I was wrong

We all have to be humble with ourselves from time to time. It is usually preferable to recognise when we are pursuing ideas we may once have resisted or ridiculed, and acknowledge that change, before others point it out. Here then are some pre-emptive open reflections on where I think I have been wrong in recent years:

One size doesn’t fit all. It may be easier to design, specify and manage, and so it works in the minds of the designers, specifiers and managers, but we are – remarkably – all different. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally. The onesize myth has been perpetrated for two decades in the misguided belief that it flattens hierarchy, breaks down barriers, and allows people the freedom to express themselves, unencumbered. The reality is that because we are different, in almost all respects it doesn’t. Your claims to being different are not illusory – you are. And we need to understand what that means.

“Visibility” is not an end in itself, it serves no intrinsic purpose. We don’t always need to see you, and you don’t always need to see us. In some cases it’s much more appealing when we don’t see you for a while, and in others when we don’t see you at all. And then again it’s often helpful when you don’t see us for a while, we often have things to do and we don’t want you bugging us – or even knowing where we are. We don’t need to design spaces where everyone is on permanent display.

You can’t take everyone’s offices away. Some roles need enclosure, all day every day with an allowance for comfort breaks, and in a place where we know where to find them. They may be specialist, noisy, especially confidential, private and personal, or senior. Of the last division, yes, the most senior management invariably live and work in a different world to the majority of us. And that enclosure is good for both the occupant – and the rest of us.

The way I work isn’t the best, or even remotely a panacea. I cannot expect that everyone should be as insanely tidy, or manage their e-mails as I do, or use social tools for the same purpose or in the same way, or see keeping a manila folder as a punishable heresy. I therefore cannot design a workplace on this basis – or get frustrated managing a workplace where my civil code isn’t followed.

Pictures of your children at your workspace are important – I just never had any at the time. We need to create reference points around us that root us in our own reality, and establish the relationship between work and the rest of our lives. We will all have differing needs in this regard, but denying them is facile. It presents a challenge for the over-promoted super-flexible workplaces “of tomorrow” but one to be met, not denied.

Not everyone wants to work flexibly. Just because, as an IT-competent self-sufficient “knowledge worker” I know I can, and enjoy it, there is no reason to believe that everyone can be persuaded, trained or instructed to do so too. Those that do not wish to are not always unenlightened, dinosaurs, technophobes, refuseniks or whatever other labels the industry has applied – they may just not want to, because. We cannot assume that we can get everyone to the promised land, and that it is just a case of how.

Some people still need paper, and some need a lot of it. It was a fair few centuries ago that we transitioned from knotted rope to papyrus, and it may be a while before the “soft copy” eclipses the certainty that emanates from the multi-sensory appeal of the page. We can manage it to reasonable levels but to some, paper is the indefatigable soul of the workplace.

I was probably wrong to write a blog. But some things you just have to live with.

5 thoughts on “I was wrong

  1. Neil – great, thoughtful piece and very timely. I think for many of us who have been in the ‘Workplace’ arena for two decades, there is much that we still have to learn and, as @vbuscher (or Volley as you called him – typo?) said at our pre-summer ‘Office is Dead’ panel discussions , ‘now is different’. It certainly is and for many reasons, but I suspect the principal reason being that we now have choices (of places to work) that were not available to us previously…..and we still don’t quite know how to use them.

    As for the musical references…..when I read the title of your blog, Radiohead’s ‘I might be wrong’ sprung to mind. Not that there’s remotely anything I can teach you about music! 😉

  2. Wow, that is something M. IT-competent self-sufficient “knowledge worker”… a nice mea culpa by the sound of it, but I don’t believe you never really seen these realities before!! But saying it feels good!

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