Under the emotional curve: where now for BIFM?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Frontier

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

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

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

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

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

Space may no longer be the final frontier.

 

Leaving no turn unstoned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And who make it work.

 

Pearly dewdrops’ drops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, try them all.

 

My workshop gently weeps

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

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

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

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

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

office space:

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

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

It will have to, if it wants a future.

 

Coming up for air

I was asked last week by one of the nicest people in the business (who happened to have been the original base build architect on the amazing building I’m now working in) to respond to a simple survey being conducted by his start-up business of the key five issues faced by workplace professionals today. Having responded within the space of a single breath I thought it might be worth taking a little more time to explain. I got to seven. I’ve without doubt missed some. After many months of self-impose exile I’m just coming up for air.

One: doing more with less space. The more choice of settings designed into a space, and the more thought that goes into each and how they fit within as seamless as possible a spectrum from the most focussed to the most interactive, the greater the level of flexibility and mobility that can be enabled. A principal challenge of this approach is being able to articulate what it means, and change perceptions of space and how it works. Giving it a numpty name like SmartSpace doesn’t describe it. It also requires a light treatment of the purpose of settings, resisting the temptation to be overly prescriptive. The last place on this plant – or any other – that someone is going to have an idea is in the “Ideas Lab”. And don’t be surprised if someone does the full Dom Joly in your Quiet Zone, just for the hell of it.

Two: focusing on technology first, not space. This is tough for workplace people, but faced with a choice, most people would take fantastic kit and connectivity over a smart and stylish space. You can work in Stig’s dump with a cracking download speed. The lightest, most powerful kit possible with the longest battery life, and the highest bandwidth connectivity available should be the investment priority or the space will likely never recover by the time you get around to it.

Three: take time to get the Brief right. Sadly most of the time there isn’t a Brief of any sort because design is just too interesting. It’s annoying talking about why and how you want to do something when you can just get on with it – isn’t it?  It’s nowhere near as annoying as taking an age and spending a fortune to find that it looks nothing like you hoped, everyone hates it and it doesn’t work. Brief development is a skill, and of those who actually do it not many do it well. And it’s not about handing over a suitcase full of used notes a consultant to define forty seven user types.

Four: Googlisation. Or, thinking that a Brief consisting entirely of “make it look like Google” is useful or clever. If you’re not Google, it doesn’t work. Sometimes if you’re Google it doesn’t work but that’s fine because they are actually Google, and you’re not so it’s their prerogative. They did a great thing, for which we should all be thankful, they gave the world permission to think about space differently – all the while serving a purpose for themselves. It’s the principle that’s important, not the interpretation. But if you’re over forty, don’t wear a Hollister hoodie and roll your trousers up, you’ll look like a pillock.

Five: Disrupture. Or, resisting the now obligatory requirement to do something entirely different, or at least claim to have done something different (which in most instances means repackaging an old idea), in most instances for its own sake because if you haven’t you’re not hanging with the kids. Why? Because everything is dead – you know, the office, e-mail, hierarchy – all those things that are in rude health, stronger even for having rumours of their demise exaggerated. Not every workplace scheme needs to break the mould. In the vast majority of instances, they just have to be well-designed, thought through, and appropriate to the business and its aims, location and demographic. When everything is disruptive, nothing is – and like trying to be Google, it may all just get a bit embarrassing.

Six: compromise. Every large organisation contains lots of people who love interior design and want to express themselves on the corporate tab. Nothing wrong with that per se. A recent piece by the most excellent Mark Eltringham quoted yet another (and there will undoubtedly be more) wellbeing report, this time the turn of the RCA and Gensler, in which they concluded “an invitation to participate in the design of the work environment raised levels of wellbeing.”

Strangely the report really talked about a lot of the key tenets of the #elementalworkplace rather than participative design. No credit of course. Yet even without mass participation, the workplace designer needs to balance a myriad of input and approval. It’s quite possibly the hardest part of any large scale workplace creation, and even more difficult when it’s focussed on opportunity creation than a lift-and-shift (or, evidence-based design).

