When the poets dreamed of workplace

I often think that following any form of statistical analysis, poets should complete the write-up. Other than preventing the statisticians from doing so, they’re able to interpret the data in the form of a story, and weave through the emotional content, identifying what the ticker-tape isn’t telling us. They might cushion the bludgeoning we’ll receive from data seeking a problem to explain.

So it is with the latest Leesman report The rise and rise of Activity Based Working. It’s a weighty hammer too. It’s very well written, and on the face of it rather convincing. The general conclusion is that Activity Based Working schemes (ABW) are good, but not everyone who works within them is on board and getting mobile with it. How this amounts to a ‘catastrophic failure’ though I’m not sure. If ever a claim were overstated, its right here. What it does highlight however, through its many pages of percentages, is the inherent danger in a statistical evaluation of the workplace.

The report asks: ‘The question still remains, why do some employees adopt a new way of working while others do not?’ Fundamentally, surveys of this nature will suggest you may have an issue and suggest its magnitude, but not tell you why. The question gnawing away while reading was, ‘Why are you so worried about it, and why are you making a scene?’

Essentially, the survey both ignores and is unable to deal with one thing – the journey. And this journey exists on two levels.

Workplace is itself a journey, a permanent beta trial. While there is a spike in investment and upheaval when a workplace is re-designed and created, in itself it is a moment in time. Thereafter it will unfold, mostly slowly but with occasional bursts of acceleration as the organisation, its people, its processes, its markets and technology change. The creation of the workplace is a lurch, from which the workplace then recovers its balance. Yet it is always moving, growing, changing. It should never be left alone as it meanders.

Sitting over the rolling stroll of the workplace are the myriad of personal journeys being undertaken by the occupants. Some such are smooth, some are stumbles. Within a new workplace, the influence of others – perhaps even the tummelers – holds their hands. The change journey is immersive and experiential. Personally, I decry the enforced training in etiquette and protocols that have become the unchallenged fashion in workplace, with the fearsome and innately arrogant target of adoption: they eat at the heart of what it means to be human and are responsible for the failure of many a scheme. We need to softly guide people on their journey of discovery, we can allow them to identify what works for them using their own plentiful resources. Our task is to help them mine those resources and bring them into play.

It doesn’t therefore matter whether in an ABW scheme people are ‘campers’ or ‘timid travellers’ or ‘intrepid explorers’ or ‘true transients’. What such a workplace should do is provide opportunities to change over time, offering a chance of this happening. Expectations of an instant return are entirely misplaced. The report at least acknowledges that people are different, their work differs, and that their use of the space will differ. And so, their journeys will differ. It entirely incorrectly concludes that this is a problem. The ‘camper’ may still appreciate the amenities, spirit, buzz, visibility, access, visual inspiration, humour, sense of belonging, and the feeling of being valued – even if they seek out a standard desk to undertake their process tasks, never get invited to a meeting and don’t feel the need to ‘huddle’. The environment can benefit everyone, not just the ‘true transients’.

There is nothing to fear from an activity-based workplace in which the personal journeys of its many occupants are unaligned. It’s not a failure, as might be perceived in this age of expectation of an instant return, or as ‘the data tells us’. On the contrary it reinforces the humanity of the space.

The report states that ‘the project will need ABW management specialists, technologists and behavioural change experts’. If that sounds like an awful lot of people in ill-fitting jackets running up a huge tab and over-complicating the whole thing (like identifying 27 work activities), it probably is. It remains an anomaly that we continually hear ourselves stating that the workplace is ‘all about people’ yet continue to treat people like a problem to be solved.

Repeating mantras won’t create a better workplace, we have to adapt our behaviour too. We still have a way to go.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Yesterday was fine, I’ve forgotten it somehow

Harvey closed the door of his double-aspect corner office to the suck-and-pop of precision seal engineering, exhaled slowly and contemplated the moment of peace descending like a duckfeather quilt.

He was still smirking at this morning’s serving of “Johnny Smartpants” in The Vines – his regular read on the reassuringly-packed 7.57 from Shenfield to Liverpool Street – the hilarious tales of a hapless, lonely stalwart of a lost generation, desperately unable to quite connect with the world in which he whirled. A modern-day Land Surveyor K. He had looked around and considered that each of his fellow commuters, pallid faces and eyes like marbles, may once have aspired to his kind.

He gazed at the domineering portrait of Lord Paxman on the wall, champion of the “Shabby Spring” of 2021, in which the clear-desk agilistas were finally routed. His determined, steely stare offered a firm assurance it was merely a rogue hoverboard in a pedestrian reality. Of course it had started with the journalists, in the early days just a smattering of protests at having to work open plan – but it soon spread faster than a middle-class buzzword. The hacks that fermented the revolt? They’re still working in open plan, their editorial reins restored.

Gone too were the gazebos, sleep pods and table tennis meeting tables, donated to the offices of the Benevolent Millennial Fund, where members like to write their names on their coffee cups and shout them out at random. The climbing walls had been restored to the serenity of ranked repositories of non-essential lever arch filing, collaborative spaces returned to arced desks visible from all corners of the paonopticoffice. The only trust that remained was authority.

He recalled the long autumnal night where he and his fellow activists had ceremonially shredded the countless policies, guidance notes and procedures that had steadily eroded their tolerance for years. Saved for last the most toxic of all, the guide to etiquette, or wetiquette as they liked to call it. Rising from the cross-cut mountain the following day, a refreshing return to the natural order of whim, and the arbitrary exercise of personal power.

