Leaving no turn unstoned

“A drama critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned.” (George Bernard Shaw)

As the recognition grows that the workplace – when well designed, created, maintained and adapted – is able to make a positive contribution to a range of clichés (productivity – this year’s star draw – innovation, creativity, wellbeing, wellness, motivation, inspiration, engagement, development, attraction and retention amongst others), in rough proportion so too grows the number of people talking, presenting, writing and commenting on the subject.

Partial to lobbing a fizzer on a Sunday to generate some discussion, I tweeted that I find it amazing how many of these often-heard folk have never actually created any workspace. The most excellent @antonyslumbers (an expert in a fair few things) replied that many a theatre critic had never written a play. Their encyclopaedic knowledge of who wrote and starred in what, and their ability to quote from the most obscure of creations is no doubt astounding. Yet they will unlikely have experienced the writer’s creative anguish, anxiety, self-doubt and self-recrimination in the smallest of hours that night offers…..unless of course they’re a failed writer.

Yet in the world of workplace we don’t call our non-participative commentators “critics”, without stopping to wonder why, we call them “experts”. A terminology change may be overdue.

In creating a workplace, in all but the smallest of organisations the “how” – the journey and process – conceals an assault course of challenges beneath the expected tasks that those commentators who have never created any space themselves will not have experienced, in order to arrive at the outcome they see, the “what”. Even professions closer to the core of a project, strategy consultants and designers included, are rarely tested in this manner.

Awaiting both the suspecting and unsuspecting dramatis personae are – in no particular order and by no means exclusively – formal organisational and reporting structures, informal and often obscure channels of influence, financial constraints and the curse of “value engineering” (most often manifested as slash and burn), mid-stream changes of strategy and direction, changes in external circumstances and the business landscape, competition between the agenda of “the organisation”, business units and individuals, perceptions that teams are “different”, procurement rules and corporate governance, tape of all colours (red, black and yellow, and hopefully not blue and white), the supply chain, the involvement of closely-related parties (“my husband/wife/miniature dachshund knows a bit about interior design”), organisational culture, history and experience (as interpreted in a multitude of ways, to suit), jealousies, envies, rivalries, luck, co-ordination and lack of it, and the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of communication, both ways.

Of course you can’t model all of this. You just have to know it’s out there, that in some degree and at times you least expect you’re going to have to deal with it.

Like all creative endeavours, workplace needs critics and commentators. They maintain focus, honesty, challenge, all with the emotion carefully extracted. They can be relatively objective and analytical, they can disseminate awareness, benchmark, compare. They’ll win at Workplace Trivial Pursuit, which, don’t worry, isn’t a thing. Workplace needs the experts in their field too – design, project management and the rest.

But the workplace experts – they’re the ones pacing the house at 3am, feeling like the loneliest person in the world, wondering how they’re going to make it work.

And who make it work.


Pearly dewdrops’ drops

While sifting through the scattergun array of questions and statements on which to respond to another well-meaning workplace discovery initiative, the Stoddart Review – none of which particularly bear any specific relation to the question the review seeks to answer, interesting as they may each be – I found a subject on which this blog had, rather surprisingly, not specifically addressed: workplace design principles. Given that in time it may be a challenge for the committee to find anything including their shoes beneath the collected volumes submitted by the usual suspects, I’ve posted my ha’penny-worth here too. Dewdrops that may just catch the light.

As an aside I do need to call out the invitation’s over-use of one of the most ghastly expressions known to humankind, the “C-Suite”. It’s mentioned four times. As long as this term persists we accentuate an arbitrary differentiation, and undermine ourselves and our ability to influence. Every one of those amazing workplaces you see case studied, published and #conferenceslideblah’d had executive sponsorship and release of the cash to create it. While I maintain that everyone deserves an amazing workplace and there is still much work to be done, particularly the further away you travel from key metropolitan centres, we are by no means or measure collectively starting from a zero base – there just needs to be a more uniform distribution of the commitment. The next thing you know we’ll be demanding a seat at the table.

I would hold that the following good design principles are valid whatever the desired form of workplace to be created, whether you’re Gurgle.com and want a hovering gazebo or Boggins Toff and Twaddle furnishing their dreams in walnut. As it’s a matter of the blend, they’re in no particular order, chuck them all in and whisk.

