A question of degree

You’ve just received the workplace survey link. It’s like being given a banjo and asked to hit a cow’s backside: you just can’t miss. It’s just a question of degree.

The property team will read your response under a hail of trepidation and nausea, given the constraints under which they are working and the utilitarian challenge of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. They’ll want people to be satisfied, happy. The stickier the sugar coating the better. They’ve put time, care, energy, emotion, love and sweat into the outcome you’re about to click-trash. Like presenting a soufflé to Wallace and Torode, the property team would probably rather not know, but know they have to.

We’ve laboured for years under the impression that – especially in the context of global benchmark surveys – good marks are a good thing. The higher the satisfaction rating, the better.Workplace folk can dance happily in the meadow, while the Board  can open a Montrachet for sanctioning the investment. It’s wholly intuitive.

But it might be wrong.

I could be Gavin in Accounts . The catering gets top marks but I’m blissfully half asleep all afternoon digesting the steamed treacle pudding and custard. I’ve rated the IT kit and connectivity because the Sainsbury’s website responds like a dream when I need to do my weekly sweep, and a big thumbs-up for the furniture because I’ve got a great spot that’s not overlooked while I’m doing it. And it’s my own desk, my stuff all over it all day and night, none of this clear desk policy with its ASBO’s. I can be really productive by sticking up this big red flag saying “I’m busy” and everyone leaves me alone, so Top Sante for the etiquette policy. It’s one-hundred-and-eighty for the parking because I always get a space even though it would only take me twenty minutes to walk here, if I could be remotely bothered. When asked why I haven’t spoken to anyone all day I just flash a copy of Susan Cain’s “Quiet” – “introvert” I mutter, and look away. I haven’t read it, but it really works.

Satisfied with my workplace? Is my workplace working for me? Are you kidding?

In fact the survey results are so fantastic the Board have just authorised rolling out the approach nationally. Clink, another round of Montrachet. Clearly it’s all going to plan. We’re also hitting the top of the benchmarking indices. We’re a beacon in a foggy Slough. We have workplace nailed. We’ll keep our recipe secret, save for a few empty glossies in FX and the odd stage appearances at unnecessarily expensive and unnecessary conferences.

But you’re not Gavin in Accounts.

It’s not about satisfaction or popularity. There is a fundamental gulf between a workplace that makes life easy for you per se, and a workplace that makes it easy for you to work the way you need to get things done, and to develop and grow. What may be easy for you may not be what the organisation wants, or employed you for. They may want you interacting, collaborating, energised, motivated, healthy, well, unencumbered with concerns about owning estate.

And so the workplace needs to work for you and for the organisation providing it. You love being there and what you do, you can always find somewhere to work that suits what you’re doing, you’re always expanding your network because you’re visible and involved, when you need help it’s always available, there’s coffee on tap and you’re a stone lighter than when you started. You feel valued and value it, because it’s all there and it all works. It hits all of the #elementalworkplace buttons, and more.

Yet you may still “mark it down” in places for not bringing you – on an entirely personal level – the gift of unfettered ease. You acknowledge that, but still.

Meanwhile your marks, maturity and sense are aggregated with Gavin’s. And all of his mates.

Satisfaction. Its a dangerous thing.

A tactilian struck by lightning

I’ve never received one of those annoyingly persistent turquoise ink stains on my fingertips from my iPad that I get from refilling my Aurora fountain pen. I’ve never smudged the last sentence across the page of Writer in too much of a hurry to scribble the next. And I’ve never wondered where I left the sketch of an idea in OneNote because it’s up there with the eagles and I could download it on my fridge. If I had such a fridge.

When the Luddites were smashing up mechanised looms, they faced a binary choice: the old artisan ways, that they believed would perpetuate their livelihoods, or the new automated ways, under which they believed they would be trampled and forgotten. The legacy of the swiftly-crushed movement has been one of “pro” and “anti” technology of any form. Use a mobile phone to make a call? “Luddite”.

But it’s no longer a binary consideration, given the degree to which technology has permeated our lives. There isn’t an old way and a new way, without moving to the Western Ghats. We may laud the entirely tactile experience of fountain pen on paper as an authentic means of recording our ideas, without considering the technology deployed in its manufacture, the logistics of getting it to where we bought it, the bytes involved in our credit card payment. Its all entwined.

Yet in the goldrush to digitise everything we use and every method we deploy, and to invent crap we don’t need and processes that only now exist because of the creation of the crap we don’t need (to keep up with this stuff follow @internetofshit), the most vital information we receive – from our senses – is being dulled, obviated and discredited. Human beings are no longer “smart”, this attribute lies firmly with the digital domain. You leap out of bed like a kangaroo from a barbecue thinking you had a great night’s sleep, your wristband tells you otherwise so you believe the wristband because it’s digital and produces data. Even the term “smart working” attributes the “smart” to the working, not to you.

