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.


4 thoughts on “Coming up for air

  1. Love it Neil sounds like your on the case your KISS approach is enlightening and makes me smile on a wet Tuesday morning. Webinar next!?!

  2. Another great blog – I would also add that there needs to be regular “health checks” on what has been delivered – and I don’t mean online surveys – I mean walking the floors, getting a feel for what is and what isn’t working, and then doing something about it. Thanks again for coming back and making a great contribution

  3. Note to self, get rid of the Hollister…
    Neil, its self imposed exile…why torture yourself? You express yourself in a way that I could never do and I agree with much of what you say, its often common sense and simplicity that speaks volumes…so get back on your horse.
    Just a thought.

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