#wtrends liveblog 4: Protocolics Anonymous

Did anyone mention wellbeing? Nicola Gillen is looking at a holistic approach. That’s lots of stuff at the same time that adds up to more than if you added it up. Interestingly we’re hearing resilience for the first time today, but as so often through the event we’ve been dished up an isolated idea. We’re hearing some case studies from AECOM clients that we can’t talk about, but the general idea is that wellbeing can be improved by doing certain things in the office – healthy food, light levels, planting, choice of spaces. Yep, we’re all there.

There is a quote about having a best friend at work helping to create a strong connection with their company, by some fifty percentage points to ten for those without. Unsurprisingly there are no suggestions as to how to promote this, or what policies come into effect when it moves beyond. And at last, some #generationblah has arrived, in the shape of what millennials want. Never have we created such an overblown myth, yet it perpetuates and its dangerous.

When AECOM turned the cameras on themselves and ran a project in their own workspace, they spent six months on behaviour training and protocol workshops. I’m not sure that these do anything other than force change, requiring that it is managed, highlighting that the environment is not intuitive. It pre-supposes resistance, and is problem-oriented. It is a significant frontier in workplace change facilitation and needs more focus, because we’re trying to enliven flexible workspace with outdated techniques. We’ve become protocolics. Our neighbourliness is innate, and can be activated. We’re naturally excellent to one another, lets use that as a starting point rather than an end game.

Mike Adams sees himself as a video conferencing evangelist. He’s probably not run a 4am conference call with colleagues in Australia while in in his dressing gown. He’s probably not sat with his head in his hands (metaphorically of course) when the wireless connection mysteriously fails between laptop and AV in the meeting room for the key presentation. We’re actually walking through his showroom, where everything is elegant and beautiful, where everything works seamlessly, and there aren’t any cables in a tangled lump. It’s a fantasy world of stress-free stock photography, and the inevitable reference to Minority Report. A slightly odd way to end the formal day, and a little too much of a “how can we help you?” of pitch. Of course what all this means is we can look forward to a lot more meetings. Yay.

Speakers – my respect, you were up there, we weren’t. We’re clearly drawing in on some core themes around improving the wellbeing of those who dwell in the workplaces we create. My plea, and not a new one, is for simplicity and clarity. The work continues.

 

#wtrends liveblog 3: certifried

We’re talking the WELL Standard, double-acted by Victoria Lockhart and Sarah Welton of the International WELL Building Institute. We’re crisp, clean and articulate, we’re being told a story.

The premise is that we construct our buildings to support our health. Being inactive is the fourth highest cause of mortality, bringing us diabetes cancers of various types and heart disease. It’s a quiet, underlying message that has been rather kidnapped by the sit-stand desk, which is just on small contribution, but design for mobility in the workplace is one of the most significant contributions as designers we can make.

Sarah is adamant that WELL is for people: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. It’s not just about building design, it’s awarded for operation too. That said it’s not a replacement for green and sustainable building design – it’s in addition. The WELL Crosswalk publication showed how WELL and BREEAM can work in tandem. Whether we actually need both is a debateable point, integration is surely an inevitability. The Mind part is the toughest proposition – environments that optimises cognitive performance. No surprises then the first question asked was in this area. Having looked at this in some detail, it’s a tricky proposition.

Just to confuse matters further there is the initiative to align WELL and GIGA’s RESET schemes. You have some homework from this section.

If it sounds like another Standard that will require you to pay for experts to, of course it is. It’s how the industry works. We are told that for smaller projects it’s a ‘manageable’ sum – whatever that means. This is of course not a sales pitch. It’s not. Really. There is more on costs below.

Alan Forgarty is talking about Cundall’s workspace at One Carter Lane which was the first in Europe to be WELL certified. Alan tells us that it isn’t about collecting pieces of paper. Having said that we’ve heard a lot about the piece of paper they’ve collected.