Our obsession with efficiency is a product of our overcrowded ecosystem. The more cluttered our lives, the faster and more accurate everything has to be. The faster and more accurate everything becomes only serves to increase the overload, so we need more and better and faster to carve through it.

We have a fundamental need for the sensory information that is available to us through inefficiency. From manual processes, physical objects, human contact and face-to-face conversation, inaccuracy, estimation, gut feel and an instinctive and unpredicted change of mind and plan. Inefficiency creates a journey, which in turn brings us unexpected turns, tangents, surprises. It brings disappointment too, which has its uses. You lose some stuff along the way, but while looking find something else that starts another journey.

The tactile perspective is not anti-technology. The Swiss-made watch on my wrist may be as archaic as to just tell me the time (it tells me the date too but I can no longer read the tiny text) but there’s no doubt a lot of tech went into designing and making it. It doesn’t beep, doesn’t flash, doesnt synch with anything else I have (just with me), doesn’t measure my heart rate, tell me if I’m dehydrated or if it’s bed time. Stuff I trust myself to know. But it’s beautiful, and if I somehow leave the house without it, I turn back. Not because of the informations and efficiency I will be denied through its absence, but just because it won’t feel right.

We’re now inventing products and technology to tell us when we’re using too much technology, or to disable it for periods of time or in certain circumstances because we can’t be relied upon to do so ourselves. That’s a fairly magnificent disaster, like the bolt upon the postillion from which the title of this ramble was whittled.

I’ve written in this blog on many occasions about trusting ourselves, our own judgment and instinct. In terms of the latter, our reaction to the unrelenting advance of technology will be from an innate craving for the tactile. We will All, in one form another, rebel. The lightning will strike us all.

 

Fond affections are never said, they’re only sung in song

 

records

In a rare departure from mythbusting, baiting hipsters and pleading for simplicity, this is a music post – a response to a challenge from @mjcarty, @JacksonT0ny and @TimScottHR to find the #7songs that have made us. For those about to consider the same, it isn’t as easy as you think.

My vinyl is all a bit scratched. My CD’s are all a bit scratched. I have no idea how iPlayer works. I prefer the sound of voices and the world around me to music while I’m trying to do anything other than perhaps cook. Even then I’d rather listen to Front Row. Yet music has left its indelible mark on me, inspired me, made me. It’s because when it manages to drag me in, I can’t do anything else. I’m completely and utterly in the song.

I owe a distinct thanks to Sellanby in South Harrow, the second-hand vinyl shop that I could have given as my fixed abode during my most impressionable years. Most kids today won’t bother to learn the RSI-inducing fine art of flipping through boxes of vinyl, or the exact angle at which to tilt the record into the light to find grooves other than intended spiral. Nor will they blu-tak a 2p coin to their stylus to stop it torvillanddeaning on its own unintended journey.

And so my own #7songs. As unique a combo as all our choices. Its why they made us unique.


Queen: Seven Seas of Rhye (1973)

Medium: 7″ vinyl single

I learned about heavy rock from my Dad’s collection of a few albums – he had Led Zeppelin II amongst a pile of stuff I thought was dirge. I remember when he unpacked his new “proper” record player and we listened to it together. But nothing prepared me for rush of blood from seeing a black-leather-clad Freddie Mercury on TOTP with his mic stand upside down and within a minute I was hooked. For several years I listened to nothing but the first three Queen albums. I could sing the lot for you now. The spell was finally broken by A Night at the Opera – they had lost their aura. They were still the first band I saw, in 1976 – but they didn’t play my song. Gits.

 


X-Ray Spex: Day the World Turned Day-Glo (1978)

Medium: 7″ vinyl single

I’d heard of punk. I’d heard some punk. The right-thinking establishment was outraged, I was bemused. Most of it sounded a little like bad metal. But when I first heard Poly Styrene I got it, completely. I wasn’t allowed to say “F–k!” in the house but I sure as hell thought it. Someone had finally told me music could be different. From there I was hooked. I used to have my transistor radio with me on the pillow at night and would usually fall asleep to the sound of John Peel’s show. I used to annoy the hell out of my Dad asking for another PP3 battery every other morning.


The Only Ones: Out There in the Night (1979)

Medium: 12″ blue vinyl single

There was always something slightly crap about the Only Ones. Endearing though. This song, unlike the others on my list, relates to a particular memory – and strangely one that has no relationship with the song. Its the soundtrack to a rainy London street even today. As a 15-year old I’d travelled by tube from Rayners Lane to Finsbury Park, which felt like the entire length of the Trans Siberian, to see Siouxsie and the Banshees supported by the Human League and a band called Rema Rema (one of their songs, Fond Affections, would later appear on the first This Mortal Coil album – and gives this post its title. Interestingly, their guitarist – Marco Pirroni – was an original Banshee and later joined Adam & the Ants). It was a shatteringly incredible night of music. Yet the soaked streets outside the Rainbow Theatre were, in contrast, so muffled and mesmeric. Even writing about it now, I’m there, with goosebumps. And the song, it’s there too.


