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.



Two hundred and thirty four posts on from 8 October 2011, workessence is standing down. It may be temporary, it may be permanent, I haven’t decided. I used to love writing here, but of late that excitement has dwindled and I haven’t been enjoying it. I’d always told myself that if that happened, I’d take a break.

My blog originated on the Posterous site six years ago. I remember hesitating to publish my first post, concerned that my satirical take on a workplace consultants’ dysfunctional curry might lead to my being ostracised. I then realised that even though I’d pressed the button, no-one actually knew it was out there – and so there began my exploration of social media, to try and build a readership. I got ostracised anyway.

The “flat blog” as a form feels flatter than ever. It has been swamped by the deluge of unfilterable dirge bubbling from every crevice of LinkedIn. I’m sure that the level of mediocrity attained is far from what David Weinberger envisaged in the Cluetrain Manifesto when he said that blogging meant “writing ourselves into existence”. To paraphrase a line from The Incredibles – when everyone’s a blogger, no-one will be.

Over the years I’ve connected with and met some amazing people, and learned how to break out of the restrictive networks imposed by professions with inspired gatherings such as the Tuttle Club (thank you Lloyd and Anke) and ConnectingHR (thank you too, Gareth and Doug). Yet I’ve also learned to be careful what I wish for: I willed so many more people to participate in social media, but now just want most of them to leave. I still tweet (happy tenth birthday Twitter, by the way – you have been amazing) but with far less frequency than at any time since I really started in 2010. In professional terms it’s lost much of what made it so endearing and enlightening, but conversely seems to have found a worthy meaning and purpose best illustrated by the #tweepathon this weekend, captured in Michael Carty’s affectionate post. That said, I’m staying on Twitter, and staying connected.

Within the blog, I’ve exhausted the inclination or need to talk about millennials (no different from the rest of us), engagement (a lost sock), robots (if they have jobs, we’ll have different ones), productivity (a fish looking for a hook), the war for talent (for when there’s absolutely nothing else left to say), work being something you do and not somewhere you go, trust (it’s both), open plan offices (where all journalists should be made to work, just for the hell of it), smartworking (a consultant fabrication), the tyranny of cool (a sterile airbrushed hell), professional bodies (self-defeating prophecies)) and any other issues that are only issues because we talk about them relentlessly. If we stopped, they’d go away.

However I’ve concluded over these years of working it out through the blog that creating fantastic workplaces – for, and because of people – has never been more attainable if we would just stop over-complicating, over-analysing and obfuscating. It’s simple, it really is. If that’s my one conclusion from all the effort, it’s been worthwhile.

Of all the stuff I’ve written, I’ve enjoyed – and am most proud of – the stories. While they’ve been appreciated by people for whom I have a lot of respect, they haven’t been read nearly as much as the more obvious “fast food” opinionated rants. They need time to consume, and time to digest. If the site started disintegrating before my eyes, bytes tumbling around me, I’d save the stories first and not bother with the rest.

As Sartre’s detached character Antoine Roquentin says in Nausea, “one has to choose, to live or to tell”. I’m giving the telling a break. Thank you for reading, and for being part of my journey – without you, this blog would have been nothing.


Elemental block

This is my penultimate post. You may get that sense: an underlying frustration, interwoven with a stubborn optimism that we have enough, and we know enough, to do what matters. The final shift needed is simply to trust our instinct.

Consider for a moment the extensive progress made through a couple of decades of product placement/sponsored research (delete as applicable) in the field of workplace, that has advanced our knowledge and understanding by….reinforcing what we instinctively know, but for which we need proof.

There are still a lot of questions in the field we haven’t answered – and need to – with a small number of people out there proffering some insightful boffinry. But it’s astounding quite how many times clear sense propositions below are paddled out like they’re something worth jumping out of the bath for. The conundrum is of course that despite their embedded no-shit-sherlock status, it doesn’t mean that every organisation heeds these things. We’re going round in circles. By the time we’re back where we’ve started we’ve forgotten we were ever there.

It’s the elemental block.

