Hidden forces

“Life has its own hidden forces which you can only discover by living” – Soren Kierkegaard

A couple of weeks back I was delighted to be invited to host a seminar at Sheffield Hallam with the FM Masters group led by Ian Ellison. This is a write-up that summarises our discussion, with the liberty of some blog-owners’ license.

Scene set: we are at a standing start, with the intent of creating a fantastic workplace that enables our colleagues to work productively and to support the success and growth of the organisation and individuals that comprise it. As we survey Raglan-like the undulating landscape, what of the forces arrayed are likely to be working for us, and what are against us?


Googleisation: we have a far greater awareness of workplace “possibility” that at any time. The major contribution of the ubiquitous youth club is (fortunately) not “The Intern” but the permission it is has given us to think beyond muted greige. Careful with those toys, Eugene.

Instant gratification: as many brands have discovered the hard way, there is less tolerance of poor quality and negation of responsibility than ever before, as there is no longer any hiding place. While it doesn’t explain the mysteriously enduring popularity of fizzy drinks, it does mean that the giving of a crap workplace will out.

Technology: yada yada – when technology is used appropriately, to make lives better and easier, it holds a massive potential to improve our lives an set us free, much of which has yet to be realised despite commentary to the contrary. We are still in the throes of mimicking existing practice with technology.

Social media and connectivity: we have a capacity to discover, befriend and share with people that physical networking could never have made possible. That is, as long as we embrace the “gift economy” of social and leave our crumpled texts of “The Prince” in the management development seminar.

Globalisation: we have greater access to, and knowledge and insight of, differing ways and approaches across the geoid that ever before. The days of rolling out the “global (American) workplace standard” are over for all but the insensitive.

Design: its not a popularly-held view amongst the café classes but design has a massive potential to create and shape culture – far more so than the other way around. It’s a fascinating idea that ontologically “culture” does not exist, that its just an idea of culture formed under historical conditions – which paves the way for the contribution design is able to make. Used carefully, design is on our side.

The growing interest in workplace as a discipline – not just from its ugly sister “real estate”, but from sectors of other sectors is emerging the place of “workplace” as a body of thought, skill and practice that can create amazing outcomes. It no longer depends on chance.

Critical mass – the increasing number of workplace schemes that are flexible, that are neither the traditional physical depiction of hierarchy or the much-derided pet hate of the decreasingly-popular press or Jeremy Paxman, “open plan”.

Evidence – the availability of knowledge, data and resources. There are no longer any excuses for not being able to simply and easily source meaningful and practical inspiration, with a little time and application. It has also (fortunately) changed the role of consultants in the field (should they chose to heed it) from purveyors of mystical remedies to curators of inspiration.

People-centricity: while likely to sound slightly faddish and glib, a recognition has finally reached the sector that people come before the asset – that as staff costs are usually about 90% of total costs,and that a marginal increase in the other 10% can drive a far more beneficial outcome in productivity than the false sense of responsibility offered by the scythe.


Pervading management culture – strands such as management-by-presence, line-management and management by instruction (rather than management by inspiration) are embedded in culture, education and practice having delivered the prosperity of our age. it is easy to lay the blame at Taylorism, the idea, but many supposed modern alternatives are built on the same productivity metaphor.

Gadgetisation – technology for its own ends just “because”, working against itself through sucking in time, energy, resources, focus and motivation, the possibility of the gains obscured by its glow. Not every challenge has a technological solution.

Misguided ideals – eg “cool” – trivialising the workplace, and focussing attention not on the contribution it is making to people’s lives, but on itself. Vanity and the design process are closely related and must be carefully managed. The brand “humanity” is the most vital of all.

Generationalism – making assumptions about what “younger people” want, driving a design and strategy agenda on thin air. In addition, the focus on the emerging workforce (like Grey Advertising’s “Base Camp” for millennials only) is having a detrimental impact on the needs of ageing contributors, growing in number and likely to be working longer.

Silos – aka vested interests – which can be groups or individuals with mass, embedded status or a will to power, wanting to do something different or just not wanting to do what you do. However compelling your vision or your visuals, your business case or your reduction in rentable floorspace, if it doesn’t fit someone else’s plan, they’ll make sure it won’t.

Professional bodies and institutions – in their current form (for they may change), with their tendency to protectionism, exclusivity, narrow perspectives, and inherent position some distance behind those able to push boundaries free of bureaucracy.

Over-complication – there are a few easy and yet significant things we can do – daylight, choice, wifi, storage, influence, refreshments (the “living wage” workplace as I called it) – the rest is a bonus. Money can burn a hole in common sense. Just ask a QPR supporter.

Gimmickification – when Googleisation goes too far, when people who are not Google think they are Google, when the lure of gaudy kindergarten treats erodes brain enamel and you end up with slides, climbing walls, deckchairs, hammocks and a gazebo.

Mythification – the perpetuation of our own vacuous hype – be it to do with collaboration, millennials, crazy spaces for crazy thinking, people/property costs, trust crises, or the worst of all – this era of unparalleled change. While appearing to support a case, their lack of substance merely undermines.

The FM sector, rooted in the fragmented operational considerations that a little over twenty years ago agreed they would be stronger together, constrained by the boundaries it sets and its inferiority complex. It has a major contribution to make, if only it realised it.

Compromise – the chaos of competing interests unleashed on organisational projects of any sort, without knowledge or understanding of the subject in hand. The signatures on the outcome are many, and often opposed. Unless of course it starts going wrong, and then strangely the crowd dissolves into the sidestreets.

The problems of honest case study and appraisal – the glossification of knowledge and information, including everything you find online and especially at conferences, gives you only the upside. Cock-ups become “things we would have done differently” which is code for “I wouldn’t be as daft as to own up”. And if you can ever find a great case study with people in shot other than the designers or their immediate family, please let me know.

Bureaucracy – whether it be from the unconscious layering of policies and processes, the involvement of staff representative bodies, an inherently risk-averse organisational model, the use of hurdles to slow the pace of change, or obfuscation as a means of control , it can appear that the cuffs are applied just as the demonstration of the fine art of juggling is to begin. Its why Lockheed Martin set up Skunk Works as long ago as 1943, but also why so few followed.

It’s a brief run-down, and of course there will be more hidden forces uncovered as we progress – but its always worth knowing who is lining up either side of you before you begin, for “time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted” (John Marsden). No-one ever said it would be easy.

With sincere thanks to Alex Brown, Jane Bailey, Jacqui Grimwood, Simone Jarvis, Andy Bainbridge, Mark Burrows, Tim Jones, Stuart Farnsworth, James Clarke, Sinead O¹Toole, Shirley Ryan, Jonathan Moores, Keith Williamson, Paul Cook and of course Ian Ellison from Sheffield Hallam.


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