Not being there

No, I wasn’t at the event.

I didn’t read the liberty news on the train, free of the clasping jaws of the usual day, instead of the meeting action list.

I didn’t pause to collect the badge of awkwardness that I wear in my eyes as well as crooked on my lapel.

The promotional bag wasn’t mine to fumble through and discard all but the memory stick that I could stand in the drawer like the terracotta army. So much storage, so little data when it’s all just ideas.

I didn’t wonder at the discomfort of the opening stand, butter in a cold pan.

I didn’t feel the dislocation of the division bell, called from an entangled conversation to my seat, the momentary disorientation.

I didn’t feel the acupuncture of slides, the linearity of the message, the scattering of bullets on a marble floor.

I didn’t tangle with the ubiquitous frustration of the escherian stairs, the eternal ascent towards something meaningful, a stepping off point in which I could settle.

I wasn’t called on to juggle my thoughts, reflections, plate, napkin and glass with the struggle of searching for those I know, or those I don’t. And I didn’t have to worry about eating horseradish by mistake.

I didn’t wonder if I had been held underwater for longer than my burning lungs and scrambling claustrophobia could handle, such was my need for breathable daylight.

I didn’t feel the creases slowly stitching into my face as the day grew colder, and as the call of the mythical early train emptied the room.

And my spine didn’t ache from shifting in ever decreasing circles in a chair design for a set square, counting the loss of feeling one disc at a time, until the ache pillowed the spoken word.

I didn’t drink too much wine on too much coffee on too much expectation, and wonder whether next year I would expect less, consume less, and listen more.

No, I wasn’t at the event.

Was it good?

 

Humanity is a brand

In the midst of a discussion about branding a workspace, I found myself pleading the cause of humanity, and the need for comfort, warmth, welcome, ease. At which point came the realisation that we overlook the fact that humanity is itself the most important brand of all.

Consider the characteristics of a successful brand.

We are clear about – and continually communicate – who we are, what we stand for, what we offer – and why.

We are authentic, and even when behind a mask eventually reveal ourselves.

We are carriers of emotion, are driven by emotion, and make an emotional connection with one another and the environment around us.

We are of the same consistent genre, attracting loyalty and commitment – but each entirely unique, retaining an element of mystery and surprise.

We are full of energy, passion and life.

We stimulate all of the senses – sometimes we appeal to them.

We create so many conversations.

We have longevity, driven by evolution, adaptation and innovation.

Our very existence changes others.

In any environment, the overriding brand we see, feel and experience has to be human. Or what is it for?

 

The picture of futures, grey

He sat alone. He seemed to be the only person at the conference not peering apprehensively over a metaphorical shoulder. He caught my eye as I loitered gazing at the dog-eared manuscript sat across his lap, The Soul of Man Under Socialism. He smiled softly in my direction, perhaps a shared sympathy at the lethargy of the day, and the paucity of ideas. I imagined he was going to simply say “This is crap, isnt it?” It was a far more eloquent introduction.

“My dear chap, your workplace is a struggle for the soul. In the hundred and twenty years since I wrote this, the arena has merely moved from the theatre of grand politics to the denuded avenues of primary and secondary circulation.”

His assurance was calm, his assertion suffocating. And he had been listening.

“What, then, are we seeking that remains the same?” I asked hesitantly.

“To live, as an Individual. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

“But we are striving for this. It may be slow, but we recognise that we need to base our decisions, our organisations, our processes, our aims around people. We here today are committed to it. These are good people, with a shared vision. This is the right place to be, isn’t it?”

“As when I wrote this” he rolled his manuscript as though a weapon “the obsession with private property changes nothing, as it has made gain not growth its aim. While we reach for gain, our aims will remain underfoot. So obsessed with property are we that we cannot freely develop what is wonderful, fascinating, and delightful in mankind— in fact, we miss the true pleasure and joy of living. The important thing is not to have, but to be.”

