The Workplace Leadership Manifesto

As Workplace emerges as a discipline in its own right, drawing threads from a number of existing disciplines, its leadership needs a set of identifying principles.

At least, that is what my friend and collaborator Ian Ellison of 3edges and I agreed late last year. So, we set about co-creating something we both agreed with (not always easy, in a constructive sense), with the help of Ian’s business partner James Pinder. It took a while. We then thought – what do we do now? We were both wondering whether there might be a bigger initiative we could float them on, or a publication that could feature them – but then, in the spirit of immediacy,  decided just to publish. Ian did this one a day over the first few weeks of 2018 and they can be found in a poster form on the 3edges website. They’re here for good measure. Hopefully they’ll be here for a long time, as Workplace forms around them.

  1. Workplace is a discipline. Fed by many other disciplines, yet with a unique personality, characteristics and capabilities of its own. It is new and emergent, still discovering itself. The quality of its knowledge, leadership and education will underpin its growing impact.
  2. Workplace exists to enable work. Our rasion d’etre is to create places that enable organisations to thrive through their people, however and wherever they need to work. Workplace is the stage where organisational activity plays out, because everything happens somewhere. We never forget this.
  3. Workplace leaders enable communities. They do not just manage facilities or functions. Organisations achieve their objectives through their people. All facets of workplace are in service of this. If not, their purpose is questionable at best, and inappropriate at worst.
  4. Workplace and workspace are not the same. Workspace, the physical element of workplace, has a significant role to play. But space and place are not equal. An organisation’s culture, space, technology and purpose all intertwine to create its unique sense of place.
  5. Workplace is physical and digital. We create places for our communities that are both tangible and virtual. We understand that the physical and digital affect each other, near and far, wherever people work. Our remit stretches beyond the boundaries of organisational premises.
  6. Workplace is more process, less product. The workplaces we create are an ongoing journey, not a final product. They will always be work in progress. The changing needs of people working drive workplace provision, not the other way around. Our work is never finished, and this drives us on.
  7. Workplace is not neutral. And neither are we. The workplaces we create impact organisational performance, either positively or negatively. We strive to ensure this is understood, so organisational decisions include workplace consideration.
  8. Workplace is functional and symbolic. It helps or hinders the work people do, not just by tools and resources it provides, but by what it means to them and how it makes them feel. While less tangible, the symbolic often outweighs the functional. We seek to understand what people value, and why.
  9. Workplace experiences are diverse. Perceptions and interpretations are as diverse as a workforce. As the nature of work changes, so does the nature of workplace. Assumptions, and ‘one size fits all’ approaches are outdated and potentially damaging.
  10. Workplace is social, and therefore political. We all experience our workplace, and – given the chance – we all have opinions about it. Some voices get heard more than others because of power, status and influence. We seek all perspectives, especially the emotional ones, to understand what is really going on.
  11. Workplace is simple and achievable. While there are complex forces at play that we must understand, we can create and sustain an effective and efficient workplace with simple ideas, in everyday language, without excuse or prevarication. We commit to create understanding.
  12. There is no ‘right’ reporting line. All organisations are unique, and so is every workplace. The leadership approach of an organisation should determine which function is best suited to champion workplace for all its beneficiaries. It is more important that it is done well than who does it.
  13. Workplace is inherently connected. Decisions made by those responsible for different workplace facets will always have an impact wider than their particular remit. Workplace is interwoven, creating dependencies between others and ourselves. We are never an island, but equals together – never above, never below.
  14. We stretch beyond overtraded terms. We know what we stand for, and help others see beyond the polarised headlines, fads and pseudo-science. We challenge, critically evaluate, and in turn accept critique as essential to the development of the discipline.
  15. We balance science, art and opportunity. To create workplaces that work we synthesise data, research and inspiration, and we unlock the imagination of what might be possible in others. We think critically and systemically. We are agents for change.
  16. Workplace leadership is not design. Great workplaces and design aesthetics are not mutually exclusive, but pre-conceived solutions and fashion detract from fully appreciating organisational context and need. We never let the cart get before the horse.
  17. We embrace curiosity, not hubris. We are ambassadors of an unfolding discipline in an interconnected world. There is much to learn, and much that can be improved. We can always share more. We can always know more. We are open to possibility.
  18. Workplace leadership is active, not passive. It is a mind-set that underpins the organisational contributions we make, not the sole realm of ‘thought-leaders’ and conference pulpits. Whether introvert, extrovert or somewhere in-between, we find our voice and we use it proactively. We live workplace, through the communities we enable.