New Order: Ceremony (1981)

Medium: 12″ single, green cover (important note)

I must have needed an anthem at the time. Now I cant walk through a park with “avenues all lined with tress” without this song. And its always on vinyl, levitating above itself. It was written with Ian Curtis, as a Joy Division song – there are a couple of unintelligible versions available. But like the Russian Revolution there are two New Order versions, Spring and Autumn -it has to be the green cover version (March 1981) which simply belts out. The later imposter (September 1981) verges on the distressing by comparison. And I always read the words scratched on the vinyl, even though I know what they say: “watching love grow – forever”.


The Cure: Just One Kiss (1982)

Medium: 12″ vinyl single (far superior B-side of Let’s Go to Bed)

From the first hearing of 10.15 Saturday Night through to the rank betrayal of Lovecats (with a few exceptions after that) no band captured my late teens/early 20’s angst like the Cure. I dressed like Robert Smith, wore make up like him, and even received a postcard from him (which I now can’t find) when I asked to interview for the Southampton Uni paper. But for all the indulgent, bleak despair of the Faith and Pornography albums, nothing captures the mood more than the extended version of Just One Kiss, released when the band had only two members. Perhaps in its drawn out build-up it unconsciously tips a nod to stuff that almost made the list, like Yes’s Heart of the Sunrise. “We waited alone on the sands”. Part of me may still be.


Cocteau Twins: Ivo (1984)

Medium: CD

While I had dabbled with the ethereality of the band, with tracks like PearlyDewdrops Drops (that John Peel said made him cry), the enormous gates that slowly opened to reveal the opening of the incredible Treasure album began a fascination that ran through countless Cocteaus albums, This Mortal Coil, and on through the 4AD stable with Dead Can Dance (especially the haunting Frontier), Wolfgang Press, Throwing Muses, Les Mysteres des Voix Bulgares and to Robin Guthrie’s beautiful ambient solo work. There is a moment late in the song where glass smashes beneath layer strumming guitar that seizes the breath, every time.  The track opened up a world of music where the voice was the complex instrument of all, yet in which the words were meaningless. In this, it had the power to reach more deeply than I had ever experienced.


David Sylvian: Ink in the Well (1984)

Medium: CD

The song made an impression on first listen, but at a slightly difficult stage in life several years later became a solace and has been so ever since. To that end it’s an entirely personal thing, just me and the song. I love to write – still now it serves as the nudge I sometimes need to start. The line “these are the years with a genius for living” should be all of our years, every one of them. There is a lot of space in the song, the white paper on which we scratch our thoughts.


There was no place in the list for my favourite song, ever: Wire‘s Outdoor Miner. That’s just always been with me, through every phase of my life. It was my favourite from the first journey through the undulating piano solo in the middle, while I was undulating somewhere in 1979. I have an album called the Houseguest’s Wish with countless cover versions of the song, released to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Jarvis Cocker has a blinding live version of it out there too. So I know that some of this love for the song is shared.  Not sure whether I like that or not, but I’ll live with it.

And no room for anything by my ultimate rock’n’roll hero Howard Devoto, from whom the light surely pours, who trumped the incredible Magazine with Luxuria, the most artful fusion of lyrics and music you’ll ever hear. If you’re new to it, try Mlle – I’m sure Proust would never have imagined. I’ve got a book of his lyrics that I thumb through when I’m looking for a burst of inspiration. I always find one anew.

Thanks Michael for prompting these reflections, I’ve run through some lovely memories in searching for the seven songs. If you’re reading this – its your turn.

#Untrends for 2016 – stuff that just isn’t happening

Property and workplace suffers from a phenomenon we might call “repetitive reality” – say something enough times, irrespective of whether it has any basis in fact or insight, and it sticks like a half-eaten humbug on a mohair. Thereafter, trying to counter it is like trying to repel a plague of locusts with a spatula.

In recognition of the time of year when everyone with a snowglobe and a web browser rattles off a list of trends for the coming year, here is a list of stuff that won’t be trending despite most of the soothsayers telling you it will. They are the myths I listed in a five-minute sprint at the rather enjoyable Estates Gazette offices summit last week.

#Untrend 1: it’s a time of unprecedented change. It’s more likely a time of ubiquitous accountability, created by access to a multitude of accessible channels. Most of what we think is new is a re-hash – since we first emerged from the Gorge there have been far more significant periods of societal, commercial and technological change, and there is plenty of evidence to support a slowdown in innovation. I also love the argument that the washing machine was a more important invention than the internet – once that idea is in your head, it won’t leave. For this #untrend also read “work is changing at an unprecedented pace” – same swing of the spatula.

