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.



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.


Two worlds and in between

I recently attended and spoke at the most excellent Social Now conference in Lisbon. Enterprise social networking (ESN) and knowledge management (KM) are invariably a mystery to most workplace and property folk still nutting their heads against the rusty twin locked doors of HR and IT, the discipline bewitched by its own insularity. I used to attend CoreNet’s ‘Discovery Forums’ many years ago where the contended Prentice Knight would repeatedly draw the equilateral Bermuda Triangle of Property, HR and IT into which all idea of what to do next invariably disappeared. Needless to say we never discovered anything but we did have a very personable dinner with old friends at the end.

Yet the twin souls of ESN and KM effectively constitute the digital workplace as we know it. The struggle lies in the fact that they are neither HR nor IT (unless we confuse the app with its application), and certainly not property, nor in fact do they reside anywhere else within the typical organisational structure. They rely instead on those committed to meshing physical and virtual space, and they could be anywhere.

It’s not about finding functions who should be talking to each other. The silos remain, but they’re not important anymore. They can talk to each other all they like, it won’t make a lot of difference. They bumble on, equally misunderstood by one another, awaiting the day they will have been superseded by those who didn’t bother waiting for the inevitable and just got on with it. More on this soon. But meanwhile…..

A masterclass at the event with the renowned guru of all things ESN and a super bloke to boot, Luis Suarez (@elsua) drew my attention to some fascinating differences between the digital and physical workplace. Apologies Luis for the time it’s taken me to write it up.

Firstly, we talk about online communities and physical neighbourhoods, yet with the latter then talk about a sense of community. The former are free of physical boundaries, the latter defined by them. Yet essentially we are looking for them to achieve the same thing – connection, sharing, collective development, and being excellent to each other (the Bill & Ted approach). My workplace change approach is based on the idea of being a good neighbour and acting in a neighbourly manner. No-one needs a slide deck to explain what that means, we instinctively know. That approach should be equally applicable to digital space. Luis made a pennydropper of a point for thinking about change – communities share, while teams solve problems. For workplace therefore we’ll still construct neighbourhoods to create recognisable physical locations for individuals and teams, but we need a community mindset from the digital workplace along with neighbourly behaviour in our physical space.

Secondly, the difference between adoption and adaptation. Both Luis and I had, in separate spaces, come to the conclusion that ‘adoption’ is the wrong way to look at how we change behaviour. It comes with a shoehorn. Workplace types are always talking about people adopting new behaviours in new space (see my post on the Leesman report). I’ve come to see it as the most unhelpful idea possible in enabling change. Luis had it as adaptation, and hence we have early adapters. Adaptation respects the individual experiential journey, while adoption implies a forced change. A torment has been resolved.

Thirdly, the contrast between those we engage as change agents. *This is not (repeat, to fade) a generational comment. The digital world seeks out more junior participants, those less likely to make do who have both have time to help, and a more natural questioning attitude. It relies on intuition and experimentation rather than training. It’s about enabling change through the delight of discovery, and respects the individual journey. In workplace change programmes we naturally look to more senior individuals to lead change, with access to resources, shoehorns and the ability to unblock. They are focussed on addressing the resistors rather than the digital workplace’s intent to harness the enlightened. There is a lot more of the ‘Trojan mice’ idea about the digital workplace that the physical workplace must learn from. Along, of course, with a little patience.

Fourth, the difference between education (push) and enablement (pull). The online world looks to model and demonstrate behaviour, as a means to enable a change of behaviour in others. It’s an application of the idea of Tummeling (plenty in this blog about the subject). In the world of workplace there is a deeply unfortunate tendency to instruct and inform, the dreaded ‘etiquette training’ that is woven into so many change programmes, in a bid to drive adoption. Everyone does it so everyone continues to do it. The digital world seems much more comfortable with people changing at varying speeds, adapting, given that generally the tools come first and the usage thereafter, allowing existing behaviour to be phased out. Both old and new worlds invariably exist alongside one another. In the physical world, there is the limitation that when the new space is ready, the old space is entirely left behind and we invariably drop everyone in at once, expecting that they will apply what they have been told beforehand. We must still respect individual journeys – and once people know that we will, their perspective will change too. Those we often see as resistors will just be those on a different journey – we lose the classification entirely.

Fifth is the difference in the use of progress measurement. In the digital workplace we measure progress but don’t publish it, to avoid focussing on the metric and not the transformation process. It can take a year to eighteen months for behaviours to bed in, to be able to tell positive stories. The digital workplace seems much more comfortable with being able to describe the negative ROI not doing anything at all. In the physical world there is a far greater expectation of immediate results that we broadcast to all, driven by the pressure to report ROI. Everyone is desperate to know its ‘worked’. This approach stifles the individual journey, and underpins the obsession with adoption. Again, so much more patience would be beneficial.