No blind spots in leopards’ eyes: five hopes for Workplace in 2018

It’s a shame that trend spotters aren’t more like Giant Himalayan lilies, flowering once every seven years – it’s an irregular enough interval to forget, too. Seven years might actually be enough time for a trend, as opposed to the lurches they’re looking out for. But fear not the internet will soon be safe to return to.

So, below I’ve pitched five workplace-related things that I hope will happen, at least a little more of. Unlike with a trend, which washes over us rendering us helpless but to follow, we do actually have an opportunity to contribute. It may seem quite frightening, that this isn’t a game of spotting what might happen to us, but a challenge to actually help out, individually and collectively. You might even have decided to do so. If so, huzzah for you, please feel free to play Outdoor Miner as loud as you possibly can.

First, that we, as an entire industry, adopt a more critical mindset, a greater preparedness to challenge assumptions and oft-repeated statements with which we are regularly beaten into believing are truth. There are always a few in play at any one time. With this comes the equal responsibility we bear as the givers of ideas and hunches to accept critical thinking and comment as a well-intentioned wish to develop a deeper knowledge, and not a personal attack to be ignored or dismissed. We could start with the ridiculously one-sided view that all activity in service of wellness and wellbeing is automatically a good thing. For some that will sound like heresy – for others, an interesting challenge. Perhaps we can iron out the former. That’s the next post, by the way.

Secondly, that we might start to reject overpuffed self-important gobbledygook on sight. If you see it, simply refuse to accept it. This is not another point about ‘business BS’, its deeper than that. Saying things with flouncy corporate words that would never actually pass our lips does not make an idea or statement more important, or more impressive, it actually devalues it entirely. They are often written as though it is what we want to read, but really, we don’t. Phrases like “enhance user experience through engagement, empowerment and fulfilment” just means be excellent to each other. Everyone has a different view of what each of the three big words means. Trying to agree would occupy several hours of impassioned debate after closing time (in February). The statement therefore confuses rather than helps. It takes more courage to state things in simple, plain language. It says you can understand it, too. It is humble.

Thirdly, it would be fantastic if we could see a greater independence of design thinking, rather than the mimicry we are usually treated to. Yes, certain materials colours, surfaces and the like are in vogue at a particular time, but we get into a bind. Do we want them because we like them, or do we like them because they are what we are given? I maintain that tools like Pinterest have actually had a deadening effect on the design industry through their saturation. And no, exposed interior brickwork is never the right answer. Ever.

Fourth, it would be massively helpful if the property and workplace industry developed a better understanding of what other business functions actually do, and so where workplace fits into the landscape as it actually is, rather than make up its own version of what they do. The current claim that HR should run property and workplace is based on not having done any research into what HR does. There is a belief that IF HR = people AND workplaces are for people THEN HR should run workplace. All functions form part of the corporate landscape. They overlap, they dovetail. It’s not about who you report to, i’s about what you do. It’s not about who does it, as long as it’s done.

Finally, and it is a long-term hope, we need to encourage more occupier leader voices to be heard. We hear from a lot of consultants and academics. That’s normal for most functions. Academics and consultants write stuff, they have blogs, they speak at events, they advise. All of these activities are in service of their offer, so it’s going to happen, no use getting upset about it. Occupiers meanwhile are overwhelmingly busy, under-resourced, travelling relentlessly, and often balancing on the knife edge of confidentiality. Yet their experience is invaluable, and their voices need to be heard. Case studies like that by Tony Grimes of Investec  at last year’s Workplace Trends event have been hugely refreshing. They also need to be heard outside of the confines of the self-contained echo chambers of professional bodies, to reach a wider audience and in return benefit from a richer network. Being heard can have an unexpected a payback, the gift economy is alive and well. It is time.

