A tactilian struck by lightning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


#Untrends for 2016 – stuff that just isn’t happening

Property and workplace suffers from a phenomenon we might call “repetitive reality” – say something enough times, irrespective of whether it has any basis in fact or insight, and it sticks like a half-eaten humbug on a mohair. Thereafter, trying to counter it is like trying to repel a plague of locusts with a spatula.

In recognition of the time of year when everyone with a snowglobe and a web browser rattles off a list of trends for the coming year, here is a list of stuff that won’t be trending despite most of the soothsayers telling you it will. They are the myths I listed in a five-minute sprint at the rather enjoyable Estates Gazette offices summit last week.

#Untrend 1: it’s a time of unprecedented change. It’s more likely a time of ubiquitous accountability, created by access to a multitude of accessible channels. Most of what we think is new is a re-hash – since we first emerged from the Gorge there have been far more significant periods of societal, commercial and technological change, and there is plenty of evidence to support a slowdown in innovation. I also love the argument that the washing machine was a more important invention than the internet – once that idea is in your head, it won’t leave. For this #untrend also read “work is changing at an unprecedented pace” – same swing of the spatula.

In this dizzying time of change, of course #Untrend 2 – the office is dead – gets a regular airing. The repetitive dribble associated with this one is the “work is something you do not a place you go”. Because we know that “work” is a verb and a noun. Demand for office space is many an urban centre is rife. And interestingly but often overlooked, the more we stress the importance of social and collaborative activities as essential contributors to productivity, the more the need for people to be in the same space increases. The “death of the office” isn’t a trend, its wishful thinking sponsored by technology companies.

Which brings us on nicely to #Untrend 3: technology will replace presence. This is also sponsored by many of the same technology companies. Yet the more tech we see in a working environment, and the more “digital” the subject matter, the greater the amount of analogue space is required for effective collaboration. Hard-baked agile culture preaches little-and-often interaction puncturing periods of earplugged solitary activity. The innately multi-sensory experience of face-to-face interaction has no rival in any technology yet invented. It’s even touted as a vitamin against depression. There’s no app for that.

#Untrend 4: everything has to look like a workshop. It’s a design fad. You know the look: exposed ceilings, rough timber, raw metal, concrete, old Chesterfields, cast-off furniture from e-Bay, stuff you found on the way in. It’s like dragging a freshly-tailored James Bond behind a tow-truck through Lagos until he looks like Steptoe. Like all design fads, it’s time-stamped. And the more we see it, the harder it becomes to be original. Eclectic is tough brief – most looks like a mess. It’s taking over our homes too. Remember the day you bought a pair of Birmingham bags the day before they went out of fashion?

And everything has to look like a workshop because apparently #Untrend 5 – the TMT sectorsays so. That’s actually two #untrends. The TMT sector is an invention of uncomfortable convenience for an agency sector starved of anything interesting to talk about. It’s not a movement or a grouping with common interests and approaches any more than any other random collection of organisations deemed a “sector”. In regard to culture, management, workstyle and workplace each sector has its arch radicals and its arch conservatives and a bulk of normally-distributed folk in between. And every business is a technology business now.

And because TMT has become the byword for “cool”, #Untrend 6“cool” is something to aspire to. Cool is utterly and completely subjective, but we’re battered into believing that an empty, soulless, novelty-studded over-indulgent space is an aspiration. Cool is all about the aesthetic of sprezzatura, and nothing to do with the occupants. Yet the desire for cool seems to be plugged by those who, in the same breath, want us to know its “all about people”. In the imagery, people are blurs, shadows, because they don’t fit or belong. It is by definition without warmth. It’s not about cool, it’s about what works for you and your organisation, and if that means vanilla, that’s just fine.

