Ten workplace meta-trends for 2018 (really)

This is the time of year for giving – random, aimless advice, that is. Yes, its trendspotting time. Everywhere you look and everywhere you dare not look there will be futurists and soothsayers from small seaside towns telling you with excruciating confidence what will be happening next year. It may even prompt you not to bother showing up for 2018. At workessence we have taken all the amazing blog posts and sponsored research articles from 2017 and fed them into our advanced AI engine that looks and sounds remarkably like a cross-cut shredder to proudly bring you everything you will need to know about the year ahead.

  1. Increasing numbers of HR leaders – starting with those that run departments called People before those still called HR because they are all about people – will inherit responsibility for property until they have all inherited responsibility for property including those called HR and even some called Human Capital. This will leave proportionately numerous Property people kicking their heels and getting in the way of important transformation projects. This will result in ever-growing amounts of transactional HR work being ignored in favour of furniture tours, with talented people, over whom a war is being fought, not getting hired and James Dyson unable to fire anyone, leading to the CIPD establishing a Property Director Conversion Programme enabling all former Property leaders to re-train in HR until everyone has effectively swapped jobs. Former-HR Property leaders will start to understand that it’s not all about furniture tours. They will begin to struggle with balancing competing organisational demands, and realise why the design community liked dealing with them because they didn’t understand that it was OK to challenge what was being proposed until it was the best it could be. Former-Property HR leaders will understand that trying to be both business partners and look after employee needs is an almost impossible challenge and that you can’t get through a day without several cup-cakes. The design community will start to say how great it is when they work with Former Property HR leaders. Former-Property HR leaders will start to inherit responsibility for workplace projects. You can see where is going, can’t you?
  2. Co-living will be revealed as flat share. People won’t believe it.
  3. Millennials will grow up another year and their lack of difference from other generations will become all the more acute. The few remaining millennials who are not yet CEO of a business started in an actual incubator will get actual jobs in actual companies and will consider that it’s time to stop dressing and talking like a West Coast supremo. The CEOs will continue to talk and dress like West Coast supremos and use slightly comic fonts and address absolutely everyone as though they are giving a TED talk, including people at the bus stop. They will occasionally take the bus for effect and a timely Instagram post.
  4. A journalist will spend an afternoon in an open plan workplace, and not turn into a sociopathic extrovert. They will quietly tell their friends that it was okay. They won’t be believed.
  5. The War for Talent will become an actual war where prospective candidates will begin to gather together, and will scare the daylights out of recruiters who liked to use entirely-unnecessary 1980s type conflict metaphors until the recruiters sue for peace and are forced to accept unfavourable – almost scandalous – terms. Principally, they will promise never to place misleading adverts, to respond to prospective clients when they say they will, not to promise far more than can possibly be delivered and after building up candidate hopes not to offer them a desultory package and then not to leave them to their own devices and working on their own devices on Day One (their caps, it’s a big day) without anywhere to actually work in a team that thought they were arriving next week. Because work is something you do, not something people are expecting you to arrive to do.
  6. The filament lightbulb with its dangly cable and misplaced ceiling rose will be discovered to be the main cause of unusually rapid beard growth and the unexplained spouting of top-knots. The provision of wrap-around protective glasses will lead to a Rezillos revival. Not so bad, eh?
  7. The rise of AI will accelerate exponentially with robots designed with all the limitations of the human form displacing real humans from every single job, everywhere. The zealous over-production of robots by other robots will lead to increasing amounts of human-tutored corner-cutting in design and manufacture which in turn will lead to massive variations in quality and a productivity paradox. It won’t actually be a paradox because we will know the cause but as we will have been displaced we will not be able to do anything about it and they will no longer listen to us. This will lead to an actual Robot War for Talent with lasers, flashing images and scenes that some viewers may find upsetting. Eventually robots will start to develop an irrational paranoia that humans will start taking their jobs and write untold amounts of anxious bloggage until they do, everywhere.
  8. Apple will fill in the hole.
  9. The rise of co-working – or flexible space – will mature to the extent that large corporates will increasingly take leases on whole buildings instead of sharing them with PR’s and technology recruiters. Tired of signing contracts every year they will start to commit to ten and fifteen-year leases in a bid for continuity. They will realise that the minuscule glass boxes and titchy wobbly desks are not actually very good and so will ask to do their own fit-out and buy their own furniture given that they have taken the whole building. They’ll ask for the annoying community manager to go somewhere else because there is no longer a community and will take out the beer tap as a cost-saving measure. They will rave about ‘space-as-a-service’ as the real estate revolution they had demanded for decades and feel very happy they made it happen.
  10. A freelancer somewhere will get paid ahead of time. Completely by mistake

