Baltic Sagas part 1: #workplaceadvantage liveblog

We’re in the terrace room at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead – unusually for a conference, flooded with daylight, inspiring views, waterfront setting. Normally we’re in the basement, staring at the walls. When not gazing out of the window, we’re live blogging.

Ian Ellison (@ianellison) is taking a proven lead from Nigel Oseland at Workplace Trends, if it’s your event you can speak at it. One of the formative drivers behind the Stoddart Review and in possession of a serious intellectual capability, he doesn’t just know this stuff he believes it. Despite this being a workplace gathering, an early show of hands reveals that very few have read the Review despite it once falling out of the Sunday Times, still reflecting something of a marketing and distribution problem. It wouldn’t be a discussion of the Review either without a team-bath sized plug for Leesman, leaving us wondering which is the vehicle for which. Yet at least we are in the territory of the office being alive and well, albeit we might agree with it being alive but even the data tells us that it isn’t especially well. It’s not on a drip and trolley rattling through its last breath, but it can most definitely be considerably better. The issue however, is that the tipping point hasn’t been reached. While something needs to be done, it’s not being done, so what can we do about it?

Space and place is an interesting issue: Ian holds that place = space + culture, that somehow space is a component of the richer and broader idea of place. It could equally be argued that place is a particular, a focal area, whereas space is a far broader idea free of assumption and prejudice. In this sense, space might be a far more interesting proposition, as it frees us from the parochialism that arises in when we zoom in. A third perspective is that this is all just a semantic distraction, that cultures overlap within space, that the idea of pinning down ‘place’ and ascribing particular cultural characteristics is like juggling eels.

There will now be a temporary lull in the post, as I am taking an interactive session on the Elemental Workplace (that will soon – hopefully – be a whole book). Interestingly, despite the workplace expertise in the room, this was probably the quietest I have experienced an audience for this exercise, with a lot of focus on minutiae and less on the broader ideas. Very often I find that the less deeply people are involved in the sector, the more open and willing they are to participate in this. We might know so much, we find it hard to untangle. We got there, all the same.

Kev Wyke (@kevwyke) is talking people and culture, with a background in the NHS. Gareth Jones would love this part because we’re hearing about Semler’s book Maverick and the wonder of Semco’s transformation to an autonomous, democratic organisation, as it changed Kev’s life. Happy Henry (Henry Stewart) runs Henry Computing, and walks around in his socks. He allows his people to pick their own line manager, so they can find the person most able to help them be their best. And of course, to identify the managers no-one likes so they can be re-assigned to something more useful. Both are tales of courage – to change, to do things differently. Kev then asks us when we were last most trusted at work. Voices in the room deepen, as the anxiety in our gut is stirred. Kev does Street Wisdom and is working with Oldham Council – his sponsor asked him what would be the likely benefits of the exercise, to which he responded that he had no idea, it was an experiment. They’ve cracked on and are loving the outcomes, but that willingness to step into the unknown sits way outside of our usual requirement to know what the outcome might be.

Purpose, courage, experimentation, trust. Weave those into a fantastic workplace, and we are home.


Two worlds and in between

I recently attended and spoke at the most excellent Social Now conference in Lisbon. Enterprise social networking (ESN) and knowledge management (KM) are invariably a mystery to most workplace and property folk still nutting their heads against the rusty twin locked doors of HR and IT, the discipline bewitched by its own insularity. I used to attend CoreNet’s ‘Discovery Forums’ many years ago where the contended Prentice Knight would repeatedly draw the equilateral Bermuda Triangle of Property, HR and IT into which all idea of what to do next invariably disappeared. Needless to say we never discovered anything but we did have a very personable dinner with old friends at the end.

Yet the twin souls of ESN and KM effectively constitute the digital workplace as we know it. The struggle lies in the fact that they are neither HR nor IT (unless we confuse the app with its application), and certainly not property, nor in fact do they reside anywhere else within the typical organisational structure. They rely instead on those committed to meshing physical and virtual space, and they could be anywhere.

It’s not about finding functions who should be talking to each other. The silos remain, but they’re not important anymore. They can talk to each other all they like, it won’t make a lot of difference. They bumble on, equally misunderstood by one another, awaiting the day they will have been superseded by those who didn’t bother waiting for the inevitable and just got on with it. More on this soon. But meanwhile…..

A masterclass at the event with the renowned guru of all things ESN and a super bloke to boot, Luis Suarez (@elsua) drew my attention to some fascinating differences between the digital and physical workplace. Apologies Luis for the time it’s taken me to write it up.

Firstly, we talk about online communities and physical neighbourhoods, yet with the latter then talk about a sense of community. The former are free of physical boundaries, the latter defined by them. Yet essentially we are looking for them to achieve the same thing – connection, sharing, collective development, and being excellent to each other (the Bill & Ted approach). My workplace change approach is based on the idea of being a good neighbour and acting in a neighbourly manner. No-one needs a slide deck to explain what that means, we instinctively know. That approach should be equally applicable to digital space. Luis made a pennydropper of a point for thinking about change – communities share, while teams solve problems. For workplace therefore we’ll still construct neighbourhoods to create recognisable physical locations for individuals and teams, but we need a community mindset from the digital workplace along with neighbourly behaviour in our physical space.

Secondly, the difference between adoption and adaptation. Both Luis and I had, in separate spaces, come to the conclusion that ‘adoption’ is the wrong way to look at how we change behaviour. It comes with a shoehorn. Workplace types are always talking about people adopting new behaviours in new space (see my post on the Leesman report). I’ve come to see it as the most unhelpful idea possible in enabling change. Luis had it as adaptation, and hence we have early adapters. Adaptation respects the individual experiential journey, while adoption implies a forced change. A torment has been resolved.

Thirdly, the contrast between those we engage as change agents. *This is not (repeat, to fade) a generational comment. The digital world seeks out more junior participants, those less likely to make do who have both have time to help, and a more natural questioning attitude. It relies on intuition and experimentation rather than training. It’s about enabling change through the delight of discovery, and respects the individual journey. In workplace change programmes we naturally look to more senior individuals to lead change, with access to resources, shoehorns and the ability to unblock. They are focussed on addressing the resistors rather than the digital workplace’s intent to harness the enlightened. There is a lot more of the ‘Trojan mice’ idea about the digital workplace that the physical workplace must learn from. Along, of course, with a little patience.

