The Elemental Standard

You have to wonder if we need the WELL standard, another high-end, elitist evaluation methodology that needs a horde of expensive consultants to assess against an unintelligible scale for which the acceptable mark is attainable by all but the privileged few. While it’s dressed up as a people-focussed standard, it’s still ultimately applicable to the built asset – the building gets the badge. Effectively it’s an extension of BREEAM and LEED.

How about a simple, clear and practical approach to creating a decent and effective workplace for as many people as possible, taking into account the physical space, the installations and the technology as they relate directly to people using them. No badges awarded, just a reputation. A standard that can be achieved on a budget found down the back of the sofa. A standard that everyone can assess, and everyone can aspire to. And the highest award – Elemental. As in, attainable and expected rather than a mark of exception and distinction, a matter of right.

The #elementalworkplace has explored the ten characteristics of a decent workplace on a number of occasions since it was first published in 2014 (well before WELL). What I have attempted to do here is turn it into a straightforward self-assessment methodology. Give it a try against your workplace. It’s intuitive, requires no calibrated measuring devices and will take minutes (you may need to ask for one piece of data from your friendly FM). This isn’t trying to compete with stuff like Leesman, as there is no reference in here to productivity – it just assumes that if the workplace is decent, you’ll be able to get on with your work and will feel more valued, which must have a positive bearing on productivity. Dangerously simple, but doesn’t need an expensive economist to hazard a guess.

Daylight: As much of it as possible, from as many angles as possible. There is no artificial source of this gift that comes close to that which pours plentiful from the sky. It regulates our circadian rhythm, it is our in-built human clock. It has been claimed that working in natural daylight ensures we get 46 minutes extra sleep at night. Sunlight is a natural disinfectant, it kills streptococci, and has proven in care environments to speed patient recovery time by up to 40%. Yet Sir Cary Cooper’s research suggests that over 40% of office workers in Europe have no access to natural light during the day. It’s top of every office environment wish-list.

Points Condition
10 You are 20 large paces or less from a source of natural daylight in the place(s) you normally work for over three quarters of the working day
5 You are 40 large paces or less from a source of natural daylight in the place(s) you normally work for over half of the working day
0 You work predominantly (over half of the working day) under artificial light only
-5 You work predominantly (over half of the working day) under artificial light, and it is under-powered for your needs, flickers, is a sickly yellow or is unreliable

An environment you can control. As the HSE captures it, this includes temperature, humidity, air velocity and radiant temperature. The environment certainly doesn’t have to be air conditioned (in fact poor quality AC is far worse than none at all – and in some countries such as Switzerland AC is technically illegal), but you do need to be able to vary the environmental conditions in response to both external conditions, and to equipment, people and technology in the space.

Points Condition
10 You can control some/all of these elements – particularly temperature – in the localised area in which you normally work (or can call someone to do it fairly quickly for you)
5 You can control some/all of these elements – particularly temperature – in a large, open space area in which you normally work (or can call someone to do it fairly quickly for you)
0 You can’t control the temperature, humidity or draughts at all – you’re stuck with the way it is

A choice of spaces. You don’t need the full catalogue of over-designed adolescent dens with infantile names, but you do need four basic types:

  • Somewhere to work at a desk (or similar) with your team – a space that most would recognise as a standard desk in generally open space – let’s call this “primary” space
  • Somewhere quiet and comfortable to focus alone (and it doesn’t need the acoustic privacy of a padded cell to qualify), where people will leave you to get on with it
  • Somewhere informal to meet with colleagues write stuff up on a wall and leave it there
  • Somewhere a bit more formal to meet, with a door (because not everything is good for everyone to overhear)

Let’s call them the “four key” spaces for now. Its sure to be shortened to “forky”. And then it’s all very well having the choice of physical space available, but you also need to free to exercise those choices – so the scoring tries to take this into account too.

Points Condition
15 You have access to the four key space types, and are free to exercise a choice of what space you use and when
10 You have access to three or more of the key four space types including primary, and are free to exercise a choice of what space you use and when
5 You have access to three or more of the key four space types including primary, but need to get the OK to use anything other than primary
0 Primary and meeting rooms only, the booking of which is like trying to get a table at the Ivy– and you’re expected to be seen at your desk unless you’re in a meeting

Space. Enough space to swing a cat? Now if I were to swing a large-ish (toy) cat, given I have fairly long arms that would create a space of roughly six square metres – greater than the statutory UK minimum. All that the density of space measures is efficiency, and has no bearing on effectiveness. Yet there has to be a threshold. On an overall NIA basis, dividing our total space by our number of people working from it (subtle difference to the number working in it), the average shouldn’t go below 6m2 per person. While there is probably an upper threshold too, such that we might be rattling around inside a vast expanse of office and not see a living soul for hours, that’s fairly unlikely to happen in this cost-conscious age. However, I’ve added a bonus zero for good measure, just in case. You don’t need to physically measure it – just imagine me swinging a large toy cat – and take a guess from there. You could always ask your Facilities Manager if you want the actual data.

Points Condition
10 10-15m2/person
5 6-10m2/person
0 Less than 6m2/person
0 More than 15 m2/person

WiFi/network that works. Nothing brings on randomly directed guttural Anglo Saxon like a signal as reliable and as like to stand up as England’s brittle Test Match middle order. This one attracts extra points – it’s the thing that needs fixing first, every time. It should be the first line on any workplace cost plan. We can operate effectively in a poor workplace with excellent IT and connectivity, as we do in less than ergonomic, noisy and insecure public spaces such as cafés, yet not the other way around. There are no excuses when every business is a technology business, and despite the clamour in almost every organisation you shouldn’t have to BYOD to make up for the shortcomings of what is provided. BYOD should be a scheme to create choice, not a residual fix. Proportionally, the cost per person is tiny compared to even a moderate workplace fit-out.

Points Condition
20 Your ultralight laptop fits in your bag, doesn’t prompt a call to the chiropractor at the end of each day, has a flash drive and all of its keys, and the reliable data signal works just as well on Ethernet or WiFi wherever you go in the building
10 All of the above, but your laptop is over two years old and everything works better when its plugged into the Ethernet
0 Your laptop is a dog, has keys missing, and the network drops out like 60’s art school hippy

Somewhere to put your stuff, with a lock on it. Your papers (you will have some), your purse/wallet, your gym bag, maybe your shoes. Well, of course your shoes; who doesn’t have a few pairs in the office (have you seen the state of the pavements)? And the more you are committed to wellbeing the more stuff you have, it tends to correspond with a need for a change of clothing or two. And you would really like to trust that your stuff will be where you left it.