In this dizzying time of change, of course #Untrend 2 – the office is dead – gets a regular airing. The repetitive dribble associated with this one is the “work is something you do not a place you go”. Because we know that “work” is a verb and a noun. Demand for office space is many an urban centre is rife. And interestingly but often overlooked, the more we stress the importance of social and collaborative activities as essential contributors to productivity, the more the need for people to be in the same space increases. The “death of the office” isn’t a trend, its wishful thinking sponsored by technology companies.

Which brings us on nicely to #Untrend 3: technology will replace presence. This is also sponsored by many of the same technology companies. Yet the more tech we see in a working environment, and the more “digital” the subject matter, the greater the amount of analogue space is required for effective collaboration. Hard-baked agile culture preaches little-and-often interaction puncturing periods of earplugged solitary activity. The innately multi-sensory experience of face-to-face interaction has no rival in any technology yet invented. It’s even touted as a vitamin against depression. There’s no app for that.

#Untrend 4: everything has to look like a workshop. It’s a design fad. You know the look: exposed ceilings, rough timber, raw metal, concrete, old Chesterfields, cast-off furniture from e-Bay, stuff you found on the way in. It’s like dragging a freshly-tailored James Bond behind a tow-truck through Lagos until he looks like Steptoe. Like all design fads, it’s time-stamped. And the more we see it, the harder it becomes to be original. Eclectic is tough brief – most looks like a mess. It’s taking over our homes too. Remember the day you bought a pair of Birmingham bags the day before they went out of fashion?

And everything has to look like a workshop because apparently #Untrend 5 – the TMT sectorsays so. That’s actually two #untrends. The TMT sector is an invention of uncomfortable convenience for an agency sector starved of anything interesting to talk about. It’s not a movement or a grouping with common interests and approaches any more than any other random collection of organisations deemed a “sector”. In regard to culture, management, workstyle and workplace each sector has its arch radicals and its arch conservatives and a bulk of normally-distributed folk in between. And every business is a technology business now.

And because TMT has become the byword for “cool”, #Untrend 6“cool” is something to aspire to. Cool is utterly and completely subjective, but we’re battered into believing that an empty, soulless, novelty-studded over-indulgent space is an aspiration. Cool is all about the aesthetic of sprezzatura, and nothing to do with the occupants. Yet the desire for cool seems to be plugged by those who, in the same breath, want us to know its “all about people”. In the imagery, people are blurs, shadows, because they don’t fit or belong. It is by definition without warmth. It’s not about cool, it’s about what works for you and your organisation, and if that means vanilla, that’s just fine.

In #Untrend 7 – in the gig economyeveryone will be freelance. This is intrinsically connected to Myth 1, where those who are freelance are convinced everyone else will join them in a Macbook-and latte-wielding frenzy of freedom from the corporate yoke. There is a darker side to the dream. What “freelance” often means to the less privileged is akin to the stevedores “standing on the stones” (in America called “shaping”) waiting for the chance to work. For the under-employed professionals, pay rates are being forced down by a market becoming ever more saturated. Unshackled from an employment contract, in all respects the freelancer is shackled to uncertainty. It’s a simple trade-off. The future is more likely a hybrid of the traditional employment model and the over-romanticised freelancer of today – but it’s a long way off.

Linked to the above, #Untrend 8 is that everyone (really, everyone) will be co-working in (wait for it……) co-working centres. That is, despite the fact that the vast majority of people work for larger organisations who provide workspace. Because co-working centres are “cool” (see #Untrend 6) and don’t look like corporate offices. That is partly explained by their being smaller, and the fact that people pay to use them – so their product has to appeal sufficiently for people to part with (ever larger) amounts of cash. While it has a place in the market and has helped corporates consider their workplace design, injecting a depth of personality from the more domestic and leisure influences, in its physical form it remains a niche product and idea. To a significant extent it is already moving away from its original ideal of workspace-as-mutually-supportive community, instead in many instances becoming a hipster version of Regus. At the end of the day, whichever way you look at it, without the spirit and practice of community, it’s an office.

Where there is mention of co-working, under the same stone can usually be found talk of #Untrend 9 – that Gen Y will change everything. That’s because from absolutely nowhere and with no foundation in anything approaching objectivity has emerged the idea that this “digital native” tranche of the population will bring an attitude and perspective that the insulted and inured hordes over whose bodies they now lightly tread could not. There isn’t a #generationblah tag for nothing – its bunkum, pure Age of Aquarius stuff. It could be argued that Generation X made a more lasting contribution to the invigoration of an era – and by that I just mean Billy Idol’s combo.

And so the last for now – #Untrend 10 – in this “VUCA” world providing a fantastic workplace is complicated. It’s not, it’s ridiculously simple if we just stop looking for problems and excuses for not doing something about it. It just requires the application of simple sense to create the #elementalworkplace. When we get to the point of taking blood samples to work out whether we’re enjoying a collaborative space, we know we’ve come too far. But we don’t like to admit its simple, because then there is nothing to hide behind. Time to cut the Gordion Knot.