And then seven: social media as news. Countering the click-bait BS of social media that to our collective horror even broke onto the front page of the Daily Telegraph last week with the preposterous “sitting is the new smoking” contention. [As an aside, there is quite an irony is the idea of passive sitting]. It was followed swiftly by two reports on the same quite appalling survey about the commercial benefit of the right seating plan. In a flexible workplace of course, seating plans aren’t relevant, because people move around. Which also counters the idiocy of holing chairs responsible for sloth. They seemed to miss that part in the rush to publish – it would require a little thought.

Other suggestions welcome. Just don’t mention millennials, robots or co-working. I need time to acclimatise.

 

Shut up ‘n’ play yer guitar

The title of this post is taken directly from the first of a series of three Frank Zappa albums released in 1981 consisting almost entirely of guitar solos. A Zappa-obsessed friend of mine told me that it was in response to critics considering that his axemanship was being undermined by his perpetual warbling. It was recorded in his new home studio, the unsurprisingly flared Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. He did of course manage to sneak in a few comments between tracks. Like tweeting when you’re not posting.

Tired of trying to Cnut the tides of unsupported piffle posing as truth, I stood the blog down in March to focus on completing a workplace project that has been three years in the making. In this time I’ve made a sub-profession out of politely declining invitations, and positioned my default to not being available to attend anything. The workplace is a building of some 45,000 square metres and is set to house 3,500 colleagues from a wide variety of backgrounds and functions. The moves take place over the next five weekends. In this instance even the small moves are massive moves. It’s both daunting and spine-tingling.

You’ll see and hear enough about the workspace in coming months, I’m not going to start describing it here. I’m not going to be defined by it either. In the “old days” – whenever they were – we would carefully release information about a completed project with a considered media strategy. As we saw with a recently completed project in Leeds, it will be instagrammed and tweeted to within an inch of life itself in a matter of days, if not sooner. My colleagues will tell you all about it as it appears and feels to them, which in this age of accountability instinctively feels right. Sure, we’ll take some professional pictures (with the building occupied) and talk about our intentions, design approach, curation, delivery – and be honest about our experiences (not just “what we might have done differently”). But the occupants of the space will tell everyone they know whether we nailed it.

As this particular project completes, others that might once have been all-consuming in themselves are accelerating. I can see as far as Easter for the immediate, and then a raft that spin off into years hence, like an ergonomic milky way.

Meanwhile there’s tumbleweed blowing down Workplace Avenue, a pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete, the screech of brakes and a lamplight blinking. Even the two lovers kissing in the tranquility of solitude have gone home. So the research kitchen is closing, the blog is returning. Bloody hell, someone has to start talking out there.

unworkessence

Two hundred and thirty four posts on from 8 October 2011, workessence is standing down. It may be temporary, it may be permanent, I haven’t decided. I used to love writing here, but of late that excitement has dwindled and I haven’t been enjoying it. I’d always told myself that if that happened, I’d take a break.

My blog originated on the Posterous site six years ago. I remember hesitating to publish my first post, concerned that my satirical take on a workplace consultants’ dysfunctional curry might lead to my being ostracised. I then realised that even though I’d pressed the button, no-one actually knew it was out there – and so there began my exploration of social media, to try and build a readership. I got ostracised anyway.

The “flat blog” as a form feels flatter than ever. It has been swamped by the deluge of unfilterable dirge bubbling from every crevice of LinkedIn. I’m sure that the level of mediocrity attained is far from what David Weinberger envisaged in the Cluetrain Manifesto when he said that blogging meant “writing ourselves into existence”. To paraphrase a line from The Incredibles – when everyone’s a blogger, no-one will be.