Points Condition
10 You have sole use of a locker or cupboard (or both) that can take a small gym bag, a pair of shoes, your laptop and some other stuff – and its lockable
5 You share a storage facility for your stuff with one or two other people and its lockable
0 You either don’t have enough storage space for your stuff, or its not lockable – or both

Access to drinks and food, creating at least the potential for reasonable quality. This can be tricky to assess because there are no guidelines (formal or informal – ask anyone, get a different response) as to when a staffed facility should be provided within a building, give location and size factors, or the degree of subsidy that should be applied. The spectrum starts from a bare minimum of needing to have a clean, functional space for drinks and food to be able to be prepared by the occupants. You could still make coffee that tastes like bisto and turn your potato into a white dwarf – but at least there is the possibility of you doing so. I’ve created an entirely arbitrary divide with two options, and also gathered food and drink into a single category for the purpose. It’s up to you which you choose to use.

If your workplace is either out-of-town (as in, nothing decent nearby) and/or has over 300 people wherever it is sited – that is, assumed to have a staffed facility:

Points Condition
10 You can obtain healthy food options, hot and cold, and high-street standard barista coffee at subsidised prices without leaving the building
5 You can obtain reasonably healthy food options, hot (if possible) and cold (at least), and bean-to-cup coffee at reasonable prices (as in, no higher than the high street) without leaving the building
0 It’s powdered vend only – if that – and a trip down the high street for a very expensive sandwich

If your workplace is either in a city-centre or amenity-rich environment, or has under 300 people – that is, assumed not to have a staffed facility:

Points Condition
10 You have a clean and well-maintained kitchen and food preparation area shared by less than 100 people, with ample refrigeration and microwave ovens, and somewhere locally away from the desk to sit and consume your creations
5 You have a reasonably well looked after kitchen and food preparation area shared by less than 250 people, with some refrigeration and a microwave oven, and somewhere locally away from the desk to sit and consume your creations
0 You have a firry kettle and a rusty teaspoon on a string, and you can only take your health-hazard of a drink back to your desk

Sanitary sanity. Toilets that are clean, warm, have hot water and soap, and allow you to dry your hands on something unique to you. I have a personal beef about noisy hand-driers but it’s invariably because people often shove paper towels down the toilets that they’re necessary – irrespective of the inconclusive environmental debate.

Points Condition
10 Your toilets are warm, clean and stocked, and you generally have access to them when you need them (which is quite important with toilets)
5 Your toilets are generally warm, clean and stocked, and you generally have access to them when you need them – but it all could be improved
0 Your toilets are cold, less than clean and invariably un-stocked – and often in use by someone who seems to have fallen into a coma

The opportunity to have an influence over the space. Often mis-cued as ‘personalisation’ this could mean as a group, it could mean just you – it could mean just for the day, or for longer. But just so that you have some way of adding something so you create a bond with your space, however small.

Points Condition
10 You can influence the space in which you work – you can leave your stuff out (you may still have to clear surfaces at the end of the day), and put your work on display on walls and whiteboards and leave it there
5 You can partially influence the space in which you work – you can leave your stuff out but have to clear surfaces at the end of the day, and put your work on display on walls and whiteboards during the day but clear it away at the end
0 The rules have been written by the secret police, and anything you place or leave on the desk is destroyed overnight in a controlled explosion

Colour. If you check the cover of Dark Side of the Moon (you’ll have a copy, everyone does), there is a whole spectrum out there. It changes our mood, lightens our spirit. Not everything has to look as blandly bland as Apple store – they seem to like it, so leave them to it. Colour usually costs the same as lack of it too. It just needs a little thought – and a little taste.

Add up your score, and here is the ranking:

Points Ranking Assessment
70+ Elemental Your workplace is amazing. Tell your friends, tell your Mum, tell everyone, and enjoy it – you’re valued
45 – 70 Decent Not a bad place to work. But do watch out for where you hit some zeros – you may want to  raise them with someone with a budget
25–44 Poor It’s not looking too good, is it? There are probably a few things that are okay, as you have a few points on the board. Still, some significant room for improvement
0 – 24 Terrible Crikey, your workplace is crap. Unless it’s an amazing job and you work with fantastic people, you might want to re-evaluate why you’re still there

All of the Elemental ratings in each category are possible, with a little thought, willpower, a recognition of the difference it will make to people and a little cash. If we could do enough for every workplace to be Elemental, imagine what we could achieve after that.

Everyone deserves a great workplace. End. Of.

 

My mirrored room

This is the first of two responses to an excellent article by Antony Slumbers, in this instance offering that his views offer too conservative a view of how technology will shape our work future.

Give me back my broken night
my mirrored room, my secret life
(
Leonard Cohen)

Dr Pangloss, the teacher of metaphysics in Candide, Voltaire’s hilariously sarcastic attack on Leibnizian optimism, offered a timeless and universal explanation of the most cruel and tragic events as “the best of all possible worlds”. I would argue however that far from creating a landscape of optimism, it facilitates a dismissal of all significant change as an irrelevance given that effectively we have no option other than to happily accept it. For example, whether property transitions to a service or remains locked in its existing institutional quagmire, it doesn’t matter, either way its fine as it’s the best we can hope for. Accept it, happily. A Panglossian future only looks appealing if you’re –well, Dr Pangloss.

Future gazing is always inherently limited by our understanding of the present. We are rarely able to shake off the weltanschauung that gifts us a frame of reference for all we know and all we are able to imagine. We are thinking and talking in a mirrored room, it offers us certainty, comfort and calm. This is particularly so where technology is concerned, especially where breakthrough moments occur, reaching beyond the incremental development of an idea. This in itself holds the key to a greater, genuine optimism. It is the leap beyond our world view, beyond the models and frames through which we understand and speculate, that intrigue. Property as a service is still property, conceived as an offering that bears a relationship to its present. If property were removed from the equation, that would be interesting. Optimism should always be veined with trepidation and excitement.