Building into the future requires a flexible, functional and generic approach that can let everything else ebb and flow around it. Trends, untrends – if we keep it simple, they just don’t matter.

 

Knot a problem

A Twitter exchange during the 1%’s favourite event, Worktech, in which liberated cloudworkers harmlessly engage in an annual backslap over how liberated and cloudbased they are, prompted this post.

My contention during the short banter (most of which took place without me) was that every year this collective celebration of the bringing together of people, technology and place for the duration of an expensive day of meming creates not a ripple of benefit for the Man on the Clapham Omnibus who is actually now the person at the ever-shrinking open plan workstation in the Berkshire Business Park.

The word “problem” arose several times during the exchange. The essence of the matter is, however, that within workplace, we don’t have a problem. That is, not a problem in the way we think about problems, the need to have them “fixed” and the linear methodology we deploy in this pursuit (define, explore, plan, execute, review – or if you’re unfortunate enough to be Six Sigma qualified – the quite ghastly DMAIC: define, measure, analyse, improve, control).

Rather, we have a challenge that needs to be met. That is, that the modern workplace for most people outside of a few privileged organisations and locations is poorly designed, equipped, furnished, serviced and maintained. It needs to be regarded as making a vital contribution to the success of an organisation, and improved.

The proposition is entirely simple and intuitive. It’s actually never been any other way, from antiquity to the present. Yet the search for a problem has led us to believe the contrary, and so we’ve preoccupied ourselves with finding solutions to something that doesn’t exist. Inevitably, they turn out not to be solutions.

So we research, conference, analyse, study, consult, ideate (yeuch, what a word), extrapolate, elucidate and procrastinate ourselves into a Gordion knot. The legend has it that when Alexander was presented with the seemingly-impossible challenge of the knot, he whipped out his sword and sliced through it. The original Occam’s Razor, perhaps.

Gordian knot

As it’s so simple. It doesn’t need disruption or new panaceas. It doesn’t need any more stasis-inducing musing on how to reach the suit-suite, or wind-borne cries of the need to bring property, IT, HR and any other function together. Or any more user profiling. Or any more systems, apps, monitoring, spying or gadgets. Of course when the knot is sliced, this will be a great disappointment to those selling disruption, panaceas, profiling, systems, apps, monitoring systems and gadgets.

Why? It’s fairly obvious and straightforward. A great workplace is motivating, energising, engaging, and contributes to our sense of worth, self-esteem and wellbeing. Making no apology for lack of peer-reviewed research here, it’s bleeding obvious.

How? A willingness to act, common sense, some sensitive and responsive design (which is not difficult), someone to take the lead in co-ordinating it all, and a bit of money (because the “why-ROI” is obvious).

What? Start with the core components of the #elementalworkplace. And stop there if you like. Keep going if you like bells and whistles: just stop before you get to the novelties. It doesn’t have to be a flexible workplace or an activity-based workplace either, if it doesn’t work for the organisation. It just has to be something that works.

The only problem we have is realising we don’t have a problem. Cut the knot. Get on with it. We’ve faffed around for long enough.

 

Painting: Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1743–1811)

Strategy, when the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings”
[Cassius, in Julius Caesar]

With the unwavering look and political persuasion of Pasha Antipov from Dr Zhivago, a chap I once chatted to over a pint some thirty years ago uttered a phrase that for some reason I’ve never forgotten: “every middle class man wants to be the engine-driver of society”.

I now think he put the comment in the bank for me for when I read the latest white paper from IFMA (International Facilities Management Association), “Redefining the Executive View of Facility Management“, helpfully publicised by the excellent Workplace Insight . It says that FM needs to either be strategic or become irrelevant. The usual aerated stuff like “promoting core competencies” predictably gets in the way of saying it as it is – FM wants to be in the suit suite so it’s not told what to do all the time.

In general terms, I’ve never understood the craving of just about every business function to “be strategic”, or (expressed as the HR community obsesses) for “a seat at the table”. It reflects archaic structures and power relationships. It pessimistically declines to consider more creative paths to influence. It assumes the benefit of rights but ignores the requisite burden of obligation. And it assumes unbounded freedom, but overlooks the imposition of restraint – it’s not all glory. Like driving the engine.

Recollecting the spirit of the conversation all those years ago, I don’t think Pasha would mind me adding that there is something of an entitled, bourgeois quality to the insistence too.

The reality is that FM is – and always will be – operational, and should be proud of it. It’s not a bad thing. It defines and strengthens its relevance.

Keeping the lights on, maintaining buildings, ensuring workplaces remain inspiring, guaranteeing people and assets remain safe and secure, feeding people healthily, managing large operating costs responsibly – none of these are, or will ever be, strategic. They are not even tactical. Yet they make a significant, in many cases vital, and in some instances a business-critical contribution to an organisation.

