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

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:


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.


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.

The evolution will be penduluminated

Hey Dad

Yes son?

At work, do you know everyone?

Crikey no, there are far too many people to know them all. I hardly know everyone in my department.

What’s a department?

It’s a collection of people all looking after the same part of the work. My collection look after all of the money. We are called “Finance”.

So if you don’t know everyone, how does anything happen?

Well, we deal with people we don’t know because we know what they do, and sometimes the way we do things means we all work on the same things without knowing each other but we all do a little bit of it.

Ah. I think I get it. But it doesn’t sound easy to do anything.

It’s not, but because it’s so big, we do try and make it as easy as we can. It doesn’t always work out that way.

Was it always that big?

No, it was tiny once.

And was every other work tiny too?

Well son, once most works were big. They got so big that people thought there must be a better way. Then along came the internet and people started to realise they could do things with much smaller groups, and sometimes even on their own. They realised that if they knew people well, good things would happen.

Wow that sounds better.

It was better. Much. We stopped working in huge tower blocks and started working in cafés.

That sounds funny.

Yes it was funny at first, and noisy too, and you couldn’t go for a wee without taking all your stuff with you. So we started to work in places that looked like a cross between the towers and our lounge. They were smaller and nicer.

Did you know people there?

Yes I knew most people. We called co-working centres, because it was good to have company. All of us people starting a works on our own could meet and talk to people. And we could go for a wee without taking our stuff with us.

But you don’t do that now?

Well, we all started having great ideas that needed other people to help. So we made groups and gave them a name. Just for fun. And because our ideas were occasionally worth a lot of money to pay for nice houses and cars, we had to make some rules for the groups.

That sounds like fun, thinking of a name. Like Peter, or Samantha?

Not really, we called them brands. Like Buzzwiffle and Guze and Stunkgarter.

WOW! They’re amazing names. I’d like to do that.

Yes, it was very funny. People loved them all. We drew little cartoon pictures of animals for them, too. Over time some of the groups joined together, and some of the groups bought other groups so that the people who started them could start other groups that then joined together with other groups. It was all a bit crazy.

So everything got bigger?

Yes. And over a few years we had all gone back to being in big groups again. The small groups didn’t survive. Like the little fish in the sea getting eaten by the sharks.

So where did you work then?

The small spaces for the small groups were too small for the big groups. We all moved back to the towers. We just used the cafés for coffee, if our bosses let us.

Wasn’t that a bit sad?

It was a bit sad, yes. And we paid lots more too, and so some of the groups disappeared because they didn’t have enough money.

So – after a little bit of fun, some cool names and being in small groups and knowing some people, it’s all ended up like it started?

Yes, that’s right.

And you used to know people, and now you don’t know anyone anymore again?


So you cocked it up then, Dad?



Workplace United

As of today a new grouping representing Workplace as a discipline is born: Workplace United.To paraphrase the Clash, it wasn’t born, as much as it fell out.

Its not an organisation, a society, an association, or any other form of traditionally protective, sectional or elitist collective. Its not under threat or siege. Its not after the contents of your wallet. It is based on action, not contemplation.

Ironically I sketched it out on the inside back cover of the BIFM/CIPD Workplace Conversation report, which rendered a use for it that had so far been elusive.

Workplace United

Why? Because –

  • Existing organisations do not represent Workplace, despite unsubstantiated claims to the contrary, and its voguish appeal as a route to credibility
  • We have sufficient knowledge and resources at this point in time that could improve the workplace for millions of people – more would be great, but we don’t need more to be getting on with it
  • Creating a great workplace isn’t difficult, and any concerns that it might be should not be a reason for inactivity
  • In order to improve the workplace for as many people as possible, there is a need to promote Workplace as a discipline – and proudly, a composite discipline
  • We need to clear our thinking – not expand it – as a foundation for action
  • All attempted initiatives in the area to date have been focussed on talking and prevaricating, rather than getting anything useful done – because saying “something needs to be done” its easier than doing anything
  • There is no place for myth in Workplace
  • Creating a great workplace is an emotional thing, so tears are OK

Principles: Workplace United believes in a few things, like –

  • Space matters – to us all
  • Everyone deserves a great workplace
  • What we do is simple, accessible and understandable
  • Action trumps conversation
  • Maximum benefit can be obtained from investment in a number of basic, simple Workplace features and amenities, after which diminishing returns apply – the central idea of the #elementalworkplace
  • A great workplace can help an organisation be positive and productive, but won’t fix a rotten culture (and shouldn’t be expected to)
  • We can’t seriously talk about workplace wellbeing if we don’t get off our arses

Practical: How do we do this? Workplace United:

  • Is an open source group – with no barriers to entry, and no boundaries
  • Has one form of belonging – you’re in (by declaration) – or you’re not
  • Requests a membership donation because we all need to have a stake, but operates at as low a cost as possible – not for profit, ever
  • Spends a minimum amount on funding the organisation and administration
  • Is based on interest and contribution – you’re keen to do something to make a difference
  • Is a direct democracy, whenever it needs to make a key decision – it has no traditional management or committee structure
  • Researches only where it aids clarity, not when it serves itself or seeks intellectual kudos
  • Is without affiliations – as its open to all, it is already affiliated, and promotes dialogue with anyone interested
  • Opens its IP to all because everyone deserves a fantastic workplace
  • Requests (firmly) no selling, product or service placement
  • Has no logo or marketing other than for letting people know what its going to do and what its done (if you want a mug or tee shirt, please feel free to make your own)
  • Will be happy to admit if it gets stuff wrong
  • Has no AGM, no certificates, exams or qualifications
  • Has no conference (or unconference) – social media is our conference, and it’s a gift economy – we help one another because we want to
  • When meeting f2f, it will be for the purpose of planning action (unless its decreed a social – important too)

Some of the above may not be best stated, or correct. However, discussing the finer points for the next two decades (not so far-fetched – some organisations have been discussing them for the last two) wont be a reason not to get started.

I intend to give this my best shot, but if others wish to get involved and do more than me, I’m equally okay with that. Just as long as it happens, and no-one tries to take control. If it takes off, if it works, if it makes a difference, then we really will have changed everything.

Its got to be worth a go.


Echoes in a shallow bay

A couple of weeks ago I was going to write this post. I felt frustrated, a little angry, a shade irritated from trying to pull my wriggly thoughts together: nothing unusual.

I was going to claim that workplace is a shallow bay – that we have enough of the knowledge and resources we need to be able to improve the workplace for millions of people. Right now, here, today. Yet we continually find reason to mistrust ourselves, to consider ourselves unprepared. We’re forever gazing into gadgetised, germ-free adolescent futures, ignoring the challenges of the present.

I thought about claiming that we don’t trust our intuition enough, and that we are scared of simplicity – that we might struggle with things actually being easier than we thought, rather than more difficult or more complex.

I reflected that when I compiled the Elemental Workplace I did so from the perspective of both practitioner and occupant, raiding only common and practical sense. The only search I deployed was for a pen and a pad.  I recalled that I then took my list and automatically set about gathering stats from data and research to support something I intuitively knew to be “right”. There was plenty out there to help, but what was going on? I didn’t seem to trust that it would be credible enough without Doctoral Data behind it even though when tested at events there was similar conclusion from those assembled, none of whom asked for a time-out to phone an academic friend.

I realised that I would be accused of gifting hindsight the keys to the city, but that wasn’t really my point – its that we need greater trust in ourselves and what we instinctively know, because space matters to us all. Like I just know that being interrupted seventeen times a day in an open office is annoying and breaks my concentration. By all means give me the stats, but for heaven’s sake wait till I’ve finished what I’m doing.

I was also going to plead us being spared the silliness that soon descends on workplace research. Like the ridiculous  “sitting is the new smoking” position that undermines well-meaning work that has given some scientific rigour to what we already know to be the benefit of getting off our lardy arses more often.

I was going to conclude that across the shallow bay,  however deep the glare and reflection makes the water appear, the reality is revealed the moment you step in.

And then – prompted by following the Twitter stream from yet another industry event – I was intending to make the observation that the workplace debate is an echo chamber. The industry spends all of its time talking to itself. Saying some great stuff on occasion. Many great people on first name terms, just all happening to be in the same place at the same time. Again.

I wanted to ask what value this brings? So I did, by nudging the question into the backslapping Twitter stream. I was asked what other sectors might be better at widening the debate and was reminded of Conor Moss’ exceptional EQ Summit earlier in the year that drew in folk from the widest variety of sectors I have ever seen at an event. Why not? EQ is an issue for us all. Just as Workplace is. The only debate outside of our own panopticon we’re ever treated to is when bored journalists at the BBC, Fast Company, Forbes, Inc (you name it) claim that the offices of Tartarus gifted us open plan.

I was going to point out that the BIFM/CIPD “Workplace Conversation” (now thankfully at an end) was a similarly closed-loop affair, despite overblown claims to the contrary. Its final report took eighteen pages to say “space matters”. I was also going to remind us that one of the early ideas to spill out of the roundtabled institutional snuffling was research: we always seem to instinctively reach for it because it’s easier than facing the terrifying simplicity of reality, and defers the need to actually do anything.

And so I was going to draw the threads together. The echoes perpetually bounce across the shallow bay. They reassure and soothe us. Each time we hear them, we hear them anew – and are as delighted as when we first heard them.

Yet I was going to offer the scenario to be a remarkable opportunity, if we wish to take it:  the simplicity of Workplace can make a massively positive contribution to the working lives of everyone, if we trust it and carry the message. And the very heart of the message is its simplicity.

But it all seemed like a bit of a faff. Who’s listening anyway, when the echoes are so beautiful?