Five things worth hoping for. And waiting for – but not for too long. I’ll let you get a cup of tea, then let’s get on with it.

 

12 days of [workplace design] Christmas 2017

A whole year of workplace design later, its the 2017 version of the ditty that you can try singing midway through the Christmas party, and on the train on the way home….

On the first day of Christmas my designer gave to me
A pre-post-occupancy survey

On the second day of Christmas my designer gave to me
Two co-working beer taps
And a pre-post-occupancy survey
 
On the third day of Christmas my designer gave to me
Three spaces-as-a-service
Two co-working beer taps
And a pre-post-occupancy survey
 
On the fourth day of Christmas my designer gave to me
Four mandatory etiquette workshops
Three spaces-as-a-service
Two co-working beer taps
And a pre-post-occupancy survey
 
On the fifth day of Christmas my designer gave to me
Five HR friends
Four mandatory etiquette workshops
Three spaces-as-a-service
Two co-working beer taps
And a pre-post-occupancy survey
 
On the sixth day of Christmas my designer gave to me
Six WELL certifications
Five HR friends
Four mandatory etiquette workshops
Three spaces-as-a-service
Two co-working beer taps
And a pre-post-occupancy survey
 
On the seventh day of Christmas my designer gave to me
Seven outbreaks of biophilia
Six WELL certifications
Five HR friends
Four mandatory etiquette workshops
Three spaces-as-a-service
Two co-working beer taps
And a pre-post-occupancy survey
 
On the eighth day of Christmas my designer gave to me
Eight pets at work schemes
Seven outbreaks of biophilia
Six WELL certifications
Five HR friends
Four mandatory etiquette workshops
Three spaces-as-a-service
Two co-working beer taps
And a pre-post-occupancy survey
 
On the ninth day of Christmas my designer gave to me
Nine neon diner slogans
Eight pets at work schemes
Seven outbreaks of biophilia
Six WELL certifications
Five HR friends
Four mandatory etiquette workshops
Three spaces-as-a-service
Two co-working beer taps
And a pre-post-occupancy survey
 
On the tenth day of Christmas my designer gave to me
Ten perimeter running tracks
Nine neon diner slogans
Eight pets at work schemes
Seven outbreaks of biophilia
Six WELL certifications
Five HR friends
Four mandatory etiquette workshops
Three spaces-as-a-service
Two co-working beer taps
And a pre-post-occupancy survey
 
On the eleventh day of Christmas my designer gave to me
Eleven dangly flexes
Ten perimeter running tracks
Nine neon diner slogans
Eight pets at work schemes
Seven outbreaks of biophilia
Six WELL certifications
Five HR friends
Four mandatory etiquette workshops
Three spaces-as-a-service
Two co-working beer taps
And a pre-post-occupancy survey
 
On the twelfth day of Christmas my designer gave to me
Twelve cultural ecosystems
Eleven dangly flexes
Ten perimeter running tracks
Nine neon diner slogans
Eight pets at work schemes
Seven outbreaks of biophilia
Six WELL certifications
Five HR friends
Four mandatory etiquette workshops
Three spaces-as-a-service
Two co-working beer taps
And a pre-post-occupancy survey
[hic]

Happy 2018!

 

 

 

Ten workplace meta-trends for 2018 (really)

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

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

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

 

The crash of the anvil at the workplace school

Bertrand loved School. Since the move up to Reception, he had started to find opportunities for free expression and independent thought. Of course, he wasn’t aware of that and didn’t start blogging about it, it just started to happen. There were rich, youghurty paints, paper like a fresh snowdrift, brushes chiselled from a spring meadow. His teacher, Mr McDuff, was in his twilight years but his voice sounded crisp and sharp. He made sense, made it all seem achievable. He was happy.

Then one day, Mr McDuff announced in his light, clipped tone “today class we are going to design a workplace. It’s something people have been trying to do for years, getting into all sorts of trouble. But I think you’re ready.”

A soft mutter spread throughout the class, until finally Chantal raised her hand. “What’s a workplace, Mr McDuff?”

“Good question Chantal. Now – where is your Daddy today?”