In #Untrend 7 – in the gig economyeveryone will be freelance. This is intrinsically connected to Myth 1, where those who are freelance are convinced everyone else will join them in a Macbook-and latte-wielding frenzy of freedom from the corporate yoke. There is a darker side to the dream. What “freelance” often means to the less privileged is akin to the stevedores “standing on the stones” (in America called “shaping”) waiting for the chance to work. For the under-employed professionals, pay rates are being forced down by a market becoming ever more saturated. Unshackled from an employment contract, in all respects the freelancer is shackled to uncertainty. It’s a simple trade-off. The future is more likely a hybrid of the traditional employment model and the over-romanticised freelancer of today – but it’s a long way off.

Linked to the above, #Untrend 8 is that everyone (really, everyone) will be co-working in (wait for it……) co-working centres. That is, despite the fact that the vast majority of people work for larger organisations who provide workspace. Because co-working centres are “cool” (see #Untrend 6) and don’t look like corporate offices. That is partly explained by their being smaller, and the fact that people pay to use them – so their product has to appeal sufficiently for people to part with (ever larger) amounts of cash. While it has a place in the market and has helped corporates consider their workplace design, injecting a depth of personality from the more domestic and leisure influences, in its physical form it remains a niche product and idea. To a significant extent it is already moving away from its original ideal of workspace-as-mutually-supportive community, instead in many instances becoming a hipster version of Regus. At the end of the day, whichever way you look at it, without the spirit and practice of community, it’s an office.

Where there is mention of co-working, under the same stone can usually be found talk of #Untrend 9 – that Gen Y will change everything. That’s because from absolutely nowhere and with no foundation in anything approaching objectivity has emerged the idea that this “digital native” tranche of the population will bring an attitude and perspective that the insulted and inured hordes over whose bodies they now lightly tread could not. There isn’t a #generationblah tag for nothing – its bunkum, pure Age of Aquarius stuff. It could be argued that Generation X made a more lasting contribution to the invigoration of an era – and by that I just mean Billy Idol’s combo.

And so the last for now – #Untrend 10 – in this “VUCA” world providing a fantastic workplace is complicated. It’s not, it’s ridiculously simple if we just stop looking for problems and excuses for not doing something about it. It just requires the application of simple sense to create the #elementalworkplace. When we get to the point of taking blood samples to work out whether we’re enjoying a collaborative space, we know we’ve come too far. But we don’t like to admit its simple, because then there is nothing to hide behind. Time to cut the Gordion Knot.

Building into the future requires a flexible, functional and generic approach that can let everything else ebb and flow around it. Trends, untrends – if we keep it simple, they just don’t matter.


Knot a problem

A Twitter exchange during the 1%’s favourite event, Worktech, in which liberated cloudworkers harmlessly engage in an annual backslap over how liberated and cloudbased they are, prompted this post.

My contention during the short banter (most of which took place without me) was that every year this collective celebration of the bringing together of people, technology and place for the duration of an expensive day of meming creates not a ripple of benefit for the Man on the Clapham Omnibus who is actually now the person at the ever-shrinking open plan workstation in the Berkshire Business Park.

The word “problem” arose several times during the exchange. The essence of the matter is, however, that within workplace, we don’t have a problem. That is, not a problem in the way we think about problems, the need to have them “fixed” and the linear methodology we deploy in this pursuit (define, explore, plan, execute, review – or if you’re unfortunate enough to be Six Sigma qualified – the quite ghastly DMAIC: define, measure, analyse, improve, control).

Rather, we have a challenge that needs to be met. That is, that the modern workplace for most people outside of a few privileged organisations and locations is poorly designed, equipped, furnished, serviced and maintained. It needs to be regarded as making a vital contribution to the success of an organisation, and improved.

The proposition is entirely simple and intuitive. It’s actually never been any other way, from antiquity to the present. Yet the search for a problem has led us to believe the contrary, and so we’ve preoccupied ourselves with finding solutions to something that doesn’t exist. Inevitably, they turn out not to be solutions.

So we research, conference, analyse, study, consult, ideate (yeuch, what a word), extrapolate, elucidate and procrastinate ourselves into a Gordion knot. The legend has it that when Alexander was presented with the seemingly-impossible challenge of the knot, he whipped out his sword and sliced through it. The original Occam’s Razor, perhaps.