Alan quotes some UK Green Building Council claims to specific percentage point increases in productivity from certain building environment improvements, which is quite a revelation as clearly they found the Holy Grail we’ve all spent decades searching for. Remarkable, if not spurious.

For a 1,500m2 space it was £30,780 to assess. That’s barely £20/m2 so it’s not expensive. Possibly unsurprisingly though, I’m going to offer that WELL is all a little over-inflated, that the proposition is a simple one that we’ve complicated our way into a Standard that we need experts for because can’t assess ourselves. I continually return to the refreshing simplicity of the elemental. There are no aspects of WELL that stagger with insight, that tell us something we don’t instinctively know if we could just trust ourselves a little more.

But we’ve seen before that we value the pieces of paper. If it improves the quality of workspace for people, and we’re prepared to pay for it, there I no complaint. But we have to reach those who haven’t got £20/m2.

Anicee Bauer and Coen van Dijck of D/DOCK in the Netherlands want to create environments that make you happy. Nothing stirs a workplace audience to murmur like pictures of old workplaces, filing cabinets and greige.  Then we eat burgers, disengage, get stressed and die, all very Hobbesian. The solution is ABW with a healthy overlay – the Healing Office. They see multiple layers to the office onion, the last of which catches the eye when desperate for a green tea, the magic and spiritual level. Sadly it’s just a slide with a nice sunset over standing stones.

D/DOCK have a methodology inspired by WELL, called D/Science Interior Quality Index (DIQI). It’s a score out of 100, and you’ll need D/DOCK to do this for you, another scheme you can’t asses for yourself. The research areas are frighteningly extensive.

We’re trying to do the right thing for people with all of these approaches, but we just seem to be over complicating it. Connecting this afternoon’s sessions with this morning, there is an irony in the fact that we are creating the most circuitous and difficult routes back to re-establishing our connection with the simplicity of nature. Finding our way home should be simple too.

 

#wtrends liveblog 2: catch the wind

When sundown pales the sky
I want to hide a while
[Donovan]

Dominic Meyrick shouldn’t drink coffee. A little too much breathless hyperactivity from the stage creates a certain claustrophobia in the pit.

The key question from Dominic is, how do you see what someone means? It’s a great question – but unfortunately one that isn’t answered. As a lighting designer he is clearly excited by light. He’s also very excited too about how much cheaper artificial light is today than it was in the 18th Century, driving selfish consumption given that the days of starting work at dawn and finishing at dusk are by now a historical curiosity in the developed world. But he’s looking for a place where we can all agree that the lighting is good, an objective place of comfort. Again, another super proposition – that unfortunately isn’t resolved.

When presented with a picture of the offices of Boots in Nottingham from twenty years ago, we know that we are in a place that we can all agree is bad. Dim, dark satanic cubicles, loved only by journalists. But LED won’t save us and its ancestors are likely to slowly poison the planet. That’s because he maintains that lighting is a finish and not a service, which is interesting in an age of collaborative consumption where everything is supposedly becoming a service. But what’s most interesting is that I’m writing this but still have no idea what this is really about. We’re left with the conclusion that 99% of daylight design in buildings is rubbish. And that’s from a lighting designer – presumably within the 1%.

I imagine Dominic storming around in the savannah of his dreams, as a hungry man who has lost his doorkeys knowing there is a fresh pizza on the kitchen table. I offer to help, in the hope of calm.

Trevor Keeling helped too. We’ve got our first sporting analogy of the day, the data of football. He’s studied the windowless Morphosis Studio and its windcatchers in Culver City, USA. It’s okay, there is no link between the two, other than a tenuous suggestion of measurement. The project however looks amazing and it would have been good to have learned more. That’s because in buildings we can measure lots of stuff, but most of the focus has been on objective items like physiological comfort, but we can also measure less tangible things like occupant experience. Tim Oldman would be purring, as Leesman gets a huge plug.