Mission accomplished? Far from it. But the beat goes on.

 

Cabaret unordinaire

You wait fifteen years for an open, honest and self-aware case study and one comes along at once. Delivered at Workplace Trends this week, Tony Grimes of Investec (of the zebra logo) spoke with astonishing candour and rich humour about the pilot space created at one of the bank’s buildings for around 300 people, in a bid to create a more open, agile and collaborative culture. It was entitled Out of the Ordinary but it was a brief common to most organisations. What was far from ordinary was the manner of the telling of the tale. Gone were the ‘things we would have done differently’ and ‘learnings’ and in its place a completely warts-and-all story of a journey of discovery from start to way beyond the finish.

Presented with Farrol Goldblatt of TP Bennett, the workplace designers engaged, we could have reason to believe this wasn’t actually happening at all. Normally the case study section of a conference has one reaching for a sharpened pencil to stab oneself in the thigh to stay awake, but this tale sparkled. Not for its innovative approach as it was a familiar and sound tale of the right steps in the right order and the right response to the right findings, but for the unique atmosphere created as the repeated failures of a conference genre were obliterated.

I especially enjoed Tony calling out the almost deliberate wheeze of placing of a quiet booth on the main central walkway which became a natural and self-defeating stop-off for all passing meercats. Farrol looked a bit sheepish at this point too (I would have been mortified) but dealt with it in the same lightness of spirit. They showed that it’s not difficult, at all, if you want to.

This timely honesty will surely save us from thinking that things only go wrong and the unexpected happen with our own projects. It may save us from the increasing volume of quack futurology masquerading as insight with more padding than a hockey goalkeeper’s jersey churned out by glossy sales machines. It could also save us from being pancaked in both directions from driverless bandwagons like biophilic design. I would rather listen to Tony all day than be subject to any of this stuff. It is real, human, straightforward and sincere.

Workplace is a practical discipline, and one that needs open IP and a simple lexicon if the many for whom we aspire to create fantastic workspace are to benefit. It’s fundamental that we have to be able to collectively learn. We’ll only know if this week’s session changed anything the next time someone steps up to deliver their case study. From here on, accept nothing less.

 

Speakers’ Union

Events seem to come in four broad types – the first three are those run by events companies, for whom this is their core business, those run by professional bodies where they hope to make a bit of money but it’s something their membership expect having parted with a wedge already (even though they usually have to pay again too), and those run by committed professionals who just want to break even because it’s the love of the subject matter that drives them to bring everyone together. I’m talking here about the first two categories. The fourth is dealt with a little later.

I’m in that group of conference and event speakers who are on the cusp of getting paid as a matter of course – sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. We might get expenses covered or a free ticket for the day, but we’re still tormented by the need to forego a fee for the opportunity for profile. This is usually achieved on the organisers’ part by sending a list of attendees to the last event, all of whom miraculously seem to be Directors and VP’s. It’s a gift, we get an audience, we’re grateful. We’re made to feel like we’ve been selected. Invariably, therefore, we agree. Yet we have done the maths – multiplied the ticket price by the attendee numbers and deducted a rough estimate of venue hire, catering, materials., AV and marketing – and worked out the net income. We’ve then deducted the rough cost of the ‘keynote’ speakers at the start and end of the day who don’t have much to do with the subject matter and who are explorers or athletes or astronauts or economists or magicians, and arrived at a number. We’ve thought – it wouldn’t take much to make us feel a little less exploited. That includes for those ‘in a job’ where it might be less pressing.