Gordian knot

As it’s so simple. It doesn’t need disruption or new panaceas. It doesn’t need any more stasis-inducing musing on how to reach the suit-suite, or wind-borne cries of the need to bring property, IT, HR and any other function together. Or any more user profiling. Or any more systems, apps, monitoring, spying or gadgets. Of course when the knot is sliced, this will be a great disappointment to those selling disruption, panaceas, profiling, systems, apps, monitoring systems and gadgets.

Why? It’s fairly obvious and straightforward. A great workplace is motivating, energising, engaging, and contributes to our sense of worth, self-esteem and wellbeing. Making no apology for lack of peer-reviewed research here, it’s bleeding obvious.

How? A willingness to act, common sense, some sensitive and responsive design (which is not difficult), someone to take the lead in co-ordinating it all, and a bit of money (because the “why-ROI” is obvious).

What? Start with the core components of the #elementalworkplace. And stop there if you like. Keep going if you like bells and whistles: just stop before you get to the novelties. It doesn’t have to be a flexible workplace or an activity-based workplace either, if it doesn’t work for the organisation. It just has to be something that works.

The only problem we have is realising we don’t have a problem. Cut the knot. Get on with it. We’ve faffed around for long enough.


Painting: Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, by Jean-Simon Berthélemy (1743–1811)

Strategy, when the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings”
[Cassius, in Julius Caesar]

With the unwavering look and political persuasion of Pasha Antipov from Dr Zhivago, a chap I once chatted to over a pint some thirty years ago uttered a phrase that for some reason I’ve never forgotten: “every middle class man wants to be the engine-driver of society”.

I now think he put the comment in the bank for me for when I read the latest white paper from IFMA (International Facilities Management Association), “Redefining the Executive View of Facility Management“, helpfully publicised by the excellent Workplace Insight . It says that FM needs to either be strategic or become irrelevant. The usual aerated stuff like “promoting core competencies” predictably gets in the way of saying it as it is – FM wants to be in the suit suite so it’s not told what to do all the time.

In general terms, I’ve never understood the craving of just about every business function to “be strategic”, or (expressed as the HR community obsesses) for “a seat at the table”. It reflects archaic structures and power relationships. It pessimistically declines to consider more creative paths to influence. It assumes the benefit of rights but ignores the requisite burden of obligation. And it assumes unbounded freedom, but overlooks the imposition of restraint – it’s not all glory. Like driving the engine.

Recollecting the spirit of the conversation all those years ago, I don’t think Pasha would mind me adding that there is something of an entitled, bourgeois quality to the insistence too.

The reality is that FM is – and always will be – operational, and should be proud of it. It’s not a bad thing. It defines and strengthens its relevance.

Keeping the lights on, maintaining buildings, ensuring workplaces remain inspiring, guaranteeing people and assets remain safe and secure, feeding people healthily, managing large operating costs responsibly – none of these are, or will ever be, strategic. They are not even tactical. Yet they make a significant, in many cases vital, and in some instances a business-critical contribution to an organisation.

Because that’s it. It’s about making a contribution, and doing it damn well. With empathy, common sense, commitment and energy. Looking for better ways to do it, with the occasional (usually accidental or expedient) innovation. Talking to people confidently, like adults and equals – not in overbloated business guff. Looking for opportunities, as opposed to order-taking. Acting quickly and responsibly. Doing what’s promised. Focussing on the detail, sweating the small stuff. Taking pride in what is achieved, and using it as a baseline to improve further.

Acknowledgement and respect will accrue throughout an organisation to a confident and assured function happy in its contribution. There is nothing complicated in all of this, but it’s clearly not easy because too few do it well. For most, there is still a long way to service excellence. Energy focussed on a seat at the table is misplaced, and will only undermine the progress of FM. It really is time to shed the neurosis.

