Coming up for air

I was asked last week by one of the nicest people in the business (who happened to have been the original base build architect on the amazing building I’m now working in) to respond to a simple survey being conducted by his start-up business of the key five issues faced by workplace professionals today. Having responded within the space of a single breath I thought it might be worth taking a little more time to explain. I got to seven. I’ve without doubt missed some. After many months of self-impose exile I’m just coming up for air.

One: doing more with less space. The more choice of settings designed into a space, and the more thought that goes into each and how they fit within as seamless as possible a spectrum from the most focussed to the most interactive, the greater the level of flexibility and mobility that can be enabled. A principal challenge of this approach is being able to articulate what it means, and change perceptions of space and how it works. Giving it a numpty name like SmartSpace doesn’t describe it. It also requires a light treatment of the purpose of settings, resisting the temptation to be overly prescriptive. The last place on this plant – or any other – that someone is going to have an idea is in the “Ideas Lab”. And don’t be surprised if someone does the full Dom Joly in your Quiet Zone, just for the hell of it.

Two: focusing on technology first, not space. This is tough for workplace people, but faced with a choice, most people would take fantastic kit and connectivity over a smart and stylish space. You can work in Stig’s dump with a cracking download speed. The lightest, most powerful kit possible with the longest battery life, and the highest bandwidth connectivity available should be the investment priority or the space will likely never recover by the time you get around to it.

Three: take time to get the Brief right. Sadly most of the time there isn’t a Brief of any sort because design is just too interesting. It’s annoying talking about why and how you want to do something when you can just get on with it – isn’t it?  It’s nowhere near as annoying as taking an age and spending a fortune to find that it looks nothing like you hoped, everyone hates it and it doesn’t work. Brief development is a skill, and of those who actually do it not many do it well. And it’s not about handing over a suitcase full of used notes a consultant to define forty seven user types.

Four: Googlisation. Or, thinking that a Brief consisting entirely of “make it look like Google” is useful or clever. If you’re not Google, it doesn’t work. Sometimes if you’re Google it doesn’t work but that’s fine because they are actually Google, and you’re not so it’s their prerogative. They did a great thing, for which we should all be thankful, they gave the world permission to think about space differently – all the while serving a purpose for themselves. It’s the principle that’s important, not the interpretation. But if you’re over forty, don’t wear a Hollister hoodie and roll your trousers up, you’ll look like a pillock.

Five: Disrupture. Or, resisting the now obligatory requirement to do something entirely different, or at least claim to have done something different (which in most instances means repackaging an old idea), in most instances for its own sake because if you haven’t you’re not hanging with the kids. Why? Because everything is dead – you know, the office, e-mail, hierarchy – all those things that are in rude health, stronger even for having rumours of their demise exaggerated. Not every workplace scheme needs to break the mould. In the vast majority of instances, they just have to be well-designed, thought through, and appropriate to the business and its aims, location and demographic. When everything is disruptive, nothing is – and like trying to be Google, it may all just get a bit embarrassing.

Six: compromise. Every large organisation contains lots of people who love interior design and want to express themselves on the corporate tab. Nothing wrong with that per se. A recent piece by the most excellent Mark Eltringham quoted yet another (and there will undoubtedly be more) wellbeing report, this time the turn of the RCA and Gensler, in which they concluded “an invitation to participate in the design of the work environment raised levels of wellbeing.”

Strangely the report really talked about a lot of the key tenets of the #elementalworkplace rather than participative design. No credit of course. Yet even without mass participation, the workplace designer needs to balance a myriad of input and approval. It’s quite possibly the hardest part of any large scale workplace creation, and even more difficult when it’s focussed on opportunity creation than a lift-and-shift (or, evidence-based design).

And then seven: social media as news. Countering the click-bait BS of social media that to our collective horror even broke onto the front page of the Daily Telegraph last week with the preposterous “sitting is the new smoking” contention. [As an aside, there is quite an irony is the idea of passive sitting]. It was followed swiftly by two reports on the same quite appalling survey about the commercial benefit of the right seating plan. In a flexible workplace of course, seating plans aren’t relevant, because people move around. Which also counters the idiocy of holing chairs responsible for sloth. They seemed to miss that part in the rush to publish – it would require a little thought.

Other suggestions welcome. Just don’t mention millennials, robots or co-working. I need time to acclimatise.