Be smart-ish: Gather evidence – but only just enough (paraphrasing Lloyd Davis) – and thereafter focus on opportunities to allow people to choose to do things differently. Evidence should be both quantitative and qualitative, data and story. We hear far too much blether about Big Data (which for most people of course is just data) but there is as much insight and power in small stories, I would probably argue even more. Creating a great workplace is an open-ended road trip. The rear view mirror – your evidence – is for safety (if you’ve ever tried driving in India without one). What’s ahead is far more intriguing.

Be beta: On the theme of the above, understand that space itself is a journey not a product – a permanent beta trial – which means you are also enabling change long after the space is “finished”. How many change programmes wind up a few weeks after the last move? Very often the success of one space or area mitigates against the success of another, and invariably this occurs over time as people get to understand the space. It’s important to continually observe, test, discuss, measure and be prepared to tweak and change the space, because no-one wants to wait fifteen years for next crusade. It’s also worth remembering that a flexible or activity-based workplace takes much more of this form of managing than a static 1:1 arrangement.

Brief, not brief. Spend time on the Brief. Crikey I must have said this so many times. I think I say it every day. It’s the most important work you’ll do on any workplace creation. A great deal of the time you’re talking to yourself, to ensure it’s what you want – there’s nothing wrong with a bit of self-doubt, but best to have it before you’ve started. It’s important in this process that we talk to people like adults, listen carefully, understand but be prepared to challenge: we should not be waiters taking orders. It’s also worth remembering that the brief isn’t the solution, it’s an aspiration drawn from the data and stories captured and the possibilities the journey prompts. If the Brief looks like a design, it’s a design.

Be clear. Smartarse Briefs like “make us feel uncomfortable” can be easily met with reclaimed seating. Unfortunately in an age where proclamations of the passing of a thing or idea are rife, there is an almost institutional pressure to be “disruptive”. Walk away. Don’t try and be too clever with people’s productivity, wellbeing and comfort, nine times out of ten it will bite you on the very same smart arse (that is, the nine times we never hear about).

Balance like a ballerina. Mark Catchlove captured it beautifully here in this post I wish I’d written. And this has nothing to do with the red herring of introverts and extroverts (which interestingly only introverts seem to talk about). The workplace “industry” continually lurches from one panacea to the other, awaiting the messianic idea. There won’t be one. Balance might not get your scheme in Forbes or FastCompany but let’s face it, that’s probably a good thing. We always rock back on the pendulum to the balance point, when the latest fad proves to be just that and the procession peters out in embarrassment. And as the Gensler Workplace Survey points out every few years, we spend around half of our time working alone, half working with others. That’s a good enough starting point for just about every workplace scheme.

Human being first, aesthetic second. The installations have to work. If you can get them looking beautiful too, that’s delightful. Paraphrasing an architect from many years ago, there is always room in a scheme for something beautiful. But very often aesthetics and ergonomics have to step outside to settle it. Ergonomics should always win. I can hear the long, deep and troubled sigh of a million interior designers, but if more energy went into beautifying ergonomic solutions instead of complaining about them, we might not have to face the challenge.

Include. By definition, just about every installation and space, to some extent, excludes. Steve Maslin (@Bud_Maz) writes about this kind of stuff far more than I am able. But suffice to say as many people as possible must be able to experience and enjoy as much of every workspace as possible. As with the comment above, most of the time we find the beauty of the form mitigating against inclusion and it’s a constant struggle to remain inclusive while delivering a space that’s aesthetically appealing. As with ergonomics, inclusion should always win.

Simplify. But remember than simple isn’t simplistic. Workplace is not a complex subject, despite the attempts of many to make it so. Don’t overcomplicate the Brief, the typologies, the segmentation – you’re just funding a needless consulting sector. There are some lovely ideas associated with this process like Occam’s Razor. And there is no better quote than Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “we have achieved perfection when there is nothing left to take away”. If you’re starting to lose the thread or not understand it, imagine how your colleagues will feel.

Gift choice, not a seating plan. The greater choice you provide, the easier it is to hand control of the workplace to the occupants you’ve created it for (quite a scary proposition for some). A recent article that was so ridiculous I’m not even going to provide a link suggested that organisations should genetically engineer their success by seating the most talented people together. I’ve also seen some barmy stuff about choice being too heavy a burden for people. We provide workspace for adults, and should treat people like adults (even Millennials are adults, which may come as a revelation to some). We need to avoid being too prescriptive, and allow people to use space as they wish. If we provide a considered choice of setting from the most focussed and private to the most interactive, the occupants of the space will do the rest.