It was at this point that I decided instead to write the next post, proposing what we might do about it.


It was really nothing

We thought.

But it didn’t really work out, did it?

We thought we needed more data and research in an attempt to reinforce the unsubstantiated statements we oft repeat, to give at least a sliver of solidity to the myths we create or (all too frequently) to reinforce the need for a product or service.

But rather than automatically presupposing  a level of complexity beyond our current understanding. all that is necessary is to open our eyes a little wider. We need to consider a starting proposition that things may actually be as simple as they appear, or simpler.

We thought we needed a new model – a replacement for the buckling columns of hierarchy, unsustainable in a networked, enlightened world of bits, something for the nodes to make sense of. So amid the clamour for more democracy we were gifted ideas like holacracy. As the peasant soldier in Dr Zhivago asks a Bolshevik trooper after the revolution “So will this Lenin be the new Tsar, then?”

But all we want is to be treated like an adult, spoken to in a plain language we understand, reasoned with, and accepting of our human vulnerabilities. The attempt to contain and constrain our behaviours through the imposition of any form of model is the root of the disconnect. What organisational structures ever works the way its drawn?

We thought millennials would change everything because they were different to the rest of us, they involuntarily deploy technology with the unconscious ease of a vital bodily organ, and their warm hearts beat to the pagan rhythm of the planet while ours have been petrified by years of submission to authority and the relentless pursuit of lumpen personal gain. All as if younger generations had never entered the workforce with a challenge to their elders before.

But its only ever been about us. In creating and attempting to rationalise the myth, we feel better about ourselves, grow more confident with one another, explore technology and social media with liberated ease, set the value of time against the accumulation of wealth, and put relationships over results. The story helped us weave a different story. 

We thought there was a war for talent, that organisations were doing everything within their collective humanly power to mirror the brilliance, commitment, creativity and inspiration of their targets to create a proposition impossible to refuse, always looking over their shoulder at their competitors, always looking for the marginal advantage.

But instead there is a war on talent. The mass evictions of the recession led many to declared UDI when the consequence-free pursuit of gain transpired to have consequences after all- and in doing so, accepting all the risk in the relationship as the price of independence. Meanwhile organisations continue to struggle incessantly with engaging and developing their people, mapping career pathways and creating an authentic sense of common purpose. When humans are no longer seen as resources or capital, then we might have a better appreciation of what talent might bring.

We thought the office was dead, that technology had evolved sufficiently to condemn the archaic institution of daily gatherance under a common payslip, that we were a short step away from a holographic mimicry of the metaphor in any chosen corner of the coffee-serving cosmopolis, that we could leave the archaic institution to the fossil-finders of the far future.

But in reality we just want a better office. The chemicals between us just don’t work over digital.  Even for those shunning the corporate cask, the metaphor survives in the shape of co-working centres increasing in design integrity, sophistication and expense. We change a little of the reason, but we’re safe in the motherlode. In whatever form, the common parts of the office reassemble, because it kind of works.

We thought people wanted to work from home (the awful dial-up idea “telework”) all day every day because we could seamlessly connect, set out our own space, get three loads of washing done and a casserole in the slow-cooker and still be more productive than being pestered by annoying colleagues wanting to ask us stuff all day. Surveys piled up (from telco’s) showing what a “win-win” it was. Even though we were often the annoying colleague.

But what we actually want is the other way around – not work from home, but a bit of home at work – warmth, comfort and influence to offset repetitive, soulless, buffed and refrigerated corporate design and its accompanying portcullis of policies and rules governing how we are to behave. That and a little more freedom to manage the demands of domestic life when faced with the prospect of a nine-hour lock-out, and the occasional commute out of rush hour – to be treated like responsible adults, able to make our own decisions.

We thought that we needed to hide work – that we didn’t want anyone seeing the “back of house” – paperwork, the daily deluge of the detritus of administration. So the only vistas on offer were in the direction of where the money was spent, the plush meeting rooms, catered client lounges, the painted staff,  the whole “front of house” illusion. It fooled no-one, for all the years it prevailed.

But just as restaurants opened their kitchens to show diners how it was done and who was doing it, so we realised that work doesn’t need to be hidden, that it is nothing to be ashamed of. Just as “Brand” needs to be transparent, so does what goes into creating and sustaining it. We are all “back of house” now. Which means organisations need to create a workplace that works and can be seen from all angles.

We thought everything was changing so fast that we couldn’t keep up, that the voracious future of our fascination and nightmares might even consume  the present while we were still contemplating it.  A future without organisations, employees or even physical presence, where we are woven into our tech, our cars drive themselves and we argue with our own hologram. It’s all about what lies ahead.

But insight and wisdom has survived thousands of years. It is incredible that ideas borne in ages so different to modernity in every respect are as applicable now as they were in their own time, and in consideration of which relations of production, technology and social norms are but distractions. The past will make sense of our future yet.

We thought. It might be worth us thinking again.