity of fizzy drinks, it does mean that the giving of a crap workplace will out.

Technology: yada yada – when technology is used appropriately, to make lives better and easier, it holds a massive potential to improve our lives an set us free, much of which has yet to be realised despite commentary to the contrary. We are still in the throes of mimicking existing practice with technology.

Social media and connectivity: we have a capacity to discover, befriend and share with people that physical networking could never have made possible. That is, as long as we embrace the “gift economy” of social and leave our crumpled texts of “The Prince” in the management development seminar.

Globalisation: we have greater access to, and knowledge and insight of, differing ways and approaches across the geoid that ever before. The days of rolling out the “global (American) workplace standard” are over for all but the insensitive.

Design: its not a popularly-held view amongst the café classes but design has a massive potential to create and shape culture – far more so than the other way around. It’s a fascinating idea that ontologically “culture” does not exist, that its just an idea of culture formed under historical conditions – which paves the way for the contribution design is able to make. Used carefully, design is on our side.

The growing interest in workplace as a discipline – not just from its ugly sister “real estate”, but from sectors of other sectors is emerging the place of “workplace” as a body of thought, skill and practice that can create amazing outcomes. It no longer depends on chance.

Critical mass – the increasing number of workplace schemes that are flexible, that are neither the traditional physical depiction of hierarchy or the much-derided pet hate of the decreasingly-popular press or Jeremy Paxman, “open plan”.

Evidence – the availability of knowledge, data and resources. There are no longer any excuses for not being able to simply and easily source meaningful and practical inspiration, with a little time and application. It has also (fortunately) changed the role of consultants in the field (should they chose to heed it) from purveyors of mystical remedies to curators of inspiration.

People-centricity: while likely to sound slightly faddish and glib, a recognition has finally reached the sector that people come before the asset – that as staff costs are usually about 90% of total costs,and that a marginal increase in the other 10% can drive a far more beneficial outcome in productivity than the false sense of responsibility offered by the scythe.


Pervading management culture – strands such as management-by-presence, line-management and management by instruction (rather than management by inspiration) are embedded in culture, education and practice having delivered the prosperity of our age. it is easy to lay the blame at Taylorism, the idea, but many supposed modern alternatives are built on the same productivity metaphor.

Gadgetisation – technology for its own ends just “because”, working against itself through sucking in time, energy, resources, focus and motivation, the possibility of the gains obscured by its glow. Not every challenge has a technological solution.

Misguided ideals – eg “cool” – trivialising the workplace, and focussing attention not on the contribution it is making to people’s lives, but on itself. Vanity and the design process are closely related and must be carefully managed. The brand “humanity” is the most vital of all.

Generationalism – making assumptions about what “younger people” want, driving a design and strategy agenda on thin air. In addition, the focus on the emerging workforce (like Grey Advertising’s “Base Camp” for millennials only) is having a detrimental impact on the needs of ageing contributors, growing in number and likely to be working longer.

Silos – aka vested interests – which can be groups or individuals with mass, embedded status or a will to power, wanting to do something different or just not wanting to do what you do. However compelling your vision or your visuals, your business case or your reduction in rentable floorspace, if it doesn’t fit someone else’s plan, they’ll make sure it won’t.

Professional bodies and institutions – in their current form (for they may change), with their tendency to protectionism, exclusivity, narrow perspectives, and inherent position some distance behind those able to push boundaries free of bureaucracy.

Over-complication – there are a few easy and yet significant things we can do – daylight, choice, wifi, storage, influence, refreshments (the “living wage” workplace as I called it) – the rest is a bonus. Money can burn a hole in common sense. Just ask a QPR supporter.

Gimmickification – when Googleisation goes too far, when people who are not Google think they are Google, when the lure of gaudy kindergarten treats erodes brain enamel and you end up with slides, climbing walls, deckchairs, hammocks and a gazebo.

Mythification – the perpetuation of our own vacuous hype – be it to do with collaboration, millennials, crazy spaces for crazy thinking, people/property costs, trust crises, or the worst of all – this era of unparalleled change. While appearing to support a case, their lack of substance merely undermines.

The FM sector, rooted in the fragmented operational considerations that a little over twenty years ago agreed they would be stronger together, constrained by the boundaries it sets and its inferiority complex. It has a major contribution to make, if only it realised it.

Compromise – the chaos of competing interests unleashed on organisational projects of any sort, without knowledge or understanding of the subject in hand. The signatures on the outcome are many, and often opposed. Unless of course it starts going wrong, and then strangely the crowd dissolves into the sidestreets.

The problems of honest case study and appraisal – the glossification of knowledge and information, including everything you find online and especially at conferences, gives you only the upside. Cock-ups become “things we would have done differently” which is code for “I wouldn’t be as daft as to own up”. And if you can ever find a great case study with people in shot other than the designers or their immediate family, please let me know.

Bureaucracy – whether it be from the unconscious layering of policies and processes, the involvement of staff representative bodies, an inherently risk-averse organisational model, the use of hurdles to slow the pace of change, or obfuscation as a means of control , it can appear that the cuffs are applied just as the demonstration of the fine art of juggling is to begin. Its why Lockheed Martin set up Skunk Works as long ago as 1943, but also why so few followed.

It’s a brief run-down, and of course there will be more hidden forces uncovered as we progress – but its always worth knowing who is lining up either side of you before you begin, for “time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted” (John Marsden). No-one ever said it would be easy.

With sincere thanks to Alex Brown, Jane Bailey, Jacqui Grimwood, Simone Jarvis, Andy Bainbridge, Mark Burrows, Tim Jones, Stuart Farnsworth, James Clarke, Sinead O¹Toole, Shirley Ryan, Jonathan Moores, Keith Williamson, Paul Cook and of course Ian Ellison from Sheffield Hallam.