Lost forever in a happy crowd

What are you doing?

This simple question drives the workplace industry. We analyse, survey, model, design and furnish based on the activities that people undertake. We are governed by the shifting balance between focussed, interactive (not “collaborative” – that is something different and much rarer entirely), social and learning tasks, the four horses of the knackers yard. Our understanding of the “what” – whether that is the what of today or the what of an envisioned tomorrow – drives the outcome. We refer to “Activity Based Working” to underline our fixation with the what. We struggle to find new perspectives on something that we effectively cracked a decade or more ago: multiple space types supporting a range of tasks.

Contemplating living in compact urbania, washed along by shifting tides of people – lost in a happy crowd – I realised that almost all of our built space is designed for what we do rather than how we feel. In considering only whether we are “focused” or “interacting” we lose all of the vital information and meaning offered by our emotional state. If, as this example runs, we wish to be in a space surrounded by others, in synch with the hum but alone, not directly contributing, we don’t fit the convenience of the model we have flogged to tatters. Our activity is uncertain, yet our emotional state complex.

We can take an emotional state through any number of activities, and similarly the duration of an activity can span a spectrum of emotional states – so it could be argued that a focus upon activity and emotion should be balanced. When we are doing nothing we are still in an emotional state – but when we feel nothing, we still feel it.

Perhaps therefore we have been focussed on the wrong dimension. It could be that the key to productivity, innovation, creativity and all those other stale doughnuts of the workshop lies in physical space that determines, alters and responds to our emotions, irrespective of our activity. Its about how we feel, not what we are doing. This also taps into Simon Sinek‘s excellent thesis on the importance of starting with “why”, as this is where emotional connections with our work and its outputs are made.

I therefore propose – Emotionally Centred Working.

Could it be done? Not if its just a re-hash of the psychological research on the impact of colour and shape like how blue makes us more creative and angles and sharp edges agitate our amygdala. It is an altogether more sophisticated shift in mindset, for which there are inevitable drawbacks. Its more difficult than basing design on activity. Its not what designers and workplace consultants are trained to do. Its not what is demanded by those procuring a new workplace. Psychologists would want to get involved. It would be an admission that we had been trudging up and down the same long-beaten track for years – and no-one likes admitting that. So how would we move this on?

Here is an idea. In the same manner as a lyric provided the stimulus for this post, art in its many forms taps into the emotions far more than anything technically positioned or proposed by academics waving research papers. Poets, songwriters, painters, sculptors – maybe they should write the brief. They know what we need.

John Cooper Clarke, anyone?


Leave a Reply