Fourth, the difference between education (push) and enablement (pull). The online world looks to model and demonstrate behaviour, as a means to enable a change of behaviour in others. It’s an application of the idea of Tummeling (plenty in this blog about the subject). In the world of workplace there is a deeply unfortunate tendency to instruct and inform, the dreaded ‘etiquette training’ that is woven into so many change programmes, in a bid to drive adoption. Everyone does it so everyone continues to do it. The digital world seems much more comfortable with people changing at varying speeds, adapting, given that generally the tools come first and the usage thereafter, allowing existing behaviour to be phased out. Both old and new worlds invariably exist alongside one another. In the physical world, there is the limitation that when the new space is ready, the old space is entirely left behind and we invariably drop everyone in at once, expecting that they will apply what they have been told beforehand. We must still respect individual journeys – and once people know that we will, their perspective will change too. Those we often see as resistors will just be those on a different journey – we lose the classification entirely.

Fifth is the difference in the use of progress measurement. In the digital workplace we measure progress but don’t publish it, to avoid focussing on the metric and not the transformation process. It can take a year to eighteen months for behaviours to bed in, to be able to tell positive stories. The digital workplace seems much more comfortable with being able to describe the negative ROI not doing anything at all. In the physical world there is a far greater expectation of immediate results that we broadcast to all, driven by the pressure to report ROI. Everyone is desperate to know its ‘worked’. This approach stifles the individual journey, and underpins the obsession with adoption. Again, so much more patience would be beneficial.

Lastly, there is a contrast in making things happen between the plan/deliver approach to physical workplace and the do-something-today approach in the digital. In a flip of the application of patience, so often needed in the physical domain, the digital workplace is this time the fidgety one where even the smallest signs of progress can be important. It underpins Agile. Poor quality environments don’t need to aw await the wholesale mobilisation of the project, small changes can always benefit. Every physical workplace is in permanent beta, even those coming to the end of their useful lives.

A restless spirit and a willingness to get things done, a belief that things can be done rather than a list of reasons why they can’t – that’s got to be a worthwhile adaptation.

The lines converging where you stand

It must have been seven or eight years ago that my old friend Neil Webster (@cyclonw) and I first climbed the steep and spooky steps of an old warehouse just behind Angel tube station to emerge somewhat speechless into a workspace with an open fire, teardrop-shaped six-inch thick cardboard desks and a host of people ‘co-working’. It was simply called The Hub. We were there because we were trying to get a research project off the ground via the BCO, looking at how the city was becoming the office – ahead of our time as it happened, we didn’t get the funding for what is now a commonplace idea. I had heard of the notion of co-working from attending the Tuttle Club at the now-closed incubator space, the Centre for Creative Collaboration (C4CC), although in those days it was more about an event called a ‘Jelly’. This was before they built the much swankier version of the Hub at Kings Cross. It felt raw, honest and original, in the same vein as the C4CC. You didn’t just rent office space, you joined a community and offered a skill set for others to share. It was about who was in the space and what happened – the space was needed to bring people together.

@AlexHillman in Philadelphia is a chap I always listen to when it comes to co-working – a tweet recently declared that co-working has ‘nothing, nothing whatsoever to do with physical workspace!’ (I hope I quoted that correctly). He and of course @BernieJMitchell, who lives and loves the dream. While it sounds a little naff now, it’s about people, community, connection, sharing and development. The physical space is not itself co-working, it is an enabler of co-working. But just like effective work in a corporate space, with the right ingredients – people, energy, purpose, commitment – it can happen despite the space as well as because of it. The C4CC and the original Hub were never going to win a design award or even be called ‘cool’, but they were captivating and fascinating for what was happening within them. The space was cobbled together with whatever could be found.

This piece hosted by Workplace Insight prompted a silent Munchian scream. Not for its inevitable Gen Z reference (cue a sub-scream) but for its commentary on co-working space as something different, and the implication that co-working was the space. The piece also suggested that all co-working spaces are ‘a truly vibrant and dynamic working community’ – it’s a myth, they’re really not all like that. Draw a normal distribution, as with for most things in life, and that will just about nail it.

The essence here is that the principles required to create effective co-working space are no different to those required to create effective corporate space. Co-working spaces have offered corporates a helpful nudge in drawing inspiration from other sectors, such as domestic, retail, leisure, hotel, and in letting the space speak for itself rather than exhibit themselves as throbbing beacons of brand – but otherwise the spaces and amenities needed to enable effective work, community, interaction and focus are identical. I wrote previously about the various uses of space meshing into simply one idea of ‘space’ determined by its multiple uses; co-working spaces have helped accelerate this too.

The main contribution of co-working spaces in their post-original Hub guise has been to build on the novelty-infused work effectively started on the West Coast, encouraging those commissioning and designing space to suspend their conservative pre-conceptions and think differently about space, in order to draw us in. They have made a significant contribution to the development of space design, which of course they had to, as they were asking people to part with their own cash to use the facilities in order to survive. They want you there, it’s not merely a case of having to have you there.

This is also increasingly the case for large organisations, realising that their space is part of the reason to join, or to stay. It has become an area of competition. The more that organisations demand flexibility from their commitment to space in an ever-more tech-enabled world, the more that what might be seen as ‘co-working’ space will resemble corporate space, and vice versa. The paths are converging. While buildings will need to be built and investments will need to return a profit, the idea of space is becoming singular in every respect. Space ‘as a service’ will mean that all physical space will need to appeal visually, promote and enable effective work, bring people together from disparate backgrounds, and facilitate the creation and sharing of knowledge.

Yet the behavioural changes are more important and interesting than the space: the space needs to understand, respond, promote and enable. Corporates are increasingly leasing co-working space due to its contractual flexibility (and often location), but more importantly are using the space to allow them to spin off small teams to develop ideas free of bureaucracy, an approach started by Lockheed Martin with their Skunk Works programme in 1943 (as in, it’s not new). Just as we shall see an alignment of space, we will see an increasing alignment of behaviours. People will operate, work and relate to one another in a similar manner, irrespective of their employer or with whom they are engaged for work. The convergence of our approach to space will enable and complement this, and so both strands will develop in synch.

It’s therefore not about the differences, it’s about the emerging commonalities. In this sense, co-working ‘as a thing’ will have made its essential contribution and will wither. We’ll all simply be working, in workspace. And what an amazing journey it will have been.