Harvey buzzed his loyal Secretary, Janice, to check on his schedule. He was being interviewed this afternoon by Fat Company. They were keen to honour his own small part in the overthrow of the tyranny of collaboration. He had personally broken up a number of huddles on the morning it all began in earnest, overturning high tables, casting skinny lattes to all corners of the playpen, erasing the twisted tracks of a hundred needless charettes. On his desk, framed, was part of the tie he ripped, caught in the faux coin slot of the fussball table as he tried to confiscate the ball. He had scattered the assembled digital dodgers, hiding behind the pretence of yet another gathering, all the way back to some honest work. On their own.

Yet more than anecdotes of incidents punctuating the struggle, he was ready to regale his master stroke. He and his shlocktroops had exploited the principal vulnerability of the descending lava of smartworking, the fatal flaw in the plan: no-one wanted to do it.

The perpetrators talked long into their caffeinated morning of winning hearts and minds as though they were even vaguely related. Yet they spoke only in the language of the mind. They created guidance and instruction, advisory and compulsory, reasoned and balanced, shot through with bullet points – but no bonds, no instinctive response. Everywhere they looked, there was conditionality. They had overlooked that it begins and ends with the heart, to which the language of the mind is unintelligible. No-one ever fell in love by dictat.

Once the forces had been gathered, it had been a walkover. When the new way was trussed up in policies and protocols, there was no gift. Landed with responsibility for determining where, when and how to work, people froze. No-one was watching to set them at ease, to adjudicate, to settle and resolve. The right and wrong thing to do became so utterly blurred as to be one. Without the old certainties of presence and instruction, the vagaries of collective output and performance offered no light. Thank heavens they hadn’t understood.

What better appeal than a return to the comfort of old paternal certainty, the order of orders, to have the burden of responsibility for the choice of when to be at work and when not to be, reassuringly lifted. It wasn’t rationalised or crafted, set out or positioned, it was simply offered. Not a bullet point in sight, but a silver bullet nevertheless.

Harvey unconsciously patted himself on the chest, where his own heart beat with rhythmic self-satisfaction. Opening the door to the general office, he noticed amid the gentle tap, buzz and brrring of the machinery of righteous commerce, nothing at all. It was all over.

A tactilian struck by lightning

I’ve never received one of those annoyingly persistent turquoise ink stains on my fingertips from my iPad that I get from refilling my Aurora fountain pen. I’ve never smudged the last sentence across the page of Writer in too much of a hurry to scribble the next. And I’ve never wondered where I left the sketch of an idea in OneNote because it’s up there with the eagles and I could download it on my fridge. If I had such a fridge.

When the Luddites were smashing up mechanised looms, they faced a binary choice: the old artisan ways, that they believed would perpetuate their livelihoods, or the new automated ways, under which they believed they would be trampled and forgotten. The legacy of the swiftly-crushed movement has been one of “pro” and “anti” technology of any form. Use a mobile phone to make a call? “Luddite”.

But it’s no longer a binary consideration, given the degree to which technology has permeated our lives. There isn’t an old way and a new way, without moving to the Western Ghats. We may laud the entirely tactile experience of fountain pen on paper as an authentic means of recording our ideas, without considering the technology deployed in its manufacture, the logistics of getting it to where we bought it, the bytes involved in our credit card payment. Its all entwined.

Yet in the goldrush to digitise everything we use and every method we deploy, and to invent crap we don’t need and processes that only now exist because of the creation of the crap we don’t need (to keep up with this stuff follow @internetofshit), the most vital information we receive – from our senses – is being dulled, obviated and discredited. Human beings are no longer “smart”, this attribute lies firmly with the digital domain. You leap out of bed like a kangaroo from a barbecue thinking you had a great night’s sleep, your wristband tells you otherwise so you believe the wristband because it’s digital and produces data. Even the term “smart working” attributes the “smart” to the working, not to you.

Our obsession with efficiency is a product of our overcrowded ecosystem. The more cluttered our lives, the faster and more accurate everything has to be. The faster and more accurate everything becomes only serves to increase the overload, so we need more and better and faster to carve through it.

We have a fundamental need for the sensory information that is available to us through inefficiency. From manual processes, physical objects, human contact and face-to-face conversation, inaccuracy, estimation, gut feel and an instinctive and unpredicted change of mind and plan. Inefficiency creates a journey, which in turn brings us unexpected turns, tangents, surprises. It brings disappointment too, which has its uses. You lose some stuff along the way, but while looking find something else that starts another journey.

The tactile perspective is not anti-technology. The Swiss-made watch on my wrist may be as archaic as to just tell me the time (it tells me the date too but I can no longer read the tiny text) but there’s no doubt a lot of tech went into designing and making it. It doesn’t beep, doesn’t flash, doesnt synch with anything else I have (just with me), doesn’t measure my heart rate, tell me if I’m dehydrated or if it’s bed time. Stuff I trust myself to know. But it’s beautiful, and if I somehow leave the house without it, I turn back. Not because of the informations and efficiency I will be denied through its absence, but just because it won’t feel right.

We’re now inventing products and technology to tell us when we’re using too much technology, or to disable it for periods of time or in certain circumstances because we can’t be relied upon to do so ourselves. That’s a fairly magnificent disaster, like the bolt upon the postillion from which the title of this ramble was whittled.

I’ve written in this blog on many occasions about trusting ourselves, our own judgment and instinct. In terms of the latter, our reaction to the unrelenting advance of technology will be from an innate craving for the tactile. We will all, in one form another, rebel. The lightning will strike us all.