This is my 22nd year in Workplace. I have completed projects all over the world, in all sorts of buildings from saunas to acid factories (not to be confused), and coaxed change from corners that have been dark and threatening. I am not embarrassed to call myself an expert, qualified by slog. But I have found in phases – more frequently occurring – that the PIN code to my faith may have been compromised. There are a few reasons:
The descent at the intellectual frontiers of workplace into a tantrum about “open plan”, replete with the sort of lazy misunderstanding that stems from a pampered journalist having lost his crusty cup when he moved desk. Albeit the same sort of brattish debate that has degenerated around the vital contribution of HR and health and safety. In workplace terms they are the offspring of the hacks who lambasted the uniformity of the drywalls that solidified hierarchy, and imprisoned our minds and physical forms. When everyone is a workplace expert, no-one is.
The devaluation of design by construction imperatives and process. Where Brief is order-taking and success is measured against serving up what was demanded by the disparate parts of the business, to be consumed by the devil’s twins Budget and Programme. In the Gantted mangle is crushed the delicate application of understanding of how the various inputs and opportunities interplay and support one another to create an environment that can significantly increase engagement, support and enhance values. inspire creativity and boost performance…. thereby creating substandard outcomes that are all fodder for the journalist with a deadline and no story who has lost his cup.
The trivialisation of design, through the over-use of novelty. It would be easy to hold Google responsible but that would be unfair, they have actually done what all organisations do with space, and used it to support, stretch and develop. Even if most of them do look like a weatherman’s tie. But with every passing day and over-tweeted “37 Coolest Workplaces in the World” scrambled together from a Google car boot sale, design has in so many instances become lobotomised. It is easy when you don’t have to loop it back to a Brief, and the skilled challenge of getting it right – you can just open the door, and throw it in. Like everyone is a workplace expert, everyone is a designer.
Nausea from the endless circular motion of the discipline. Unable to find either its feet or a way out, tossed around in a commercial world of which its eternally frightened, perpetually talking itself into getting out more, but too insecure to open the front door. So it occasionally tries to climb out of the toilet window, which is of course too small – gets stuck, gets scared, climbs back in. Yet workplace has so much to offer if it could just organise itself, draw together its various threads, ditch a few too many bureaucratic structures, and be confident enough to be social. Then, as practitioners, we could finally call ourselves a people. We have to.
The doubt. That it might all actually be transparent – that there may be no science, no psychology, no poetry, no contribution. That everyone is in fact an expert, and a designer. That Brief is irrelevant, that we can just open the door and throw it all in, hit budget and programme, tick the box, move on. Because when we do it really well and we still cannot prove beyond doubt that it makes a difference but we just know it does, then a little loss of faith sometimes is inevitable.
For all of the reasons above, the road has narrowed. No doubt about that.
Workplace. Its vital. I know I can do it, and the fire still rages. So what else would I do?