Crystal: a workplace story

Crystal liked to read management blogs. They were free, and all over the internet. There were more than she could keep track of, and each one she read revealed many others. The people who wrote them seemed confident and assured. Crystal always liked the certainty they exuded.

A phrase rattled around in Crystal’s head – “get out of the way”. She had read this a lot. It seemed to be a Big Thing. She related it to her own team management style – regular 1:1’s, SMART objectives, project tracking, and her number one rule – No Surprises.

Crystal wondered if she was stifling creativity, stunting innovation, discouraging failure, driving her people away, swishing her tail around like stegosaurus in a cupcake shop.

Getting out of the way was different. But the blogs also suggested feeling uncomfortable was good too.

So Crystal decided to get out of the way.

Tamara had been pushing a prototype idea for some months that seemed way out of kilter with the product development stream. Crystal stepped back while Tamara spent three months and £150K on an idea that was clear would never work after the first week. But she had got out of the way.

Rupert in Comms had been desperate to expand the firm’s social media coverage by openly interacting with customers on Twitter. Crystal wasn’t sure, but she stood aside. Rupert promptly released key product information in an emotional spat with a difficult customer that was seized on by the competition, and they were beaten to market. The cost was hard to estimate. But she had got out of the way.

Pierre in Finance had been researching some tax ideas that would save a pope’s ransom if successful. Crystal was uncomfortable, but after Tamara and Rupert had soured her First Quarter she needed some good news, so let Pierre pursue his strategy. She got out of the way, and after the first few months all seemed positive. It could happen, she assured herself. So she carried on.

Shelley and Eg believed they had found a lower cost way to source key components, buying in bulk from a new supplier who promised to undercut the market as long as they ordered well in advanced and stocked in bulk. Their charts and forecasts were compelling, so Crystal obliged and stood back. But having ditched the existing supply chain, the new supplier’s initial bulk batch failed the statutory QC check. They reverted to their original supplier, whose prices had increased 20%. But Crystal had got out of the way.

When Crystal allowed Marcus to set up a small “skunk works” team in an incubation centre that produced nothing but great career opportunities for Marcus and the team with fledgling competitor firms, she began to doubt the wisdom of getting out of the way, but struggled to consider that all those bloggers could be wrong.

That was, until the phone rang. It was the Inland Revenue. They were going to audit their tax structures, believing them to be illegal.

Crystal realised the bloggers were right.

Once you get out of the way, you have to stay out of the way. Right out of the way.

The fall of because

The world has run out of insight.

Previously assumed to be in infinite supply – its not.

What do we do when something runs out?

We pretend it hasn’t. We put our heads in the sand. We carry on like we always have. But our conclusions grow emptier, our breath stale, our vision blurred.

We dilute it. We take the wisdom of others before us, and add our own inferior commentary to make it go further. It tastes thin, weak.

We recycle it. We mix it with other wasted ideas and roll it out as new. But its structure has deteriorated. It is limp, vulnerable.

We substitute it. We dress other stuff up to make it look like it. But the seams show, the fit is ill.

We look for alternative sources. Pointless when there are none. Idealists and dreamers vanish and perish in the wilderness, lost with their stories.

We crash the party where we think they’re using it all up. Hacking. But its the wrong party. They are buying plastic boxes.

We genetically modify other related sources. But we tamper with nature at our peril. We risk everything.

Or we look for an alternative way. We acknowledge it, face the truth. In a world without insight, our conversation takes on new meaning.

We find ourselves, once again.

 

Elton the InBox Zero

Elton was a hundred-a-day man and proud he received e-mails in three figure wads even though it was usually less and could say that kind of thing when he was standing by the watercooler albeit usually on his own and generating his own white noise whereby he would often string the words together in one elongated string to see whether he could create a multi-layered background murmur all on his own. It probably tells you enough about Elton already. But what was fizzing in his mind was that he had heard that it was possible to have an empty e-mail inbox at the end of the day and it even had a ripping name, InBoxZero which just had to be something he could only have dreamed of. It sounded like the hundred press-ups challenge he had once tried where he had got to seventeen before needing a rest but this time he really felt he could do it and so resolved to do it and even made plans to do it.