If we consider the wider workplace changes of recent years, they have been essentially driven by the pull of people – the ubiquity of social media and messaging platforms, BYOD, blogging, unconferences and self-organised events, and the use of apps and free software. In each case, the corporate response has lagged and policy and attempts at regulation have followed. For the body corporate it has been a little like Ledru-Rollin’s famous (yet probably apocryphal) cry during the 1848 French revolution of “I am their leader, I must follow them!” Such a spirit has fired the start-up industry over the last decade and made this possible. It has been characterised by a distinctly un-Panglossian outlook.

It is with this in mind that I have addressed the matters raised by Antony, considering that they are increments, small steps, revisions of existing metaphors. The provocation that follows holds that he has been unusually conservative in his outlook.

You should assume the office really is dead
The existence and nature of the office, essentially an unchanged physicality for over a hundred years, attracts considerable attention. Very often this emanates from the journalistic community, shoehorned into open offices while craving a yesteryear best encapsulated in the recent reflections from the writers of the Economist on the home they are due to leave after fifty two years. Yet the office is part of the superstructure, a consequence of the underlying infrastructure, in workplace terms the system of management, and the organisational culture it supports and is supported by. With the rolling automation of work tasks, a process that has been ongoing for millennia, the need for the physical focal point manifested as the office will change, but any challenge to its existence serves no purpose to the infrastructure. I have argued before that one of the key trends in workplace design will be the convergence of design and functional influences from a number of areas – leisure, domestic, retail and hotel amongst others – and that we will soon merely reflect on “space”. Purpose and use will be entirely general, rather than specific. The existence of the office is assured, but as part of the genre of physical space. As to the future of the office therefore we shouldn’t be concerned, as it has no causal bearing on anything significant at all.

Machine learning is a double edged sword
I built an expert system when I completed my MSc in IT in 1991. From a fairly simple decision tree, considering a range of inputs it created a marketing plan for a seven-inch single (remember those?). While the system didn’t learn per se, it still supported a rudimentary yet informed decision process using a 4GL shell. It was only a small step even then for such a system to learn, to modify its outputs based on the processing of inputs, to start on the long journey towards the replication of human neural networks and thought processes. Yet computers learning is still directed, and much of the consideration of the automation of workplace roles is based upon instruction and response – even if the instruction is issued once, and the process continues and evolves for some time without interaction. The stage we are at is “where machine learning applies statistical models to the data you have in order to make smart predictions about data you don’t have” (HBR, Nov 2015). When machines decide what they wish to learn and how, our relationship will have changed. This self-direction and self-determination takes us beyond our existing understanding of machine learning. Machines will eventually be able to freely decide which roles they automate. The double-edged sword will be in the hands of the Centimanes.

The death of distance will re-appear
The error here is to think of distance merely in the physical domain. We also use the metaphor of physical instance to explain alienation, misunderstanding, misalignment. We can be or be perceived to be distant in the company of others, when our attention of focus is elsewhere, when we don’t wish to be where we are. The relationship with technology here is interesting, when we remove the physical presence and the sensory components that make interaction uniquely human. We may be able to bridge geographical divides through replication of the human form – telepresence, virtual reality for example – but the distance we will feel will be exacerbated by the removal of the complete sensory experience. Our communication will lack dimensionality, distance will be represented and understood in terms of what is missing. Speaking over screens has been with us for a long time. The next frontier for technology, and the death of distance in the fullest sense, is the replication of the entire sensory experience in human communication. Only then will distance be conquered.

There is no such thing as work/life balance, and that is good
It was commonplace for a highly-regarded commentator in recent years to talk of the ability of technology to enable us to “work on the pause”, to which my response was that the best thing to do with the opportunity of a pause was to pause. The overwhelming majority of talk of the work/life balance has been focussed upon the work side of the equation: work has been the dominant party, forcing its way into our personal lives to the degree that panicked legislation has been called upon in some countries to force us to do what we seem unable to do, to disconnect. What was once a boon, the ability to work when not tethered to a desk in a formal office, has for many become a menace, as we have become addicted to the very thing that was intended to set us free. All in all, neither the cause or effect being particularly “smart”. The rise of autonomous machine learning and distance-conquest however will, far from creating additional work, begin to erode the need for human intervention. Far from bashing out industrial-scale e-mails, reports, spreadsheets, presentations, we will be valued for the human contribution: insight, imagination, creativity. This will require periods of immersion and thought, or the pursuit of other mentally-stimulating activities to trigger the inspiration required (that doesn’t include Twitter). Remuneration will be for value, not time. The time spent on work will diminish, and the work/life balance will wholly tip the other way. The issue we will be facing is the dominance of “life”, and the challenge of filling the void left where work used to be. Humanity is about to face a crisis of boredom.

Assume everything is mobile and that the cloud rules
The idea of storage of data is another metaphor for analogue working practices. We have replaced serried ranks of manila (remember that colour?) filing cabinets with comparatively incredible digital storage capability. Yet two trends will obliterate the need for storage, and effectively therefore the cloud. The first is real time origination. The speed of computing power will remove the need for data retention – everything that is required will be able to be produced on demand. Big Data is a passing phase, the last throes of the need for storage. Mining huge amounts of useless, accumulated “information” (ie crap) – like sorting through a landfill site by hand – will become obsolete. The second is the end of privacy. We are fighting a rear-guard action, one that is becoming increasingly futile. The evolution of openness whereby we expose our entire lives online, has been helping to remove our concerns about privacy, and in a short time they will dwindle. Privacy will be eradicated by the common availability of anything we need to know, at any time, and the willingness to divulge it. When we can see and know everything, nothing will be interesting enough to try all means fair and foul to uncover. One by-product will be the demise of the gutter press, as there won’t be anything worth snooping around for. There will remain a need to retain a small number of access keys, to areas such as finance. But essentially when everything is knowable at any time we wish, we will have removed an obsession that has haunted us for millennia.

Connectivity matters
Bandwidth haunts us all. The issue with connectivity, in metaphorical terms, is still the width of the “pipe”. We have seemed for a decade or more to have always been one step behind, where our applications, location, hunger for more data has been beyond the capacity of the generally-available connection. Wifi, now more wifi, 4G couldn’t arrive fast enough now it’s mainstream and we need 5G. Yet beyond this frustration lies an elastic connectivity that will render physical location once again the dominant consideration. We will have all the connectivity we need, when we need it. The metaphor of the pipe will be no more. Our ability to create, transmit and absorb information will be flexible and ubiquitous. With this elasticity, we will never imagine beyond the capability to connect.