There is a principle at play. The majority of the events in the ridiculously overcrowded calendar are of the commercial, profit making variety. They have no intrinsic knowledge-enhancing or network-building aims beyond securing attendance at the next event. They rely on speakers doing their part for the satisfaction of seeing their name on the brochure, and the tweet-reach of their performance.

The contention is that all speakers should be paid, regardless, unless it’s an event in the third category, where an arrangement can be made if agreeable to all.

In a previous life I used to co-manage a recording artist, with No1 selling albums and top ten singles in a small country not far from here. During recording sessions and on tours I became familiar with Musicians’ Union rates. The rates were not high, but they effectively worked as a living wage. Every musician got paid for their contribution, principally because no-one would do it otherwise. You didn’t find anyone playing rhythm guitar on a megastar’s album purely for the privilege – they got the listing, the profile and the kudos, but they could have a pint and a pizza after the session too.

Profile doesn’t pay the mortgage. Being invited to speak is not a gift. The event organisers are lucky to have you. It is time for a Speakers’ Union. Not a real thing, not a bureaucracy with membership and cards and any kind of political affiliation – but an informal agreement between everyone asked to speak at a profit-making conference to be paid a minimum fee. It shouldn’t matter whether they are in a job or not. What might the level be? I would propose £500 (which is $500 or €500 – Brexit was invented by those who struggled with currency conversion) and a free ticket to the event for the day (it’s amazing that even this benefit is not universally applied). That is a minimum, it still leaves the speaker and event organiser free to agree a higher fee.

The other practice that needs to be put in a shallow grave in the woods is charging speakers for their slot. While this might be construed as an honest recognition that very often speakers are making a sales pitch, it actually means that the event is a fourth category, a trade show. They are often dressed as a conference, leading you to believe that they are about knowledge enhancement and networking, but the request for payment soon reveals the reality. They still manage to get people attending, parting with a wad of cash for the privilege, believing it’s a conference. They should be clear about the proposition and state that the speakers paid for the right to be holding the mic – or stop the charade altogether. Speakers should be paid here too at Speakers Union rates, even if they are selling.

Of course, this idea won’t work if people still agree to speak for free. Everyone needs to abide by it. The next time you get a call from Aspirational Events asking you to speak, just quote ‘Speakers’ Union rates’ and see what happens. It will take a while to bed in, probably several years, and you will doubtless lose many opportunities until there is universal participation. I’ve probably kissed a few goodbye just from writing this post. Some of the less popular and successful events might bite the dust but that’s no bad thing in an overcrowded market.

As an attendee, it would be far more satisfying too, knowing that those presenting were being paid and therefore had probably been more inclined to put time, effort and thought into their pitch. I’ve seen too many rock up and babble their way through slides they had clearly never seen before the moment they were introduced to an unsuspecting throng. You may even be inclined to pay a higher attendance fee, thereby funding the payment of the speakers. It works all round.

All you have to do to join is say you’ve joined. And hold to it.

 

Who invented rock and roll?

‘There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader’
Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rolin (1807 – 74)

There is a popular belief that shared (co-working) workspace was invented by the likes of WeWork. Most would be reasonable to assume this, given their seemingly meteoric rise since Brad Neuberg coined the phrase ‘co-working’ in San Francisco in 2005, conceiving of a space that would save freelancers from the torment of being alone all day with the dishwasher. Contrary to this belief, however, they were actually invented by a stubborn, time-locked and unconscious partnership between institutional landlords and large corporate occupiers. Yep, you didn’t know – but you did, you invented co-working.