This does not in any way negate developing operational strategies (that’s not “being strategic”), philosophically contemplating the meaning of great service, conceiving of new philosophies of service, or simply having great, deep, insightful helpful conversations about FM. Being operational does not mean being trivial. The same intellectual rigour is required of FM as of all other business support functions, as part of understanding why it exists and how it can improve.

At this point I could do one of those naff “3 C’s” things that litter the ether. The 3 C’s of FM: Competence, Confidence, Contribution. I might write a white paper. But then again.


Bridges missing

Something was missing, and I wasn’t sure what it was until I set out the positives from Workplace Trends (#wtrends) on 14 October and realised that they lay on opposite banks of the lazy river. Given that a good conference should generate more questions than answers and leave one feeling frustrated enough to go after them, its by no means a criticism.

While we’re making some progress, its relative – we’re punting down the Mississippi. The disparate parts of our understanding are developing, but in so many respects in an unconnected fashion. Bridges are missing between:

Common sense and science. We’re still reaching for the science, mistrusting our judgement, lacking confidence that just knowing something is right might be enough permission we need to act. Knowing the world isn’t flat but still staying away from the edge in case. I based the #elementalworkplace on common sense – John Alker of the UK Green Building Council replayed the principles of the original post (no mention, however, because science doesn’t attribute hunch) with a smattering of supporting material – but we’re still awaiting the nod to do the simple, easy thing and create great workplaces for everyone. There’s a simple solution to this: just get on with it.

People and space. Peter Cheese, CEO of the CIPD rattled off the stock narrative to a bounty of the institute’s library deck (with the horrifying exception of VUCA – who in Wimbledon thought that was a good idea?), but with little relevance to workplace. It just being “about people” isn’t enough – it has to make sense, there has to be a story, a weave. And when we are told on the one hand that engagement is about getting people to “go the extra mile” yet stress is casting a menacing shadow across our wellbeing, not even the “people” stuff in isolation sounds right. When we manage to weedle it out of the slide deck, we might make more sense of it.

The built environment and nature. We’re not sure how to work outside unless we’re a park ranger, or how to best bring nature inside beyond a pot plant on the filing cabinet. The term biophilia – which sounds like something requiring antibiotics – only serves to over-complicate a simple notion: being closer to rooted living things is good for us, because its where we began, running around naked in the forest. But even then we needed shelter, protection and warmth too. We’ve been wrestling with the need to be both inside and outside for millennia. Bill Browning gave such a hauntingly-paced advocacy I was convinced I was being hypnotised. I may have been. How can I tell? But before biophilic design becomes just another one of those annoying overloaded bandwagons spewing poor practice, it needs thinking through in the widest context. The spaces between buildings – and how we use them – are just as important as the buildings we create. Its so much more than an indoor planting contract and the usual temptation to commoditise. Which brings me onto…….

Wellbeing as mindset and wellbeing as commodity. There is much talk of whether organisations “do” wellbeing – gym/health club, cycle racks and showers, healthy food, lifestyle information. Yet wellbeing isn’t a product range, as much as having access to these things at work is admirable. Its about expectations, management, job design, understanding, empathy, family and respect, amongst other things, as much as it is about stuff that’s provided. Your shiny gym and poached salmon and green lentil salad isn’t worth much if you’re pummelled into a thankless coma every day. Wellbeing touches every strand of our life/work mesh. You don’t “do” wellbeing, you embrace and breathe it.

Workplace and FM. There was barely a mention of the journey upon which a workplace takes its first step on completion – what happens next. Or how design for functionality – from the inside out – is vital to this journey. BIFM has made its own attempts to claim “workplace” as its territory and position itself as a little less operational, through drawing on regular cross-functional favourites like Monica Parker and Dave Coplin at its last conference, and the well-meaning but flawed Workplace Conversation (#TWPC) that strained out of its awkward ‘tache-twiddle with the CIPD. Workplace and FM inherently exist in the same world, but remain worlds apart. Its beyond odd. It needs drawing out, but not in cobwebbed institutional conference rooms.