Work is being unbundled
We sensationalise the automation of a task yet it task happens during its twilight, it’s last stuttered breath. It is the final step on a journey from need to creation to maturity before its demise. The bundling is a facet of this demise. In many ways the task has a life akin to a star. At the peak of its magnificence the star implodes, creating as compact and dense an entity as possible, even anti-matter. So too with unwieldy aggregation, it is precisely the opposite of unbundling – it is a super bundling, a consolidation, a densification. Big Data becomes small, intense data until it effectively cases to exist but for a reverse gravitational pull. Work isn’t being unbundled it is being held repeatedly folded in on itself until it disappears altogether. It’s Deleuzian, rather than a delusion.

Software is on demand, available as a service
I wrote a future-based short story recently in which the only surviving technology of this age was Powerpoint, because it had never been bettered. I’m not sure that’s so fanciful. Software itself is enjoying probably its “app”iest ever period, proliferating like a bathfull of frenzied amoebas. As with the unbundling of work, it’s a frenetic swansong. The whole idea of the separation of hardware and software belongs with dumb machinery, waiting to be told what to do. Initially, the proliferation will be reversed and apps will consolidate and multi-task, driven by the sheer annoyance of drowning in options for achieving simple tasks. Thereafter the delineation between hardware and software will wither. Hardware will become further embedded into everything we use and own, and each of those items will be able to perform the widest array of linked tasks on demand, and in anticipation. Software is the floppy disc of the age.

And the result of all this is?
What happens to offices, shops, the high street, is locked into a present and near-future constrained by definitions and metaphors that –once useful – have been holding us back.  A facet of the human condition is prediction. We love to take inputs and project outputs. Somewhere deep in our psyche is a standard-issue black-box modelling app. The result of the natural, progressive dispensation with all of these metaphors, our step outside of the mirrored room, will be the blurring of boundaries and increased levels of confusion.

From the power of weak ties we will move to weak definitions and boundaries. Where our original hope for technology was a world of more calculated certainty, there will be unconstrained and unlimited ambiguity. The need for the exercise of human intuition will never have been more important. We will yield to an overwhelming call to understand what it really means to be human, and what sets us apart. The need for philosophy and the arts to interpret this will also never have been greater – there will be a renaissance of deep thought, as we cast off the laziness of recent decades. In a world where embedded machines make decisions on our behalf, the poets will once again show us the light.

 

The indomitable lions of the workplace

After the success of the cup of lukewarm milk, cashmere onesie and a peardrop-scented candle that was hygge, researchers at the University of Stoke Poges have discovered a word from Scandinavia or somewhere else that has no direct translation because no-one has been particularly bothered: byllge. The team of forty three, sponsored in error by a manufacturer of felt-covered high-backed sofas, believe it means my workplace is a bit crap but no-one really seems that interested in doing anything about it. They weren’t entirely sure it meant that, but when the heating broke in the lab three days ago they logged a job and were now unable to use the internet in mittens.

Even the Stoddart Review missed it, which is obviously unthinkable because it was a report written by some super people and even had a real economist in it.

Before temperatures began to lead to early-stage hypothermia, they were able to elaborate that the conditions associated with the idea are encapsulated with a conscious level of annoyance insufficient to prompt people to leave the organisation, but serious enough such that they would be palpably glad when not having to work there anymore, A no-man’s land of disgruntlement.

Some specific features of byllge are understood to be the following.

  • A scheme in which access to natural daylight operates via a voucher system. Points may be earned through offering unqualified flattery of the organisation’s strategy via the official portal (with deductions made for use of external social media), operating for the entire week within direct line of sight of one’s immediate line manager, and not complaining about any aspect of the workplace.
  • Allocation of space per person based on a complex calculation of the square root of not very much at all, divided by itself. It’s all the rage in Australia, apparently, first surfaced in a 1972 paper in the Journal of Intense Claustrophobia by Jody Bodie and Roy Doyle so it has academic credibility which means its okay. In this approach choice of setting is deemed highly important – as in, you choose to work in this setting or leave. As for when you work, it says so in your Contract.
  • Network connectivity that drops out on the occasion immediately prior to saving several hours’ prep work on a career-defining presentation, audio visual equipment that operates perfectly until the entirely re-written presentation has to be delivered to a lukewarm audience on their smartphones under the table, and missing minor keys on the laptop keyboard. Like the Q.
  • A distraction and stimulation-free environment, in a non-contentious single shade of off-beige chosen by the spouse of someone with a nice car, who does a bit of interior design at home.
  • Building systems in which temperature, humidity and air quality are controlled via a single large, red button believed to be concealed in a safe in an undeclared office on the 13th It is uncertain whether the button has ever been pressed, or what happens exactly when it is.
  • A help desk outsourced to a firm based in Transdneistra who are unable to make outgoing calls.
  • Coffee that is entirely indistinguishable from the oxtail soup option in the vending machine, and boiling water available for tea from a kettle in which limescale has successfully completed a reverse takeover. Food is a place you go, not something “we” do.
  • Toilets with seats cold enough to trigger anaphylactic shock, without paper at the most vital of times, industrial soap (when present) that removes at least two layers of skin from the hand, and driers loud enough to wake long-slumbering ancestors within the burial mound that the office was inevitably built upon, hence the reasons it’s a mile and a half from the nearest station.
  • Wherever you lay your bag, that’s your locker. If anything gets stolen, you probably shouldn’t have brought it to work with you.
  • A facility upgrade programme that sees the 13th floor renovated and re-furnished on an annual basis, to ensure that the organisation is seen to care about its people because it’s all about people (on the 13th floor).

The researchers found that in most organisations surveyed, the incredible adaptability, resilience, optimism and indomitable spirit of its employees overcame these annoyances, and good humour and excellence towards one another was evident. Stuff got done, and got done well. Attending the local café for meeting, working and refreshment, using one’s own device with a Q and a host of free apps, and the interchangeable availability of a puffa jacket and beach shorts appeared helpful in most instances.

But really, it doesn’t have to be like this. It’s elementary. There is work to do in 2017, let’s make sure it happens.

 

12 days of [workplace design] Christmas

So with the bubble of workplace conversation around the Stoddart Review dominating proceedings, here is a suggestion as to what to sing after too many strawberry daiquiris at the Christmas party…..