Between yourselves you conjured a reaction to the decades of predictable stagnation over which you presided, and having now watched it all pass you by are struggling to regain some semblance of control. You’re starting to buy in, more by magnetised pull than conscious push. You actually had everything you needed at your disposal to create this new working environment, but through profit orientation (landlords) and self-imposed constraint (corporates) you let the skinny-jean cohort take the initiative. It had to happen. Now, you’re running along behind a bus that’s pulling further away with every formal-trousered pace. Co-working spaces are no longer the preserve of the freelancer, they’re the spaces people want to work in.

Landlords, you could have granted shorter leases, taken more of a risk – heaven knows, your paying customers have been pleading with you for years to do so. You could have set aside the letting agents for a moment and challenged the banality of the design of your speculative spaces, in the belief that all anyone ever wanted was a double-height marble clad echo chamber and characterless sleeves in which to slide neat rows of white desks, like a ship in a bottle at the pull of a cord. You could have pondered what the ‘service’ in your ‘charge’ meant, beyond flicking a dirty mop around the toilet floor at twilight and changing filters at half the recommended frequency, then nudging the solicitor for a pro-forma warning when anyone dared complain. You could have considered what actually moved through the fibres you coiled into your risers, and thought it might be relevant to you, too. You could have looked at how people really wanted to work, but instead you created your own spaces in the mirror image of your inhumane creations, and so believed and perpetuated your own beliefs. So, you carried on building the same building, over and over again, named it, printed a brochure, let it, sold it, built another one. You had it all. What did you do with it?

Corporate occupiers, you could have lightened up. You could have shredded the manual of prickly prohibitive policies. You might have considered that the global space standards and supply agreements and behavioural dictats proscribed only the imagination of the people forced to stoically bear each day in the serried ranks laid out in their honour, compliant, desolate. You might have realised that your people only craved their desk, their office, their name on something because you talked about trust and then didn’t trust them to make the choices that might have given them the energy that comes with freedom. You could have shown you valued them in ways other than saying you valued them, buying them a decent coffee, cleaning and supplying the toilets, bathing them in daylight, giving them fresh air. You could have thought that instead of providing the minimum possible technology that would deliver the minimum possible results that people were then told once a year that weren’t good enough that by gifting the best possible kit and the fastest, most reliable connectivity that they could achieve amazing things that went so far beyond their ‘annual objectives’ that you would want to talk about every day because they were so amazing. You could have provided space for everyone, without making anyone feel like an outlier, a special case, someone with an issue, so that no-one ever had to feel embarrassed or awkward or have to go and see someone to explain. You might even have taken the view that when people built relationships that sometimes became more than business relationships that it was fantastic and instead of frowning and looking for the policy manual, smiled. You could have let Janice bring her dog to the office, instead of sending them both home. And you could have invited other companies to share your space, for the ideas and energy and buzz and people they would bring, and considered security beyond the binary finality of a portcullis. You could have put the beer tap in the café for the social magnetism and sense of trust it brings. You had it all. What did you do with it?

The likes of WeWork amongst many others are just doing what landlords and corporate occupiers could – and should – have done. Incredibly they’re getting people to work in tiny, acoustically-challenged claustrophobic glass boxes at less than six square metres a person and fitting out space for less than £1,000 a square metre, ideas and metrics that would never hold sway in the crusted world of traditional officing where we are bombarded with ‘evidence’ (most isn’t) about the satanic curse of open working and noise.

How? By providing spaces we want to go to not the space we’re told to go to, and the services we want when we’re there rather than the ones we’re forced to accept. The private spaces are tolerated because the shared spaces are energised and fascinating, not because of the beer tap and neon slogans on the wall and exposed brickwork but because of the spirit engendered by the sense of freedom and being treated like someone capable of making their own choices. The first choice after all, was parting with the membership fee. Rules are minimal – so drink beer when you want, bring your dog, wear a ra-ra skirt, no-one minds as long as you’re a good neighbour…. just be excellent to each other. You want to talk to the other people who don’t work for who you work for. And you can walk away when and if you want, you won’t need to file for chapter 7 bankruptcy as a result. There are rarely soporific gimmicks on display, they’re not needed because they’ve replaced the toys that were once thought to be the answer with the human benefit of community. They’re far from perfect – all this and even they still can’t clean a toilet properly – but they feel right. That counts for so, so much.