Stay relevant. Fads can be so expensive when they’re woven through the workplace. You’re not Google and never going to be Google but by all means learn how and why they do what they do with their space and then decide if there’s anything in it for you. Consider the approach, methodology, thought process, permissions – not the outcome. Your design may then last longer than the initial two second dopamine rush from seeing a climbing wall in the corner.

Sweat the small stuff. The success of the workplace scheme is so very often in the detail and not the vision. Spend less time on chiselling the mission statement and more on what it means to people at the micro level – they’ll look through your grand ambitions to see if their locker is big enough and there’s space in the kitchen for their muesli. As buildings should be designed from the inside out (but never are) then workplace should be designed from the kitchen cupboard out (but never are). Try it.

Actually, try them all.


My workshop gently weeps

A recent article in the Guardian lamented the saturation of what it called AirSpace – or what for a while I’ve been calling #workshopchic. I’m with the sentiment of the article entirely. The all-conquering vacuous, aesthetic that – like all fads, started as a rebellion – has solidified itself into a dominant form as dull and apathetic as everything it once opposed. The rebel has become the establishment, still thinking they’re a rebel.

It’s so contrived a look that some are even taking new space in slick city buildings, and constructing a battered and reclaimed shell within them. It’s all a bit embarrassing. Following from a comment in my previous post, it’s the inanimate equivalent of an over-40 with a top-knot – space that’s trying so hard to look like it’s not trying at all that it looks like a pillock.

Creative and Attractive Hallways Interior design of Foote Cone & Belding Worldwide Office:

The Guardian article’s brand-oriented reasoning for this stultifying homogeneity is a little too highbrow in my view. It’s simpler than that. Quite possibly the following are behind it:

  • It’s harmless – we don’t feel challenged by it, or need to form an opinion (conscious or not). We now don’t even notice it. We’re too busy to need to be challenged after all. Busy spending most of our time in most places we eat/work/talk staring into our phones.
  • The imagery is ubiquitous. We’ve been pinterested to purgatory. I challenged a designer recently to create a space without using the internet – purely from memory, inspiration and feeling. The discomfort with this idea was so tangible it ran off screaming to the nearest “co-café” (everything has “co” in front of it now, doesn’t it?) and settled itself with a skinny caramel latte. It never happened, and it’s unlikely to. Instincts that once conceptualised and created have been stunted by this ubiquity.
  • As such – it’s just too easy to design. It doesn’t take much imagination to “strip something down”. The materiality is straightforward, wood goes with metal goes with bare, flaky, stamped, warped, rusted. Old stuff always goes with other old stuff regardless, right? Just chuck it in. A mess of any degree and description can be called “eclectic”. If you say its crap, you’re just not seeing the cool. There is an element of emperor’s-new-clothes about it all. The fine line between eclectic and garbage has been crossed so many times, its dust.
  • It’s easy to create – we can go shopping on eBay, we don’t even need to look up from our phones. No need to worry about fire certificates or warranties or anything. Not that there is anything left on eBay that others with the same idea haven’t snaffled. There are only so many battered chesterfields on the planet. I recently witnessed the specification of new chairs with rips made in them to make them look old. It’s like new jeans with added rips in the knees….as if that would catch on, eh?

office space:

Design fads are hardly new. Back in the 1970’s every office was suicidal dark brown, cream and mid-grey with monstrous slab-ended wooden desks in light oak or dark oak. A little later came the genuinely horrific limed oak with its cordial grain. Through stifled screams we pleaded for something different.

And like most fads, we’ve been convinced we need it by its very ubiquity. Saturation point has been passed, but it will take time. Not everyone stopped wearing flares the moment one apparently certifiable lunatic shouted “enough!” and dared slip on a pair of drainpipes. You’ve got a few years of #workshopchic left before design re-discovers its soul.

It will have to, if it wants a future.


Coming up for air

I was asked last week by one of the nicest people in the business (who happened to have been the original base build architect on the amazing building I’m now working in) to respond to a simple survey being conducted by his start-up business of the key five issues faced by workplace professionals today. Having responded within the space of a single breath I thought it might be worth taking a little more time to explain. I got to seven. I’ve without doubt missed some. After many months of self-impose exile I’m just coming up for air.

One: doing more with less space. The more choice of settings designed into a space, and the more thought that goes into each and how they fit within as seamless as possible a spectrum from the most focussed to the most interactive, the greater the level of flexibility and mobility that can be enabled. A principal challenge of this approach is being able to articulate what it means, and change perceptions of space and how it works. Giving it a numpty name like SmartSpace doesn’t describe it. It also requires a light treatment of the purpose of settings, resisting the temptation to be overly prescriptive. The last place on this plant – or any other – that someone is going to have an idea is in the “Ideas Lab”. And don’t be surprised if someone does the full Dom Joly in your Quiet Zone, just for the hell of it.