On the first day of Christmas my designer gave to me

A post-occupancy survey

 

On second day of Christmas my designer gave to me

Two sit-stand desks

And a post-occupancy survey

 

On the third day of Christmas my designer gave to me

Three touchdown benches

Two sit-stand desks

And a post-occupancy survey

 

On the fourth day of Christmas my designer gave to me

Four serendipitous encounters

Three touchdown benches

Two sit-stand desks

And a post-occupancy survey

 

On the fifth day of Christmas my designer gave to me

Five further fee claims

Four serendipitous encounters

Three touchdown benches

Two sit-stand desks

And a post-occupancy survey

 

On the sixth day of Christmas my designer gave to me

Six eames chair copies

Five further fee claims

Four serendipitous encounters

Three touchdown benches

Two sit-stand desks

And a post-occupancy survey

 

On the seventh day of Christmas my designer gave to me

Seven table-tennis meeting tables

Six eames chair copies

Five further fee claims

Four serendipitous encounters

Three touchdown benches

Two sit-stand desks

And a post-occupancy survey

 

On the eighth day of Christmas my designer gave to me

Eight reclaimed chesterfields

Seven table-tennis meeting tables

Six eames chair copies

Five further fee claims

Four serendipitous encounters

Three touchdown benches

Two sit-stand desks

And a post-occupancy survey

 

On the ninth day of Christmas my designer gave to me

Nine exposed ceilings

Eight reclaimed chesterfields

Seven table-tennis meeting tables

Six eames chair copies

Five further fee claims

Four serendipitous encounters

Three touchdown benches

Two sit-stand desks

And a post-occupancy survey

 

On the tenth day of Christmas my designer gave to me

Ten felt-covered high-backed sofas

Nine exposed ceilings

Eight reclaimed chesterfields

Seven table-tennis meeting tables

Six eames chair copies

Five further fee claims

Four serendipitous encounters

Three touchdown benches

Two sit-stand desks

And a post-occupancy survey

 

On the eleventh day of Christmas my designer gave to me

Eleven Edison light bulbs

Ten felt-covered high-backed sofas

Nine exposed ceilings

Eight reclaimed chesterfields

Seven table-tennis meeting tables

Six eames chair copies

Five further fee claims

Four serendipitous encounters

Three touchdown benches

Two sit-stand desks

And a post-occupancy survey

 

On the twelfth day of Christmas my designer gave to me

Twelve oversized film quotes

Eleven Edison light bulbs

Ten felt-covered high-backed sofas

Nine exposed ceilings

Eight reclaimed chesterfields

Seven table-tennis meeting tables

Six eames chair copies

Five further fee claims

Four serendipitous encounters

Three touchdown benches

Two sit-stand desks

And a post-occupancy survey

[hic]

A tragedy of the commons: in defence of hot desking

So this is the post you never expected anyone to write. Some causes are deemed too lost to bother with.

Let’s face it, hot desking has a serious brand problem. There are few champions remaining – most have changed their name and gender, and moved to Caracas. It’s the arse-end of the office accommodation spectrum. You don’t get a desk to yourself, and you don’t get a lot of choice. You don’t even get a pedestal for your stale cornflakes anymore. You own nothing but the 400mm cube of a locker (or less), and your covenant is the same as everyone else’s however productive, committed or (in popular parlance) engaged you are. It’s 1920’s collectivisation, beating within the heart of our day. It’s been thoroughly out-sexed by flexible and activity-based workplaces, and water-boarded by journalists the world over. It’s not just injured, it’s insulted and disgraced. For the designer it screams bland uniformity, mundane constraint, and peer ridicule. We dare not mention its name even when we’re implementing it for fear of being tarred and feathered, so we call it something else. Like “agile” (ugh). Anything else.

How on earth did we let this this happen?

Everywhere we read that usage trumps ownership. Collaborative consumption has been built on this. You know, AirBnB, Zipcar and other stuff you think is cool. Yet under our noses for years, the unknowing, unassuming flag bearer of collaborative consumption is now unclean.

Well, if you’re not going to be at “your” desk for any more than about half the time then why shouldn’t someone else use it? They won’t even be able to trash it. You can’t trash a desk. It’s a desk. And it’s actually not yours. You’re only looking after it for the next occupant. Custodian, rather than owner.

It’s all rather at odds with the lumpenproletarian defence of the inviolability of the right to a desk, its own particular tragedy of the commons. So we’ve quite rightly developed the idea of the activity-based workplace, which nullifies the opposition to hot desking by relegating the desk in an open area to a mere constituent part in a grander design.

It’s still in there though.

And given that, in the world where the office is dead (which it isn’t) demand is outstripping supply driving rents through the roof so once again office space costs a fortune, why wouldn’t your employer want to be commercially-minded about this cost? Especially those in a growth drive, or just starting out. If it doesn’t impact your health, wellbeing, vitality, creativity, sanity and fertility, then drawing from a pool of desks when you’re there and need one isn’t actually a hardship of any sort. It’s actually a common sense idea.

It’s not a panacea. It’s not the solution for anything other than a carefully reasoned scenario – where five tests are passed, where:

  • there is objective data to support a generous degree of under-utilisation (or they support a relatively transient population)
  • the desk remains important
  • the technology used is generally homogenous
  • work tasks and methods are relatively homogenous
  • the numbers of people using the space don’t warrant a wide range of alternative settings

With hotdesking we can still provide good quality furniture, ergonomic seating, fantastic technology and connectivity, ample daylight, environmental control, lockers and gym bag storage, and access to great quality food and drink. People can still choose when, where and how they work. People can still choose to behave well, respect their colleagues, and “be excellent to each other”. Some desking can still be designed and positioned for more focussed work. Hot desking does not imply absence of any of these features, not bad or thoughtless design. The hot desk workplace can still be energised and engaging, socially cohesive, psychologically safe, well-managed, surprising and motivating.

Hot desking still has a major part to play. We’ve let it down. We’ve let ourselves down. Shame on us.

 

Under the emotional curve: where now for BIFM?

I started my journey in property in 1992, with my first role in FM – just as the BIFM was forming. It felt like the start of something significant, a new profession, and one that I could be part of from the outset. I tried to get a speaking slot at an early conference, and got told I sounded like an “angry young man”. I took this as a compliment, as it felt like that was just what the fledgling grouping needed. Needless to say it’s not how the organisers saw it. Somehow that seems to have characterised the path of the BIFM since – always drifting a little under the emotional curve.