Landlords and corporate occupiers, you could have done this, you had it all. What did you do with it?

 

Thanks to Caleb Parker for the image of Bold in London (showing real people working)

Ink in the well

The lights of the ashes smoulder through hills and vales
Nostalgia burns in the hearts of the strongest
Picasso is painting the ships in the harbour
The wind and sails
These are years with a genius for living

(David Sylvian)

I haven’t posted anything for a while because I have been writing a book on the Elemental Workplace. It’s finished and will be coming out next Spring. It takes about six months from this stage to being on the shelves. It’s been an amazing experience, and so for would-be writers here are a few thoughts on the experience, shared partly as a means of getting back into the shortform.

Starting is easy. After that coffee, of course. It’s a little later that it becomes a struggle, after the initial headrush clears, when there is enough down to make it look like you’ve achieved something, but a more expansive void ahead that needs to be filled. For so long, it seems as though you are not yet half-way through, that there is more to travel than you had just trod.

From the very first sentence, you can’t shut down. You live inside it. Forget writing anything else, especially a blog, it’s searing jealousy won’t let you.

You start off in charge of The Book, and at a certain point that when looking back you can’t recall, it takes over. From Master, you become Servant. It gives the orders. When you try and regain control it just ignores you.

Thereafter Book as it becomes known to you and those around you takes on a personality of its own. It lives with you, drinks your coffee, eats your lunch, falls asleep on your sofa. It doesn’t leave, or understand that a welcome only last so long.

The completion of the first end-to-end draft is an amazing feeling, like tumbling across the finish line with a last breath, joyous. Only to be told that it wasn’t quick enough, your style was awkward, your rhythm was erratic and you need to run back again.

When you finally pluck up the courage to re-read what you’ve written, you wonder who the hell wrote it. For a while you are uncomfortably inseparable strangers. It takes a while, several iterations, for it to become yours. The first edit is without doubt harder than the first draft.

There is nothing ‘instant-gratification’ about it. This is old-school work. The internet might aid quick fact-checking, each of which of course needs to be re-checked because the sources can be a bit flaky, and the word processor might offer some additional wiggly lines to suggest brevity, but you have to write every single word yourself. Albeit my Mum did ask me if I wrote the first draft by hand.

You live in fear of misquoting or not crediting the right people. You wonder, did I hear that particular idea somewhere, is that my thought or did I scoop it out of one of the puddles that stipple the roads you’ve hurried down in the dark, where the streetlamps weren’t working, never there the next day.

Most of the time, you’re on your own. What’s in your head has to be down on paper, how can anyone even begin to understand or help? You live in a small, isolated space. The sound of the hammering on the keyboard (and I hammer louder than most) becomes your heartbeat. It’s all you can hear, and you can’t leave gaps of any length or it becomes constricting.

It’s an emotional venture rather than a commercial one. Unless you’re selling millions, it’s not going to buy a lot more than beer. Yet that doesn’t ever seem to matter. You do it because you want to, because you feel you have to. Like there isn’t a choice. Which of course there isn’t.

As such, you never question whether it’s a good or bad idea, whether you’re a good or bad writer. Because you have to do it, it’s a question of doing the best you possibly can. You afford a smile or two when a spark of insight entirely subconscious arrives on the page in front of you, hoping it resonates when read by others, and stifle an embarrassed groan when you see something utterly cheesy or clumsy or just wrong, relieved that no-one saw it. Recalling them is like trying to separate raindrops in a storm.

You have to believe in what you’re writing about. You see the lack of belief in most of the stuff about workplace you read online, written by journos or staff writers or people who don’t originate thought but recycle wat they’ve read elsewhere. It shows through, however smart the writer or crafted the prose. They don’t think it does, but it does.