“But we are challenging the soul of our organisations, we are upheaving measured taylorist monotony. We are fighting the inevitability that previous decades would have us live tomorrow. As you said so yourself in your pamphlet” I gestured to the scroll “man is made for something better than disturbing dirt.”

I felt a little self-satisfied, quoting the icon before me in my own defence. He nodded his head sympathetically, and not without a little pride.

“Ah, disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion. Agitators are so absolutely necessary. Without them, in our incomplete state, there would be no advance towards civilisation. People like Perry Timms.”

“Organisations are becoming more democratic.” I responded. “The flow is with us, and will only grow stronger as the ideas gather credence and a practical footing. True, the germ-free hipster press don’t help, but its only a matter of when, not if.”

“The pursuit is foolish. Like so many ideas today, they gather pace before they have the oxygen to sustain them, they accumulate followers fearing abandonment, not those of conviction.” he laughed for a moment, drew breath and fixed his gaze on me. “Democracy is not your answer. Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people. And be careful that the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”

“So what is our hope?” I asked, by now expecting little.

“Our hope, dear chap, is Individualism. Not selfish, harmful or egotistical individualism, but the Individualism of the true artist. That is, the artist who shuns populism, who grows through joy. Your workplaces need to create, nurture, grow Individuals, to create only the opportunity, not prescribe the solution. The tyranny of the crowd – its “crowd” everything, right? – the collaborative, the artificial collectivisation of creativity is a damnation. Organisations and structures make only what is useful – while only the Individual makes what is beautiful. Art is the most intense mode of Individualism that the world has known.”

He leaned back, and appeared to survey the interaction, chatter, irregular clank of porcelain with sadness. He was lost in his own thought.

“And what of the soul of humankind? Why is the struggle here, in our workplace?”

“Its where the Individual of your age flourishes, or is lost. Not in politics, but in your social relations and your environment. Only when you realise this, will you think of your environment, your relations and your intentions differently. For now, all the rebellion and disobedience in the world is in vain. It is a mirror.”

In that moment I saw myself, or perhaps the parody of myself. As I turned my gaze to think, he was gone. We were summoned back to the conference. When everyone had meandered in, chattering, clutching teacups, lost in themselves, I dropped my badge in the bin and slipped away. I hoped I would catch him hailing a taxi, window shopping, sneaking a cigarette…. but the streets were already awash with the human tide.

 

___________________________________________________________

Some of what Oscar Wilde says is taken directly from “The Soul of Man Under Socialsm”, some are his words that I modified, some I made up altogether because they felt right

Wilf has his appraisal

Wilf received the e-mail telling him it was time for his annual appraisal.

He was never quite sure why anyone bothered. Last year he got a C, with some comments on his good work and one or two things to “develop”. The year before he got a C, with some comments on his good work and one or two things to “develop”. Last year the things to “develop” from the year before weren’t mentioned.

Snaking back through Wilf’s memory, he had only ever got a C. One year when a very nice lady from an external company reviewed the appraisal system, he was put in a small group with people from other departments he didn’t really know as “flatliners”. He wondered if this meant he was dead.

He was asked to prepare for the discussion with Marcie, his “line manager”. Marcie didn’t know what he did, because she worked in another building.

Wilf thought about it, as he did every year.

He had worked hard, put in his hours, put in some more, and been a good friend and colleague. He compromised when he needed to, and enforced the regulations when he needed to. He went to all of the drinks. Everyone liked Wilf. And nothing fell over.

He hadn’t broken a new market – Kelvin had done that.

He hadn’t hit a personal sales record – Arnie had done that.

He hadn’t seen a way to remove 30% of the production errors – Pippa had done that.

He hadn’t re-organised his team reducing costs by 25% and boosting productivity at the same time – Kelsey had done that.

He hadn’t discovered and fixed a glitch in the financial process that was leaking the company thousands – Corey had done that.

But he had worked hard, put in his hours, put in some more, and been a good friend and colleague. And nothing had fallen over.

Just like every year before.

This year, Wilf got a D.