When the poets dreamed of workplace

I often think that following any form of statistical analysis, poets should complete the write-up. Other than preventing the statisticians from doing so, they’re able to interpret the data in the form of a story, and weave through the emotional content, identifying what the ticker-tape isn’t telling us. They might cushion the bludgeoning we’ll receive from data seeking a problem to explain.

So it is with the latest Leesman report The rise and rise of Activity Based Working. It’s a weighty hammer too. It’s very well written, and on the face of it rather convincing. The general conclusion is that Activity Based Working schemes (ABW) are good, but not everyone who works within them is on board and getting mobile with it. How this amounts to a ‘catastrophic failure’ though I’m not sure. If ever a claim were overstated, its right here. What it does highlight however, through its many pages of percentages, is the inherent danger in a statistical evaluation of the workplace.

The report asks: ‘The question still remains, why do some employees adopt a new way of working while others do not?’ Fundamentally, surveys of this nature will suggest you may have an issue and suggest its magnitude, but not tell you why. The question gnawing away while reading was, ‘Why are you so worried about it, and why are you making a scene?’

Essentially, the survey both ignores and is unable to deal with one thing – the journey. And this journey exists on two levels.

Workplace is itself a journey, a permanent beta trial. While there is a spike in investment and upheaval when a workplace is re-designed and created, in itself it is a moment in time. Thereafter it will unfold, mostly slowly but with occasional bursts of acceleration as the organisation, its people, its processes, its markets and technology change. The creation of the workplace is a lurch, from which the workplace then recovers its balance. Yet it is always moving, growing, changing. It should never be left alone as it meanders.

Sitting over the rolling stroll of the workplace are the myriad of personal journeys being undertaken by the occupants. Some such are smooth, some are stumbles. Within a new workplace, the influence of others – perhaps even the tummelers – holds their hands. The change journey is immersive and experiential. Personally, I decry the enforced training in etiquette and protocols that have become the unchallenged fashion in workplace, with the fearsome and innately arrogant target of adoption: they eat at the heart of what it means to be human and are responsible for the failure of many a scheme. We need to softly guide people on their journey of discovery, we can allow them to identify what works for them using their own plentiful resources. Our task is to help them mine those resources and bring them into play.

It doesn’t therefore matter whether in an ABW scheme people are ‘campers’ or ‘timid travellers’ or ‘intrepid explorers’ or ‘true transients’. What such a workplace should do is provide opportunities to change over time, offering a chance of this happening. Expectations of an instant return are entirely misplaced. The report at least acknowledges that people are different, their work differs, and that their use of the space will differ. And so, their journeys will differ. It entirely incorrectly concludes that this is a problem. The ‘camper’ may still appreciate the amenities, spirit, buzz, visibility, access, visual inspiration, humour, sense of belonging, and the feeling of being valued – even if they seek out a standard desk to undertake their process tasks, never get invited to a meeting and don’t feel the need to ‘huddle’. The environment can benefit everyone, not just the ‘true transients’.

There is nothing to fear from an activity-based workplace in which the personal journeys of its many occupants are unaligned. It’s not a failure, as might be perceived in this age of expectation of an instant return, or as ‘the data tells us’. On the contrary it reinforces the humanity of the space.

The report states that ‘the project will need ABW management specialists, technologists and behavioural change experts’. If that sounds like an awful lot of people in ill-fitting jackets running up a huge tab and over-complicating the whole thing (like identifying 27 work activities), it probably is. It remains an anomaly that we continually hear ourselves stating that the workplace is ‘all about people’ yet continue to treat people like a problem to be solved.

Repeating mantras won’t create a better workplace, we have to adapt our behaviour too. We still have a way to go.


#wtrends liveblog 4: Protocolics Anonymous

Did anyone mention wellbeing? Nicola Gillen is looking at a holistic approach. That’s lots of stuff at the same time that adds up to more than if you added it up. Interestingly we’re hearing resilience for the first time today, but as so often through the event we’ve been dished up an isolated idea. We’re hearing some case studies from AECOM clients that we can’t talk about, but the general idea is that wellbeing can be improved by doing certain things in the office – healthy food, light levels, planting, choice of spaces. Yep, we’re all there.

There is a quote about having a best friend at work helping to create a strong connection with their company, by some fifty percentage points to ten for those without. Unsurprisingly there are no suggestions as to how to promote this, or what policies come into effect when it moves beyond. And at last, some #generationblah has arrived, in the shape of what millennials want. Never have we created such an overblown myth, yet it perpetuates and its dangerous.

When AECOM turned the cameras on themselves and ran a project in their own workspace, they spent six months on behaviour training and protocol workshops. I’m not sure that these do anything other than force change, requiring that it is managed, highlighting that the environment is not intuitive. It pre-supposes resistance, and is problem-oriented. It is a significant frontier in workplace change facilitation and needs more focus, because we’re trying to enliven flexible workspace with outdated techniques. We’ve become protocolics. Our neighbourliness is innate, and can be activated. We’re naturally excellent to one another, lets use that as a starting point rather than an end game.

Mike Adams sees himself as a video conferencing evangelist. He’s probably not run a 4am conference call with colleagues in Australia while in in his dressing gown. He’s probably not sat with his head in his hands (metaphorically of course) when the wireless connection mysteriously fails between laptop and AV in the meeting room for the key presentation. We’re actually walking through his showroom, where everything is elegant and beautiful, where everything works seamlessly, and there aren’t any cables in a tangled lump. It’s a fantasy world of stress-free stock photography, and the inevitable reference to Minority Report. A slightly odd way to end the formal day, and a little too much of a “how can we help you?” of pitch. Of course what all this means is we can look forward to a lot more meetings. Yay.

Speakers – my respect, you were up there, we weren’t. We’re clearly drawing in on some core themes around improving the wellbeing of those who dwell in the workplaces we create. My plea, and not a new one, is for simplicity and clarity. The work continues.


#wtrends liveblog 3: certifried

We’re talking the WELL Standard, double-acted by Victoria Lockhart and Sarah Welton of the International WELL Building Institute. We’re crisp, clean and articulate, we’re being told a story.

The premise is that we construct our buildings to support our health. Being inactive is the fourth highest cause of mortality, bringing us diabetes cancers of various types and heart disease. It’s a quiet, underlying message that has been rather kidnapped by the sit-stand desk, which is just on small contribution, but design for mobility in the workplace is one of the most significant contributions as designers we can make.