Shut up ‘n’ play yer guitar

The title of this post is taken directly from the first of a series of three Frank Zappa albums released in 1981 consisting almost entirely of guitar solos. A Zappa-obsessed friend of mine told me that it was in response to critics considering that his axemanship was being undermined by his perpetual warbling. It was recorded in his new home studio, the unsurprisingly flared Utility Muffin Research Kitchen. He did of course manage to sneak in a few comments between tracks. Like tweeting when you’re not posting.

Tired of trying to Cnut the tides of unsupported piffle posing as truth, I stood the blog down in March to focus on completing a workplace project that has been three years in the making. In this time I’ve made a sub-profession out of politely declining invitations, and positioned my default to not being available to attend anything. The workplace is a building of some 45,000 square metres and is set to house 3,500 colleagues from a wide variety of backgrounds and functions. The moves take place over the next five weekends. In this instance even the small moves are massive moves. It’s both daunting and spine-tingling.

You’ll see and hear enough about the workspace in coming months, I’m not going to start describing it here. I’m not going to be defined by it either. In the “old days” – whenever they were – we would carefully release information about a completed project with a considered media strategy. As we saw with a recently completed project in Leeds, it will be instagrammed and tweeted to within an inch of life itself in a matter of days, if not sooner. My colleagues will tell you all about it as it appears and feels to them, which in this age of accountability instinctively feels right. Sure, we’ll take some professional pictures (with the building occupied) and talk about our intentions, design approach, curation, delivery – and be honest about our experiences (not just “what we might have done differently”). But the occupants of the space will tell everyone they know whether we nailed it.

As this particular project completes, others that might once have been all-consuming in themselves are accelerating. I can see as far as Easter for the immediate, and then a raft that spin off into years hence, like an ergonomic milky way.

Meanwhile there’s tumbleweed blowing down Workplace Avenue, a pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete, the screech of brakes and a lamplight blinking. Even the two lovers kissing in the tranquility of solitude have gone home. So the research kitchen is closing, the blog is returning. Bloody hell, someone has to start talking out there.


Two hundred and thirty four posts on from 8 October 2011, workessence is standing down. It may be temporary, it may be permanent, I haven’t decided. I used to love writing here, but of late that excitement has dwindled and I haven’t been enjoying it. I’d always told myself that if that happened, I’d take a break.

My blog originated on the Posterous site six years ago. I remember hesitating to publish my first post, concerned that my satirical take on a workplace consultants’ dysfunctional curry might lead to my being ostracised. I then realised that even though I’d pressed the button, no-one actually knew it was out there – and so there began my exploration of social media, to try and build a readership. I got ostracised anyway.

The “flat blog” as a form feels flatter than ever. It has been swamped by the deluge of unfilterable dirge bubbling from every crevice of LinkedIn. I’m sure that the level of mediocrity attained is far from what David Weinberger envisaged in the Cluetrain Manifesto when he said that blogging meant “writing ourselves into existence”. To paraphrase a line from The Incredibles – when everyone’s a blogger, no-one will be.

Over the years I’ve connected with and met some amazing people, and learned how to break out of the restrictive networks imposed by professions with inspired gatherings such as the Tuttle Club (thank you Lloyd and Anke) and ConnectingHR (thank you too, Gareth and Doug). Yet I’ve also learned to be careful what I wish for: I willed so many more people to participate in social media, but now just want most of them to leave. I still tweet (happy tenth birthday Twitter, by the way – you have been amazing) but with far less frequency than at any time since I really started in 2010. In professional terms it’s lost much of what made it so endearing and enlightening, but conversely seems to have found a worthy meaning and purpose best illustrated by the #tweepathon this weekend, captured in Michael Carty’s affectionate post. That said, I’m staying on Twitter, and staying connected.

Within the blog, I’ve exhausted the inclination or need to talk about millennials (no different from the rest of us), engagement (a lost sock), robots (if they have jobs, we’ll have different ones), productivity (a fish looking for a hook), the war for talent (for when there’s absolutely nothing else left to say), work being something you do and not somewhere you go, trust (it’s both), open plan offices (where all journalists should be made to work, just for the hell of it), smartworking (a consultant fabrication), the tyranny of cool (a sterile airbrushed hell), professional bodies (self-defeating prophecies)) and any other issues that are only issues because we talk about them relentlessly. If we stopped, they’d go away.

However I’ve concluded over these years of working it out through the blog that creating fantastic workplaces – for, and because of people – has never been more attainable if we would just stop over-complicating, over-analysing and obfuscating. It’s simple, it really is. If that’s my one conclusion from all the effort, it’s been worthwhile.