We’re looking at pictures of offices, which I’ll wager most people are familiar with as it’s a workplace conference – including a picture of the Hub at Sky (which I worked on), before it was transformed from an agile space (small a) into an Agile Engineering centre. We have a nervous giggle about a whiteboard, because we actually all crave whiteboards. Pictures, graphs, pies, but I’m not sure why, I’m wondering whether this was the first time that Trevor had seen the slide deck.

When I considered an approach to live blogging today, I looked at dramatic structure as a way of organising the output. I’ve used the five-stage approach at a previous #wtrends, yet looked at where four had been used. Most of the references were to the traditional story – a beginning, middle and an end. It should be a golden rule of conference presenting: an idea or hypothesis with a reason for exploring it, some research or thought or analysis to challenge it, and a conclusion with some key takeaways and one or two suggestions for further enquiry to placate our shredded attention span.

Go on, tell me a story. I’m trying to catch the wind.

 

#wtrends liveblog 1: eaten by aardvarks

I am contemplating a speaker line-up all huddled together on one side of the garden fence, looking over. Even the case study is offered by an engineering consultancy, looking to enhance their reputation. It’s like watching a Premier League team with no home-nation players, something just doesn’t seem quite right about it.

It’s in the garden of the arcane delight that we begin. Bioinspiration, where design looks to what’s already been designed for ideas, is a legitimate plagiarism because nature doesn’t hold any patents over its substance, structure, space, time, energy or information. Richard James MacCowan from Biomimicry UK, who wanted you all to know that he went for a run this morning, took us on a potted journey through the heat-collecting eye of the lobster. Stories such as the realisation that the insulating fungus-farming termites of Namibia are construction experts. What wasn’t really identified however is that the examples quoted were of highly focussed practices or processes, in which nature specialises intensely – and that, as the ultimate in generalised species, is the reason why humans need this hyper-extensive library of good practice. The Namibian termites are blindingly good at construction, but aren’t very good at much else and get eaten by aardvarks.

I’m drawn to asking what all this has to do with workplace, given it’s a workplace event: materials design and to an extent design processes principally. If one day hence you look around your office and think that perhaps it resembles a slime mould algorithm, you may be onto something. If you look around and see the slime mould without the algorithm, its nature telling you it’s time to move.

Like many ideas, however we’ve been copying nature since humans used the furry skins of animals slaughtered for food as clothing. Amidst the Attenboroughesque imagery, more perspective would have been welcome.

Biophilia still sounds like something that would get you onto a register. Perhaps that’s why it fails the spell checker, even after thirty years. It’s offered like a huge cold towel relieving us from the interruption to our circadian rhythm from our increasingly urban, indoor, overworked and tech-riven lifestyle. Oliver Heath asked us to picture our ‘happy’ space – and of course no-one said the office, but why would they. In tracing a little history it’s interesting that the migration to the cities during the industrial revolution is often depicted as a tragic event, humanity wrenched from the enveloping arms of the countryside en masse, yet it ignores the poverty and misery of the agricultural subsistence of the time. It’s easier to reconnect with nature on the back of the wealth we have created, to which those concrete and glass box houses in Chilean forests will testify.

We’re firmly into Elemental Workplace territory now with a focus on natural light, control over our immediate environment the use of colour mimicking nature, and choice of spaces. Just waiting for a reference…….waiting……..nope, not coming. That’s the world we’re in now. Of course wouldn’t be a discussion about biophilia without a reference to the Human Spaces Report, in which 17% of people surveyed said they wanted a view of the sea. That would just about guarantee 17% of the workforce would be blissfully unproductive.

Its Nigel’s gig, and he always has something new. The question, can workplace design foster creativity and innovation. We seem to feel that we are most creative in our own space, wherever that may be – it’s a well-trodden path that always leads back to isolation. This flies in the face of a workplace design trend towards collaborative spaces at the expense of the personal that has prevailed for the last couple of decades.  It mirrors the conundrum at the heart of subjective perception versus objective measures of productivity. Like most themes in workplace design, it hangs in the balance, between personal and interactive time and space. Our creativity develops through time spent with others generating ideas, alone as we hone and refine, back in the group pushing boundaries, then alone.