Two: focusing on technology first, not space. This is tough for workplace people, but faced with a choice, most people would take fantastic kit and connectivity over a smart and stylish space. You can work in Stig’s dump with a cracking download speed. The lightest, most powerful kit possible with the longest battery life, and the highest bandwidth connectivity available should be the investment priority or the space will likely never recover by the time you get around to it.

Three: take time to get the Brief right. Sadly most of the time there isn’t a Brief of any sort because design is just too interesting. It’s annoying talking about why and how you want to do something when you can just get on with it – isn’t it?  It’s nowhere near as annoying as taking an age and spending a fortune to find that it looks nothing like you hoped, everyone hates it and it doesn’t work. Brief development is a skill, and of those who actually do it not many do it well. And it’s not about handing over a suitcase full of used notes a consultant to define forty seven user types.

Four: Googlisation. Or, thinking that a Brief consisting entirely of “make it look like Google” is useful or clever. If you’re not Google, it doesn’t work. Sometimes if you’re Google it doesn’t work but that’s fine because they are actually Google, and you’re not so it’s their prerogative. They did a great thing, for which we should all be thankful, they gave the world permission to think about space differently – all the while serving a purpose for themselves. It’s the principle that’s important, not the interpretation. But if you’re over forty, don’t wear a Hollister hoodie and roll your trousers up, you’ll look like a pillock.

Five: Disrupture. Or, resisting the now obligatory requirement to do something entirely different, or at least claim to have done something different (which in most instances means repackaging an old idea), in most instances for its own sake because if you haven’t you’re not hanging with the kids. Why? Because everything is dead – you know, the office, e-mail, hierarchy – all those things that are in rude health, stronger even for having rumours of their demise exaggerated. Not every workplace scheme needs to break the mould. In the vast majority of instances, they just have to be well-designed, thought through, and appropriate to the business and its aims, location and demographic. When everything is disruptive, nothing is – and like trying to be Google, it may all just get a bit embarrassing.

Six: compromise. Every large organisation contains lots of people who love interior design and want to express themselves on the corporate tab. Nothing wrong with that per se. A recent piece by the most excellent Mark Eltringham quoted yet another (and there will undoubtedly be more) wellbeing report, this time the turn of the RCA and Gensler, in which they concluded “an invitation to participate in the design of the work environment raised levels of wellbeing.”

Strangely the report really talked about a lot of the key tenets of the #elementalworkplace rather than participative design. No credit of course. Yet even without mass participation, the workplace designer needs to balance a myriad of input and approval. It’s quite possibly the hardest part of any large scale workplace creation, and even more difficult when it’s focussed on opportunity creation than a lift-and-shift (or, evidence-based design).

And then seven: social media as news. Countering the click-bait BS of social media that to our collective horror even broke onto the front page of the Daily Telegraph last week with the preposterous “sitting is the new smoking” contention. [As an aside, there is quite an irony is the idea of passive sitting]. It was followed swiftly by two reports on the same quite appalling survey about the commercial benefit of the right seating plan. In a flexible workplace of course, seating plans aren’t relevant, because people move around. Which also counters the idiocy of holing chairs responsible for sloth. They seemed to miss that part in the rush to publish – it would require a little thought.

Other suggestions welcome. Just don’t mention millennials, robots or co-working. I need time to acclimatise.


Shut up ‘n’ play yer guitar

The title of this post is taken directly from the first of a series of three Frank Zappa albums released in 1981 consisting almost entirely of guitar solos. A Zappa-obsessed friend of mine told me that it was in response to critics considering that his axemanship was being undermined by his perpetual warbling. It was recorded in his new home studio, the unsurprisingly flared Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. He did of course manage to sneak in a few comments between tracks. Like tweeting when you’re not posting.

Tired of trying to Cnut the tides of unsupported piffle posing as truth, I stood the blog down in March to focus on completing a workplace project that has been three years in the making. In this time I’ve made a sub-profession out of politely declining invitations, and positioned my default to not being available to attend anything. The workplace is a building of some 45,000 square metres and is set to house 3,500 colleagues from a wide variety of backgrounds and functions. The moves take place over the next five weekends. In this instance even the small moves are massive moves. It’s both daunting and spine-tingling.