I’ve always wanted the BIFM to work, and still do now. Following the latest sudden departure of its leader, a short Twitter discussion on “what next for BIFM?” ensued. Dave Wilson got his excellent ten points across in a sequence of tweets – mine follow below. Each is probably its own post, which isn’t going to happen, but the points are made in the spirit of constructive debate. I come in peace.

Create a physical presence. Move the HQ to the centre of industry and politics (that’s London) and create a visible centre, where members can drop in and work, where discussion and interaction is encouraged – and when tested, create similar outlets in the regions. FM is still firmly associated with the physical asset. It need to put its own on the map, where it matters and is accessible.

Create a leadership presence. The organisation needs a vocal, restless leader, actively supported by several key roles (finance, strategy and marketing). Take a look at what Peter Cheese has achieved at CIPD, his profile, energy, willingness to cross professional boundaries to get the message across.

Create a sense of pride. FM chose the name, its internationally recognised, stick to it and develop it. FM is an operational industry but an absolutely vital one. It’s not strategic, its rarely tactical – forget wasting energy and time banging on about the dreaded seat at the table but reinforce that without FM there is no table, no room to put it in, no food at the meeting, no lights, no ventilation.

Crete a mass core. BIFM has 17,000 members yet it claims that FM employs ten per cent of the UK workforce (therefore over 3m people) and is an industry worth £111bn a year. That points to massive under representation, and an equally massive missed opportunity. BIFM must boost membership, which will bring the much-needed resources to achieve much of that pointed to here.

Create an open debate. Welcome criticism and insight from within and without, set the agenda, create a programme of interaction (to start with) of the top half a dozen issues affecting FM and how the industry can respond and contribute, keep them visible and alive, tap into the wisdom and insight of members. Publish some of these as white papers – rough and ready, like demo tapes, thought-provoking brain food. Use social media (see below) to maintain the loop.

Create a social media presence. Creating an arena and a debate requires social media skills that are sorely lacking. FM’s social presence is a procession of black tie dinners and pictures of shoes and cakes (often indistinguishable). Social media can be used to boost interest and membership as much as anything else.

Create an arena…not a prison yard. The gift economy (no, not the gig economy, you’ve been reading too much web-piffle) is a rich source of insight, information, knowledge and perspective: BIFM needs to take part. Open the IP of FM to others, take down its borders and barriers, make sure FM isn’t just talking to itself. That’s still to say that BIFM and IFMA should be a dynamic and productive partnership. The ill-fated CIPD tie-up was exactly how not to do it: go and talk to others, but out of the committee rooms and stuffed-shirt environments. Try the café. Or the pub. Informality will breed ideas and energy.

Create a work ethic. Following from the above, FM can appear (see social media, above) like a merry-go-round of rewards being bestowed by the same people on the same people. Recognition should follow effort, achievement and ideas, not replace it. Less awards, less ceremony, less cheap chardonnay, more ground-building, more future and possibility focus.

Create a working balance. BIFM needs to finally recognise and learn to live with the fact that it represents the supply and demand side of the industry – that there will be tensions, but that there can be mutual interests. Like CoreNET other bodies, occupiers tend to be in the minority, and so the organisation needs a different approach to them to bring them in and make sure they feel heard and understood. They’re the ones placing the purchase orders on which the supply side depend.

Create an image. The red-white-and-blue all feels very tub-thumpingly predictable, and possibly in the present political climate a little misplaced. Credit where it’s due, mitie’s recent re-brand was superb, softening its tone and creating a very accessible creative feel. BIFM’s brand needs modernising, humanising, opening up.

As I stated at the outset, I want BIFM to work. It can work – but only if it wants to.

Frontier

Separation and exclusion have regrettably become vogue topics in the political asylum for those who didn’t pay attention in History at high school. If they went to high school. Yet there is an area of our world where frontiers are being slowly, naturally and beautifully eroded: space.

Where once we donned a visor in order to consider space in regard to its category – domestic, retail, leisure, sports, office, industrial – and worked through a set of assumptions based on established (and invariably unchallenged) notions of purpose, function, components, aesthetics, occupants and visitors, we are gradually removing the boundaries. While this is partly driven by the ease with which we now transition between spaces and unconsciously blur the boundaries ourselves – working in cafes and hotel lobbies, popping-up retail in offices, even the [*dreaded] game of table tennis in the office (there is a great cut of this from the Veep series) – we’re also seeing both a growth in mixed-use developments particularly in areas of regeneration favoured by the tech industry where live/work has become an integral feature (JLL called this the “urban tendency” in a 2013 report), and a willingness on the part of the providers of a particular genre of space to cater for other uses.

While it may seem to be the preserve of artists and creatives, this perception is based more on its origins than the reality – notice the suits that adorn the WeWork space in the City of London.

For workspace design this means being open to influences from other sectors, but avoiding the temptation to try and jump ship entirely in the hope of adding credibility. Vitra’s stand at this year’s Orgatec is called “Work” but looks for all the world like the place you go when you’ve finished for the day. The bad name that soulless workplaces of the last few decades gained through their dream-free serried rows of white desks disappearing into oblivion (not too dissimilar from the images of the Larkin building at the turn of the 20th century) has led to something of a desire to distance ourselves from the tag. If it’s intended to be a workspace, it’s not something to shy away from or be embarrassed about, rather, it’s about focusing on work as the primary function it must fulfil – it has to do what it’s supposed to do, simply, effectively, intuitively – and space as the borderless domain in which these influences and perspectives will play out, that its occupants and inhabitants will in turn by their presence and activity transform into place. If it’s an office, it has to satisfy the function of an office, but it can serve fantastic food and coffee, it can have the comforts and informality of home, it can offer the means to escape from the laptop for a while, it can offer the sense of association of a club, it can allow you to buy some food (and/or wine) for when you get home, it can enable you to have a kip when needed. Can, and should: more importantly, can and will.

This trend will continue, quietly, naturally, beneficially. We will nudge it along with our developments, schemes, projects and ideas, because it makes perfect sense. Refreshingly it’s one to which no-one can lay claim, and for which no-one needs to pronounce anything as “over”.