Elton got in early which as he was always in early was in this case very early and cleared the decks and got a coffee and then after a while got another coffee and took his tie off and put his tie back on so as to feel more business-like and set about his Inbox with relish and gusto and even a little bravado. He arranged them by importance  but no-one used the little blue downpointing arrow because nothing is ever that unimportant then he arranged them by sender and deleted everything from distant relatives in lagos with a large inheritance he didn’t know he had and then from a company or a logo and then from anyone he didn’t know which turned out to be most of them then he arranged them by date and deleted older than a month then older than three weeks and then thought that a week was probably enough if he hadn’t already replied. He then replied to those that needed a reply that he hadn’t already replied to or at least couldn’t remember whether he had replied to or not especially anything from his boss or mum but in the other order and then deleted the original e-mail and then he put all of his sent and deleted items in a big folder called general and stared at his screen because all that remained now fitted on one screen and with eyes a-squint he highlighted them all and with a deep deep breath deleted the lot without looking to see who they were from concluding if it was important they would re-send or mail again. InBoxZero. Nada. It was dark outside. He needed the bathroom. He went home springy albeit not skipping because no-one really skips other than the chancellor of the exchequer but with a real sense of achievement at least he thought that’s what it was because it had been so long since he felt anything similar if he could remember ever having felt it at all. Like a kiss.

The very next day Elton was a little sad. He would be back to the old ways of bucketing the water from his sinking boat, the slow down the slow drown. He logged on. Nada. He checked his settings maybe in his fury he had flicked a blind switch because there were hundreds in e-mail you could do it inadvertently and spend all day wondering what silly thing you had done but all seemed normal so he sent himself a Test e-mail and called it Test because everyone does it’s like saying 1-2 with a microphone why doesn’t anyone ever say anything different and there was a soft ping and there is was to Elton from Elton subject: Test. But nothing else.

So he mailed his mum and asked her questions about her breakfast and then arranged some meetings and so sent out lots of meeting requests even with people in accounts and signed up for some newsletters from companies he felt were okay and then signed up for newsletters for companies he hated and then ticked some boxes to receive offers from related companies and then unticked some boxes to ensure he received offers from related companies and anyone they could sell their mailing lists to or even give them away just to be noticed and then he mailed his boss admitting to an imaginary minor mistake that would certainly unleash a remonstrating mail that stopped short of any opportunity for him to take the matter of his treatment up as a grievance. Nothing. Nada. He sent himself another Test message called Test 2 just to avoid confusion with Test and within seconds the soft ping to Elton from Elton subject: Test 2. He went outside and got a coffee and a third stamp on his collect nine stamps and get a free coffee card and walked back very slowly and stopped in reception and read the from page of yesterday’s FT and ambled upstairs to his desk and looked at his screen. Nothing. So he shut down and restarted and then just restarted and then he called IT and the man from IT came and sat at his desk with half a bag of cheese and onion crisps and didn’t say much but looked through all of his settings and checked his network connection and ran some diagnostics and left his empty crisp bag on the desk and an oily sheen on his keyboard as he left confirming everything was okay.

But everything wasn’t OKAY it was a trick of the light trick of the mind trick or treat trick on a stick it was a padded cell it was his own, personal, bespoke, tailored-to-fit hell he had disappeared from view from the world from consciousness from the ethereal ether from the space time continuum from the third dimension altogether he was at long last zero, zero point zero zero, nothing. Nothing other than the mails he sent himself. Nada.

Elton stared at the screen and stared into the InBox and his pupils dilated and the pixels dilated and he could see himself staring back at himself only he was old and sunken and lined and hollow the colour and texture of dirty sand slipping through a bony hand and he realised in the midst of his paralysing sorrow that as it could already be tomorrow it really was time to go.

 

Dust from the walls of institutions….

 An open letter to Jeremy Paxman

Dear Jeremy

This is a reply to your article in the Guardian of 12 September.

You have certainly woken up the “open plan” agitati again, just when we thought that every journalist and commentator with a personal gripe and the privilege of access to a mainstream media channel had got it off their chest. I really thought the witch trials were over.

If I were a king for a day there would certainly be other more pressing matters than “open plan”. Perhaps this suggests an exhausted agenda on your part, or a desire for not too taxing an eight hours on the throne (with an hour for lunch). That you have never met anyone who likes open plan offices probably says more about the circles in which you mix than open plan offices, so perhaps royalty is not too distant a wish. While you clearly have frustrations at not finding an office with your name on the door and the cloying smell of Pledge in the air, your position is flawed in a number of respects.