We like to look at nice things, like plants and countryside and stuff
Even if we want to call it something posh like Erich Fromm’s biophilia (which sounds antisocial – and is not Bjork’s concept album – just dwell on that for a moment) essentially for our health, wellbeing, and general state of mind we would rather look at beautiful things like plants, lakes, the sea, mountains or grassland than the goods entrance of an abattoir. There is a neurological link. The beneficial effects of the aesthetic have been known for centuries, and have even given rise to physiological phenomena such as Stendhal’s Syndrome. Admittedly breathlessness and disorientation are probably not likely to be associated with spiralling levels of beauty associated with the pot plant on the filing cabinet, but its contribution is worthy nonetheless.

Noise can be really annoying
We’ve started getting excited about psychoacoustics. Speech, telephones, alarms, office machinery, piped europop (a good enough reasons for Brexit, for some) – they can all be annoying. And of course it’s all the fault of the open plan office (as is, according to many journalists, the unpreventable end of humanity). Design often contributes: if you put one open meeting space next to another open meeting space, that’s likely to be a problem – so please, designers, stop doing it. However the use of felt as an acoustic treatment material in these circumstances – or indeed, any other – remains entirely inexcusable.

We don’t like being interrupted while we’re doing something
Despite the trend in business and interior architecture alike towards collaboration, which by nature invites interruption, actually being interrupted when you’re concentrating on something is irritating unless it involves chocolate. The more it happens the more irritating it gets (even chocolate has a limit). It’s unlikely to take three days to re-focus on the original task, as some have proposed, but its disruptive nonetheless (I here use the word “disruptive” in its rare, intended form, and not as a gateway to hipster heaven). And of course there are always top tips for not being interrupted, most of which are comical – albeit the last one on this list seems to make the most intuitive sense, costs nothing and doesn’t involve the use of felt: “be assertive” – as in, “sod off”.

We like a bit of freedom to choose the best ways do what we’re asked to do
No-one ever said how much they like being micro-managed – did they? Recipes are for people who are starting out in the kitchen. The more we cook, the less we need them, save for a quick check on a quantity. Just so with work tasks – there may be a process to follow, an order of play, but we work out how best we can make it happen. We might still be asked to arrive at a time and place, and leave that place at a time, but we still crave a little freedom to choose how we do stuff. The “when, where and how” of flexible work exists in some sort of natural order – first the how, then the where, then the when. It should be stated as how, where and when, the scale of freedom. Of course there are people who think choice represents a tyranny  in which case just sit tight and be told where to work. How does that feel?

We work better if we have a pleasant workplace
Yes, a clean, tidy, well-furnished workplace with great amenities will have you cranking it out far more productively than in a corrugated prefab with a fan heater and a desk comprising an old door on a couple of milkcrates. And if design is thoughtful (as opposed, one assumes, thoughtless and random) that’s even better. It really is that astonishing a revelation. But then of course you could just embark on an attention-seeking roadtrip. No harm in that, surely?

It helps if you’re not stuck in a chair for eight hours a day
Yep its true, sitting down all day isn’t good for you. Strangely, neither is standing up all day – you’re still inactive. We await the research that lets us know that leaning isn’t so helpful either. So, stuck in your chair all day? Sit-stand desks are the current panacea, but here’s some amazing advice – get up and walk around, go get a drink, go see someone, go take in a view. It’s free, too. Yep – a balanced approach. The key to just about everything.

It’s nice if you can get a god coffee and something healthy and not too expensive for lunch from somewhere close to where you work
Which means first and foremost actually taking a break – to go and get something, and consume it. There are even posts offering lists of reasons why, as if somewhere we’ve irredeemably lost the idea of doing something that was once institutionalised. Let’s suppose that somehow this is a new and exciting revelation – we then need to choose carefully what we consume. All food is not the same. And as the world is now utterly obsessed with productivity, some helps you work better and some will send you off on a fluffy pillow to the sound of angel-song. But it’s not all about the food: it’s a social experience, a meditative release, a change of scenery – all that kind of stuff. The food is the attraction, but is often incidental. You need the refreshment but you also simply need to be somewhere different. And if you’re at Google, you’re queuing up with a small plate.

We might just need more than just a desk and a meeting room to get our work done
We might need a choice of settings, depending on what we’re doing. That’s not because the desk is dead (despite the wishes of many) or that we can now hold all our meetings in the away end at Millwall, but because what we do exists on a scale, not in binary form. The term “Activity-Based Working” be a marketer’s nightmare but at least it says what it is (unlike the self-inflated “smartworking”). There are – as with seemingly every idea around workplace – a host of myths – this post from Monica Parker helps to bust some of them. But it needn’t be this complex – just a simple choice of spaces will do nicely.