Because that’s it. It’s about making a contribution, and doing it damn well. With empathy, common sense, commitment and energy. Looking for better ways to do it, with the occasional (usually accidental or expedient) innovation. Talking to people confidently, like adults and equals – not in overbloated business guff. Looking for opportunities, as opposed to order-taking. Acting quickly and responsibly. Doing what’s promised. Focussing on the detail, sweating the small stuff. Taking pride in what is achieved, and using it as a baseline to improve further.

Acknowledgement and respect will accrue throughout an organisation to a confident and assured function happy in its contribution. There is nothing complicated in all of this, but it’s clearly not easy because too few do it well. For most, there is still a long way to service excellence. Energy focussed on a seat at the table is misplaced, and will only undermine the progress of FM. It really is time to shed the neurosis.

This does not in any way negate developing operational strategies (that’s not “being strategic”), philosophically contemplating the meaning of great service, conceiving of new philosophies of service, or simply having great, deep, insightful helpful conversations about FM. Being operational does not mean being trivial. The same intellectual rigour is required of FM as of all other business support functions, as part of understanding why it exists and how it can improve.

At this point I could do one of those naff “3 C’s” things that litter the ether. The 3 C’s of FM: Competence, Confidence, Contribution. I might write a white paper. But then again.

 

Bridges missing

Something was missing, and I wasn’t sure what it was until I set out the positives from Workplace Trends (#wtrends) on 14 October and realised that they lay on opposite banks of the lazy river. Given that a good conference should generate more questions than answers and leave one feeling frustrated enough to go after them, its by no means a criticism.

While we’re making some progress, its relative – we’re punting down the Mississippi. The disparate parts of our understanding are developing, but in so many respects in an unconnected fashion. Bridges are missing between:

Common sense and science. We’re still reaching for the science, mistrusting our judgement, lacking confidence that just knowing something is right might be enough permission we need to act. Knowing the world isn’t flat but still staying away from the edge in case. I based the #elementalworkplace on common sense – John Alker of the UK Green Building Council replayed the principles of the original post (no mention, however, because science doesn’t attribute hunch) with a smattering of supporting material – but we’re still awaiting the nod to do the simple, easy thing and create great workplaces for everyone. There’s a simple solution to this: just get on with it.

People and space. Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD rattled off the stock narrative to a bounty of the institute’s library deck (with the horrifying exception of VUCA – who in Wimbledon thought that was a good idea?), but with little relevance to workplace. It just being “about people” isn’t enough – it has to make sense, there has to be a story, a weave. And when we are told on the one hand that engagement is about getting people to “go the extra mile” yet stress is casting a menacing shadow across our wellbeing, not even the “people” stuff in isolation sounds right. When we manage to weedle it out of the slide deck, we might make more sense of it.

The built environment and nature. We’re not sure how to work outside unless we’re a park ranger, or how to best bring nature inside beyond a pot plant on the filing cabinet. The term biophilia – which sounds like something requiring antibiotics – only serves to over-complicate a simple notion: being closer to rooted living things is good for us, because its where we began, running around naked in the forest. But even then we needed shelter, protection and warmth too. We’ve been wrestling with the need to be both inside and outside for millennia. Bill Browning gave such a hauntingly-paced advocacy I was convinced I was being hypnotised. I may have been. How can I tell? But before biophilic design becomes just another one of those annoying overloaded bandwagons spewing poor practice, it needs thinking through in the widest context. The spaces between buildings – and how we use them – are just as important as the buildings we create. Its so much more than an indoor planting contract and the usual temptation to commoditise. Which brings me onto…….

Wellbeing as mindset and wellbeing as commodity. There is much talk of whether organisations “do” wellbeing – gym/health club, cycle racks and showers, healthy food, lifestyle information. Yet wellbeing isn’t a product range, as much as having access to these things at work is admirable. Its about expectations, management, job design, understanding, empathy, family and respect, amongst other things, as much as it is about stuff that’s provided. Your shiny gym and poached salmon and green lentil salad isn’t worth much if you’re pummelled into a thankless coma every day. Wellbeing touches every strand of our life/work mesh. You don’t “do” wellbeing, you embrace and breathe it.

Workplace and FM. There was barely a mention of the journey upon which a workplace takes its first step on completion – what happens next. Or how design for functionality – from the inside out – is vital to this journey. BIFM has made its own attempts to claim “workplace” as its territory and position itself as a little less operational, through drawing on regular cross-functional favourites like Monica Parker and Dave Coplin at its last conference, and the well-meaning but flawed Workplace Conversation (#TWPC) that strained out of its awkward ‘tache-twiddle with the CIPD. Workplace and FM inherently exist in the same world, but remain worlds apart. Its beyond odd. It needs drawing out, but not in cobwebbed institutional conference rooms.