Of all the stuff I’ve written, I’ve enjoyed – and am most proud of – the stories. While they’ve been appreciated by people for whom I have a lot of respect, they haven’t been read nearly as much as the more obvious “fast food” opinionated rants. They need time to consume, and time to digest. If the site started disintegrating before my eyes, bytes tumbling around me, I’d save the stories first and not bother with the rest.

As Sartre’s detached character Antoine Roquentin says in Nausea, “one has to choose, to live or to tell”. I’m giving the telling a break. Thank you for reading, and for being part of my journey – without you, this blog would have been nothing.


Elemental block

This is my penultimate post. You may get that sense: an underlying frustration, interwoven with a stubborn optimism that we have enough, and we know enough, to do what matters. The final shift needed is simply to trust our instinct.

Consider for a moment the extensive progress made through a couple of decades of product placement/sponsored research (delete as applicable) in the field of workplace, that has advanced our knowledge and understanding by….reinforcing what we instinctively know, but for which we need proof.

There are still a lot of questions in the field we haven’t answered – and need to – with a small number of people out there proffering some insightful boffinry. But it’s astounding quite how many times clear sense propositions below are paddled out like they’re something worth jumping out of the bath for. The conundrum is of course that despite their embedded no-shit-sherlock status, it doesn’t mean that every organisation heeds these things. We’re going round in circles. By the time we’re back where we’ve started we’ve forgotten we were ever there.

It’s the elemental block.

We like to look at nice things, like plants and countryside and stuff
Even if we want to call it something posh like Erich Fromm’s biophilia (which sounds antisocial – and is not Bjork’s concept album – just dwell on that for a moment) essentially for our health, wellbeing, and general state of mind we would rather look at beautiful things like plants, lakes, the sea, mountains or grassland than the goods entrance of an abattoir. There is a neurological link. The beneficial effects of the aesthetic have been known for centuries, and have even given rise to physiological phenomena such as Stendhal’s Syndrome. Admittedly breathlessness and disorientation are probably not likely to be associated with spiralling levels of beauty associated with the pot plant on the filing cabinet, but its contribution is worthy nonetheless.

Noise can be really annoying
We’ve started getting excited about psychoacoustics. Speech, telephones, alarms, office machinery, piped europop (a good enough reasons for Brexit, for some) – they can all be annoying. And of course it’s all the fault of the open plan office (as is, according to many journalists, the unpreventable end of humanity). Design often contributes: if you put one open meeting space next to another open meeting space, that’s likely to be a problem – so please, designers, stop doing it. However the use of felt as an acoustic treatment material in these circumstances – or indeed, any other – remains entirely inexcusable.

We don’t like being interrupted while we’re doing something
Despite the trend in business and interior architecture alike towards collaboration, which by nature invites interruption, actually being interrupted when you’re concentrating on something is irritating unless it involves chocolate. The more it happens the more irritating it gets (even chocolate has a limit). It’s unlikely to take three days to re-focus on the original task, as some have proposed, but its disruptive nonetheless (I here use the word “disruptive” in its rare, intended form, and not as a gateway to hipster heaven). And of course there are always top tips for not being interrupted, most of which are comical – albeit the last one on this list seems to make the most intuitive sense, costs nothing and doesn’t involve the use of felt: “be assertive” – as in, “sod off”.

We like a bit of freedom to choose the best ways do what we’re asked to do
No-one ever said how much they like being micro-managed – did they? Recipes are for people who are starting out in the kitchen. The more we cook, the less we need them, save for a quick check on a quantity. Just so with work tasks – there may be a process to follow, an order of play, but we work out how best we can make it happen. We might still be asked to arrive at a time and place, and leave that place at a time, but we still crave a little freedom to choose how we do stuff. The “when, where and how” of flexible work exists in some sort of natural order – first the how, then the where, then the when. It should be stated as how, where and when, the scale of freedom. Of course there are people who think choice represents a tyranny  in which case just sit tight and be told where to work. How does that feel?

We work better if we have a pleasant workplace
Yes, a clean, tidy, well-furnished workplace with great amenities will have you cranking it out far more productively than in a corrugated prefab with a fan heater and a desk comprising an old door on a couple of milkcrates. And if design is thoughtful (as opposed, one assumes, thoughtless and random) that’s even better. It really is that astonishing a revelation. But then of course you could just embark on an attention-seeking roadtrip. No harm in that, surely?