 

Cool is dead

It could be considered that for a couple of hundred attendees of Workplace Trends (#wtrends14) on Wednesday in London, it was the day we killed“Cool”.

How did we ever fall in love with the zeitgeist that is “Cool”? It is smothered in the tyranny of white, the compulsory daub of the age. It is slick, smooth, inexpressive. It is attached to its very own facial expression – the slightly muted smile, the narrowing of the eyes, the slow and controlled nodding of the head…. and then the stretch of the vowels into a term of admiration. In this manner, of what we behold we are saying we are unworthy.

The dominance of Cool has drowned out warmth, inclusion, adaptability, sensitivity, and our sensory perception (all seven of them – including balance and position). Its parrot-squawk has become a snowblind self-parody. We are bombarded with sprezzatura – effortless nonchalance, a grand deception. Hipstermedia has pumped us full of envy of desolately Cool workspaces where people are nothing but shadows and outlines.

Because in this germ-free world that’s how people are seen – interruptions, spoilers of the aesthetic. In the world of Cool, the environment is everything and people are nothing. The workplace is the star, it has its own ego, it’s vanity has to be fed with coverage.

Steve Maslin took the first shot at the hegemony of Cool with humility and quiet calm. He made us see the folly of so many modern workplaces through the perspective of human conditions we rarely consider, and implored we design as much for the psychological as the physical. I had considered that “activity” alone may be too shallow and we might consider emotional-based working but here we also had sensory-based working. Steve asked what our buildings might say if they could talk to us: I suspect they might be silent, offering merely a gesture of the hand.

As if to emphasise the point, Richard Baldwin of Derwent London showed with pride their Tea building with a smorgasboard of a Reception, immediately flanked by a staircase to the lesser gods. He also offered the garbled myth of the “TMT Sector”, that fairytale clique of stripped-down workplace Cool that allows developers to offer less, or worse still create to create “white collar factories” that conjour all the victorian gloom of a hipster workhouse.

In the post-lunch debate, no-one showed their hand for the one size fits all approach – not even the official advocate – but many in the room had designed, delivered or justified just that. Through the fragile confidfence of the vote against, it’s possible we don’t believe in what we are doing or are asked to do. Strangely at no point in the debate that was so one-sided that it dwindled into introspective lethargy did anyone point ou that size has nothing to do with it. As Gareth Jones had shown earler in the renders of four modern offices, whataver their size, they look identical in over-reaching their desire for Cool – like teenagers at Monday night’s “two for one” at the Top Rank.

If not Cool then what? Certainly not Penson’s ephemeral, edible, pick ‘n’ mix offerings crerated for “names” dropped like buttered snakes. There was something far more endearing about Franciso Vazquez’s “before shot” Lima office that spoke of vulnerable Bolivarian charm than the garish restatements that followed. Anne Marie McEwan implored us to remember what we had forgotten about rich our working relationships used to be, and how our workplace was defind by them. Brian Condon’s “curatorial, not janitorial” Centre for Creative Collaboration and Lloyd Davis’s sporadically-conceived workplaces like the Mayfar squat beautifuly christened the Temporary School of Thought illustrated far more of what “start-up” means – “small pieces, loosely joined” – than the over-designed, de-energised, airbrushed halls of the post-industrial leviathan that ape the Gaultier-clad middle-class rebellion derided by Perry Timms.

The Workstock presentations showed that we need the perspectives and input from those outside the normal world of workplace. In our own silos we don’t seem capable of working it out for ourselves and probably can’t be trusted to do so alone. Richard Martin’s peloton metaphor and Andy Swann’s tales of John the unwilling production manager illustrated this with wonderful lyrics – as did Cara Long’s mesmerising stories that illuminated the power of subtle changes at the margins of the everyday. Doug Shaw’s incredible mashing of song, performance art and wisdom, and Janet Parkinson’s pin-drop poetry silencing the social cacophony showed there are other means of expression and connection.

