Chicken omelette

My friend and blogger Nigel Oseland recently said this in his post about his testimony at Stormont on flexible working:

Over the past few years, the flexible working and agile working agenda has been hijacked by property and facilities management as a space-saving technique, and it was not initially intended as that. It was intended as a means of changing the culture, supporting different work styles and creating a different working environment that better supported the way that people worked. […] Do not get me wrong: it will save you space and money, but there are probably easier ways of saving space and money than going through a change process and implementing agile and flexible working.

I asked on twitter whether perhaps it was originally a commercial idea that was hijacked by the workplace consulting community, only to be rightfully reclaimed again. Chicken or egg? Both. Chicken omelette.

For some reason we have a natural tendency to assume that all things are invented or conceived of for noble humane purposes, but get hijacked by Adam Smith’s evil empire and tuned into a commercial product. And that somehow, in the midst of the transformation, under cover of a clever marketing play, the innocence is snatched. We then spend inordinate amounts of time and effort searching for that lost innocence, only to realise that – despite the hints from nature – lost is lost.

While there were noble aims of workplace flexibility in its earlier days – which for me personally were around twenty years ago – there still are: addressing the claustrophobia of hierarchy and tyranny of plasterboard status symbols, promoting engagement, creating an enriched environment in which a deeper culture could flourish.

The breaking news is that workplace flexibility was not dreamed up three splints in during the set break between Credence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin at Woodstock. No, its essential appeal from the outset was that it was able to address those noble aims, while also being commercial.

If fact, its very ability to be commercial is why it has changed the face of workplace design over the last two decades, and continues to do so today. If I ask the guardians of the beans for ten beans to deliver a workplace, and then with a bit of creativity revert with the promise that I can deliver it for seven beans, allowing the three beans to be put to use in pursuit of its core aims by the organisation – then I am the bean counter’s friend. And I get my seven beans. I am then also able to keep the consumers of the beans happy because I spend them wisely, on a better working environment. Hopefully.

The misty dream of the tie-dyed workplace has never been that. In bald terms the workplace is a cost. And so the solutions have to be commercial. The flexible workplace has never been hijacked by property and facilities management – it has been developed and promoted by those responsible for managing the beans. And workplace consultants who understand the noble aims have been employed to help make these hopes flesh. If it was not for the commerciality of the flexible workplace, they might all be driving minicabs.

There are still plenty of ill-conceived and badly-delivered schemes out there – but they are not just the hijacked ones. Schemes with huge budgets and armies of consultants are just as likely to fail, or worse still just be average.

We should not diss the commerciality of the flexible workplace – rather, acknowledge and embrace it. It is not a stain on its nobility, not a lost innocence. We need to ensure that the investment is worthwhile, and will deliver the intended financial, occupational and operational benefits. If it was not commercial in the first place, and had it not remained so till today, we would all still be incarcerated in identical private offices.

Or charging a tenner to get to the station.

2 thoughts on “Chicken omelette

  1. Neil, I have finally worked out how to leave a reply on your posts.

    Of course I agree that all workplaces have to be commercially viable but the key is to focus on the value that the workplace offers not just the cost it incurs. If workplace is simply a cost burden then why not take it to the extreme and move everyone to the “cattle sheds in the north” or even send everyone home and close the office? The answer is because whilst these options would offer property savings they are not do not necessarily support the occupying business.

    Unfortunately, I have visited and heard of many organisations where flexible working is driven by cost reduction alone, with little regard for the impact on business – their solution is to reduce desk space without exploring work patterns, technology upgrades, collaboration spaces, or management culture. These initiatives are indeed commercial but they are misguided as they focus totally on the building budget rather than consider the bigger (business) picture.

    So I am imploring that property/FM teams focus on value such that they design and operate a workplace that improves the business at a reasonable cost, rather than simply reduce costs at the expense of good business.

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