It helps if you’re not stuck in a chair for eight hours a day
Yep its true, sitting down all day isn’t good for you. Strangely, neither is standing up all day – you’re still inactive. We await the research that lets us know that leaning isn’t so helpful either. So, stuck in your chair all day? Sit-stand desks are the current panacea, but here’s some amazing advice – get up and walk around, go get a drink, go see someone, go take in a view. It’s free, too. Yep – a balanced approach. The key to just about everything.

It’s nice if you can get a god coffee and something healthy and not too expensive for lunch from somewhere close to where you work
Which means first and foremost actually taking a break – to go and get something, and consume it. There are even posts offering lists of reasons why, as if somewhere we’ve irredeemably lost the idea of doing something that was once institutionalised. Let’s suppose that somehow this is a new and exciting revelation – we then need to choose carefully what we consume. All food is not the same. And as the world is now utterly obsessed with productivity, some helps you work better and some will send you off on a fluffy pillow to the sound of angel-song. But it’s not all about the food: it’s a social experience, a meditative release, a change of scenery – all that kind of stuff. The food is the attraction, but is often incidental. You need the refreshment but you also simply need to be somewhere different. And if you’re at Google, you’re queuing up with a small plate.

We might just need more than just a desk and a meeting room to get our work done
We might need a choice of settings, depending on what we’re doing. That’s not because the desk is dead (despite the wishes of many) or that we can now hold all our meetings in the away end at Millwall, but because what we do exists on a scale, not in binary form. The term “Activity-Based Working” be a marketer’s nightmare but at least it says what it is (unlike the self-inflated “smartworking”). There are – as with seemingly every idea around workplace – a host of myths – this post from Monica Parker helps to bust some of them. But it needn’t be this complex – just a simple choice of spaces will do nicely.

Daylight makes us feel happier and so we do better work
If we’ve got biophilia and psychoacoustics then we’ve certainly got heliotherapy – dating back to the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians – setting our circadian rhythms, curing skin ailments, speeding healing, generating energy and improving our sleep and mood. But whatever the science we just feel a whole lot better with daylight than we do without it, we seek it out, our physiology informs our brain it’s a “good thing”.

We work better if we are given decent IT kit and have a reliable internet connection
No explanation or links needed for this one. It’s almost listed in The Hague as a human right.

But you knew all of that anyway. You didn’t need to follow the links, interesting as they are. Despite this, there will be many more articles and posts reinforcing these statements over the next decade. Maybe it will help drum it home for those in denial – and help remove the elemental block. But its only news if we don’t trust our own instinct and judgment in matters of clear sense. It’s time we did.


Playing second fiddle to sumptuous despair

Our curious leader, he’s never there
He’s playing second fiddle to sumptuous despair
Our curious leader is covered in deep sin
And when I grow up you know I want to be like him…..


Of all the easy targets for bloggers, tweeters and whatever you call the lost souls who use LinkedIn, management lies as prone as a pigeon’s playground. And for the purposes of this  polemic I shall set aside the purists’ frustrations and include the notion of leadership, as they’re interchangeable in practice and most who both practice and are subject can’t really tell the difference (or quite understandably don’t bother to).

If you believe the internet, which is of course true, everywhere on this fair planet management is in crisis, artificially perpetuating an archaic, zombified hierarchical system that stifles freedom, creativity, self-expression and fulfilment. Managers themselves are a self-interested, interfering, dogmatic, callous bunch of utter incompetents,  inconsistently and arbitrarily wielding unjustified authority. We’re all guilty, and all responsible.

In my thirty-ish years of working I’ve managed musicians, project managers, architects, civil servants, prosecutors, administrators, warehouse  pickers and packers, quantity surveyors, roadies, technicians, computer programmers, builders, just about all of the trades within facilities management, accountants, motorcycle couriers, lawyers and artists. There are probably more I can’t recall. I can say with some assurance that none of these trades and professions were easy to manage, and a lot of were damned challenging.

How can it be that bloody difficult? Especially if you’ve never managed anyone. In the sanguine safety of text books, TED talks, blog posts, 140-character sermons and other vehicles for self-expressed wisdom it’s a doddle . And the less you do it, remarkably, the easier it seems to be.

That’s because it doesn’t have to deal with relationships, agendas, political ambitions, reward, ego, limited resources, bureaucracy, fads and panaceas, the unrelenting need to fill the spaces between us, deadlines, motivation, life stages, personal circumstances, communication (or lack of) and language, love (and lust), expectations, pressure, reporting, grievance, ever-increasing governance, international differences, the vacuous notion of culture, time, commerciality, appraisal, priorities – and luck. Amongst other things. The stuff that chews up the list of “fifty things successful managers do”.