Sarah is adamant that WELL is for people: air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort and mind. It’s not just about building design, it’s awarded for operation too. That said it’s not a replacement for green and sustainable building design – it’s in addition. The WELL Crosswalk publication showed how WELL and BREEAM can work in tandem. Whether we actually need both is a debateable point, integration is surely an inevitability. The Mind part is the toughest proposition – environments that optimises cognitive performance. No surprises then the first question asked was in this area. Having looked at this in some detail, it’s a tricky proposition.

Just to confuse matters further there is the initiative to align WELL and GIGA’s RESET schemes. You have some homework from this section.

If it sounds like another Standard that will require you to pay for experts to, of course it is. It’s how the industry works. We are told that for smaller projects it’s a ‘manageable’ sum – whatever that means. This is of course not a sales pitch. It’s not. Really. There is more on costs below.

Alan Forgarty is talking about Cundall’s workspace at One Carter Lane which was the first in Europe to be WELL certified. Alan tells us that it isn’t about collecting pieces of paper. Having said that we’ve heard a lot about the piece of paper they’ve collected.

Alan quotes some UK Green Building Council claims to specific percentage point increases in productivity from certain building environment improvements, which is quite a revelation as clearly they found the Holy Grail we’ve all spent decades searching for. Remarkable, if not spurious.

For a 1,500m2 space it was £30,780 to assess. That’s barely £20/m2 so it’s not expensive. Possibly unsurprisingly though, I’m going to offer that WELL is all a little over-inflated, that the proposition is a simple one that we’ve complicated our way into a Standard that we need experts for because can’t assess ourselves. I continually return to the refreshing simplicity of the elemental. There are no aspects of WELL that stagger with insight, that tell us something we don’t instinctively know if we could just trust ourselves a little more.

But we’ve seen before that we value the pieces of paper. If it improves the quality of workspace for people, and we’re prepared to pay for it, there I no complaint. But we have to reach those who haven’t got £20/m2.

Anicee Bauer and Coen van Dijck of D/DOCK in the Netherlands want to create environments that make you happy. Nothing stirs a workplace audience to murmur like pictures of old workplaces, filing cabinets and greige.  Then we eat burgers, disengage, get stressed and die, all very Hobbesian. The solution is ABW with a healthy overlay – the Healing Office. They see multiple layers to the office onion, the last of which catches the eye when desperate for a green tea, the magic and spiritual level. Sadly it’s just a slide with a nice sunset over standing stones.

D/DOCK have a methodology inspired by WELL, called D/Science Interior Quality Index (DIQI). It’s a score out of 100, and you’ll need D/DOCK to do this for you, another scheme you can’t asses for yourself. The research areas are frighteningly extensive.

We’re trying to do the right thing for people with all of these approaches, but we just seem to be over complicating it. Connecting this afternoon’s sessions with this morning, there is an irony in the fact that we are creating the most circuitous and difficult routes back to re-establishing our connection with the simplicity of nature. Finding our way home should be simple too.


#wtrends liveblog 2: catch the wind

When sundown pales the sky
I want to hide a while

Dominic Meyrick shouldn’t drink coffee. A little too much breathless hyperactivity from the stage creates a certain claustrophobia in the pit.

The key question from Dominic is, how do you see what someone means? It’s a great question – but unfortunately one that isn’t answered. As a lighting designer he is clearly excited by light. He’s also very excited too about how much cheaper artificial light is today than it was in the 18th Century, driving selfish consumption given that the days of starting work at dawn and finishing at dusk are by now a historical curiosity in the developed world. But he’s looking for a place where we can all agree that the lighting is good, an objective place of comfort. Again, another super proposition – that unfortunately isn’t resolved.

When presented with a picture of the offices of Boots in Nottingham from twenty years ago, we know that we are in a place that we can all agree is bad. Dim, dark satanic cubicles, loved only by journalists. But LED won’t save us and its ancestors are likely to slowly poison the planet. That’s because he maintains that lighting is a finish and not a service, which is interesting in an age of collaborative consumption where everything is supposedly becoming a service. But what’s most interesting is that I’m writing this but still have no idea what this is really about. We’re left with the conclusion that 99% of daylight design in buildings is rubbish. And that’s from a lighting designer – presumably within the 1%.

I imagine Dominic storming around in the savannah of his dreams, as a hungry man who has lost his doorkeys knowing there is a fresh pizza on the kitchen table. I offer to help, in the hope of calm.

Trevor Keeling helped too. We’ve got our first sporting analogy of the day, the data of football. He’s studied the windowless Morphosis Studio and its windcatchers in Culver City, USA. It’s okay, there is no link between the two, other than a tenuous suggestion of measurement. The project however looks amazing and it would have been good to have learned more. That’s because in buildings we can measure lots of stuff, but most of the focus has been on objective items like physiological comfort, but we can also measure less tangible things like occupant experience. Tim Oldman would be purring, as Leesman gets a huge plug.

We’re looking at pictures of offices, which I’ll wager most people are familiar with as it’s a workplace conference – including a picture of the Hub at Sky (which I worked on), before it was transformed from an agile space (small a) into an Agile Engineering centre. We have a nervous giggle about a whiteboard, because we actually all crave whiteboards. Pictures, graphs, pies, but I’m not sure why, I’m wondering whether this was the first time that Trevor had seen the slide deck.

When I considered an approach to live blogging today, I looked at dramatic structure as a way of organising the output. I’ve used the five-stage approach at a previous #wtrends, yet looked at where four had been used. Most of the references were to the traditional story – a beginning, middle and an end. It should be a golden rule of conference presenting: an idea or hypothesis with a reason for exploring it, some research or thought or analysis to challenge it, and a conclusion with some key takeaways and one or two suggestions for further enquiry to placate our shredded attention span.

Go on, tell me a story. I’m trying to catch the wind.


#wtrends liveblog 1: eaten by aardvarks

I am contemplating a speaker line-up all huddled together on one side of the garden fence, looking over. Even the case study is offered by an engineering consultancy, looking to enhance their reputation. It’s like watching a Premier League team with no home-nation players, something just doesn’t seem quite right about it.