These are big issues and we have to crack them. But unlike previous years, we have momentum. We now need connection.


Wilf: one man’s search for wellbeing

Wilf hurt:

The marrow in his bones softly cried while his soul, inert, vaporised
His centre of gravity adrift
in the depopulated cavity of his disposition;
There had to be a fundamental shift or Wilf,
a man so entirely incidental,
was stiffed;

So this is the story of his one-man crusade for wellbeing,
a radical wholehearted re-definition
of a man in the most atrocious condition;

Six pathways converged on his noble ambition:
The physical, occupational and social
spiritual, intellectual and emotional
a beautifully, poetically conceived collision from which Wilf,
a man so comprehensively stewed
would emerge – redefined, realigned and renewed.

Given the positive frame of mind he was in,
he decided, one more cigarette and he would begin…..

The amazing thing about Lycra is just how much
it accentuates the things
that carbohydrate inflates;
Wilf was bravely having his gym induction
in a bid for significant girth reduction
when there might have been more immediate benefit from liposuction;

But fixated on just how much his first day mattered
on attempting to lift the introductory dumbells,
his glass knees shattered and he unceremoniously capitulated;
With which, amid scenes of farce,
he became the only man in fitness history
humiliated from the immediate withdrawal of his entry pass;

Given the defeated state he was in, Wilf spent the
Evening with a large bag of frozen peas, seated……

Wilf’s quest for spiritual equilibrium and a window to his soul
took him to Pondicherry
Yet on the way to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram
He contracted dysentery
where hospitalisation put a swift end
to any aspiration to a life of meditation;

Once home, recovered and robed
he lit candles and sandalwood
like every pilgrim should
And finally discovered serenity amid the janitorial sanctuary
of his under–stairs hall cupboard;

Given that he couldn’t turn around in the space he was in
Wilf backed out of anything quite so claustrophobically challenginq….

In a quest for intellectual purity Wilf threw himself horizontally
into Salinger, Goethe, Dickens, Sartre and Dostoevsky
Seasons would pass without him emerging
from his self-imposed literary exile
or arising from his gradually-spreading arse;

While the mission was intense and gruelling
His gentrified lexicon and prose and new-found love of duelling
only got him into trouble in Waitrose
in a dispute over the last available trolley
That left him with a broken nose;

Given the ridiculous breeches and wing collar Wilf found himself in,
He packed away his books
and rediscovered the preposterous frivolity of Tolkein….

This was it, Wilf was going unstoppably social,
accepting every invitation to afterwork integration
like the BIFM Devon and Cornwall
open-to-all cheese and wine  get-to-know-you conflagration

And he facebooked and tweeted it relentlessly
on his stumble home
getting camembert all over his bendy new iPhone
And, wondering why no-one replied to his exuberant excess
It was politely pointed out to him the next day
There’s no mobile signal in Totnes…

Given the desperately hungover state he was in, Wilf declined
Any further temptation to offline social networking….

Deciding that a change of job might bring
an occupational centrifugal state, Wilf abandoned
the desolate clerical obscurity of forever for
the dignified purity of manual endeavour;

Yet his role at the sawmill was cursed from the start
As his tendency to accidental self-harm
Had him a whisker severing his lower left arm
saved only by mistakenly hitting the emergency shut-off alarm
narrowly escaping with a blister;

Given the traumatic yet ultimately thankful state he was in,
Wilf returned to the inexorablle sadness of pencils
and the honesty biscuit tin….