Firstly, like so many others, you entangle “open plan” (sharing desks) with a flexible workplace (a wide range of space settings for everything you do in a working day – including a quiet chat with a channel controller), and your reluctance to research or identify the difference (as so often is the case) undermines your position. The beneficial unintended consequence here might just be a helpful nudge to the workplace industry toward more clarity on the difference so that when commentators such as yourself take up arms you at least are aware of against what. Then we might all have a more productive discussion.

Secondly, you consider that the modern workplace is a plot against human dignity, a weapon of oppression. While there may be the odd tyrant hiding in the light, most organisations that have invested considerable sums in workplace rennovation – the BBC amongst them – have engaged with their staff, enhanced and enriched the facilities available, and created a vastly improved experience aimed at bringing colleagues together for the benefit of themselves and the corporate body. In doing so, they show clearly that people matter. As with all such investments there has to be a commercial proposition (shareholders would rightly demand it), and the solutions on offer are not without the odd flight of fancy or rare but regrettable reversion to an immersive kindergarten. But those of us in the wider workplace discipline are committed to improving the outcome for all – we willingly share our IP, passion, creativity and commitment in the cause of improving the working life of as many as possible.

Finally, you offer nothing in return. The implied alternative is either a reversion to long and silent corridors and the “inexorable sadness of pencils” (Roethke) – or a crippling and unsustainable investment in real estate. Or, perhaps, just a glossy rendition of the past. I am old enough to have worked in de-humanised environments in which the number of window bays depicted your worth, where you could arrive, work all day and leave without saying a word to – or even seeing – another living soul – and you could die in your office and it take several days for anyone to notice. It was the institutionalised sadness of these desolate halls that inspired me to do something about it.

The one chink of light in your piece was the comment about coatstands – strangley, its one of the “little things” I often nag designers about, that are so often forgotten until the first monsoon after move-in. We really must sweat the small stuff, or it consumes the big ideas.

If you were king for a day, you would (with thankfully very few remaining exceptions) soon realise that you were gifted only a ceremonial role. What a blessed relief.

Yours sincerely

 

Word up

Perhaps it has something to do with the word itself, but we are disciplined to think in disciplines. The categorisation is helpful to us, as much as it makes us lazy and narrowminded. We unconsciously describe ourselves in these terms, we join collective and protective bodies, derive pride from association, jointly create myth, and approach others from disciplines not our own with suspicion and caution. Some bodies even have exams so you can earn the right to your discipline, and thereby accentuate all of these behaviours. There must be at least fifty ways to stuff a shirt.

I even wrote a post a while ago claiming that Workplace is a discipline, made up of ideas from a multitude of other disciplines. I stand by it, on the superficial level of the idea of disciplines.

When I attended the second HR unconference several years ago, I was asked what interest a property person had in all of this stuff (and if I played guitar). My response was that we were all looking at the same stuff, just from a different direction. But what is it all?

Its the social, ourselves and our relations: culture, community, the language we use and the way we use it, our interactions (face to face and through social tools), our stories, art and expression, skills, attributes, learing and development. The physical, that which we conceive, design, create and subsequently relate to: the wider urban environment, workplace, technical infrastructure and the software and applications that make it usable and accessible. And the obligatory, the mesh that provides a degree of governance: laws, regulations, title, IP, employment, norms, behaviours, morality and etiquette. Broad, arguable strands.

We fixate on the artificial constructs we erect to provide us with permission to consider these facets, and a language of expression peculiar to each. But the point of the post is not another silo-bashing exercise, but the question of what all this stuff is, collectively. We don’t actually have a word for it. Neither do the Greeks, I checked. The disciplines would rather not have a word for it, given their inherent interest in self-preservation.

There are few occasions in life when one needs to invite the deconstructivists in. The children of Jacques Derrida hold that there is no possibility of intrinsic or stable meaning, of absolute truth, and that consequently most words we use have meaning only in their counter-effect with others. Something is “hot”, for example, because it is not “cold”. For this reason they suggest that new terms are a necessity, to get us away from this problem – new terms have no opposites. Not the ubiquitous and regrettable modern tendency to dig up old ideas, re-badge them and claim its something new – but new terms entirely, with new meaning. Jon Husband’s “wirearchy” is a great example. So we have our permission.