It’s no surprise that the evidence points to enriched, plant-filled environments stimulating at least the subjective perception of creativity. The conclusion: if you’re stuck, struggling for a solution – get up, change your scenery. Don’t be afraid to let the mind wander. Not here though of course, it’s a conference.

In a darkened room without daylight or planting, or indeed any connection with nature at all, it’s time for an ‘attention restoration’ break. Watch out for the aardvarks, they’re hiding in the light.

 

In a crowd of truths

This is the second of two responses to an excellent article by Antony Slumbers, the first being My mirrored room, in this instance offering that his views offer a far too presumptive picture of how technology will shape our work future. The paragraph headlines are from Antony’s original article.

One person’s optimism is another’s pessimism. A decade ago the dream of liberated commute-free teleworking was, to many, the nightmare of enforced seclusion to the soundtrack of the dishwasher. The deployment of robots for the performance of menial tasks creating time and wealth for leisure is another’s horror at the loss of employment and resultant anomic fragmentation and decay. The fatally pointless optimism of Candide’s Dr Pangloss was agnostic in regard to every such outcome. It was positive only because there could be no alternative, and therefore no better alternative.

A work almost a decade before Candide offers an interesting insight at this point, Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750). The competition he entered with the essay sought to explore the reasons why the arts and sciences had aided the development of humanity, yet Rousseau controversially held that they had instead had a corruptive effect on morality. From within its text, it gave us the title of this paper. While flawed in its arguments, it nevertheless jolted the self-satisfied literary and scientific establishment of the time and set the tone for works of significance to come. It illustrated that optimism can take an unchallenged, self-perpetuating collective form in which all advancement is deemed necessary, worthy and beneficial. So too with digital encroachment, as our submission to the binary appears irreversible both in practice and in desire. Yet the digital casts a long analogue shadow, in which we shall now explore.

You should assume the office really is dead
Despite the exercise of the collective will of an army of anaemic techies declaring the premature passing of almost everything tangible, the office has never been more important. From its complacent past as the de facto place of repetitive clerical process work, it is increasingly taking on a status as the fundamental associative root in a rootless world. Its essential analogue antidote to the saturative digisisation of the fringes of our humanity will only become ever more important. We will crave its comforts, and the company of those who inhabit it. Co-working centres, our latest silver-plated bullet, are physically an office like any other, and are increasingly drawing in those within small enterprises from the false promises of a nomadic digitally-connected life. Buildings like the Edge, despite being heralded, serve only to pose a threat to its contribution to our working lives, encroaching on the need for our minds to make decisions affecting how we work and with whom. Never quite working well enough, they will remind us of where lines need to be drawn, and we shall draw them. These buildings will serve a purpose, but not as intended. The apps will flicker, unused, unloved, as we make up our own minds. Who can love an app?

Machine learning is a double-edged sword
Quite possibly the most futile pursuit in the field of technology is the attempt to replicate even the most basic elements of the human mind. It is our model of sophistication, perfection even, and so we are drawn to mimic it. Machine learning will remain locked at where it lies, in the realm of logical processing where the decision path can be altered by accumulated data. Even the most advanced game engine that can defeat a human at Go, a logical game simpler than chess, works within the construct of a logical neural network. The divide between logic on the one hand and instinct, intuition and emotion on the other is the gulf that will ensure machines remain our servants. They may be developed to help our decision-making or automate routine functions within our life and work in previously unimagined ways, but they will thankfully remain forever imprisoned in logic. We struggle with the idea of “forever” in regard to technology, as the future offers space for our wildest imagination.