You’ll see and hear enough about the workspace in coming months, I’m not going to start describing it here. I’m not going to be defined by it either. In the “old days” – whenever they were – we would carefully release information about a completed project with a considered media strategy. As we saw with a recently completed project in Leeds, it will be instagrammed and tweeted to within an inch of life itself in a matter of days, if not sooner. My colleagues will tell you all about it as it appears and feels to them, which in this age of accountability instinctively feels right. Sure, we’ll take some professional pictures (with the building occupied) and talk about our intentions, design approach, curation, delivery – and be honest about our experiences (not just “what we might have done differently”). But the occupants of the space will tell everyone they know whether we nailed it.

As this particular project completes, others that might once have been all-consuming in themselves are accelerating. I can see as far as Easter for the immediate, and then a raft that spin off into years hence, like an ergonomic milky way.

Meanwhile there’s tumbleweed blowing down Workplace Avenue, a pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete, the screech of brakes and a lamplight blinking. Even the two lovers kissing in the tranquility of solitude have gone home. So the research kitchen is closing, the blog is returning. Bloody hell, someone has to start talking out there.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Elemental block

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

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

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

It’s the elemental block.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Yesterday was fine, I’ve forgotten it somehow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A question of degree

You’ve just received the workplace survey link. It’s like being given a banjo and asked to hit a cow’s backside: you just can’t miss. It’s just a question of degree.

The property team will read your response under a hail of trepidation and nausea, given the constraints under which they are working and the utilitarian challenge of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. They’ll want people to be satisfied, happy. The stickier the sugar coating the better. They’ve put time, care, energy, emotion, love and sweat into the outcome you’re about to click-trash. Like presenting a soufflé to Wallace and Torode, the property team would probably rather not know, but know they have to.

We’ve laboured for years under the impression that – especially in the context of global benchmark surveys – good marks are a good thing. The higher the satisfaction rating, the better.Workplace folk can dance happily in the meadow, while the Board  can open a Montrachet for sanctioning the investment. It’s wholly intuitive.

But it might be wrong.

I could be Gavin in Accounts . The catering gets top marks but I’m blissfully half asleep all afternoon digesting the steamed treacle pudding and custard. I’ve rated the IT kit and connectivity because the Sainsbury’s website responds like a dream when I need to do my weekly sweep, and a big thumbs-up for the furniture because I’ve got a great spot that’s not overlooked while I’m doing it. And it’s my own desk, my stuff all over it all day and night, none of this clear desk policy with its ASBO’s. I can be really productive by sticking up this big red flag saying “I’m busy” and everyone leaves me alone, so Top Sante for the etiquette policy. It’s one-hundred-and-eighty for the parking because I always get a space even though it would only take me twenty minutes to walk here, if I could be remotely bothered. When asked why I haven’t spoken to anyone all day I just flash a copy of Susan Cain’s “Quiet” – “introvert” I mutter, and look away. I haven’t read it, but it really works.

Satisfied with my workplace? Is my workplace working for me? Are you kidding?

In fact the survey results are so fantastic the Board have just authorised rolling out the approach nationally. Clink, another round of Montrachet. Clearly it’s all going to plan. We’re also hitting the top of the benchmarking indices. We’re a beacon in a foggy Slough. We have workplace nailed. We’ll keep our recipe secret, save for a few empty glossies in FX and the odd stage appearances at unnecessarily expensive and unnecessary conferences.

But you’re not Gavin in Accounts.

It’s not about satisfaction or popularity. There is a fundamental gulf between a workplace that makes life easy for you per se, and a workplace that makes it easy for you to work the way you need to get things done, and to develop and grow. What may be easy for you may not be what the organisation wants, or employed you for. They may want you interacting, collaborating, energised, motivated, healthy, well, unencumbered with concerns about owning estate.

And so the workplace needs to work for you and for the organisation providing it. You love being there and what you do, you can always find somewhere to work that suits what you’re doing, you’re always expanding your network because you’re visible and involved, when you need help it’s always available, there’s coffee on tap and you’re a stone lighter than when you started. You feel valued and value it, because it’s all there and it all works. It hits all of the #elementalworkplace buttons, and more.

Yet you may still “mark it down” in places for not bringing you – on an entirely personal level – the gift of unfettered ease. You acknowledge that, but still.

Meanwhile your marks, maturity and sense are aggregated with Gavin’s. And all of his mates.

Satisfaction. Its a dangerous thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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