There’s other stuff too. Balancing the need to make decisions with the desire to be inclusive, and the need to get stuff done  that may not be popular with a desire to be liked (even occasionally). Being a generalist leading experts, when the team know more than you do about the subject matter. A dash of imposter syndrome. Having stuff you absolutely have to do, but someone just needs “five minutes”. Being told you need to be more resilient, when you just want to crumble. And feeling like you’re the loneliest person on earth.

All managers need help. Given. Those who claim not to, need a different help.

There are those whose reflections help make us better people, so we can be better managers, like this post from @Fuchsia_blue. And there are those who are not managers who might make a useful contribution  – philosophers, therapists, mime artists, mystics and the like. They might prompt reflection, introspection, even ascetic wandering  or a pilgrimage. In many respects, the more distant the relationship, the more fascinating the perspective – like one of my favourites, the musings of a Hindu priest on why what you can’t measure is interesting.

But if you’re not one of these, none of the above resonates with you, and you’re about to take a random pot shot at “management”, it may be better to write about something else. Your talents are truly wasted.


Yesterday was fine, I’ve forgotten it somehow

Harvey closed the door of his double-aspect corner office to the suck-and-pop of precision seal engineering, exhaled slowly and contemplated the moment of peace descending like a duckfeather quilt.

He was still smirking at this morning’s serving of “Johnny Smartpants” in The Vines – his regular read on the reassuringly-packed 7.57 from Shenfield to Liverpool Street – the hilarious tales of a hapless, lonely stalwart of a lost generation, desperately unable to quite connect with the world in which he whirled. A modern-day Land Surveyor K. He had looked around and considered that each of his fellow commuters, pallid faces and eyes like marbles, may once have aspired to his kind.

He gazed at the domineering portrait of Lord Paxman on the wall, champion of the “Shabby Spring” of 2021, in which the clear-desk agilistas were finally routed. His determined, steely stare offered a firm assurance it was merely a rogue hoverboard in a pedestrian reality. Of course it had started with the journalists, in the early days just a smattering of protests at having to work open plan – but it soon spread faster than a middle-class buzzword. The hacks that fermented the revolt? They’re still working in open plan, their editorial reins restored.

Gone too were the gazebos, sleep pods and table tennis meeting tables, donated to the offices of the Benevolent Millennial Fund, where members like to write their names on their coffee cups and shout them out at random. The climbing walls had been restored to the serenity of ranked repositories of non-essential lever arch filing, collaborative spaces returned to arced desks visible from all corners of the paonopticoffice. The only trust that remained was authority.

He recalled the long autumnal night where he and his fellow activists had ceremonially shredded the countless policies, guidance notes and procedures that had steadily eroded their tolerance for years. Saved for last the most toxic of all, the guide to etiquette, or wetiquette as they liked to call it. Rising from the cross-cut mountain the following day, a refreshing return to the natural order of whim, and the arbitrary exercise of personal power.

Harvey buzzed his loyal Secretary, Janice, to check on his schedule. He was being interviewed this afternoon by Fat Company. They were keen to honour his own small part in the overthrow of the tyranny of collaboration. He had personally broken up a number of huddles on the morning it all began in earnest, overturning high tables, casting skinny lattes to all corners of the playpen, erasing the twisted tracks of a hundred needless charettes. On his desk, framed, was part of the tie he ripped, caught in the faux coin slot of the fussball table as he tried to confiscate the ball. He had scattered the assembled digital dodgers, hiding behind the pretence of yet another gathering, all the way back to some honest work. On their own.

Yet more than anecdotes of incidents punctuating the struggle, he was ready to regale his master stroke. He and his shlocktroops had exploited the principal vulnerability of the descending lava of smartworking, the fatal flaw in the plan: no-one wanted to do it.

The perpetrators talked long into their caffeinated morning of winning hearts and minds as though they were even vaguely related. Yet they spoke only in the language of the mind. They created guidance and instruction, advisory and compulsory, reasoned and balanced, shot through with bullet points – but no bonds, no instinctive response. Everywhere they looked, there was conditionality. They had overlooked that it begins and ends with the heart, to which the language of the mind is unintelligible. No-one ever fell in love by dictat.