The traumas of Wilf’s quest had left a gaping emotional chine
Which till now he happily filled only with bargain buckets
and everyday value red wine –
So Wilf decided to face his deepest-rooted issues
And dispense with the readily-dispensed tissues;

But as he turned toward the creeping shadows of dusk
He realised that the ideal self he was chasing
had rendered him a mere husk
And that manning-up, sucking-up and showing up for the shakedown
Left him on the verge of throwing up,
and a stiff-upped-lipped breakdown:

Given that he felt worse than when he first started the whole shennanegin
Wilf allowed himself a cup of builder’s tea
and a long deep breath of liberty……

Wilf is here today, yet he asked not to be identified:
his trails opened a pathway when he realised
that wellbeing is so much more to do with balance
than the hoary purgatory of penance

And that our vulnerability and not our inadequacy
Makes us what we are:


Because there is no self without others,
no belief without doubt
No good without naughty nor with without…. without
We get it wrong as often as we get it right
Its our infuriating all-too-human plight,
our birthright;

Wilf, rather surprised following his mission at how much he
now despised a wellbeing that’s become so institutionalised
declined to take the lectern –
By his own admission: so, so much left to learn.


Performed @Workstock at Workplace Trends, October 2015

Carnage Visors

Better not go outside, it’s like Henry Spencer’s back yard out there.


Yet another article last week – in a property and workplace publication drier than a Saharan cream cracker – added a further smattering of flies, dust, bird-dung and suspended atmospheric gloop to the already-caked visor through which we are being increasingly convinced we need to see the world: volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous. VUCA for short. Its carnage.

Its just sloppy, lazy thinking. We are terrifying ourselves into submission, giving ourselves a blanket excuse for doing nothing, conveniently placing every problem or difficulty out of reach. From the other side of the visor, we’ve never had…..

As much immediately accessible information and the tools with which to filter it to make our working and personal lives easier, to get ourselves to a position of understanding from a standing start.

Broader and deeper relationships able to offer support, motivation and encouragement – and the means to create and maintain them.

As much space and opportunity for the shy, introverted, nervous and uncertain to develop and maintain relationships where it would otherwise have been terrifying.

More help, freely given without expectation of return from the known and the anonymous within the gift economy that is the online world.

More perspectives on the issues we face, viewed from angles we haven’t even calculated, to help us work it out.

Less pressure from dogma and collective ignorance, with a correspondingly healthier suspicion and desire to discover for ourselves.

A greater ability to cope with and understand change, through access to the experience of others.

More choice, in so many respects – readily alternatives if something isn’t working.

More information, encouragement, motivation and the physical means to wellbeing – if, of course, we choose to get off our arse and make use of it… and correspondingly, less excuses for not getting off our arse.

A deeper collective respect for the myriad of differences – obvious and subtle – between us.

A greater ability to travel and experience difference first hand. And still be home in time for (a healthy) tea.

The world may not quite be stable, certain, understandable and lucid (SCUL) because its being run by Nature and Humans Limited, but it’s far from the elliotesque wasteland we’ve convinced ourselves envelopes us.

If you’re looking through crap, the world looks crap. Visors up.




Without you, I’m nothing

At some point soon, just as we spent a couple of decades facing up the mythical essence of the Paperless Office, we’ll have to admit that the Death of the Office is a complete crock.

While some claim “unprecedented changes” (unprecedented now seems permanently stuck to the word change, there is no longer any other kind) to the office, completed schemes roll into the journals and conference case studies with all the individuality and soul of a pack of Tesco Value sausages. And while co-working is on the one hand declared to be disrupting the institutional stuffed shirt that is the commercial rented sector, the sprouting centres come to increasingly resemble the corporate world at which their earlier incarnations cocked a snook.

What’s happening is odd, but makes sense. Technically, technology frees us from time and distance. It was easy a decade ago to be convinced that we would finally be unshackled from the office, able to work when, where and how we chose. I got excited about it too, albeit without waving my arms around, claiming the “city as our office” before others pinched the phrase. For a very small minority – usually the sort of mensheviki that claim it’s applicable to every working-age mortal because of course everyone is like them – it is. For most, other constraints and pressures apply.

Yet the more technology we deploy and the more reliant upon it and more in its service our careers become, the more we need closer human interaction, and the enablers of this. The more we push the boundaries, the less that work is an individual pursuit.