Space may no longer be the final frontier.

 

Leaving no turn unstoned

“A drama critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned.” (George Bernard Shaw)

As the recognition grows that the workplace – when well designed, created, maintained and adapted – is able to make a positive contribution to a range of clichés (productivity – this year’s star draw – innovation, creativity, wellbeing, wellness, motivation, inspiration, engagement, development, attraction and retention amongst others), in rough proportion so too grows the number of people talking, presenting, writing and commenting on the subject.

Partial to lobbing a fizzer on a Sunday to generate some discussion, I tweeted that I find it amazing how many of these often-heard folk have never actually created any workspace. The most excellent @antonyslumbers (an expert in a fair few things) replied that many a theatre critic had never written a play. Their encyclopaedic knowledge of who wrote and starred in what, and their ability to quote from the most obscure of creations is no doubt astounding. Yet they will unlikely have experienced the writer’s creative anguish, anxiety, self-doubt and self-recrimination in the smallest of hours that night offers…..unless of course they’re a failed writer.

Yet in the world of workplace we don’t call our non-participative commentators “critics”, without stopping to wonder why, we call them “experts”. A terminology change may be overdue.

In creating a workplace, in all but the smallest of organisations the “how” – the journey and process – conceals an assault course of challenges beneath the expected tasks that those commentators who have never created any space themselves will not have experienced, in order to arrive at the outcome they see, the “what”. Even professions closer to the core of a project, strategy consultants and designers included, are rarely tested in this manner.

Awaiting both the suspecting and unsuspecting dramatis personae are – in no particular order and by no means exclusively – formal organisational and reporting structures, informal and often obscure channels of influence, financial constraints and the curse of “value engineering” (most often manifested as slash and burn), mid-stream changes of strategy and direction, changes in external circumstances and the business landscape, competition between the agenda of “the organisation”, business units and individuals, perceptions that teams are “different”, procurement rules and corporate governance, tape of all colours (red, black and yellow, and hopefully not blue and white), the supply chain, the involvement of closely-related parties (“my husband/wife/miniature dachshund knows a bit about interior design”), organisational culture, history and experience (as interpreted in a multitude of ways, to suit), jealousies, envies, rivalries, luck, co-ordination and lack of it, and the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of communication, both ways.

Of course you can’t model all of this. You just have to know it’s out there, that in some degree and at times you least expect you’re going to have to deal with it.

Like all creative endeavours, workplace needs critics and commentators. They maintain focus, honesty, challenge, all with the emotion carefully extracted. They can be relatively objective and analytical, they can disseminate awareness, benchmark, compare. They’ll win at Workplace Trivial Pursuit, which, don’t worry, isn’t a thing. Workplace needs the experts in their field too – design, project management and the rest.

But the workplace experts – they’re the ones pacing the house at 3am, feeling like the loneliest person in the world, wondering how they’re going to make it work.

And who make it work.

 

Pearly dewdrops’ drops

While sifting through the scattergun array of questions and statements on which to respond to another well-meaning workplace discovery initiative, the Stoddart Review – none of which particularly bear any specific relation to the question the review seeks to answer, interesting as they may each be – I found a subject on which this blog had, rather surprisingly, not specifically addressed: workplace design principles. Given that in time it may be a challenge for the committee to find anything including their shoes beneath the collected volumes submitted by the usual suspects, I’ve posted my ha’penny-worth here too. Dewdrops that may just catch the light.

As an aside I do need to call out the invitation’s over-use of one of the most ghastly expressions known to humankind, the “C-Suite”. It’s mentioned four times. As long as this term persists we accentuate an arbitrary differentiation, and undermine ourselves and our ability to influence. Every one of those amazing workplaces you see case studied, published and #conferenceslideblah’d had executive sponsorship and release of the cash to create it. While I maintain that everyone deserves an amazing workplace and there is still much work to be done, particularly the further away you travel from key metropolitan centres, we are by no means or measure collectively starting from a zero base – there just needs to be a more uniform distribution of the commitment. The next thing you know we’ll be demanding a seat at the table.

I would hold that the following good design principles are valid whatever the desired form of workplace to be created, whether you’re Gurgle.com and want a hovering gazebo or Boggins Toff and Twaddle furnishing their dreams in walnut. As it’s a matter of the blend, they’re in no particular order, chuck them all in and whisk.

Be smart-ish: Gather evidence – but only just enough (paraphrasing Lloyd Davis) – and thereafter focus on opportunities to allow people to choose to do things differently. Evidence should be both quantitative and qualitative, data and story. We hear far too much blether about Big Data (which for most people of course is just data) but there is as much insight and power in small stories, I would probably argue even more. Creating a great workplace is an open-ended road trip. The rear view mirror – your evidence – is for safety (if you’ve ever tried driving in India without one). What’s ahead is far more intriguing.

Be beta: On the theme of the above, understand that space itself is a journey not a product – a permanent beta trial – which means you are also enabling change long after the space is “finished”. How many change programmes wind up a few weeks after the last move? Very often the success of one space or area mitigates against the success of another, and invariably this occurs over time as people get to understand the space. It’s important to continually observe, test, discuss, measure and be prepared to tweak and change the space, because no-one wants to wait fifteen years for next crusade. It’s also worth remembering that a flexible or activity-based workplace takes much more of this form of managing than a static 1:1 arrangement.

Brief, not brief. Spend time on the Brief. Crikey I must have said this so many times. I think I say it every day. It’s the most important work you’ll do on any workplace creation. A great deal of the time you’re talking to yourself, to ensure it’s what you want – there’s nothing wrong with a bit of self-doubt, but best to have it before you’ve started. It’s important in this process that we talk to people like adults, listen carefully, understand but be prepared to challenge: we should not be waiters taking orders. It’s also worth remembering that the brief isn’t the solution, it’s an aspiration drawn from the data and stories captured and the possibilities the journey prompts. If the Brief looks like a design, it’s a design.

Be clear. Smartarse Briefs like “make us feel uncomfortable” can be easily met with reclaimed seating. Unfortunately in an age where proclamations of the passing of a thing or idea are rife, there is an almost institutional pressure to be “disruptive”. Walk away. Don’t try and be too clever with people’s productivity, wellbeing and comfort, nine times out of ten it will bite you on the very same smart arse (that is, the nine times we never hear about).