Once the forces had been gathered, it had been a walkover. When the new way was trussed up in policies and protocols, there was no gift. Landed with responsibility for determining where, when and how to work, people froze. No-one was watching to set them at ease, to adjudicate, to settle and resolve. The right and wrong thing to do became so utterly blurred as to be one. Without the old certainties of presence and instruction, the vagaries of collective output and performance offered no light. Thank heavens they hadn’t understood.

What better appeal than a return to the comfort of old paternal certainty, the order of orders, to have the burden of responsibility for the choice of when to be at work and when not to be, reassuringly lifted. It wasn’t rationalised or crafted, set out or positioned, it was simply offered. Not a bullet point in sight, but a silver bullet nevertheless.

Harvey unconsciously patted himself on the chest, where his own heart beat with rhythmic self-satisfaction. Opening the door to the general office, he noticed amid the gentle tap, buzz and brrring of the machinery of righteous commerce, nothing at all. It was all over.

A question of degree

You’ve just received the workplace survey link. It’s like being given a banjo and asked to hit a cow’s backside: you just can’t miss. It’s just a question of degree.

The property team will read your response under a hail of trepidation and nausea, given the constraints under which they are working and the utilitarian challenge of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. They’ll want people to be satisfied, happy. The stickier the sugar coating the better. They’ve put time, care, energy, emotion, love and sweat into the outcome you’re about to click-trash. Like presenting a soufflé to Wallace and Torode, the property team would probably rather not know, but know they have to.

We’ve laboured for years under the impression that – especially in the context of global benchmark surveys – good marks are a good thing. The higher the satisfaction rating, the better.Workplace folk can dance happily in the meadow, while the Board  can open a Montrachet for sanctioning the investment. It’s wholly intuitive.

But it might be wrong.

I could be Gavin in Accounts . The catering gets top marks but I’m blissfully half asleep all afternoon digesting the steamed treacle pudding and custard. I’ve rated the IT kit and connectivity because the Sainsbury’s website responds like a dream when I need to do my weekly sweep, and a big thumbs-up for the furniture because I’ve got a great spot that’s not overlooked while I’m doing it. And it’s my own desk, my stuff all over it all day and night, none of this clear desk policy with its ASBO’s. I can be really productive by sticking up this big red flag saying “I’m busy” and everyone leaves me alone, so Top Sante for the etiquette policy. It’s one-hundred-and-eighty for the parking because I always get a space even though it would only take me twenty minutes to walk here, if I could be remotely bothered. When asked why I haven’t spoken to anyone all day I just flash a copy of Susan Cain’s “Quiet” – “introvert” I mutter, and look away. I haven’t read it, but it really works.

Satisfied with my workplace? Is my workplace working for me? Are you kidding?

In fact the survey results are so fantastic the Board have just authorised rolling out the approach nationally. Clink, another round of Montrachet. Clearly it’s all going to plan. We’re also hitting the top of the benchmarking indices. We’re a beacon in a foggy Slough. We have workplace nailed. We’ll keep our recipe secret, save for a few empty glossies in FX and the odd stage appearances at unnecessarily expensive and unnecessary conferences.

But you’re not Gavin in Accounts.

It’s not about satisfaction or popularity. There is a fundamental gulf between a workplace that makes life easy for you per se, and a workplace that makes it easy for you to work the way you need to get things done, and to develop and grow. What may be easy for you may not be what the organisation wants, or employed you for. They may want you interacting, collaborating, energised, motivated, healthy, well, unencumbered with concerns about owning estate.

And so the workplace needs to work for you and for the organisation providing it. You love being there and what you do, you can always find somewhere to work that suits what you’re doing, you’re always expanding your network because you’re visible and involved, when you need help it’s always available, there’s coffee on tap and you’re a stone lighter than when you started. You feel valued and value it, because it’s all there and it all works. It hits all of the #elementalworkplace buttons, and more.

Yet you may still “mark it down” in places for not bringing you – on an entirely personal level – the gift of unfettered ease. You acknowledge that, but still.

Meanwhile your marks, maturity and sense are aggregated with Gavin’s. And all of his mates.

Satisfaction. Its a dangerous thing.

A tactilian struck by lightning

I’ve never received one of those annoyingly persistent turquoise ink stains on my fingertips from my iPad that I get from refilling my Aurora fountain pen. I’ve never smudged the last sentence across the page of Writer in too much of a hurry to scribble the next. And I’ve never wondered where I left the sketch of an idea in OneNote because it’s up there with the eagles and I could download it on my fridge. If I had such a fridge.