Somehow though the “big conversation” proposed in the final session to draw us from our silos feels too much like a onesie. Mass movements, banners and membership have done little for workplace in the past, and there is no evidence to suggest this may change soon. As Lloyd Davis suggested, “just enough structure – but not too much” might be all we need to stimulate the myriad of conversations that Euan Semple advocated.

We may not have proposed a viable solution to Cool but we started to point the way. If there was one message from the day, it is that we need an honest, human relationship with our space and our technology, be it in a workplace or in the wider urban sprawl. As Jon Husband pointed out, we are “in” the system now, not “of” the system. What we know is, we no longer want to be shadows. Cool is dead.

 

Red in the face

Ever wonder if we just try too hard?

The forcing of ideas and innovation is a 21st century obsession. We organise far too many events and gatherings to be useful, we build prescriptive spaces that do nothing but stimulate the opposite response, we demand unique solutions in our sourcing activities and scorn those who respond only with a commitment to effectively do what is asked – and because one might be led to believe there is something inherently wrong with absolutely everything, we preach incessantly about the need for new ideas. Red in the face and with an aching diaphragm, the results of this pressure upon ourselves and others is diminutive and unsatisfying. It never feels right.

In this unparalleled impatience, we have lost the art of allowing our thoughts and deliberations to ferment until ready. Breakthroughs are not made to order, new ground is not won through a scheduled and facilitated thought shower. Instead, they are nurtured in surroundings that work uniquely for us. Sometimes these environments are damp (the shower), cold (a long walk), sweaty (the gym), in sporadic and jerky motion (the bus), or are entirely new and surprising. They are often lonely, allowing the processing the outcomes of our interactions rather than at the time of the partaking – some of the words most powerful are those that re-appear in re-ordered illumination in a later moment. While our conversation and interaction are incredible ad necessary stimulants, we need to have the patience to know that they may end at just that for the time being.

In demanding innovation, we have perfected the art of spawning weak ideas, diluted by the demands we place on ourselves which are in turn exacerbated by the sum of these collective pressures. Beneficially, we might all cease at once, and stop trying to the turn the whole damn world into the curse of the age, a “think tank”.

We might lighten our spirits by putting away the flipcharts, post its and markers, and drifting into the evening subconsciously mulling it all over instead. We need to give our ideas time to form, to breathe, to strengthen, to let us know when they are ready – and to do this at our own pace, in our own way.

Thought is a natural activity. It arrives when its ready.

 

Archie: a workplace story

Archie was told that with the office move, it was all about sharing. Things that were once his now belonged to everyone. And by this decree, things that belonged to others now belonged to him.

When the packers came, everything that once belonged to Archie was put into crates with everything that belonged to everyone else. The packers seemed delighted, in a job that brought little delight.

In the new office, everything was the same. Same desks, same chairs, same lamps, same cupboards, same wires. He looked at his workmates, surveying the common sea in bemusement, and against the backdrop they looked even more irregular.

People who once all looked the same in a world of difference, now all looked different in a world that was all the same.

Archie struggled through the first day. He hid amid the confusion of cardboard, garish crates and lost umbrellas.

The following morning, the desk he had been sitting at was already occupied by Martin. The chair he had set for himself and wiped his sandwichy hand on, was being compressed under his heavy frame. The stapler he had filled and used was being used by Patsy, as she tried to force the hapless pin through a biblical report that no-one would read. And in the kitchen, Carmen was helping herself to a second portion of Archie’s Cheerios.

Archie had saved some tippex from the digital cull. Within the crevices of the day, he wrote his name carefully and obviously on the chair, the stapler and the cheerios. Flags in the sand.

The next day, Melvyn was leaning back in the chair with Archie’s name on. Cherie was clip-clipping finance statements together with the stapler on which his name peeped beneath her painted nails. Derek was pouring his Cheerios, bleary-eyed, distant.

The lines had been drawn in a different place, but were now invisible.

The morning after, Archie settled at a desk and calmly removed all of his clothes, folded them and laid them on the back of the chair, sat down, and logged on. He belonged to everyone else. He had a lot to get through.

No-one seemed to notice.

 

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.