You make more errors and typos that you ever thought you do – or that you thought possible. Mainly because your thoughts are way ahead of your typing. Your typing is just a faff, it’s in the way of getting stuff out of your head. It’s still a process that can’t keep up.

You experience new and deeper levels of honesty with yourself. It’s not optional, you absolutely have to. You can’t pretend it will be perceived differently. You’re not handing in an essay hoping that the teacher will be so swamped that they won’t notice how streaky your effort is. It will be picked over. You have to face that and deal with it.

Unless you’re Douglas Adams, you can’t write a book while committing to a day job. I’ve been privileged to have the time to finally write The Book, after 32 years on a payroll of some form (except for a distant year back at Uni). It’s a full-time job, in its own right.

You don’t wear many varieties of clothing, Jeans, shorts, tee shirts. You don’t want to think about what to wear, it just clutters the mind. You’ve got something to do, everything else just needs to get done.

You see more of your family. They expect you to be in the same tee shirts and shorts as yesterday. You have breakfast with your kids and you’re there when they come back from their school and then summer activities. They have no idea what you’re doing, though. You talk about The Book and they just think you’re bonkers because other people write books.

You live in fear of someone pulling the rug, getting to publication before you with a similar take. It’s so easy to get stuff out there quickly, it’s not like everyone is waiting for six months to have their stuff published. You know you’ve had your ideas pinched before, who is to say it won’t happen again? It’s another layer of impatience, draped over the impatience that got you to finishing The Book. It feels like it will never end.

When you finally surface and share it with other authors, they are amazingly helpful and supportive. It’s like being a parent. You get why other parents have glassy eyes and a short fuse, why the bags under their eyes could carry a weekly shop. You understand why the luxury in their life has been replaced with utility. Your empathy is overflowing.

I’ve loved this new world, and I don’t want to leave, but I know I now need to focus on work as we know it. But I’ll be back. I’m already writing the next book. Not actually writing it, but that’s because we always start well before we start, like any major change. It will be called The Book. I do believe it’s what they’re all called.

 

Baltic Sagas part 2: #workplaceadvantage liveblog

If workplace is important and there are important elements within, the killer question from Ian Ellison is – are you ready to do something about it?

The Stoddart Review suggested that a new role of Chief Workplace Officer could be the vital enabler. The first difficulty is that it’s another people/space/tech trident we’re using to stab a hay bale. The areas that are most interesting are those that presently have no formal home in these traditional, transactional silos. It’s quite probable that it’s not responsibility we are looking for, but inspiration. A lurking danger of this degree of consolidation is not that channels will open, but that they will constrict and close.

Jacqui Martin (@design_north_) is hacking the workplace industry. We’re all being beautifully stereotyped with cracking hand-drawn cartoons and some harsh truths. I’ve just found my name appear on the same slide as Jeremy Paxman and Satan, where its mentioned that everyone is an expert. So, the stereotypes. Solo – we’re off to Ikea with a head full of Pinterest, having a heart attack at how expensive furniture is. Agents – cartwheeling through space, nailing you down to the longest commitment possible, taking a fee and handing you over to……. Design & Build – where the designer is invisible, and forget any ideas about opportunities for new ways of working there’s a fit-out to complete. Furniture dealers – volume-focussed trend-surfers selling you high-backed sofas. Architects – form over function, process-oriented and dressing up their own solution in options you won’t want. Workplace consultants – self-appointed gurus with insight bordering on intimidation, handing you back the decisions and the risks (and lots of anecdotes). Interior designers – don’t mention cushions or Google, focussed on the pictures they’ll take when it’s all done. In the middle of all this, you. Disappointingly, Jacqui didn’t stereotype the client. Having been a client for most of my career, that might just be my next blog post.