When the Luddites were smashing up mechanised looms, they faced a binary choice: the old artisan ways, that they believed would perpetuate their livelihoods, or the new automated ways, under which they believed they would be trampled and forgotten. The legacy of the swiftly-crushed movement has been one of “pro” and “anti” technology of any form. Use a mobile phone to make a call? “Luddite”.

But it’s no longer a binary consideration, given the degree to which technology has permeated our lives. There isn’t an old way and a new way, without moving to the Western Ghats. We may laud the entirely tactile experience of fountain pen on paper as an authentic means of recording our ideas, without considering the technology deployed in its manufacture, the logistics of getting it to where we bought it, the bytes involved in our credit card payment. Its all entwined.

Yet in the goldrush to digitise everything we use and every method we deploy, and to invent crap we don’t need and processes that only now exist because of the creation of the crap we don’t need (to keep up with this stuff follow @internetofshit), the most vital information we receive – from our senses – is being dulled, obviated and discredited. Human beings are no longer “smart”, this attribute lies firmly with the digital domain. You leap out of bed like a kangaroo from a barbecue thinking you had a great night’s sleep, your wristband tells you otherwise so you believe the wristband because it’s digital and produces data. Even the term “smart working” attributes the “smart” to the working, not to you.

Our obsession with efficiency is a product of our overcrowded ecosystem. The more cluttered our lives, the faster and more accurate everything has to be. The faster and more accurate everything becomes only serves to increase the overload, so we need more and better and faster to carve through it.

We have a fundamental need for the sensory information that is available to us through inefficiency. From manual processes, physical objects, human contact and face-to-face conversation, inaccuracy, estimation, gut feel and an instinctive and unpredicted change of mind and plan. Inefficiency creates a journey, which in turn brings us unexpected turns, tangents, surprises. It brings disappointment too, which has its uses. You lose some stuff along the way, but while looking find something else that starts another journey.

The tactile perspective is not anti-technology. The Swiss-made watch on my wrist may be as archaic as to just tell me the time (it tells me the date too but I can no longer read the tiny text) but there’s no doubt a lot of tech went into designing and making it. It doesn’t beep, doesn’t flash, doesnt synch with anything else I have (just with me), doesn’t measure my heart rate, tell me if I’m dehydrated or if it’s bed time. Stuff I trust myself to know. But it’s beautiful, and if I somehow leave the house without it, I turn back. Not because of the informations and efficiency I will be denied through its absence, but just because it won’t feel right.

We’re now inventing products and technology to tell us when we’re using too much technology, or to disable it for periods of time or in certain circumstances because we can’t be relied upon to do so ourselves. That’s a fairly magnificent disaster, like the bolt upon the postillion from which the title of this ramble was whittled.

I’ve written in this blog on many occasions about trusting ourselves, our own judgment and instinct. In terms of the latter, our reaction to the unrelenting advance of technology will be from an innate craving for the tactile. We will all, in one form another, rebel. The lightning will strike us all.


Fond affections are never said, they’re only sung in song



In a rare departure from mythbusting, baiting hipsters and pleading for simplicity, this is a music post – a response to a challenge from @mjcarty, @JacksonT0ny and @TimScottHR to find the #7songs that have made us. For those about to consider the same, it isn’t as easy as you think.

My vinyl is all a bit scratched. My CD’s are all a bit scratched. I have no idea how iPlayer works. I prefer the sound of voices and the world around me to music while I’m trying to do anything other than perhaps cook. Even then I’d rather listen to Front Row. Yet music has left its indelible mark on me, inspired me, made me. It’s because when it manages to drag me in, I can’t do anything else. I’m completely and utterly in the song.

I owe a distinct thanks to Sellanby in South Harrow, the second-hand vinyl shop that I could have given as my fixed abode during my most impressionable years. Most kids today won’t bother to learn the RSI-inducing fine art of flipping through boxes of vinyl, or the exact angle at which to tilt the record into the light to find grooves other than intended spiral. Nor will they blu-tak a 2p coin to their stylus to stop it torvillanddeaning on its own unintended journey.

And so my own #7songs. As unique a combo as all our choices. Its why they made us unique.