Over the years I’ve connected with and met some amazing people, and learned how to break out of the restrictive networks imposed by professions with inspired gatherings such as the Tuttle Club (thank you Lloyd and Anke) and ConnectingHR (thank you too, Gareth and Doug). Yet I’ve also learned to be careful what I wish for: I willed so many more people to participate in social media, but now just want most of them to leave. I still tweet (happy tenth birthday Twitter, by the way – you have been amazing) but with far less frequency than at any time since I really started in 2010. In professional terms it’s lost much of what made it so endearing and enlightening, but conversely seems to have found a worthy meaning and purpose best illustrated by the #tweepathon this weekend, captured in Michael Carty’s affectionate post. That said, I’m staying on Twitter, and staying connected.

Within the blog, I’ve exhausted the inclination or need to talk about millennials (no different from the rest of us), engagement (a lost sock), robots (if they have jobs, we’ll have different ones), productivity (a fish looking for a hook), the war for talent (for when there’s absolutely nothing else left to say), work being something you do and not somewhere you go, trust (it’s both), open plan offices (where all journalists should be made to work, just for the hell of it), smartworking (a consultant fabrication), the tyranny of cool (a sterile airbrushed hell), professional bodies (self-defeating prophecies)) and any other issues that are only issues because we talk about them relentlessly. If we stopped, they’d go away.

However I’ve concluded over these years of working it out through the blog that creating fantastic workplaces – for, and because of people – has never been more attainable if we would just stop over-complicating, over-analysing and obfuscating. It’s simple, it really is. If that’s my one conclusion from all the effort, it’s been worthwhile.

Of all the stuff I’ve written, I’ve enjoyed – and am most proud of – the stories. While they’ve been appreciated by people for whom I have a lot of respect, they haven’t been read nearly as much as the more obvious “fast food” opinionated rants. They need time to consume, and time to digest. If the site started disintegrating before my eyes, bytes tumbling around me, I’d save the stories first and not bother with the rest.

As Sartre’s detached character Antoine Roquentin says in Nausea, “one has to choose, to live or to tell”. I’m giving the telling a break. Thank you for reading, and for being part of my journey – without you, this blog would have been nothing.

 

Elemental block

This is my penultimate post. You may get that sense: an underlying frustration, interwoven with a stubborn optimism that we have enough, and we know enough, to do what matters. The final shift needed is simply to trust our instinct.

Consider for a moment the extensive progress made through a couple of decades of product placement/sponsored research (delete as applicable) in the field of workplace, that has advanced our knowledge and understanding by….reinforcing what we instinctively know, but for which we need proof.

There are still a lot of questions in the field we haven’t answered – and need to – with a small number of people out there proffering some insightful boffinry. But it’s astounding quite how many times clear sense propositions below are paddled out like they’re something worth jumping out of the bath for. The conundrum is of course that despite their embedded no-shit-sherlock status, it doesn’t mean that every organisation heeds these things. We’re going round in circles. By the time we’re back where we’ve started we’ve forgotten we were ever there.

It’s the elemental block.

We like to look at nice things, like plants and countryside and stuff
Even if we want to call it something posh like Erich Fromm’s biophilia (which sounds antisocial – and is not Bjork’s concept album – just dwell on that for a moment) essentially for our health, wellbeing, and general state of mind we would rather look at beautiful things like plants, lakes, the sea, mountains or grassland than the goods entrance of an abattoir. There is a neurological link. The beneficial effects of the aesthetic have been known for centuries, and have even given rise to physiological phenomena such as Stendhal’s Syndrome. Admittedly breathlessness and disorientation are probably not likely to be associated with spiralling levels of beauty associated with the pot plant on the filing cabinet, but its contribution is worthy nonetheless.

Noise can be really annoying
We’ve started getting excited about psychoacoustics. Speech, telephones, alarms, office machinery, piped europop (a good enough reasons for Brexit, for some) – they can all be annoying. And of course it’s all the fault of the open plan office (as is, according to many journalists, the unpreventable end of humanity). Design often contributes: if you put one open meeting space next to another open meeting space, that’s likely to be a problem – so please, designers, stop doing it. However the use of felt as an acoustic treatment material in these circumstances – or indeed, any other – remains entirely inexcusable.