The death of distance will re-appear
In the same manner as the eternal constraint of machine learning, technology will likely never replicate the full and necessary experience of face-to-face human communication. We exchange information on more levels than even entirely non-sequential processing can replicate. An interesting angle on this is the degree to which we are distracted, and the role of distractions in hiding or conveying meaning.  Communication via technology asks us to focus for its duration. We enter a room, connect, speak, nod, do the things the screen and microphones will allow us to do in the confines of a sound-proofed and sealed box, and then we leave. We are led to believe this is effective because all distractions have been removed. Yet in effect they deliver little more than a telephone call at a fixed landline. The metaphor of a telephone line, whether mobile or fixed, visual or audio, remains dominant. Only when technology begins to absorb unscheduled, occasional, distracted, interrupted and uninvited multi-participant conversation will it begin to scratch the surface. In this respect, forget the cloud, technology needs to be in the crowd.

There is no such thing as work-life balance, and that is good
In a recent survey making the front page of last week’s Sunday Times, work stress is seen as a more likely killer than the traditional bedfellows, alcohol or smoking. We are increasingly struggling to separate our work and home lives but of course it’s the latter that is at risk as the former eats steadily into our mental and emotional focus on our family life. It’s rarely, if ever, the other way around. It’s not ways serious stuff either – you see an e-mail at 10pm and hit reply-all to say “yep, I’m still working over here too”. We used to consider that the work/life balance was about time spent, but this is increasingly irrelevant. Legislation in the expected places is a sad necessity, but in all likelihood the stimulus we need to take matters into our own hands and put something into our own hands other than our digital companion. The pattern is set at a less responsible age, the under 25’s leading the new Puritanism with a quarter now tee-total, more likely to be -xting something than throwing up outside the Top Rank. Nothing about these trends is good, because the underlying reasons are disturbing. This consciousness of our disappearance into the tiny screen, just the soles of our feet protruding from a tedious, twitching and sleepless oblivion, is at last the turning point. Clear water between work and life will emerge once again, and this time it will be of our conscious doing.

Assume everything is mobile and that the cloud rules
Humanity has embraced a quite peculiar level of trust in the last decade. We deposit the data that governs our lives – personal, financial, family – into a tangled web of computers, the nature and location of which are a mystery to us. All of this behind a password (make sure it contains a symbol and a number). Much of this trust has been borne of necessity and convenience. I have been drafting this article in bite-sized chunks, chucking them “up” into the cloud and accessing it on various mobile devices. Is anyone else following this, reading my drafts? I haven’t even questioned it, given it will be but a drop of sand in the digital Sahara. I am reliant on its proportions as protection, so microscopic as if to be invisible. Yet it always seems to come as a collective surprise when a digital leviathan is compromised and its data stolen. We have hackers versus reformed hackers working as digital security specialists, slugging it out on the unlit boulevards of the web. Our trust teeters on a tightrope, we hope day to day that the reformed guys keep it all together, and put up a decent guard. The cloud, as a singular concept, has a glass jaw. We will feel very differently about mobile and the cloud should it shatter.

Connectivity matters
The tactile fascination with gadgetry dominates our consideration of technological advance and capability, while connectivity is deemed an expectation, a right. We demand high speed broadband in the living room of every remote croft, we have exhausted our tolerance of 4G and demand 5G. Yet it is incredible how helpless ‘working offline’ feels, and how useless our gadgetry appears, we hold it at a distance and gaze scornfully at it, bloody thing. We even take conversations offline, as in, to a trivial, irrelevant space to get something minor and irritating resolved. The important, relevant conversations all take place ‘online’, where it matters. The wag who drew WiFi at the base of a hierarchy of needs wasn’t entirely spoofing. Yet we are beginning to understand the importance of disconnection, of the offline, the analogue, of human space, of mental space; of reading printed matter, writing with a pen, talking. Connectivity has been an army of occupation, and resistance is being organised. We are understanding that severing the cord for periods of time returns us to our partners, family, environment. We notice one another, and what is around us. It renders the gadgets impotent, to allow us to be potent once again.