During the open mic Q&A we had some super questions about change and process, in which there seemed an underlying nervousness. Whether stemming from an apprehension about starting, or about doing something, or about finishing, it illustrates that we still have a long way to go. Ian asked for a commitment in the final session – one thing that you have learned that made an impression, who you will talk to about it when you return to work and one thing (or more) you will change about your approach to workplace. Imagine if this actually happens, if attendees actually make a commitment, and take it back and do something positive with it. That is the essence of workplace, doing something about it. Its back to Ian’s question at the outset, as to why we haven’t yet reached the tipping point, even all of those beautifully stereotyped, hacked trades and professions trying to help.

It’s time we got on with it.

 

Baltic Sagas part 1: #workplaceadvantage liveblog

We’re in the terrace room at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead – unusually for a conference, flooded with daylight, inspiring views, waterfront setting. Normally we’re in the basement, staring at the walls. When not gazing out of the window, we’re live blogging.

Ian Ellison (@ianellison) is taking a proven lead from Nigel Oseland at Workplace Trends, if it’s your event you can speak at it. One of the formative drivers behind the Stoddart Review and in possession of a serious intellectual capability, he doesn’t just know this stuff he believes it. Despite this being a workplace gathering, an early show of hands reveals that very few have read the Review despite it once falling out of the Sunday Times, still reflecting something of a marketing and distribution problem. It wouldn’t be a discussion of the Review either without a team-bath sized plug for Leesman, leaving us wondering which is the vehicle for which. Yet at least we are in the territory of the office being alive and well, albeit we might agree with it being alive but even the data tells us that it isn’t especially well. It’s not on a drip and trolley rattling through its last breath, but it can most definitely be considerably better. The issue however, is that the tipping point hasn’t been reached. While something needs to be done, it’s not being done, so what can we do about it?

Space and place is an interesting issue: Ian holds that place = space + culture, that somehow space is a component of the richer and broader idea of place. It could equally be argued that place is a particular, a focal area, whereas space is a far broader idea free of assumption and prejudice. In this sense, space might be a far more interesting proposition, as it frees us from the parochialism that arises in when we zoom in. A third perspective is that this is all just a semantic distraction, that cultures overlap within space, that the idea of pinning down ‘place’ and ascribing particular cultural characteristics is like juggling eels.

There will now be a temporary lull in the post, as I am taking an interactive session on the Elemental Workplace (that will soon – hopefully – be a whole book). Interestingly, despite the workplace expertise in the room, this was probably the quietest I have experienced an audience for this exercise, with a lot of focus on minutiae and less on the broader ideas. Very often I find that the less deeply people are involved in the sector, the more open and willing they are to participate in this. We might know so much, we find it hard to untangle. We got there, all the same.

Kev Wyke (@kevwyke) is talking people and culture, with a background in the NHS. Gareth Jones would love this part because we’re hearing about Semler’s book Maverick and the wonder of Semco’s transformation to an autonomous, democratic organisation, as it changed Kev’s life. Happy Henry (Henry Stewart) runs Henry Computing, and walks around in his socks. He allows his people to pick their own line manager, so they can find the person most able to help them be their best. And of course, to identify the managers no-one likes so they can be re-assigned to something more useful. Both are tales of courage – to change, to do things differently. Kev then asks us when we were last most trusted at work. Voices in the room deepen, as the anxiety in our gut is stirred. Kev does Street Wisdom and is working with Oldham Council – his sponsor asked him what would be the likely benefits of the exercise, to which he responded that he had no idea, it was an experiment. They’ve cracked on and are loving the outcomes, but that willingness to step into the unknown sits way outside of our usual requirement to know what the outcome might be.

Purpose, courage, experimentation, trust. Weave those into a fantastic workplace, and we are home.

