While stuck in that vacuum between push-back and take-off on a recent flight I subjected myself to Business Life, as you do, and yet another article about the future of work. It quoted a report by the Future Factory commissioned by a design firm that said that we can look forward to a workplace that is ‘an intuitive, human-oriented environment driven by smart systems that optimise workers’ performance, sharpen their focus and meet their demands leaving them feeling healthier, cared for and more energetic at the end of the day than at the start.’ Right – so we’ll all be brilliant in a brilliant place that makes us feel even more brilliant than when we started, which was already actually quite brilliant anyway. I’m not sure that the world can accommodate that amount of brilliance. Truly wacko stuff, and in so many ways utterly terrifying. Yet these are the sorts of stories we are increasingly telling ourselves in a monumental act of groupthink. We get entirely lost in them.
There is a triangle we are getting lost in now, in these early years of Westworld 2.0. For Miami, Puerto Rico and Bermuda (only one of which gave its name to it), read workplace wellbeing, experience and biophilia.
Interestingly, one of the possible explanations of the mysterious disappearance of shipping in the equilateral abyss is the sporadic release of unusually high level of methane, as the over-ripe bubbles can reduce the density of water. You know where I’m heading with this. In our case, with just the humble internet for a compass, it’s not geophysical activity that accounts for it, or even the handy excuse of the paranormal, it’s of our own doing. What we create sinks us.
The three destinations were among the most over-hyped and over-published of 2018. Everyone booked, and people who didn’t book showed up too despite the much-publicised overcrowding. Most people who went to one went to at least one of the others, too, entirely oblivious of the risks, blithely dismissing the possibility of unexplained disappearance. That of course is not to say the destinations were unimportant. Not so. Just that, really, we ought to try, maybe, somewhere else less worn. Here’s the travelogue.
There are three prime dramatis personæ in what can only be described as the ‘great undefined’, wellbeing – you (which, even at this point, some may be surprised at given what’s written), other people (whether you know them or not, or interact with them or not – just consider how much stress our shambolic politicians have added to our lives) and places (by which we mean all places – home, transport, public spaces, your workplace – you are always somewhere and its always having an effect on you, it’s never neutral). If the dynamic interaction of all three is not complicated enough there are at least seven aspects of wellbeing – occupational, social, emotional, physical, intellectual, spiritual and environmental. Some add others, such as financial. Each of those aspects break down into a further series of components. It’s quite a matrix, always in motion, always shifting shape.
The physical workplace has a part in this multi-dimensional play, but it is way down the list of credits. The contribution the physical workplace can make is through design excellence: light-oriented architecture, effective and responsive building systems and controls, a commitment to inclusion, sound ergonomics and beneficial amenities; and daily operations including the right services delivered well and attentive maintenance of all that has been provided.
Within the workplace, a significant amount more relates to the dynamic aspects of both your own and other people’s behaviour, values and choices. Our worry-soaked sleepless nights are rarely down to a restrictive palette of worksettings. It will be something we’ve done (or not), or something someone else has done (or not). On balance, wellbeing is mostly about people.
Workplace experience was the ‘employee engagement’ of 2018, the latter having thankfully given up being taken seriously the year prior. Watch out for your annual engagement survey becoming your annual experience survey, same thing different label. There are three prime dramatis personæ in experience – yep, you guessed it, you, other people (whether you know them or not, or interact with them or not) and the physical workplace including its architecture, installations, technology and services. The actor that makes it all a little sketchy is of course you, because experience is perceived and therefore subject to voluntary and involuntary personal filters, they being mental, physical and emotional at least.
Experience is therefore not a universal or objective idea. Two people are likely to experience the exact same workplace and what occurs within it entirely differently. As with wellbeing, much of course has to do with other people, and their behaviour, values and choices. Experience is fleeting, transitory, and subject to revision over time. We forget, and so tell ourselves changing stories. Hence the adage ‘the older I get, the better I was’.
The case for creating a positive workplace experience isn’t just down to the claustrophobic layering of wonder – amenities, benefits and services – as we did during the ‘Dot Com Bubble’ (yep, we’ve done this experience-thing before and we know how well that ended). Experience habituates, diminishing the effect and benefit – we crave increased stimulation, we want and expect more. Just ask Verruca Salt. Remember too that an experience-based approach is not a fix for workplace wellbeing, downstream comfort attempting to mask deeper and more fundamental human issues.
For everything we may do, the best contribution to workplace experience still comes from Bill & Ted – be excellent to each other. There is no better place to start, or end. I doubt anyone could claim to have a positive workplace experience in an environment, however amazing or however well it made us feel, where everyone around them was a git. On balance, workplace experience is mostly about people.
Then the final sixty degrees takes us to biophilia, a term still best not used in uninformed company without raising concern. It essentially means a love of nature, drawing inspiration in workplace design and creation from maximising access to daylight (and when not rooted in the urban sprawl, views), and the use of natural materials and planting. It’s one of those words that is placed in front of ‘design’ when, really, it’s just an aspect of design that should always be present. Like ‘ergonomic’ and ‘inclusive’. They’re all just design done responsibly. I worked on a workplace that comfortably looed after 24,776 internal plants, all specified and installed without anyone uttering the world ‘biophilia’ or making a single claim of their healing or productive powers or with a related demand to prove a return on investment. They were just lovely. It is possible.
Daylight is one of the twelve essential elements of a fantastic workplace, but a fantastic workplace can also still be free of natural materials and plants as there may be other needs or priorities, and very few are lucky enough to have a view of ‘wildebeest roaming the Serengeti’, it’s more likely to be crisp-bags circling a courtyard. As per one of the laws of workplace, it’s all about balance. If your workplace design resembles Kew Gardens, you’ve probably designed Kew Gardens. Unless you were asked by Kew Gardens to design Kew Gardens, don’t be silly. Biophilia is about people liking natural stuff, but not being silly about it or making daft claims.
In fact, not being silly about it or making daft claims applies to all three. And to everything else to do with the workplace.