It is most notable within the environments populated by the people who bring us all the stuff that (usually) makes our lives easier and theoretically liberates us from the space-time continuum. We’re not calling it “agile”, because that’s almost as bad as “smart”.

Two factors are at play.

Firstly, it’s highly interactive. Short periods of the most anti-social head-down intense focussed activity are punctuated by (equally) short bursts of highly social behaviour – demonstrating work, on-the-spot design and planning, updates on stuff relevant to the team. While groups form and re-form, they work at their “own” desk while in a group-  they know who is next to them, and who is opposite them – because they need one another. Whisper it, but it’s about being together, physically, in the same space, at the same time. Everyone needs to know what everyone else is up to. No-one works in the café. Strangely, the café is where you get coffee.

Secondly, for these groups *actually* working together, there is almost a proportional relationship between the complexity of the technology at play, and the amount of “analogue” space required. All the walls we spent the last decade taking down to create open, “collaborative” spaces (which some may argue was just a ploy to perpetuate Taylorist, observational management) are being rebuilt so magnetic whiteboards can be installed. Post its, markers, highlighters, flipcharts, the sort of stuff that makes facilitators uncontrollably foam at the mouth – it’s all back in vogue. Collaboration (really) happens but at the small, highly localised team level, not across Larkin-like officescapes.

People in the same space, being social (sometimes), small teams, analogue space. All very counter-tech-revolution.

Smaller organisations are mimicking this in co-working centres, And other not-so-obviously-tech functions within large corporations are seeing the value of high-intensity, little-and-often, rapid ideas development based on this model.

The most significant change being driven by the blanket ubiquity of technology in our working lives may not be the rise of the robots, but the resurgence of the human. We are, under the radar, finally and fundamentally realising the value of working together.

The evolution will be penduluminated

Hey Dad

Yes son?

At work, do you know everyone?

Crikey no, there are far too many people to know them all. I hardly know everyone in my department.

What’s a department?

It’s a collection of people all looking after the same part of the work. My collection look after all of the money. We are called “Finance”.

So if you don’t know everyone, how does anything happen?

Well, we deal with people we don’t know because we know what they do, and sometimes the way we do things means we all work on the same things without knowing each other but we all do a little bit of it.

Ah. I think I get it. But it doesn’t sound easy to do anything.

It’s not, but because it’s so big, we do try and make it as easy as we can. It doesn’t always work out that way.

Was it always that big?

No, it was tiny once.

And was every other work tiny too?

Well son, once most works were big. They got so big that people thought there must be a better way. Then along came the internet and people started to realise they could do things with much smaller groups, and sometimes even on their own. They realised that if they knew people well, good things would happen.

Wow that sounds better.

It was better. Much. We stopped working in huge tower blocks and started working in cafés.

That sounds funny.

Yes it was funny at first, and noisy too, and you couldn’t go for a wee without taking all your stuff with you. So we started to work in places that looked like a cross between the towers and our lounge. They were smaller and nicer.

Did you know people there?

Yes I knew most people. We called co-working centres, because it was good to have company. All of us people starting a works on our own could meet and talk to people. And we could go for a wee without taking our stuff with us.

But you don’t do that now?

Well, we all started having great ideas that needed other people to help. So we made groups and gave them a name. Just for fun. And because our ideas were occasionally worth a lot of money to pay for nice houses and cars, we had to make some rules for the groups.

That sounds like fun, thinking of a name. Like Peter, or Samantha?

Not really, we called them brands. Like Buzzwiffle and Guze and Stunkgarter.

WOW! They’re amazing names. I’d like to do that.

Yes, it was very funny. People loved them all. We drew little cartoon pictures of animals for them, too. Over time some of the groups joined together, and some of the groups bought other groups so that the people who started them could start other groups that then joined together with other groups. It was all a bit crazy.

So everything got bigger?

Yes. And over a few years we had all gone back to being in big groups again. The small groups didn’t survive. Like the little fish in the sea getting eaten by the sharks.

So where did you work then?