These are big issues and we have to crack them. But unlike previous years, we have momentum. We now need connection.

 

Wilf: one man’s search for wellbeing

Wilf hurt:

The marrow in his bones softly cried while his soul, inert, vaporised
His centre of gravity adrift
in the depopulated cavity of his disposition;
There had to be a fundamental shift or Wilf,
a man so entirely incidental,
was stiffed;

So this is the story of his one-man crusade for wellbeing,
a radical wholehearted re-definition
of a man in the most atrocious condition;

Six pathways converged on his noble ambition:
The physical, occupational and social
spiritual, intellectual and emotional
a beautifully, poetically conceived collision from which Wilf,
a man so comprehensively stewed
would emerge – redefined, realigned and renewed.

Given the positive frame of mind he was in,
he decided, one more cigarette and he would begin…..

The amazing thing about Lycra is just how much
it accentuates the things
that carbohydrate inflates;
Wilf was bravely having his gym induction
in a bid for significant girth reduction
when there might have been more immediate benefit from liposuction;

But fixated on just how much his first day mattered
on attempting to lift the introductory dumbells,
his glass knees shattered and he unceremoniously capitulated;
With which, amid scenes of farce,
he became the only man in fitness history
humiliated from the immediate withdrawal of his entry pass;

Given the defeated state he was in, Wilf spent the
Evening with a large bag of frozen peas, seated……

Wilf’s quest for spiritual equilibrium and a window to his soul
took him to Pondicherry
Yet on the way to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram
He contracted dysentery
where hospitalisation put a swift end
to any aspiration to a life of meditation;

Once home, recovered and robed
he lit candles and sandalwood
like every pilgrim should
And finally discovered serenity amid the janitorial sanctuary
of his under–stairs hall cupboard;

Given that he couldn’t turn around in the space he was in
Wilf backed out of anything quite so claustrophobically challenginq….

In a quest for intellectual purity Wilf threw himself horizontally
into Salinger, Goethe, Dickens, Sartre and Dostoevsky
Seasons would pass without him emerging
from his self-imposed literary exile
or arising from his gradually-spreading arse;

While the mission was intense and gruelling
His gentrified lexicon and prose and new-found love of duelling
only got him into trouble in Waitrose
in a dispute over the last available trolley
That left him with a broken nose;

Given the ridiculous breeches and wing collar Wilf found himself in,
He packed away his books
and rediscovered the preposterous frivolity of Tolkein….

This was it, Wilf was going unstoppably social,
accepting every invitation to afterwork integration
like the BIFM Devon and Cornwall
open-to-all cheese and wine  get-to-know-you conflagration
*heaven*

And he facebooked and tweeted it relentlessly
on his stumble home
getting camembert all over his bendy new iPhone
And, wondering why no-one replied to his exuberant excess
It was politely pointed out to him the next day
There’s no mobile signal in Totnes…

Given the desperately hungover state he was in, Wilf declined
Any further temptation to offline social networking….

Deciding that a change of job might bring
an occupational centrifugal state, Wilf abandoned
the desolate clerical obscurity of forever for
the dignified purity of manual endeavour;

Yet his role at the sawmill was cursed from the start
As his tendency to accidental self-harm
Had him a whisker severing his lower left arm
saved only by mistakenly hitting the emergency shut-off alarm
narrowly escaping with a blister;

Given the traumatic yet ultimately thankful state he was in,
Wilf returned to the inexorablle sadness of pencils
and the honesty biscuit tin….

The traumas of Wilf’s quest had left a gaping emotional chine
Which till now he happily filled only with bargain buckets
and everyday value red wine –
So Wilf decided to face his deepest-rooted issues
And dispense with the readily-dispensed tissues;

But as he turned toward the creeping shadows of dusk
He realised that the ideal self he was chasing
had rendered him a mere husk
And that manning-up, sucking-up and showing up for the shakedown
Left him on the verge of throwing up,
and a stiff-upped-lipped breakdown:

Given that he felt worse than when he first started the whole shennanegin
Wilf allowed himself a cup of builder’s tea
and a long deep breath of liberty……

Wilf is here today, yet he asked not to be identified:
his trails opened a pathway when he realised
that wellbeing is so much more to do with balance
than the hoary purgatory of penance

And that our vulnerability and not our inadequacy
Makes us what we are:

immense…..

Because there is no self without others,
no belief without doubt
No good without naughty nor with without…. without
We get it wrong as often as we get it right
Its our infuriating all-too-human plight,
our birthright;

Wilf, rather surprised following his mission at how much he
now despised a wellbeing that’s become so institutionalised
declined to take the lectern –
By his own admission: so, so much left to learn.