It’s in the garden of the arcane delight that we begin. Bioinspiration, where design looks to what’s already been designed for ideas, is a legitimate plagiarism because nature doesn’t hold any patents over its substance, structure, space, time, energy or information. Richard James MacCowan from Biomimicry UK, who wanted you all to know that he went for a run this morning, took us on a potted journey through the heat-collecting eye of the lobster. Stories such as the realisation that the insulating fungus-farming termites of Namibia are construction experts. What wasn’t really identified however is that the examples quoted were of highly focussed practices or processes, in which nature specialises intensely – and that, as the ultimate in generalised species, is the reason why humans need this hyper-extensive library of good practice. The Namibian termites are blindingly good at construction, but aren’t very good at much else and get eaten by aardvarks.

I’m drawn to asking what all this has to do with workplace, given it’s a workplace event: materials design and to an extent design processes principally. If one day hence you look around your office and think that perhaps it resembles a slime mould algorithm, you may be onto something. If you look around and see the slime mould without the algorithm, its nature telling you it’s time to move.

Like many ideas, however we’ve been copying nature since humans used the furry skins of animals slaughtered for food as clothing. Amidst the Attenboroughesque imagery, more perspective would have been welcome.

Biophilia still sounds like something that would get you onto a register. Perhaps that’s why it fails the spell checker, even after thirty years. It’s offered like a huge cold towel relieving us from the interruption to our circadian rhythm from our increasingly urban, indoor, overworked and tech-riven lifestyle. Oliver Heath asked us to picture our ‘happy’ space – and of course no-one said the office, but why would they. In tracing a little history it’s interesting that the migration to the cities during the industrial revolution is often depicted as a tragic event, humanity wrenched from the enveloping arms of the countryside en masse, yet it ignores the poverty and misery of the agricultural subsistence of the time. It’s easier to reconnect with nature on the back of the wealth we have created, to which those concrete and glass box houses in Chilean forests will testify.

We’re firmly into Elemental Workplace territory now with a focus on natural light, control over our immediate environment the use of colour mimicking nature, and choice of spaces. Just waiting for a reference…….waiting……..nope, not coming. That’s the world we’re in now. Of course wouldn’t be a discussion about biophilia without a reference to the Human Spaces Report, in which 17% of people surveyed said they wanted a view of the sea. That would just about guarantee 17% of the workforce would be blissfully unproductive.

Its Nigel’s gig, and he always has something new. The question, can workplace design foster creativity and innovation. We seem to feel that we are most creative in our own space, wherever that may be – it’s a well-trodden path that always leads back to isolation. This flies in the face of a workplace design trend towards collaborative spaces at the expense of the personal that has prevailed for the last couple of decades.  It mirrors the conundrum at the heart of subjective perception versus objective measures of productivity. Like most themes in workplace design, it hangs in the balance, between personal and interactive time and space. Our creativity develops through time spent with others generating ideas, alone as we hone and refine, back in the group pushing boundaries, then alone.

It’s no surprise that the evidence points to enriched, plant-filled environments stimulating at least the subjective perception of creativity. The conclusion: if you’re stuck, struggling for a solution – get up, change your scenery. Don’t be afraid to let the mind wander. Not here though of course, it’s a conference.

In a darkened room without daylight or planting, or indeed any connection with nature at all, it’s time for an ‘attention restoration’ break. Watch out for the aardvarks, they’re hiding in the light.


In a crowd of truths

This is the second of two responses to an excellent article by Antony Slumbers, the first being My mirrored room, in this instance offering that his views offer a far too presumptive picture of how technology will shape our work future. The paragraph headlines are from Antony’s original article.

One person’s optimism is another’s pessimism. A decade ago the dream of liberated commute-free teleworking was, to many, the nightmare of enforced seclusion to the soundtrack of the dishwasher. The deployment of robots for the performance of menial tasks creating time and wealth for leisure is another’s horror at the loss of employment and resultant anomic fragmentation and decay. The fatally pointless optimism of Candide’s Dr Pangloss was agnostic in regard to every such outcome. It was positive only because there could be no alternative, and therefore no better alternative.

A work almost a decade before Candide offers an interesting insight at this point, Rousseau’s Discourse on the Arts and Sciences (1750). The competition he entered with the essay sought to explore the reasons why the arts and sciences had aided the development of humanity, yet Rousseau controversially held that they had instead had a corruptive effect on morality. From within its text, it gave us the title of this paper. While flawed in its arguments, it nevertheless jolted the self-satisfied literary and scientific establishment of the time and set the tone for works of significance to come. It illustrated that optimism can take an unchallenged, self-perpetuating collective form in which all advancement is deemed necessary, worthy and beneficial. So too with digital encroachment, as our submission to the binary appears irreversible both in practice and in desire. Yet the digital casts a long analogue shadow, in which we shall now explore.

You should assume the office really is dead
Despite the exercise of the collective will of an army of anaemic techies declaring the premature passing of almost everything tangible, the office has never been more important. From its complacent past as the de facto place of repetitive clerical process work, it is increasingly taking on a status as the fundamental associative root in a rootless world. Its essential analogue antidote to the saturative digisisation of the fringes of our humanity will only become ever more important. We will crave its comforts, and the company of those who inhabit it. Co-working centres, our latest silver-plated bullet, are physically an office like any other, and are increasingly drawing in those within small enterprises from the false promises of a nomadic digitally-connected life. Buildings like the Edge, despite being heralded, serve only to pose a threat to its contribution to our working lives, encroaching on the need for our minds to make decisions affecting how we work and with whom. Never quite working well enough, they will remind us of where lines need to be drawn, and we shall draw them. These buildings will serve a purpose, but not as intended. The apps will flicker, unused, unloved, as we make up our own minds. Who can love an app?

Machine learning is a double-edged sword
Quite possibly the most futile pursuit in the field of technology is the attempt to replicate even the most basic elements of the human mind. It is our model of sophistication, perfection even, and so we are drawn to mimic it. Machine learning will remain locked at where it lies, in the realm of logical processing where the decision path can be altered by accumulated data. Even the most advanced game engine that can defeat a human at Go, a logical game simpler than chess, works within the construct of a logical neural network. The divide between logic on the one hand and instinct, intuition and emotion on the other is the gulf that will ensure machines remain our servants. They may be developed to help our decision-making or automate routine functions within our life and work in previously unimagined ways, but they will thankfully remain forever imprisoned in logic. We struggle with the idea of “forever” in regard to technology, as the future offers space for our wildest imagination.

