Mything words

I read Monica Parker’s Guardian piece The five forces shaping the future of the workplace landscape” twice. Once in casual blog-surfing mode, and then again critically. What happened in between was the clanging realisation that the piece was studded with myths and unsubstantiated claims.

Now I need to say I think Monica is fantastic, and her work and motivation to improve the workplace for the clients of the D&B firm for whom she works is to be admired. But I actually wondered if Monica wrote the piece at all. If you put myths out there with such assurance, particularly in the “credible” press (if such a thing exits), you have to expect that they may be countered. I extracted at least a dozen, commented on below. I have probably never found so many in one short article before. Each probably deserves its own discussion, but here is a summary:

“People crave social areas that get them bumping into each other and sparking innovation”

That’s a designer myth, because imagining these spaces is far more interesting than the challenges faced in designing effective spaces to focus. Research consistently supports the notion that we spend at least half of our time in individual, focused activities (try the Gensler reports). Also check out the significant backlash against open spaces and the interruptions they perpetuate and the plethora of articles and perspectives on the role of introverts in the workplace for some of whom the idea of bumping into anyone at all brings on a cold sweat.

“Office environments that have too many fixed spaces, such as cellular offices and formal meeting rooms, are likely to restrict creativity”

There is absolutely no causal link between fixed spaces and lack of creativity. In fact the backlash against open spaces (claims just as spurious) cite the lack of fixed spaces as an impediment to productive work. It’s about balance, and what works. This link has some interesting supporting evidence.

“Spaces that are more organic and fluid will always yield better creativity, productivity and at the end of the day, efficiency”

Again, a myth completely without substance and supporting evidence. While such claims are often made in regard to creativity, how the statement got to link efficiency is a new and even more tenuous conclusion. It depends entirely on the organisation, what it does, and what it wants to do. While a funky, organic interior may make people “oooh” (in most cases momentarily), if badly designed it can be confusing, distracting, and even embarrassing, as many who have aped the Google “fruit salad” approach have found to their cost. But let’s not talk about slides.

“The statistics about employee engagement make for grim reading”

As the last thing I want to do is embark on another “engagement” odyssey, its best left to FlipChart Fairytales to explain what’s going on with engagement – backed with as many facts as you need. While you are there it’s also worth checking out the facts behind the myth of the homeworking revolution. Its also well worth reading this post by Stowe Boyd on engagement for a different angle.

“Flexibility in the way people work is often cited as the biggest non-remuneration benefit possible, and this is only increasing with the millennial generation in the workforce”

Myth double-dippings here, and a ritual sounding of the #generationblah klaxon. It depends entirely on who you ask, where they are, and how it’s asked. It is also confuses the “flexible workplace” and “flexible working” – while mutually supportive when applied effectively, two very different things. Most problematic here is the entirely spurious link between flexibility and millennials – it is more often the older generations in the workplace – those who travel and have children – who desire flexible working, not younger workers who are more interested in being in the workplace for the benefit of social contact. They have a genuine need, other than a supposed desire for its own sake.

“The two biggest cost centres in most businesses are people and property, and businesses need to start linking these two pieces in a more strategic and agile way to maximise both”

This myth just keeps on giving. Property people love to quote it but fail to clarify how misleading it is. Property costs are in most organisations dwarfed by people costs to the tune of a ratio of around 9:1. Having previously worked for a resources company I can also clarify that for organisations such as these, the costs of its assets and operations dwarf both people and property costs. Instead of “strategic and agile” links between people and property, we just need to design and build better, more effective and supportive workplaces. We could just say that, and do that.

Research part-funded by Hewlett Packard in 2004 found that the stress levels of an average commuter are equal to those of a fighter pilot or riot police officer”

This is a sensational myth. What the “research” actually says is that stress levels are “higher in extreme circumstances”. The researcher also stated that “it was not known if commuters risked damaging their health in the long term”. The overwhelming majority of commuting is not extreme. It is also of note that the research was part-funded by an organisation with a high stake in mobility. We should be as cautious of this when quoting as we do with anything sponsored by Regus.

“Anyone can tell that this isn’t healthy, but it also has a negative impact on the bottom line”

Actually the researcher concluded that he didn’t know if it wasn’t healthy. Humans are not as fragile as we are often portrayed. There is also no evidence at all to suggest that commuting affects the bottom line – either negatively or even positively. If commuters are getting work done on the 7.14 to Liverpool Street, ready to start the day productively, it could just as easily be argued that it allows for a positive contribution through affording time away from the distractions of both office and home. We can’t just diss it.

“Business leaders aren’t keeping up with the tools and technologies we use at home”

While it was true that there was probably a lag in recent years, many organisations have now caught up, are able to integrate various platforms, and are kitting their people out for the job. If you really need a PlayStation for your work, I am sure you could ask your boss.

“The move towards BYOD (bring your own device) allows for greater flexibility of choice around technology tools and empowers people to use the tools that they feel most comfortable with”

While that’s true in part, the darker side of BYOD is often overlooked. I have reflected on this in a previous post. It’s not the bed of roses it may appear to be. It also requires that you buy your own kit – bit of a drawback there if you haven’t got a grand to spare.

“trust crisis in the workplace”

Another unsubstantiated myth. There is no evidence to support any kind of claim to this, nor that the situation is any worse now than it was at any time previous. In many respects the trend towards practices like BYOD – quoted above – actually points to there being far greater trust than in previous decades (even if the small print requires the surrender of your first born if you leave your iPhone in the pub). In many respects, the more that people are able (and do) work in part away from the office, it could be argued that trust is at its highest ever level – without denying that there is still headroom.

“The culture of presenteeism in particular is killing our companies and the notion that people need to be seen working undermines autonomy and is supremely demotivating”

We are into the wildzone with this one. Presenteeism is itself a mis-coined expression, it actually means attending work while unwell – it’s explored a bit more here . As to the notion that it is “killing our companies” this is entirely unfounded. There are a myriad of environments where presence is fundamental to effectiveness, and where there is no impact on motivation – in fact, entirely the opposite. The arguments earlier in the article point to the need for people to be with people – allowing it both ways is the intricate challenge workplace designers face.

Some of these myths may one day transpire to be true in part. Until such time, we need to ask the question, offer insight, challenge assumptions, and bring in those who may be able to take the debate further.

Have I mythed anything else?



7 thoughts on “Mything words

  1. Oh Boom! I think you went really a little too deep into reading this article… A lot of myths, for sure… The real issue is that we actually all contribute to create them because there isn’t enough Braveheart like you to challenge them on a regular basis! A lot of things are taken for granted and what constitutes good research is not well defined! And facts are too often misinterpreted, misleading, sponsored, publicised, and published!!! And spread around like viruses!

    Still like the way you challenge things Neil! And I do love Monica for speaking out!!

  2. Well done! Myths arise because the complexity of work practice overwhelms and management by a kit of answers is a relatively easy sell..

  3. Completely agree Neil. There’s a deplorable barrage of myths and perceived wisdoms that fog (or worse still, thwart) decisions about workplace and work practice change. Far too many of these myths emanate from organisations with self-serving interests. It’s akin to handing over your tax return for HMRC to complete – the outcome is entirely predictable.

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