 

Performed @Workstock at Workplace Trends, October 2015

Carnage Visors

Better not go outside, it’s like Henry Spencer’s back yard out there.

eraserhead

Yet another article last week – in a property and workplace publication drier than a Saharan cream cracker – added a further smattering of flies, dust, bird-dung and suspended atmospheric gloop to the already-caked visor through which we are being increasingly convinced we need to see the world: volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. VUCA for short. Its carnage.

Its just sloppy, lazy thinking. We are terrifying ourselves into submission, giving ourselves a blanket excuse for doing nothing, conveniently placing every problem or difficulty out of reach. From the other side of the visor, we’ve never had…..

As much immediately accessible information and the tools with which to filter it to make our working and personal lives easier, to get ourselves to a position of understanding from a standing start.

Broader and deeper relationships able to offer support, motivation and encouragement – and the means to create and maintain them.

As much space and opportunity for the shy, introverted, nervous and uncertain to develop and maintain relationships where it would otherwise have been terrifying.

More help, freely given without expectation of return from the known and the anonymous within the gift economy that is the online world.

More perspectives on the issues we face, viewed from angles we haven’t even calculated, to help us work it out.

Less pressure from dogma and collective ignorance, with a correspondingly healthier suspicion and desire to discover for ourselves.

A greater ability to cope with and understand change, through access to the experience of others.

More choice, in so many respects – readily alternatives if something isn’t working.

More information, encouragement, motivation and the physical means to wellbeing – if, of course, we choose to get off our arse and make use of it… and correspondingly, less excuses for not getting off our arse.

A deeper collective respect for the myriad of differences – obvious and subtle – between us.

A greater ability to travel and experience difference first hand. And still be home in time for (a healthy) tea.

The world may not quite be stable, certain, understandable and lucid (SCUL) because its being run by Nature and Humans Limited, but it’s far from the elliotesque wasteland we’ve convinced ourselves envelopes us.

If you’re looking through crap, the world looks crap. Visors up.

 

 

 

Without you, I’m nothing

At some point soon, just as we spent a couple of decades facing up the mythical essence of the Paperless Office, we’ll have to admit that the Death of the Office is a complete crock.

While some claim “unprecedented changes” (unprecedented now seems permanently stuck to the word change, there is no longer any other kind) to the office, completed schemes roll into the journals and conference case studies with all the individuality and soul of a pack of Tesco Value sausages. And while co-working is on the one hand declared to be disrupting the institutional stuffed shirt that is the commercial rented sector, the sprouting centres come to increasingly resemble the corporate world at which their earlier incarnations cocked a snook.

What’s happening is odd, but makes sense. Technically, technology frees us from time and distance. It was easy a decade ago to be convinced that we would finally be unshackled from the office, able to work when, where and how we chose. I got excited about it too, albeit without waving my arms around, claiming the “city as our office” before others pinched the phrase. For a very small minority – usually the sort of mensheviki that claim it’s applicable to every working-age mortal because of course everyone is like them – it is. For most, other constraints and pressures apply.

Yet the more technology we deploy and the more reliant upon it and more in its service our careers become, the more we need closer human interaction, and the enablers of this. The more we push the boundaries, the less that work is an individual pursuit.

It is most notable within the environments populated by the people who bring us all the stuff that (usually) makes our lives easier and theoretically liberates us from the space-time continuum. We’re not calling it “agile”, because that’s almost as bad as “smart”.

Two factors are at play.

Firstly, it’s highly interactive. Short periods of the most anti-social head-down intense focussed activity are punctuated by (equally) short bursts of highly social behaviour – demonstrating work, on-the-spot design and planning, updates on stuff relevant to the team. While groups form and re-form, they work at their “own” desk while in a group-  they know who is next to them, and who is opposite them – because they need one another. Whisper it, but it’s about being together, physically, in the same space, at the same time. Everyone needs to know what everyone else is up to. No-one works in the café. Strangely, the café is where you get coffee.

Secondly, for these groups *actually* working together, there is almost a proportional relationship between the complexity of the technology at play, and the amount of “analogue” space required. All the walls we spent the last decade taking down to create open, “collaborative” spaces (which some may argue was just a ploy to perpetuate Taylorist, observational management) are being rebuilt so magnetic whiteboards can be installed. Post its, markers, highlighters, flipcharts, the sort of stuff that makes facilitators uncontrollably foam at the mouth – it’s all back in vogue. Collaboration (really) happens but at the small, highly localised team level, not across Larkin-like officescapes.

People in the same space, being social (sometimes), small teams, analogue space. All very counter-tech-revolution.

Smaller organisations are mimicking this in co-working centres, And other not-so-obviously-tech functions within large corporations are seeing the value of high-intensity, little-and-often, rapid ideas development based on this model.

The most significant change being driven by the blanket ubiquity of technology in our working lives may not be the rise of the robots, but the resurgence of the human. We are, under the radar, finally and fundamentally realising the value of working together.