The death of distance will re-appear
In the same manner as the eternal constraint of machine learning, technology will likely never replicate the full and necessary experience of face-to-face human communication. We exchange information on more levels than even entirely non-sequential processing can replicate. An interesting angle on this is the degree to which we are distracted, and the role of distractions in hiding or conveying meaning.  Communication via technology asks us to focus for its duration. We enter a room, connect, speak, nod, do the things the screen and microphones will allow us to do in the confines of a sound-proofed and sealed box, and then we leave. We are led to believe this is effective because all distractions have been removed. Yet in effect they deliver little more than a telephone call at a fixed landline. The metaphor of a telephone line, whether mobile or fixed, visual or audio, remains dominant. Only when technology begins to absorb unscheduled, occasional, distracted, interrupted and uninvited multi-participant conversation will it begin to scratch the surface. In this respect, forget the cloud, technology needs to be in the crowd.

There is no such thing as work-life balance, and that is good
In a recent survey making the front page of last week’s Sunday Times, work stress is seen as a more likely killer than the traditional bedfellows, alcohol or smoking. We are increasingly struggling to separate our work and home lives but of course it’s the latter that is at risk as the former eats steadily into our mental and emotional focus on our family life. It’s rarely, if ever, the other way around. It’s not ways serious stuff either – you see an e-mail at 10pm and hit reply-all to say “yep, I’m still working over here too”. We used to consider that the work/life balance was about time spent, but this is increasingly irrelevant. Legislation in the expected places is a sad necessity, but in all likelihood the stimulus we need to take matters into our own hands and put something into our own hands other than our digital companion. The pattern is set at a less responsible age, the under 25’s leading the new Puritanism with a quarter now tee-total, more likely to be -xting something than throwing up outside the Top Rank. Nothing about these trends is good, because the underlying reasons are disturbing. This consciousness of our disappearance into the tiny screen, just the soles of our feet protruding from a tedious, twitching and sleepless oblivion, is at last the turning point. Clear water between work and life will emerge once again, and this time it will be of our conscious doing.

Assume everything is mobile and that the cloud rules
Humanity has embraced a quite peculiar level of trust in the last decade. We deposit the data that governs our lives – personal, financial, family – into a tangled web of computers, the nature and location of which are a mystery to us. All of this behind a password (make sure it contains a symbol and a number). Much of this trust has been borne of necessity and convenience. I have been drafting this article in bite-sized chunks, chucking them “up” into the cloud and accessing it on various mobile devices. Is anyone else following this, reading my drafts? I haven’t even questioned it, given it will be but a drop of sand in the digital Sahara. I am reliant on its proportions as protection, so microscopic as if to be invisible. Yet it always seems to come as a collective surprise when a digital leviathan is compromised and its data stolen. We have hackers versus reformed hackers working as digital security specialists, slugging it out on the unlit boulevards of the web. Our trust teeters on a tightrope, we hope day to day that the reformed guys keep it all together, and put up a decent guard. The cloud, as a singular concept, has a glass jaw. We will feel very differently about mobile and the cloud should it shatter.

Connectivity matters
The tactile fascination with gadgetry dominates our consideration of technological advance and capability, while connectivity is deemed an expectation, a right. We demand high speed broadband in the living room of every remote croft, we have exhausted our tolerance of 4G and demand 5G. Yet it is incredible how helpless ‘working offline’ feels, and how useless our gadgetry appears, we hold it at a distance and gaze scornfully at it, bloody thing. We even take conversations offline, as in, to a trivial, irrelevant space to get something minor and irritating resolved. The important, relevant conversations all take place ‘online’, where it matters. The wag who drew WiFi at the base of a hierarchy of needs wasn’t entirely spoofing. Yet we are beginning to understand the importance of disconnection, of the offline, the analogue, of human space, of mental space; of reading printed matter, writing with a pen, talking. Connectivity has been an army of occupation, and resistance is being organised. We are understanding that severing the cord for periods of time returns us to our partners, family, environment. We notice one another, and what is around us. It renders the gadgets impotent, to allow us to be potent once again.

Work is being unbundled
The automation of work tasks has been occurring since ancient times. We tend to think of the mechanised loom as the earliest example of significant automation, prompting the Luddite reaction, yet Ancient China and Greece provided centrally-run relief schemes for those affected by technological unemployment. So fundamental and integral has it been in our development as a species that it is almost a non-subject. When considered alongside the overblown and factually misplaced claims that we live in an age of unprecedented change – even taking account of the bizarre yet entirely explicable events of 2016 – we have talked ourselves into a crisis of confidence in ourselves as resourceful and adaptable beings. It is true that ‘robots’ will consume a number of jobs presently performed by humans, that is not in dispute, but in one form or another, this has always been the case. As each layer of obsolete manual activity is automated, new forms of human activity take their place, new skills emerge and increased value is placed in human-crafted over automated output. The bundling and unbundling of work is an interleaved process, as opposed to a historical phase. In addition, while it is said that all businesses are technology businesses, that is pure hyperbole and they clearly are not, and many skills and trades will remain essentially human. The ill-stoked fears fed to a generation that their livelihoods will disappear may actually spark a welcome renaissance in human-centred employment. The rise of distinctly ‘artisan’ products as a mark of value and quality already provides this clue, even if the label is rather generously applied. The myth may be just what is needed to re-connect a vast number of people with work.

Software is on demand, available as a service
It doesn’t really matter how we obtain our software, two truths persist: we still need it, and it still replicates several core basic manual tasks that Office recognised and offered twenty five years ago: writing, calculating, messaging, illustrating and presenting. Almost all general business software development since has built upon these activities. Even social media is simply a broader, un-targeted messaging format. While applications, simpler and more specific, have offered variety and sought to automate routine or research-demanding tasks, they remain focussed on singular functions and therefore perform far less demanding tasks than software is able. In many respects it’s always been on demand, even if the installation disc arrived by post. Like most things we purchase, use it occasionally it’s expensive, use it daily and repeatedly it’s incredibly cheap. The usage/ownership debate always sees the lines on the graph cross – at a certain point of consumption, ownership becomes more cost effective. Own it, consume it as a service, it has no bearing on anything in particular, it’s just another consumer choice.