So what are we going to call all this social, physical and obligatory stuff that we view through the frames of our disciplines? I offer logasphere. Loga is Hindi for people, and has a helpful softness and ease. Sphere because it is a domain. I specifically resisted the fad for the biological. I ran it past my regular sanity-checker, Perry Timms, who has already claimed to be the first known logaholic.

Whether you are in HR, workplace, property, communications, technology, occupational health, or finance, its likely you’re thinking about and acting in the logasphere. I would happily bury this for a better word – but its at least time we gave ourselves the chance of a common understanding.

Now, at last, we can peel off our labels.

 

Turtles all the way down

Everywhere you look, the workplace is under attack. Its calm presence as a binder of people, creator of opportunity, opportunity for creativity and home-from-home leaving the home as a home is being challenged from all angles.

A week rarely passes where I am not required to pitch in on behalf of the workplace, reinforcing its vital importance to an organisation, and why exceptional design from a thorough brief can bring about a beneficially transformative effect.

So who are the multitude so arrayed, who would bring about such harm?

Trivialists, who are unable to separate the word “cool” from the term “workplace”, and deny that any workplace even actually exists unless it has appeared in its expansive, pristine, just-PC’d shadow-peopled gloss in Forbes or Fast Company. Like a Miu Miu handbag or a Pekinese, the office is useful only as a fashion appendage, ergo, it isn’t useful. Sorry, your Centurion Card is not being accepted, do you have any broken mirrors?

Generationalists, who want to turn the office into a primary colour-clad rubberised playpen where flexible mums (never dads, of course) can share their emotional exhaustion over a watery latte while watching their offspring experiment safely with responsibility and initiative, and still be home in time for tea. Bath and bed, with no story.

Futurists, those for whom such a narcissistic job title can only be auto-imposed, who believe the workplace will be a self-charging virtual, dispersed and vaporous dreamstate, in which we rapturously transact gift and goodwill, while we remain at home hardwired into the nespresso. But what do they know, eh?

Horizontalists, who want to dismantle the structures on which the workplace totters, breaking down silos, deconstructing definitions, blurring boundaries, and diluting the contribution of the central place of work. Its all apparently “beyond ther workplace”. Unbeknown to them however, although the world is perched on the back of an elephant, its turtles all the way down.

Culturalists, who believe that culture trumps design when it comes to determining the form of the phsyical working environment. The strength of the hand lies principally in the casting of fear from challenging the contribution of culture. Amid the deepening of voices, lowering of chins, furrowing of brows and banding of South Bank Show vocabularie, lurks a fundamental problem: they have no idea what culture means, let alone how it determines the form of the phsyical working environment. What does it all meme?

Googlists, who think that every workplace should deploy every colour in the known spectrum, every item of furniture in every catalogue ever produced, and everything for sale on eBay that has no other practical use or possible buyer. Because when your brief is that open, nothing can possibly be wrong, and anyone can do it as long as they’re wearing fancy dress.

Fortunately, those assembled in the flodden fields are disorganised, disunited, and generally in disagreement with one other. The odd skirmish keeps the workplace sharp. When it all really kicks off though, we’ll be glad of the turtles.

 

Barefoot in the heart: part 9, the FM

me I”m an FM its a profession of course qualification accolade badge and recognition we’re the hidden force the key in the ignition we keep you housed lit safe portered secure warm fed caffeinated and watered of course its not about bricks and mortar now but service even though it all revolves around the buffed and branded headquarter polished knobs on the top floor and the occasional respite of a shard of daylight in the basement which we call lower ground makes it sound more humane for the urbane department but get two #of us FM’s in a room and we’ll argue all night about what it means like a definition would actually make a difference but its a distraction from following the intuition that’s dragged us up from perdition while some folks at the institution are having afternoon tea with the CPID for Rich Tea and credibility but some at the thin end of the normal distribution think their body is just a pingback in history to an earlier stage of evolution now they’re post-cupcake social and they don’t seem to have got excited about the prenuptial and its no mystery that the HR folk at base never speak to me being operational is so constipational we’ve climbed the thirty one practices to strategy stepped right over tactical in the ascent because no-one knew what it meant albeit seems we did so in our imagination because corporate lovetrain’s left the station no-one here to explain we’ll catch the last one when it comes round again but in my heart I am barefoot as there’s nothing I couldn’t surpass if I could just get this target off my arse if my back’s to the wall or I’m seated its the only way I don’t feel like the walking defeated while the beancounters have us spreadsheeted and receipted but we know there’s value in the occasional smile or softly spoken thank you for the extra mile that’s always expected my only seat at the table the one I ordered and got to unpack before the meeting started I’ll try it when everyone’s departed but its a long old weft just hope they were too busy talking than eating and there’s a flapjack left