“He’s at home emptying the dishwasher, I think.”

“Ah. And Mummy?”

“She left before I got up and went into London. She won’t be back until after my bedtime. She gets very grumpy when she comes in. She says she goes to an office, where everyone is horrid.”

“Excellent, perfect. That’s a workplace. Let’s get to work.”

With that Mr McDuff spread a large sheet of paper across four tables pushed together. On another table he produced a series of materials from a large box that arrived two weeks late and slightly damaged at the corners.

“OK class, I want you to take anything from the large table, and arrange it in a random form on the large sheet of paper. Then we have designed our workplace. We call this eclectic and its very fashionable. Eck. Leck. Tick.”

“But what is it all, Mr McDuff?” asked Petra “It looks like the stuff that’s at the back of our garage that Daddy always falls over and says bad words.”

“That’s right Petra” reassured Mr McDuff “it’s just randomly collected things that look like they have been thrown away but actually cost a lot of money.”

Mr McDuff proceeded to explain each item to the class. “Here we have some exposed brickwork, please take care because I have banged my head on this for decades. Then we have some concrete flooring which means we can’t run any power or data cables underneath it so we have to use this” he said waving an exposed conduit above his head. “This is a distressed Chesterfield sofa” he said wheezing under the strain of dragging it from the box “which is like a new one only more expensive. Feel free to add a few rips.”

Mr McDuff flopped onto the sofa and instinctively whipped out his Macbook and assumed an air of whimsical concentration, before realising where he was.

The class began turning over the items in their hands, until they clanked together a series of delicate glass bulbs.

“Are these flowers Mr McDuff?” asked George.

“No dear boy, they are filament lightbulbs. They’re designed to blind you when you look at them, and be hung from a ceiling rose that’s been deliberately put in the wrong place so you have to loop the cable across the ceiling. They’re absolutely everywhere, and what’s even more impressive is they don’t need any imagination whatsoever to use them.”

“Why do you use them if they blind you?” asked George.

“Exactly. I have no idea. Actually, no-one does but because they’ve appeared in a lot of magazines everyone keeps using them. So, we have to string them up today or people will think we don’t know how to design a workplace and we can’t have that, can we?”

“Do we climb through this?” asked Sara, brandishing a big metal tube, that on reflection she could have climbed through.

“No no Sara, we put these up in the ceiling. They carry cold air and warm air, and we used to hide them because they’re ugly and dirty but now we think they’re beautiful. It reminds us of the Victorian Workhouse. Or we can make a slide…”

“Slide! Slide” Slide!” the class chanted in unison until they realise it had been done before.

“But aren’t we designing a workplace Mr McDuff?” Bertrand asked, slightly confused.

“Yes, yes, sorry, not much difference really, given the unfettered perpetuation of the capitalist relations of production. We’ll cover Marx next week. Anyway class, here are the last few bits and pieces” bounced Mr McDuff, producing a wooden chair “just like I used to sit on at school, and I hated it then too” and several benches without any back support and some twisted neon signage saying “Work isn’t somewhere you go – but as you’re here…” and several odd shaped pieces of perspex in bright tones. “These are called accent colours, children, just dot them around your work in a random way, as blessed relief from the monotone, soulless industrial gloom.”

Mr McDuff thought for a moment. “It’s a shame, children, because if it weren’t for the arbitrary value engineering we could have had a telephone box, original VW camper van, beach hut and park swing to play with too. Oh well.”

The children set to work as Mr McDuff slipped away for a skinny soya caramel latte. When he shuffled back into the class, the result was an unbridled mess but the children seemed to be loving it. The sound of high-fives filled the dusty air. Teachers passing by loved it too – several popped in and photographed it for Pinterest and one found the time to enter it for a workplace design award.

“You see, what you’re doing here today is accumulation but some people have got terribly over-excited and started calling it curation without having the slightest idea what that means. It just makes it sound more obscure. R-T-far-tee. What you’re doing is entirely random. But don’t worry, we’ll think of an underlying concept and a snappy brief when we’re at the end of the lesson, in case we publish it as a case study.”