We don’t like being interrupted while we’re doing something
Despite the trend in business and interior architecture alike towards collaboration, which by nature invites interruption, actually being interrupted when you’re concentrating on something is irritating unless it involves chocolate. The more it happens the more irritating it gets (even chocolate has a limit). It’s unlikely to take three days to re-focus on the original task, as some have proposed, but its disruptive nonetheless (I here use the word “disruptive” in its rare, intended form, and not as a gateway to hipster heaven). And of course there are always top tips for not being interrupted, most of which are comical – albeit the last one on this list seems to make the most intuitive sense, costs nothing and doesn’t involve the use of felt: “be assertive” – as in, “sod off”.

We like a bit of freedom to choose the best ways do what we’re asked to do
No-one ever said how much they like being micro-managed – did they? Recipes are for people who are starting out in the kitchen. The more we cook, the less we need them, save for a quick check on a quantity. Just so with work tasks – there may be a process to follow, an order of play, but we work out how best we can make it happen. We might still be asked to arrive at a time and place, and leave that place at a time, but we still crave a little freedom to choose how we do stuff. The “when, where and how” of flexible work exists in some sort of natural order – first the how, then the where, then the when. It should be stated as how, where and when, the scale of freedom. Of course there are people who think choice represents a tyranny  in which case just sit tight and be told where to work. How does that feel?

We work better if we have a pleasant workplace
Yes, a clean, tidy, well-furnished workplace with great amenities will have you cranking it out far more productively than in a corrugated prefab with a fan heater and a desk comprising an old door on a couple of milkcrates. And if design is thoughtful (as opposed, one assumes, thoughtless and random) that’s even better. It really is that astonishing a revelation. But then of course you could just embark on an attention-seeking roadtrip. No harm in that, surely?

It helps if you’re not stuck in a chair for eight hours a day
Yep its true, sitting down all day isn’t good for you. Strangely, neither is standing up all day – you’re still inactive. We await the research that lets us know that leaning isn’t so helpful either. So, stuck in your chair all day? Sit-stand desks are the current panacea, but here’s some amazing advice – get up and walk around, go get a drink, go see someone, go take in a view. It’s free, too. Yep – a balanced approach. The key to just about everything.

It’s nice if you can get a god coffee and something healthy and not too expensive for lunch from somewhere close to where you work
Which means first and foremost actually taking a break – to go and get something, and consume it. There are even posts offering lists of reasons why, as if somewhere we’ve irredeemably lost the idea of doing something that was once institutionalised. Let’s suppose that somehow this is a new and exciting revelation – we then need to choose carefully what we consume. All food is not the same. And as the world is now utterly obsessed with productivity, some helps you work better and some will send you off on a fluffy pillow to the sound of angel-song. But it’s not all about the food: it’s a social experience, a meditative release, a change of scenery – all that kind of stuff. The food is the attraction, but is often incidental. You need the refreshment but you also simply need to be somewhere different. And if you’re at Google, you’re queuing up with a small plate.

We might just need more than just a desk and a meeting room to get our work done
We might need a choice of settings, depending on what we’re doing. That’s not because the desk is dead (despite the wishes of many) or that we can now hold all our meetings in the away end at Millwall, but because what we do exists on a scale, not in binary form. The term “Activity-Based Working” be a marketer’s nightmare but at least it says what it is (unlike the self-inflated “smartworking”). There are – as with seemingly every idea around workplace – a host of myths – this post from Monica Parker helps to bust some of them. But it needn’t be this complex – just a simple choice of spaces will do nicely.