 

Great journeys of our time: Milton Keynes to Soho

Without doubt, the most consistently restrictive feature of workplace design in the decade of social enlightenment has been the straight line. It is a management panacea. The application of the shortest route between two points has enabled workplaces to be created simply and quickly, to be managed easily and at the lowest possible cost. and to complement and reinforce control structures. They can be planned, understood, changed, flexed and maintained on a spreadsheet.

And so we start our journey at the town designed on the ruler’s edge, Milton Keynes.

The dream was made flesh in 1967. Initially intended to be a new town of a quarter of a million people that would gift a wealth of lakes, parkland, planting, footpaths and cycleways, it would avoid the problems associated with previous attempts at “garden cities” and offer an antidote to Burgessesque polluted, congested, high-rise, fragmented urbania, a chance of a better life. Liz Leyh’s “Concrete Cows” – the installation that became the town’s de facto brand – was just one piece amongst the largest collection of contemporary sculpture in the UK.

Much of it came to pass. You can get from one side of town to the other in just fifteen minutes, travel 180 miles of footpaths and bridleways, live in an energy efficient house peacefully set away from the main road network, and spend time at any of its fifteen lakes in the 20% of the town’s land that is open space. All alongside one of the youngest average metropolitan populations in the country.

There are some dubiously soulless contributions too. The UK’s first… motorway service station, multiplex, drive-through fast-food outlet, and covered shopping mall.

Does this sound like the identikit brief for the new golden dream of the modern workplace? Clean and tidy, biscected by easy passage, generic, predictable, open and visible, grid-planned and prescriptive, socially contained, facilitating convenience and instant gratification, topped off with a misplaced focus on younger generations?

Yet what we want lies at the destination of our journey. Unfashionable in the 17th Century when its name first appeared, Soho became the chosen destination for immigrant Huguenot tailors and silversmiths. By the 19th Century they were joined by musical halls, small theatres and prostitutes. This cocktail of the creative and the unsavoury created a natural home for artists and intellectuals, By the 1950’s it had become the home of beatnik culture, and in 1958 the opening of the Marquee put it on the tour map. The relaxation of the censorship laws in 2000 significantly contracted the red light area, allowing Soho to consolidate its heady mix of independent and diverse theatre, fashion, art, cool-end retail, music, fringe religion, entertainment and creative industry.

Does this sound more like the workplace you would want to work in? All curves, surprises, colour, discovery, intricacy, intimacy, comfort, art, fascination, change? Where you can influence the outcome, where if you dont like what is around one corner you can simply find another? Where you can meet if you want to and where you want to – or just be alone, hidden, undisturbed, in a part of the weave that’s “yours”? Where not everything is within the rules?

But Soho isn’t planned, and is extremely difficult and expensive to manage and maintain. People will do their own thing, get lost, do stuff they’re not supposed to, maybe not be there at all. They may not even need you.

Having spoken of this several times before in passing and intending to write this piece, it was timely read Neil Morrison’s take on the theme in a recent post, in regard to HR: “We provide very little choice in organisations, very little flexibility and very little responsibility. Instead we standardise, homogenise, process and commoditise the employment relationship. Partly because it makes things easy for us, partly because it retains control”

While this post started out looking at the physical workplace, its point can be applied to the wider working environment. We have no straight lines in our body, nor our mind. We can’t even draw a straight line unaided. We are organic, chaotic, surprising. Our environment needs to reflect this, rather than trying to compensate for it.

While linear, predictable Milton Keynes is easier to design, procure, manage, view, control, flex, re-organise, close and dispose, and where the grass is greener, the air fresher and the path clearer, it is haywire, soulful, intense and unpredictable Soho that lies at our journey’s end.