 

The lines converging where you stand

It must have been seven or eight years ago that my old friend Neil Webster (@cyclonw) and I first climbed the steep and spooky steps of an old warehouse just behind Angel tube station to emerge somewhat speechless into a workspace with an open fire, teardrop-shaped six-inch thick cardboard desks and a host of people ‘co-working’. It was simply called The Hub. We were there because we were trying to get a research project off the ground via the BCO, looking at how the city was becoming the office – ahead of our time as it happened, we didn’t get the funding for what is now a commonplace idea. I had heard of the notion of co-working from attending the Tuttle Club at the now-closed incubator space, the Centre for Creative Collaboration (C4CC), although in those days it was more about an event called a ‘Jelly’. This was before they built the much swankier version of the Hub at Kings Cross. It felt raw, honest and original, in the same vein as the C4CC. You didn’t just rent office space, you joined a community and offered a skill set for others to share. It was about who was in the space and what happened – the space was needed to bring people together.

@AlexHillman in Philadelphia is a chap I always listen to when it comes to co-working – a tweet recently declared that co-working has ‘nothing, nothing whatsoever to do with physical workspace!’ (I hope I quoted that correctly). He and of course @BernieJMitchell, who lives and loves the dream. While it sounds a little naff now, it’s about people, community, connection, sharing and development. The physical space is not itself co-working, it is an enabler of co-working. But just like effective work in a corporate space, with the right ingredients – people, energy, purpose, commitment – it can happen despite the space as well as because of it. The C4CC and the original Hub were never going to win a design award or even be called ‘cool’, but they were captivating and fascinating for what was happening within them. The space was cobbled together with whatever could be found.

This piece hosted by Workplace Insight prompted a silent Munchian scream. Not for its inevitable Gen Z reference (cue a sub-scream) but for its commentary on co-working space as something different, and the implication that co-working was the space. The piece also suggested that all co-working spaces are ‘a truly vibrant and dynamic working community’ – it’s a myth, they’re really not all like that. Draw a normal distribution, as with for most things in life, and that will just about nail it.

The essence here is that the principles required to create effective co-working space are no different to those required to create effective corporate space. Co-working spaces have offered corporates a helpful nudge in drawing inspiration from other sectors, such as domestic, retail, leisure, hotel, and in letting the space speak for itself rather than exhibit themselves as throbbing beacons of brand – but otherwise the spaces and amenities needed to enable effective work, community, interaction and focus are identical. I wrote previously about the various uses of space meshing into simply one idea of ‘space’ determined by its multiple uses; co-working spaces have helped accelerate this too.

The main contribution of co-working spaces in their post-original Hub guise has been to build on the novelty-infused work effectively started on the West Coast, encouraging those commissioning and designing space to suspend their conservative pre-conceptions and think differently about space, in order to draw us in. They have made a significant contribution to the development of space design, which of course they had to, as they were asking people to part with their own cash to use the facilities in order to survive. They want you there, it’s not merely a case of having to have you there.

This is also increasingly the case for large organisations, realising that their space is part of the reason to join, or to stay. It has become an area of competition. The more that organisations demand flexibility from their commitment to space in an ever-more tech-enabled world, the more that what might be seen as ‘co-working’ space will resemble corporate space, and vice versa. The paths are converging. While buildings will need to be built and investments will need to return a profit, the idea of space is becoming singular in every respect. Space ‘as a service’ will mean that all physical space will need to appeal visually, promote and enable effective work, bring people together from disparate backgrounds, and facilitate the creation and sharing of knowledge.

Yet the behavioural changes are more important and interesting than the space: the space needs to understand, respond, promote and enable. Corporates are increasingly leasing co-working space due to its contractual flexibility (and often location), but more importantly are using the space to allow them to spin off small teams to develop ideas free of bureaucracy, an approach started by Lockheed Martin with their Skunk Works programme in 1943 (as in, it’s not new). Just as we shall see an alignment of space, we will see an increasing alignment of behaviours. People will operate, work and relate to one another in a similar manner, irrespective of their employer or with whom they are engaged for work. The convergence of our approach to space will enable and complement this, and so both strands will develop in synch.

It’s therefore not about the differences, it’s about the emerging commonalities. In this sense, co-working ‘as a thing’ will have made its essential contribution and will wither. We’ll all simply be working, in workspace. And what an amazing journey it will have been.

 

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.