Daylight makes us feel happier and so we do better work
If we’ve got biophilia and psychoacoustics then we’ve certainly got heliotherapy – dating back to the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians – setting our circadian rhythms, curing skin ailments, speeding healing, generating energy and improving our sleep and mood. But whatever the science we just feel a whole lot better with daylight than we do without it, we seek it out, our physiology informs our brain it’s a “good thing”.

We work better if we are given decent IT kit and have a reliable internet connection
No explanation or links needed for this one. It’s almost listed in The Hague as a human right.

But you knew all of that anyway. You didn’t need to follow the links, interesting as they are. Despite this, there will be many more articles and posts reinforcing these statements over the next decade. Maybe it will help drum it home for those in denial – and help remove the elemental block. But its only news if we don’t trust our own instinct and judgment in matters of clear sense. It’s time we did.


Playing second fiddle to sumptuous despair

Our curious leader, he’s never there
He’s playing second fiddle to sumptuous despair
Our curious leader is covered in deep sin
And when I grow up you know I want to be like him…..


Of all the easy targets for bloggers, tweeters and whatever you call the lost souls who use LinkedIn, management lies as prone as a pigeon’s playground. And for the purposes of this  polemic I shall set aside the purists’ frustrations and include the notion of leadership, as they’re interchangeable in practice and most who both practice and are subject can’t really tell the difference (or quite understandably don’t bother to).

If you believe the internet, which is of course true, everywhere on this fair planet management is in crisis, artificially perpetuating an archaic, zombified hierarchical system that stifles freedom, creativity, self-expression and fulfilment. Managers themselves are a self-interested, interfering, dogmatic, callous bunch of utter incompetents,  inconsistently and arbitrarily wielding unjustified authority. We’re all guilty, and all responsible.

In my thirty-ish years of working I’ve managed musicians, project managers, architects, civil servants, prosecutors, administrators, warehouse  pickers and packers, quantity surveyors, roadies, technicians, computer programmers, builders, just about all of the trades within facilities management, accountants, motorcycle couriers, lawyers and artists. There are probably more I can’t recall. I can say with some assurance that none of these trades and professions were easy to manage, and a lot of were damned challenging.

How can it be that bloody difficult? Especially if you’ve never managed anyone. In the sanguine safety of text books, TED talks, blog posts, 140-character sermons and other vehicles for self-expressed wisdom it’s a doddle . And the less you do it, remarkably, the easier it seems to be.

That’s because it doesn’t have to deal with relationships, agendas, political ambitions, reward, ego, limited resources, bureaucracy, fads and panaceas, the unrelenting need to fill the spaces between us, deadlines, motivation, life stages, personal circumstances, communication (or lack of) and language, love (and lust), expectations, pressure, reporting, grievance, ever-increasing governance, international differences, the vacuous notion of culture, time, commerciality, appraisal, priorities – and luck. Amongst other things. The stuff that chews up the list of “fifty things successful managers do”.

There’s other stuff too. Balancing the need to make decisions with the desire to be inclusive, and the need to get stuff done  that may not be popular with a desire to be liked (even occasionally). Being a generalist leading experts, when the team know more than you do about the subject matter. A dash of imposter syndrome. Having stuff you absolutely have to do, but someone just needs “five minutes”. Being told you need to be more resilient, when you just want to crumble. And feeling like you’re the loneliest person on earth.

All managers need help. Given. Those who claim not to, need a different help.

There are those whose reflections help make us better people, so we can be better managers, like this post from @Fuchsia_blue. And there are those who are not managers who might make a useful contribution  – philosophers, therapists, mime artists, mystics and the like. They might prompt reflection, introspection, even ascetic wandering  or a pilgrimage. In many respects, the more distant the relationship, the more fascinating the perspective – like one of my favourites, the musings of a Hindu priest on why what you can’t measure is interesting.

But if you’re not one of these, none of the above resonates with you, and you’re about to take a random pot shot at “management”, it may be better to write about something else. Your talents are truly wasted.


Yesterday was fine, I’ve forgotten it somehow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A tactilian struck by lightning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


#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.