We want Soho, but build and manage Milton Keynes – and ask ourselves why it isn’t working. It may be time to sit outside Bar Italia with a double espresso one morning, and resolve to do something different.

 

Putting out fire (with gasoline)

“A plague I call a heartbeat” – 
David Bowie, “Cat People”

The Economist blogger Schumpeter recently proposed decluttering the company. I see lots of sage expressions, nodding heads. No-one would openly propose “cluttering” it up any more than it is, would they? Promising start, then.

Along with some annoyingly useful data supporting what we already know to be true (like we spend an increasingly greater proportion of our time in meetings and that many have little purpose – well, raise my rent) was the uncharacteristically preposterous suggestion that “spring cleaning needs to be reinforced by policies to stop the clutter accumulating in the first place”. Even though the clutter is already here.

A CEO at a company I used to work for talked about “lightening the backpack” (his was later removed altogether), and the article referenced “organisational load”, a term used by Boeing amongst others to refer to the weight of meetings, communication and initiatives preventing employees from being productive and creative. Good, we have a target.

But to suggest that the way to counter the daily gunk of the modern organisation is with more gunk is the sort of suggestion that has one glancing upwards for the nearest light fitting capable of taking your bodyweight.

A “policy” is one of the hardest things to get approved in most large organisations, given it is part of the ever-more pervasive governance framework. Imagine the spine-and-spirit crushing weight of the team formation, meetings, drafting, audit checks, politicking and positioning (people wanting “in” if its looks promising, “out” when it takes a wrong turn), submissions and re-submissions (after re-drafting and many more meetings) and finally the Board ratification of the end result that by the time several other departments played topiary with it, resembled nothing that left the final project team approval meeting – and weep softly. We understand, we shall weep with you.

The last thing the world needs is another bloody policy. They are the plague we call a heartbeat. Even if all it does is instruct meetings to stop if they are going off track (thank you for that gem, Lenovo – how useful can a tangent be after all?). Revelation – we can do something about it. Ourselves. A litte more common sense, a little more courage, and a slightly more determined voice when things look daft, and we will all carry a little less weight.

Try and put that in a policy, and we’re all on the fire.

Bill & Ted’s excellent workplace

Since 1989, the idea of our being “excellent to each other” has scythed its way like industrial detergent through the congealed grease of our thinking on work, management and leadership.

Nothing new here – the expression has appeared in numerous blog posts over the years and bubbled its way through countless after-five lager-lubricated conversations. Yet when we’re done proclaiming that its about all there is or needs to be, we still seem collectively a little nervous and embarassed that it could actually be the case. Especially as the script for the whole film was written by hand in just four days. There must be a more grown-up way of saying it?

Well, not really.

And then along comes an article that takes our inability to keep things simple right down to the Abyssal Zone.

Apparently “the new buzzwords on every workplace designer’s tongue are incubation, cross-pollination, symbiosis….” – who the heck are these people? If I ever see any of those words in a pitch, its over, there and then. All three together will merit a special outcome. I should add that if you are actually interested in this kind of thing, there is an excellent glossary of stuff you could raid here. Its where I found “Abyssal Zone”. Easy isn’t it?

So consider that if we design and create our workplace so that it supports us being excellent to each other, we actually have it cracked. It requires that we explain what being excellent means in equally simple terms, not those embarrassingly borrowed from deservedly far more complex disciplines to make us sound smart.

If our workplace allows us to respond to the individual and social needs of our colleagues and has enough of everything so as not to create tension in the exercising of our choices, if its reasonable quality, if it allows us to get a decent drink and eat something healthy, if all the tech works so we don’t vent our frustration on the next person to ask us a tricky question, then we have a place that helps us be excellent to each other.

That’s scary to a lot of workplace practitioners, thinkers and designers. Imagine having to admit that all of the energy and cash spent on research, experimentation and installations actually boiled down to a throwaway line from a goofy geek-flick. I wonder if its ever shown up in a pitch?

We’re people, not lichen or plants. We’re just looking out for each other, while hoping to stay happy, get better at what we do, and learn something useful in the process. Then everybody benefits, whatever fauxcracy happens to be governing our domain. We really should stop looking for the next scientific term to explain what happens between us. That’s actually far more embarassing than quoting Bill and Ted.