Lastly, there is a contrast in making things happen between the plan/deliver approach to physical workplace and the do-something-today approach in the digital. In a flip of the application of patience, so often needed in the physical domain, the digital workplace is this time the fidgety one where even the smallest signs of progress can be important. It underpins Agile. Poor quality environments don’t need to aw await the wholesale mobilisation of the project, small changes can always benefit. Every physical workplace is in permanent beta, even those coming to the end of their useful lives.

A restless spirit and a willingness to get things done, a belief that things can be done rather than a list of reasons why they can’t – that’s got to be a worthwhile adaptation.

The lines converging where you stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


When the poets dreamed of workplace

I often think that following any form of statistical analysis, poets should complete the write-up. Other than preventing the statisticians from doing so, they’re able to interpret the data in the form of a story, and weave through the emotional content, identifying what the ticker-tape isn’t telling us. They might cushion the bludgeoning we’ll receive from data seeking a problem to explain.

So it is with the latest Leesman report The rise and rise of Activity Based Working. It’s a weighty hammer too. It’s very well written, and on the face of it rather convincing. The general conclusion is that Activity Based Working schemes (ABW) are good, but not everyone who works within them is on board and getting mobile with it. How this amounts to a ‘catastrophic failure’ though I’m not sure. If ever a claim were overstated, its right here. What it does highlight however, through its many pages of percentages, is the inherent danger in a statistical evaluation of the workplace.

The report asks: ‘The question still remains, why do some employees adopt a new way of working while others do not?’ Fundamentally, surveys of this nature will suggest you may have an issue and suggest its magnitude, but not tell you why. The question gnawing away while reading was, ‘Why are you so worried about it, and why are you making a scene?’

Essentially, the survey both ignores and is unable to deal with one thing – the journey. And this journey exists on two levels.

Workplace is itself a journey, a permanent beta trial. While there is a spike in investment and upheaval when a workplace is re-designed and created, in itself it is a moment in time. Thereafter it will unfold, mostly slowly but with occasional bursts of acceleration as the organisation, its people, its processes, its markets and technology change. The creation of the workplace is a lurch, from which the workplace then recovers its balance. Yet it is always moving, growing, changing. It should never be left alone as it meanders.

Sitting over the rolling stroll of the workplace are the myriad of personal journeys being undertaken by the occupants. Some such are smooth, some are stumbles. Within a new workplace, the influence of others – perhaps even the tummelers – holds their hands. The change journey is immersive and experiential. Personally, I decry the enforced training in etiquette and protocols that have become the unchallenged fashion in workplace, with the fearsome and innately arrogant target of adoption: they eat at the heart of what it means to be human and are responsible for the failure of many a scheme. We need to softly guide people on their journey of discovery, we can allow them to identify what works for them using their own plentiful resources. Our task is to help them mine those resources and bring them into play.

It doesn’t therefore matter whether in an ABW scheme people are ‘campers’ or ‘timid travellers’ or ‘intrepid explorers’ or ‘true transients’. What such a workplace should do is provide opportunities to change over time, offering a chance of this happening. Expectations of an instant return are entirely misplaced. The report at least acknowledges that people are different, their work differs, and that their use of the space will differ. And so, their journeys will differ. It entirely incorrectly concludes that this is a problem. The ‘camper’ may still appreciate the amenities, spirit, buzz, visibility, access, visual inspiration, humour, sense of belonging, and the feeling of being valued – even if they seek out a standard desk to undertake their process tasks, never get invited to a meeting and don’t feel the need to ‘huddle’. The environment can benefit everyone, not just the ‘true transients’.

There is nothing to fear from an activity-based workplace in which the personal journeys of its many occupants are unaligned. It’s not a failure, as might be perceived in this age of expectation of an instant return, or as ‘the data tells us’. On the contrary it reinforces the humanity of the space.

The report states that ‘the project will need ABW management specialists, technologists and behavioural change experts’. If that sounds like an awful lot of people in ill-fitting jackets running up a huge tab and over-complicating the whole thing (like identifying 27 work activities), it probably is. It remains an anomaly that we continually hear ourselves stating that the workplace is ‘all about people’ yet continue to treat people like a problem to be solved.

Repeating mantras won’t create a better workplace, we have to adapt our behaviour too. We still have a way to go.