And the result of all this is?
Offering caution against the inevitable conquest and scorched earth of all before it by the irresistible yomp of technology is a dangerous cliff edge on which to be doing tai chi on a cloying dawn. Anyone misting over at the memory of dropping their Kodak’s ektachrome off in a postbox for processing and picking up a VHS from Blockbuster and a diabetes-inducing juggernaut-sized chocolate wedge from Woolies for a ritzy night in front of the CRT might consider the game will probably be up at some point soon.

Yet it is also easy to predict that the train running north through open countryside will continue to run north, smooth on its rails, accelerating at will. Few doubt that technology will continue to advance and that it will continue to change the way we live and work. However the rails are not smooth, the destination not certain. The human cost of our submission to digitisation, and the frailties and their consequences are only beginning to be understood; we needed enough critical mass to begin to do so.

The result of all this will be a more difficult journey for technology. Innovation will still have the capacity to excite, but we’ll greet it on its merits, cautiously, more considerate of its effect upon us. Online business will be increasingly held to account in both fiduciary and ethical matters, more aligned with the traditional businesses they have been usurping. The rights that ‘gig’ workers have abandoned will be progressively reclaimed. The high street will be re-lamped, as people return to the browsing that gave birth to a metaphor. Disrupters will become incumbents, and be themselves disrupted, the food chain will continue to eat itself. Anti-social media will have become a rant-pen for former presidents re-writing their disgrace as history. We will switch off the small screen, and re-focus the horizon we thought we had lost, and we’ll plan journeys from which we’ll send postcards. The novelty of immediacy will wane, as we re-discover anticipation. And the poets will tell of what it means to be human and vulnerable, once again.

The Elemental Standard

You have to wonder if we need the WELL standard, another high-end, elitist evaluation methodology that needs a horde of expensive consultants to assess against an unintelligible scale for which the acceptable mark is attainable by all but the privileged few. While it’s dressed up as a people-focussed standard, it’s still ultimately applicable to the built asset – the building gets the badge. Effectively it’s an extension of BREEAM and LEED.

How about a simple, clear and practical approach to creating a decent and effective workplace for as many people as possible, taking into account the physical space, the installations and the technology as they relate directly to people using them. No badges awarded, just a reputation. A standard that can be achieved on a budget found down the back of the sofa. A standard that everyone can assess, and everyone can aspire to. And the highest award – Elemental. As in, attainable and expected rather than a mark of exception and distinction, a matter of right.

The #elementalworkplace has explored the ten characteristics of a decent workplace on a number of occasions since it was first published in 2014 (well before WELL). What I have attempted to do here is turn it into a straightforward self-assessment methodology. Give it a try against your workplace. It’s intuitive, requires no calibrated measuring devices and will take minutes (you may need to ask for one piece of data from your friendly FM). This isn’t trying to compete with stuff like Leesman, as there is no reference in here to productivity – it just assumes that if the workplace is decent, you’ll be able to get on with your work and will feel more valued, which must have a positive bearing on productivity. Dangerously simple, but doesn’t need an expensive economist to hazard a guess.

Daylight: As much of it as possible, from as many angles as possible. There is no artificial source of this gift that comes close to that which pours plentiful from the sky. It regulates our circadian rhythm, it is our in-built human clock. It has been claimed that working in natural daylight ensures we get 46 minutes extra sleep at night. Sunlight is a natural disinfectant, it kills streptococci, and has proven in care environments to speed patient recovery time by up to 40%. Yet Sir Cary Cooper’s research suggests that over 40% of office workers in Europe have no access to natural light during the day. It’s top of every office environment wish-list.

Points Condition
10 You are 20 large paces or less from a source of natural daylight in the place(s) you normally work for over three quarters of the working day
5 You are 40 large paces or less from a source of natural daylight in the place(s) you normally work for over half of the working day
0 You work predominantly (over half of the working day) under artificial light only
-5 You work predominantly (over half of the working day) under artificial light, and it is under-powered for your needs, flickers, is a sickly yellow or is unreliable

An environment you can control. As the HSE captures it, this includes temperature, humidity, air velocity and radiant temperature. The environment certainly doesn’t have to be air conditioned (in fact poor quality AC is far worse than none at all – and in some countries such as Switzerland AC is technically illegal), but you do need to be able to vary the environmental conditions in response to both external conditions, and to equipment, people and technology in the space.

Points Condition
10 You can control some/all of these elements – particularly temperature – in the localised area in which you normally work (or can call someone to do it fairly quickly for you)
5 You can control some/all of these elements – particularly temperature – in a large, open space area in which you normally work (or can call someone to do it fairly quickly for you)
0 You can’t control the temperature, humidity or draughts at all – you’re stuck with the way it is

A choice of spaces. You don’t need the full catalogue of over-designed adolescent dens with infantile names, but you do need four basic types:

  • Somewhere to work at a desk (or similar) with your team – a space that most would recognise as a standard desk in generally open space – let’s call this “primary” space
  • Somewhere quiet and comfortable to focus alone (and it doesn’t need the acoustic privacy of a padded cell to qualify), where people will leave you to get on with it
  • Somewhere informal to meet with colleagues write stuff up on a wall and leave it there
  • Somewhere a bit more formal to meet, with a door (because not everything is good for everyone to overhear)

Let’s call them the “four key” spaces for now. Its sure to be shortened to “forky”. And then it’s all very well having the choice of physical space available, but you also need to free to exercise those choices – so the scoring tries to take this into account too.

Points Condition
15 You have access to the four key space types, and are free to exercise a choice of what space you use and when
10 You have access to three or more of the key four space types including primary, and are free to exercise a choice of what space you use and when
5 You have access to three or more of the key four space types including primary, but need to get the OK to use anything other than primary
0 Primary and meeting rooms only, the booking of which is like trying to get a table at the Ivy– and you’re expected to be seen at your desk unless you’re in a meeting

Space. Enough space to swing a cat? Now if I were to swing a large-ish (toy) cat, given I have fairly long arms that would create a space of roughly six square metres – greater than the statutory UK minimum. All that the density of space measures is efficiency, and has no bearing on effectiveness. Yet there has to be a threshold. On an overall NIA basis, dividing our total space by our number of people working from it (subtle difference to the number working in it), the average shouldn’t go below 6m2 per person. While there is probably an upper threshold too, such that we might be rattling around inside a vast expanse of office and not see a living soul for hours, that’s fairly unlikely to happen in this cost-conscious age. However, I’ve added a bonus zero for good measure, just in case. You don’t need to physically measure it – just imagine me swinging a large toy cat – and take a guess from there. You could always ask your Facilities Manager if you want the actual data.