The small spaces for the small groups were too small for the big groups. We all moved back to the towers. We just used the cafés for coffee, if our bosses let us.

Wasn’t that a bit sad?

It was a bit sad, yes. And we paid lots more too, and so some of the groups disappeared because they didn’t have enough money.

So – after a little bit of fun, some cool names and being in small groups and knowing some people, it’s all ended up like it started?

Yes, that’s right.

And you used to know people, and now you don’t know anyone anymore again?


So you cocked it up then, Dad?



Workplace United

As of today a new grouping representing Workplace as a discipline is born: Workplace United.To paraphrase the Clash, it wasn’t born, as much as it fell out.

Its not an organisation, a society, an association, or any other form of traditionally protective, sectional or elitist collective. Its not under threat or siege. Its not after the contents of your wallet. It is based on action, not contemplation.

Ironically I sketched it out on the inside back cover of the BIFM/CIPD Workplace Conversation report, which rendered a use for it that had so far been elusive.

Workplace United

Why? Because –

  • Existing organisations do not represent Workplace, despite unsubstantiated claims to the contrary, and its voguish appeal as a route to credibility
  • We have sufficient knowledge and resources at this point in time that could improve the workplace for millions of people – more would be great, but we don’t need more to be getting on with it
  • Creating a great workplace isn’t difficult, and any concerns that it might be should not be a reason for inactivity
  • In order to improve the workplace for as many people as possible, there is a need to promote Workplace as a discipline – and proudly, a composite discipline
  • We need to clear our thinking – not expand it – as a foundation for action
  • All attempted initiatives in the area to date have been focussed on talking and prevaricating, rather than getting anything useful done – because saying “something needs to be done” its easier than doing anything
  • There is no place for myth in Workplace
  • Creating a great workplace is an emotional thing, so tears are OK

Principles: Workplace United believes in a few things, like –

  • Space matters – to us all
  • Everyone deserves a great workplace
  • What we do is simple, accessible and understandable
  • Action trumps conversation
  • Maximum benefit can be obtained from investment in a number of basic, simple Workplace features and amenities, after which diminishing returns apply – the central idea of the #elementalworkplace
  • A great workplace can help an organisation be positive and productive, but won’t fix a rotten culture (and shouldn’t be expected to)
  • We can’t seriously talk about workplace wellbeing if we don’t get off our arses

Practical: How do we do this? Workplace United:

  • Is an open source group – with no barriers to entry, and no boundaries
  • Has one form of belonging – you’re in (by declaration) – or you’re not
  • Requests a membership donation because we all need to have a stake, but operates at as low a cost as possible – not for profit, ever
  • Spends a minimum amount on funding the organisation and administration
  • Is based on interest and contribution – you’re keen to do something to make a difference
  • Is a direct democracy, whenever it needs to make a key decision – it has no traditional management or committee structure
  • Researches only where it aids clarity, not when it serves itself or seeks intellectual kudos
  • Is without affiliations – as its open to all, it is already affiliated, and promotes dialogue with anyone interested
  • Opens its IP to all because everyone deserves a fantastic workplace
  • Requests (firmly) no selling, product or service placement
  • Has no logo or marketing other than for letting people know what its going to do and what its done (if you want a mug or tee shirt, please feel free to make your own)
  • Will be happy to admit if it gets stuff wrong
  • Has no AGM, no certificates, exams or qualifications
  • Has no conference (or unconference) – social media is our conference, and it’s a gift economy – we help one another because we want to
  • When meeting f2f, it will be for the purpose of planning action (unless its decreed a social – important too)

Some of the above may not be best stated, or correct. However, discussing the finer points for the next two decades (not so far-fetched – some organisations have been discussing them for the last two) wont be a reason not to get started.

I intend to give this my best shot, but if others wish to get involved and do more than me, I’m equally okay with that. Just as long as it happens, and no-one tries to take control. If it takes off, if it works, if it makes a difference, then we really will have changed everything.

Its got to be worth a go.