Daylight makes us feel happier and so we do better work
If we’ve got biophilia and psychoacoustics then we’ve certainly got heliotherapy – dating back to the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians – setting our circadian rhythms, curing skin ailments, speeding healing, generating energy and improving our sleep and mood. But whatever the science we just feel a whole lot better with daylight than we do without it, we seek it out, our physiology informs our brain it’s a “good thing”.

We work better if we are given decent IT kit and have a reliable internet connection
No explanation or links needed for this one. It’s almost listed in The Hague as a human right.

But you knew all of that anyway. You didn’t need to follow the links, interesting as they are. Despite this, there will be many more articles and posts reinforcing these statements over the next decade. Maybe it will help drum it home for those in denial – and help remove the elemental block. But its only news if we don’t trust our own instinct and judgment in matters of clear sense. It’s time we did.

 

Playing second fiddle to sumptuous despair

Our curious leader, he’s never there
He’s playing second fiddle to sumptuous despair
Our curious leader is covered in deep sin
And when I grow up you know I want to be like him…..

(Luxuria)

Of all the easy targets for bloggers, tweeters and whatever you call the lost souls who use LinkedIn, management lies as prone as a pigeon’s playground. And for the purposes of this  polemic I shall set aside the purists’ frustrations and include the notion of leadership, as they’re interchangeable in practice and most who both practice and are subject can’t really tell the difference (or quite understandably don’t bother to).

If you believe the internet, which is of course true, everywhere on this fair planet management is in crisis, artificially perpetuating an archaic, zombified hierarchical system that stifles freedom, creativity, self-expression and fulfilment. Managers themselves are a self-interested, interfering, dogmatic, callous bunch of utter incompetents,  inconsistently and arbitrarily wielding unjustified authority. We’re all guilty, and all responsible.

In my thirty-ish years of working I’ve managed musicians, project managers, architects, civil servants, prosecutors, administrators, warehouse  pickers and packers, quantity surveyors, roadies, technicians, computer programmers, builders, just about all of the trades within facilities management, accountants, motorcycle couriers, lawyers and artists. There are probably more I can’t recall. I can say with some assurance that none of these trades and professions were easy to manage, and a lot of were damned challenging.

How can it be that bloody difficult? Especially if you’ve never managed anyone. In the sanguine safety of text books, TED talks, blog posts, 140-character sermons and other vehicles for self-expressed wisdom it’s a doddle . And the less you do it, remarkably, the easier it seems to be.

That’s because it doesn’t have to deal with relationships, agendas, political ambitions, reward, ego, limited resources, bureaucracy, fads and panaceas, the unrelenting need to fill the spaces between us, deadlines, motivation, life stages, personal circumstances, communication (or lack of) and language, love (and lust), expectations, pressure, reporting, grievance, ever-increasing governance, international differences, the vacuous notion of culture, time, commerciality, appraisal, priorities – and luck. Amongst other things. The stuff that chews up the list of “fifty things successful managers do”.

There’s other stuff too. Balancing the need to make decisions with the desire to be inclusive, and the need to get stuff done  that may not be popular with a desire to be liked (even occasionally). Being a generalist leading experts, when the team know more than you do about the subject matter. A dash of imposter syndrome. Having stuff you absolutely have to do, but someone just needs “five minutes”. Being told you need to be more resilient, when you just want to crumble. And feeling like you’re the loneliest person on earth.

All managers need help. Given. Those who claim not to, need a different help.

There are those whose reflections help make us better people, so we can be better managers, like this post from @Fuchsia_blue. And there are those who are not managers who might make a useful contribution  – philosophers, therapists, mime artists, mystics and the like. They might prompt reflection, introspection, even ascetic wandering  or a pilgrimage. In many respects, the more distant the relationship, the more fascinating the perspective – like one of my favourites, the musings of a Hindu priest on why what you can’t measure is interesting.

But if you’re not one of these, none of the above resonates with you, and you’re about to take a random pot shot at “management”, it may be better to write about something else. Your talents are truly wasted.