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.

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.