Work is being unbundled
The automation of work tasks has been occurring since ancient times. We tend to think of the mechanised loom as the earliest example of significant automation, prompting the Luddite reaction, yet Ancient China and Greece provided centrally-run relief schemes for those affected by technological unemployment. So fundamental and integral has it been in our development as a species that it is almost a non-subject. When considered alongside the overblown and factually misplaced claims that we live in an age of unprecedented change – even taking account of the bizarre yet entirely explicable events of 2016 – we have talked ourselves into a crisis of confidence in ourselves as resourceful and adaptable beings. It is true that ‘robots’ will consume a number of jobs presently performed by humans, that is not in dispute, but in one form or another, this has always been the case. As each layer of obsolete manual activity is automated, new forms of human activity take their place, new skills emerge and increased value is placed in human-crafted over automated output. The bundling and unbundling of work is an interleaved process, as opposed to a historical phase. In addition, while it is said that all businesses are technology businesses, that is pure hyperbole and they clearly are not, and many skills and trades will remain essentially human. The ill-stoked fears fed to a generation that their livelihoods will disappear may actually spark a welcome renaissance in human-centred employment. The rise of distinctly ‘artisan’ products as a mark of value and quality already provides this clue, even if the label is rather generously applied. The myth may be just what is needed to re-connect a vast number of people with work.

Software is on demand, available as a service
It doesn’t really matter how we obtain our software, two truths persist: we still need it, and it still replicates several core basic manual tasks that Office recognised and offered twenty five years ago: writing, calculating, messaging, illustrating and presenting. Almost all general business software development since has built upon these activities. Even social media is simply a broader, un-targeted messaging format. While applications, simpler and more specific, have offered variety and sought to automate routine or research-demanding tasks, they remain focussed on singular functions and therefore perform far less demanding tasks than software is able. In many respects it’s always been on demand, even if the installation disc arrived by post. Like most things we purchase, use it occasionally it’s expensive, use it daily and repeatedly it’s incredibly cheap. The usage/ownership debate always sees the lines on the graph cross – at a certain point of consumption, ownership becomes more cost effective. Own it, consume it as a service, it has no bearing on anything in particular, it’s just another consumer choice.

And the result of all this is?
Offering caution against the inevitable conquest and scorched earth of all before it by the irresistible yomp of technology is a dangerous cliff edge on which to be doing tai chi on a cloying dawn. Anyone misting over at the memory of dropping their Kodak’s ektachrome off in a postbox for processing and picking up a VHS from Blockbuster and a diabetes-inducing juggernaut-sized chocolate wedge from Woolies for a ritzy night in front of the CRT might consider the game will probably be up at some point soon.

Yet it is also easy to predict that the train running north through open countryside will continue to run north, smooth on its rails, accelerating at will. Few doubt that technology will continue to advance and that it will continue to change the way we live and work. However the rails are not smooth, the destination not certain. The human cost of our submission to digitisation, and the frailties and their consequences are only beginning to be understood; we needed enough critical mass to begin to do so.

The result of all this will be a more difficult journey for technology. Innovation will still have the capacity to excite, but we’ll greet it on its merits, cautiously, more considerate of its effect upon us. Online business will be increasingly held to account in both fiduciary and ethical matters, more aligned with the traditional businesses they have been usurping. The rights that ‘gig’ workers have abandoned will be progressively reclaimed. The high street will be re-lamped, as people return to the browsing that gave birth to a metaphor. Disrupters will become incumbents, and be themselves disrupted, the food chain will continue to eat itself. Anti-social media will have become a rant-pen for former presidents re-writing their disgrace as history. We will switch off the small screen, and re-focus the horizon we thought we had lost, and we’ll plan journeys from which we’ll send postcards. The novelty of immediacy will wane, as we re-discover anticipation. And the poets will tell of what it means to be human and vulnerable, once again.

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.