Hi-Tension (that’s what we are)

I’ve borrowed the ‘unity of opposites’ as a convenient conceptual hook before, from one of my favourite thinkers and the original (and probably best) change consultant, Heraclitus. The general gist is that a thing exists because of the equal pull of two opposite ideas. Essentially, one thing needs an opposite thing. Hot can only be so if we understand cold, for instance.

Hi-Tension meanwhile were a British funk band in the late 1970’s at a time when many of us were learning the finer arts of pogoing and dyeing our hair different colours until we found one we liked. They have nothing to do with workplace design or Ancient Greek thought, but they did put down a tidy beat.

When I put together the 14-workstyles taxonomy in response to the pointlessly confused debate about the open workstyle genre (there is actually no such thing as just ‘open plan’) I made the point that the fact we have fourteen means that no single workstyle has ever so convincingly outperformed the other thirteen that they are no longer required, and merely linger on as historical footnotes.

The reason being, workplace design is faced with three competing tensions it can only mitigate, but never resolve. They may even define workplace design in an existential sense. They are concerned with the impossibility of our being in two different places at once.

The first tension exists between the need for us to focus (that is, as many express it, to ‘get on with some work’) and to interact with others (the flavour of 2016, collaboration). All the evidence published – in particular the periodically released Workplace Survey by Gensler – points to the fact that we spend about half our time in each activity over the course of a typical day. It also reflects the split in meaning between the subjective idea of productivity (how productive I feel I am being, by my own yardstick) and the objective (how productive I really am, by some external measure). We generally want to be left alone to satisfy our measure, while organisations tend to want us all working together in a hope or belief we’ll satisfy theirs. Shut away on our own, we can focus but can’t easily work with others. Visible, we can’t focus as easily but can quickly and simply interact. We often don’t actually know when we’ll need to do more of either. When we’re trying to focus we can be interrupted – and we can seek out and do the same to others. None of the fourteen approaches can satisfy both equally, it’s a physical impossibility.

Secondly, in any working environment, when we’re in ‘interactive’ mode we have a need for deep conversations with colleagues with whom we regularly work – whether as part of a team the organisation recognises because it’s on a chart or, far more usefully, one we create – and to meet and work with people we don’t yet know, expanding our network, starting out with much shallower conversations until we establish a connection, letting those go where we don’t. We need to find and be with our team but we can’t meet new people that we may discover we need to be with when we’re with the same people but if we pursue new people we can’t be with the people we know need to be with. Again, none of the fourteen approaches can satisfy both equally because we have to be in one place or the other, we can’t be with specific defined people and everyone else at the same time. It’s another physical impossibility.

One of the main contributions that the open workspace genre has made is visibility of management. For too long, management were locked away in their status-reinforcing enclosures, unavailable without an appointment being made through a committed guardian of the diary’s white open spaces. Of course, the reverse was also true, which the vanguard of the revolution didn’t quite consider, reinforcing panoptic management (please, please stop calling it presenteeism, it means something else). Activity-based workstyles come with the serving suggestion on the packet of working when, where and how you choose – which therefore means often not being present in a specific or general space one might usually be found, or not being in the building at all. Enterprise social networks can help by adding a digital presence, but that requires the casual observer to be spending time within it in the manner we would scan the space around us. So, the final tension is therefore one of visibility versus flexibility. We’re either there and visible so we can be supportive or collaborative or simply reassuring (wouldn’t that be nice?) upwards downwards or sideways, or we’re living the flexible dream and are quite possibly somewhere else. It’s yet another physical impossibility.

To make matters more frustrating, the three tensions are related: irrespective of workstyle, all three scenarios are playing out simultaneously, dynamically assisting or mitigating against the necessary workaround in each case.

There is no workplace design approach that will resolve these three tensions, and there won’t be, they are design-resistant realities. It would be better to be transparent about them rather than try and promise they can be navigated.

Hi-Tension. That’s what we are.