Balance like a ballerina. Mark Catchlove captured it beautifully here in this post I wish I’d written. And this has nothing to do with the red herring of introverts and extroverts (which interestingly only introverts seem to talk about). The workplace “industry” continually lurches from one panacea to the other, awaiting the messianic idea. There won’t be one. Balance might not get your scheme in Forbes or FastCompany but let’s face it, that’s probably a good thing. We always rock back on the pendulum to the balance point, when the latest fad proves to be just that and the procession peters out in embarrassment. And as the Gensler Workplace Survey points out every few years, we spend around half of our time working alone, half working with others. That’s a good enough starting point for just about every workplace scheme.

Human being first, aesthetic second. The installations have to work. If you can get them looking beautiful too, that’s delightful. Paraphrasing an architect from many years ago, there is always room in a scheme for something beautiful. But very often aesthetics and ergonomics have to step outside to settle it. Ergonomics should always win. I can hear the long, deep and troubled sigh of a million interior designers, but if more energy went into beautifying ergonomic solutions instead of complaining about them, we might not have to face the challenge.

Include. By definition, just about every installation and space, to some extent, excludes. Steve Maslin (@Bud_Maz) writes about this kind of stuff far more than I am able. But suffice to say as many people as possible must be able to experience and enjoy as much of every workspace as possible. As with the comment above, most of the time we find the beauty of the form mitigating against inclusion and it’s a constant struggle to remain inclusive while delivering a space that’s aesthetically appealing. As with ergonomics, inclusion should always win.

Simplify. But remember than simple isn’t simplistic. Workplace is not a complex subject, despite the attempts of many to make it so. Don’t overcomplicate the Brief, the typologies, the segmentation – you’re just funding a needless consulting sector. There are some lovely ideas associated with this process like Occam’s Razor. And there is no better quote than Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “we have achieved perfection when there is nothing left to take away”. If you’re starting to lose the thread or not understand it, imagine how your colleagues will feel.

Gift choice, not a seating plan. The greater choice you provide, the easier it is to hand control of the workplace to the occupants you’ve created it for (quite a scary proposition for some). A recent article that was so ridiculous I’m not even going to provide a link suggested that organisations should genetically engineer their success by seating the most talented people together. I’ve also seen some barmy stuff about choice being too heavy a burden for people. We provide workspace for adults, and should treat people like adults (even Millennials are adults, which may come as a revelation to some). We need to avoid being too prescriptive, and allow people to use space as they wish. If we provide a considered choice of setting from the most focussed and private to the most interactive, the occupants of the space will do the rest.

Stay relevant. Fads can be so expensive when they’re woven through the workplace. You’re not Google and never going to be Google but by all means learn how and why they do what they do with their space and then decide if there’s anything in it for you. Consider the approach, methodology, thought process, permissions – not the outcome. Your design may then last longer than the initial two second dopamine rush from seeing a climbing wall in the corner.

Sweat the small stuff. The success of the workplace scheme is so very often in the detail and not the vision. Spend less time on chiselling the mission statement and more on what it means to people at the micro level – they’ll look through your grand ambitions to see if their locker is big enough and there’s space in the kitchen for their muesli. As buildings should be designed from the inside out (but never are) then workplace should be designed from the kitchen cupboard out (but never are). Try it.

Actually, try them all.

 

My workshop gently weeps

A recent article in the Guardian lamented the saturation of what it called AirSpace – or what for a while I’ve been calling #workshopchic. I’m with the sentiment of the article entirely. The all-conquering vacuous, aesthetic that – like all fads, started as a rebellion – has solidified itself into a dominant form as dull and apathetic as everything it once opposed. The rebel has become the establishment, still thinking they’re a rebel.

It’s so contrived a look that some are even taking new space in slick city buildings, and constructing a battered and reclaimed shell within them. It’s all a bit embarrassing. Following from a comment in my previous post, it’s the inanimate equivalent of an over-40 with a top-knot – space that’s trying so hard to look like it’s not trying at all that it looks like a pillock.

Creative and Attractive Hallways Interior design of Foote Cone & Belding Worldwide Office:

The Guardian article’s brand-oriented reasoning for this stultifying homogeneity is a little too highbrow in my view. It’s simpler than that. Quite possibly the following are behind it:

  • It’s harmless – we don’t feel challenged by it, or need to form an opinion (conscious or not). We now don’t even notice it. We’re too busy to need to be challenged after all. Busy spending most of our time in most places we eat/work/talk staring into our phones.
  • The imagery is ubiquitous. We’ve been pinterested to purgatory. I challenged a designer recently to create a space without using the internet – purely from memory, inspiration and feeling. The discomfort with this idea was so tangible it ran off screaming to the nearest “co-café” (everything has “co” in front of it now, doesn’t it?) and settled itself with a skinny caramel latte. It never happened, and it’s unlikely to. Instincts that once conceptualised and created have been stunted by this ubiquity.
  • As such – it’s just too easy to design. It doesn’t take much imagination to “strip something down”. The materiality is straightforward, wood goes with metal goes with bare, flaky, stamped, warped, rusted. Old stuff always goes with other old stuff regardless, right? Just chuck it in. A mess of any degree and description can be called “eclectic”. If you say its crap, you’re just not seeing the cool. There is an element of emperor’s-new-clothes about it all. The fine line between eclectic and garbage has been crossed so many times, its dust.
  • It’s easy to create – we can go shopping on eBay, we don’t even need to look up from our phones. No need to worry about fire certificates or warranties or anything. Not that there is anything left on eBay that others with the same idea haven’t snaffled. There are only so many battered chesterfields on the planet. I recently witnessed the specification of new chairs with rips made in them to make them look old. It’s like new jeans with added rips in the knees….as if that would catch on, eh?

office space:

Design fads are hardly new. Back in the 1970’s every office was suicidal dark brown, cream and mid-grey with monstrous slab-ended wooden desks in light oak or dark oak. A little later came the genuinely horrific limed oak with its cordial grain. Through stifled screams we pleaded for something different.

And like most fads, we’ve been convinced we need it by its very ubiquity. Saturation point has been passed, but it will take time. Not everyone stopped wearing flares the moment one apparently certifiable lunatic shouted “enough!” and dared slip on a pair of drainpipes. You’ve got a few years of #workshopchic left before design re-discovers its soul.

It will have to, if it wants a future.