Points Condition
10 10-15m2/person
5 6-10m2/person
0 Less than 6m2/person
0 More than 15 m2/person

WiFi/network that works. Nothing brings on randomly directed guttural Anglo Saxon like a signal as reliable and as like to stand up as England’s brittle Test Match middle order. This one attracts extra points – it’s the thing that needs fixing first, every time. It should be the first line on any workplace cost plan. We can operate effectively in a poor workplace with excellent IT and connectivity, as we do in less than ergonomic, noisy and insecure public spaces such as cafés, yet not the other way around. There are no excuses when every business is a technology business, and despite the clamour in almost every organisation you shouldn’t have to BYOD to make up for the shortcomings of what is provided. BYOD should be a scheme to create choice, not a residual fix. Proportionally, the cost per person is tiny compared to even a moderate workplace fit-out.

Points Condition
20 Your ultralight laptop fits in your bag, doesn’t prompt a call to the chiropractor at the end of each day, has a flash drive and all of its keys, and the reliable data signal works just as well on Ethernet or WiFi wherever you go in the building
10 All of the above, but your laptop is over two years old and everything works better when its plugged into the Ethernet
0 Your laptop is a dog, has keys missing, and the network drops out like 60’s art school hippy

Somewhere to put your stuff, with a lock on it. Your papers (you will have some), your purse/wallet, your gym bag, maybe your shoes. Well, of course your shoes; who doesn’t have a few pairs in the office (have you seen the state of the pavements)? And the more you are committed to wellbeing the more stuff you have, it tends to correspond with a need for a change of clothing or two. And you would really like to trust that your stuff will be where you left it.

Points Condition
10 You have sole use of a locker or cupboard (or both) that can take a small gym bag, a pair of shoes, your laptop and some other stuff – and its lockable
5 You share a storage facility for your stuff with one or two other people and its lockable
0 You either don’t have enough storage space for your stuff, or its not lockable – or both

Access to drinks and food, creating at least the potential for reasonable quality. This can be tricky to assess because there are no guidelines (formal or informal – ask anyone, get a different response) as to when a staffed facility should be provided within a building, give location and size factors, or the degree of subsidy that should be applied. The spectrum starts from a bare minimum of needing to have a clean, functional space for drinks and food to be able to be prepared by the occupants. You could still make coffee that tastes like bisto and turn your potato into a white dwarf – but at least there is the possibility of you doing so. I’ve created an entirely arbitrary divide with two options, and also gathered food and drink into a single category for the purpose. It’s up to you which you choose to use.

If your workplace is either out-of-town (as in, nothing decent nearby) and/or has over 300 people wherever it is sited – that is, assumed to have a staffed facility:

Points Condition
10 You can obtain healthy food options, hot and cold, and high-street standard barista coffee at subsidised prices without leaving the building
5 You can obtain reasonably healthy food options, hot (if possible) and cold (at least), and bean-to-cup coffee at reasonable prices (as in, no higher than the high street) without leaving the building
0 It’s powdered vend only – if that – and a trip down the high street for a very expensive sandwich

If your workplace is either in a city-centre or amenity-rich environment, or has under 300 people – that is, assumed not to have a staffed facility:

Points Condition
10 You have a clean and well-maintained kitchen and food preparation area shared by less than 100 people, with ample refrigeration and microwave ovens, and somewhere locally away from the desk to sit and consume your creations
5 You have a reasonably well looked after kitchen and food preparation area shared by less than 250 people, with some refrigeration and a microwave oven, and somewhere locally away from the desk to sit and consume your creations
0 You have a firry kettle and a rusty teaspoon on a string, and you can only take your health-hazard of a drink back to your desk

Sanitary sanity. Toilets that are clean, warm, have hot water and soap, and allow you to dry your hands on something unique to you. I have a personal beef about noisy hand-driers but it’s invariably because people often shove paper towels down the toilets that they’re necessary – irrespective of the inconclusive environmental debate.

Points Condition
10 Your toilets are warm, clean and stocked, and you generally have access to them when you need them (which is quite important with toilets)
5 Your toilets are generally warm, clean and stocked, and you generally have access to them when you need them – but it all could be improved
0 Your toilets are cold, less than clean and invariably un-stocked – and often in use by someone who seems to have fallen into a coma

The opportunity to have an influence over the space. Often mis-cued as ‘personalisation’ this could mean as a group, it could mean just you – it could mean just for the day, or for longer. But just so that you have some way of adding something so you create a bond with your space, however small.

Points Condition
10 You can influence the space in which you work – you can leave your stuff out (you may still have to clear surfaces at the end of the day), and put your work on display on walls and whiteboards and leave it there
5 You can partially influence the space in which you work – you can leave your stuff out but have to clear surfaces at the end of the day, and put your work on display on walls and whiteboards during the day but clear it away at the end
0 The rules have been written by the secret police, and anything you place or leave on the desk is destroyed overnight in a controlled explosion

Colour. If you check the cover of Dark Side of the Moon (you’ll have a copy, everyone does), there is a whole spectrum out there. It changes our mood, lightens our spirit. Not everything has to look as blandly bland as Apple store – they seem to like it, so leave them to it. Colour usually costs the same as lack of it too. It just needs a little thought – and a little taste.

Add up your score, and here is the ranking:

Points Ranking Assessment
70+ Elemental Your workplace is amazing. Tell your friends, tell your Mum, tell everyone, and enjoy it – you’re valued
45 – 70 Decent Not a bad place to work. But do watch out for where you hit some zeros – you may want to  raise them with someone with a budget
25–44 Poor It’s not looking too good, is it? There are probably a few things that are okay, as you have a few points on the board. Still, some significant room for improvement
0 – 24 Terrible Crikey, your workplace is crap. Unless it’s an amazing job and you work with fantastic people, you might want to re-evaluate why you’re still there

All of the Elemental ratings in each category are possible, with a little thought, willpower, a recognition of the difference it will make to people and a little cash. If we could do enough for every workplace to be Elemental, imagine what we could achieve after that.

Everyone deserves a great workplace. End. Of.