With that Mr McDuff looked awfully pleased with himself. As the clanking of haphazard workshoppery continued he settled into his lounger at the end of the classroom, bathed in ochre sunlight, and picked up his dog-eared copy of The Myth of Sisyphus.

The children were happy. He was happy. The client was happy.

“Who is the client, Mr McDuff? asked Chantal sharply, breaking the solidifying spell.

“Errr…….”

 

Cabaret unordinaire

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

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

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

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

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

 

The philia fog

The colours of Autumn are perhaps the envy of every other season: rust-orange aflame, crimson deep enough to swallow the light of a thousand suns, the trace of transition from the tip of the leaf to the bough. It is no surprise that at this time our unspoken connection with the natural world envelopes us most strongly. Even the sedentarily committed are drawn to walk, to kick through the heaped flags of summer. No wonder, then, that such feelings are talked of in terms of love – to be precise, in one of the four forms of love described by the ancient Greeks, ‘philia’ sharing a cuddle with eros, agape and storge. The term ‘biophilia’ was gifted us by the social scientist Erich Fromm (1900-1980), in an addendum to one of his major works describing it as ‘love for humanity and nature’. Of course, right now it is the latest incarnation of the grail being relentlessly and competitively pursued by the workplace community in the cause of wellbeing.

For a moment, a word on the word. Aristotle believed that philia implied mutuality, and denied that it could be given to inanimate objects. He considered that philia is a necessary, noble and affectionate friendship, where ‘the friend is also fond of us’. I’ve put quite a few plants in buildings and been taken by their beauty and contribution, but never considered that they might have felt the same way about me. If only I had known. That said the usage and meaning of words changes over time, and expressions are sought for new, dormant or subconscious ideas.

Which leads us to the pathology. When we consider how those in lab coats understand philia, we begin to encroach upon the idea of morbid fondness and obsessive love. This is not a historical understanding, it’s very much in the present. Even the Oxford English Dictionary describes a philia as an ‘abnormal love for a specified thing’. For this reason the word has never sat easily, irrespective of Erich’s gift and its uptake by many since. We have adopted it, a little like a porcupine adopting a pineapple.

While the race to the printers is on, with just about every research body known or recently formed for the purpose up and at ’em for the right to wear flowers in their hair, perhaps we ought to take a moment to consider what it actually means. Setting aside the misleading surveys and statistics, in workplace terms it is essentially three things – natural daylight, planting and natural phenomena (including the use of natural materials), and views of the second when they are positioned external to the space by virtue of fenestration to allow the penetration of the first. Those who decry simplification will inevitably call a walk in the woods ‘forest bathing’, but that’s essentially what the current furore is all about.

Of course while this is nothing new, much of the wisdom and practice pre-dating the keeping of written records, we have somehow simply lost touch with it, forgotten that allowing daylight into a building for the benefit of as many occupants as possible is vital (even if they do spend all day with their nose pressed against a screen), that internal planting brings colour, life and energy to a space, that natural materials bring warmth and calm, and that views from inside to external natural settings provide an inspiring and stress-relieving reminder that we used to all live outside for most of the time once. The most important of all of these, and one twelfth of the #elementalworkplace, is natural daylight. The others need to be managed as best they can be. There aren’t many views of migrating caribou in Broadgate.

My plea to the workplace industry is a simple one. We need reminding of our innate connection with nature and the importance of considering it in architecture and workplace design. Some are already doing so in interesting ways. Please don’t make this another game of one-up-person-ship, another clarion-call for clipboard wielding assessors, another overplayed overhyped and over-researched idea that ends up eating itself, like the rest that went before. People need light, need nature, need connection, they don’t need jasmine growing up through their keyboard because it’s the only chance of recognition. We can call it natural design and lose the uncomfortable Frommism. The re-connection with nature should be like an Autumn walk for someone who rarely walks – a most beautiful, gentle, personal discovery. We have a fantastic opportunity to make this possible. Why am I terrified?

 

Ink in the well

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

(David Sylvian)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Baltic Sagas part 2: #workplaceadvantage liveblog

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

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

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

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

It’s time we got on with it.

 

Baltic Sagas part 1: #workplaceadvantage liveblog

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

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

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

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

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

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