Queen: Seven Seas of Rhye (1973)

Medium: 7″ vinyl single

I learned about heavy rock from my Dad’s collection of a few albums – he had Led Zeppelin II amongst a pile of stuff I thought was dirge. I remember when he unpacked his new “proper” record player and we listened to it together. But nothing prepared me for rush of blood from seeing a black-leather-clad Freddie Mercury on TOTP with his mic stand upside down and within a minute I was hooked. For several years I listened to nothing but the first three Queen albums. I could sing the lot for you now. The spell was finally broken by A Night at the Opera – they had lost their aura. They were still the first band I saw, in 1976 – but they didn’t play my song. Gits.


X-Ray Spex: Day the World Turned Day-Glo (1978)

Medium: 7″ vinyl single

I’d heard of punk. I’d heard some punk. The right-thinking establishment was outraged, I was bemused. Most of it sounded a little like bad metal. But when I first heard Poly Styrene I got it, completely. I wasn’t allowed to say “F–k!” in the house but I sure as hell thought it. Someone had finally told me music could be different. From there I was hooked. I used to have my transistor radio with me on the pillow at night and would usually fall asleep to the sound of John Peel’s show. I used to annoy the hell out of my Dad asking for another PP3 battery every other morning.

The Only Ones: Out There in the Night (1979)

Medium: 12″ blue vinyl single

There was always something slightly crap about the Only Ones. Endearing though. This song, unlike the others on my list, relates to a particular memory – and strangely one that has no relationship with the song. Its the soundtrack to a rainy London street even today. As a 15-year old I’d travelled by tube from Rayners Lane to Finsbury Park, which felt like the entire length of the Trans Siberian, to see Siouxsie and the Banshees supported by the Human League and a band called Rema Rema (one of their songs, Fond Affections, would later appear on the first This Mortal Coil album – and gives this post its title. Interestingly, their guitarist – Marco Pirroni – was an original Banshee and later joined Adam & the Ants). It was a shatteringly incredible night of music. Yet the soaked streets outside the Rainbow Theatre were, in contrast, so muffled and mesmeric. Even writing about it now, I’m there, with goosebumps. And the song, it’s there too.

New Order: Ceremony (1981)

Medium: 12″ single, green cover (important note)

I must have needed an anthem at the time. Now I cant walk through a park with “avenues all lined with tress” without this song. And its always on vinyl, levitating above itself. It was written with Ian Curtis, as a Joy Division song – there are a couple of unintelligible versions available. But like the Russian Revolution there are two New Order versions, Spring and Autumn -it has to be the green cover version (March 1981) which simply belts out. The later imposter (September 1981) verges on the distressing by comparison. And I always read the words scratched on the vinyl, even though I know what they say: “watching love grow – forever”.

The Cure: Just One Kiss (1982)

Medium: 12″ vinyl single (far superior B-side of Let’s Go to Bed)

From the first hearing of 10.15 Saturday Night through to the rank betrayal of Lovecats (with a few exceptions after that) no band captured my late teens/early 20’s angst like the Cure. I dressed like Robert Smith, wore make up like him, and even received a postcard from him (which I now can’t find) when I asked to interview for the Southampton Uni paper. But for all the indulgent, bleak despair of the Faith and Pornography albums, nothing captures the mood more than the extended version of Just One Kiss, released when the band had only two members. Perhaps in its drawn out build-up it unconsciously tips a nod to stuff that almost made the list, like Yes’s Heart of the Sunrise. “We waited alone on the sands”. Part of me may still be.

Cocteau Twins: Ivo (1984)

Medium: CD

While I had dabbled with the ethereality of the band, with tracks like PearlyDewdrops Drops (that John Peel said made him cry), the enormous gates that slowly opened to reveal the opening of the incredible Treasure album began a fascination that ran through countless Cocteaus albums, This Mortal Coil, and on through the 4AD stable with Dead Can Dance (especially the haunting Frontier), Wolfgang Press, Throwing Muses, Les Mysteres des Voix Bulgares and to Robin Guthrie’s beautiful ambient solo work. There is a moment late in the song where glass smashes beneath layer strumming guitar that seizes the breath, every time.  The track opened up a world of music where the voice was the complex instrument of all, yet in which the words were meaningless. In this, it had the power to reach more deeply than I had ever experienced.

David Sylvian: Ink in the Well (1984)

Medium: CD

The song made an impression on first listen, but at a slightly difficult stage in life several years later became a solace and has been so ever since. To that end it’s an entirely personal thing, just me and the song. I love to write – still now it serves as the nudge I sometimes need to start. The line “these are the years with a genius for living” should be all of our years, every one of them. There is a lot of space in the song, the white paper on which we scratch our thoughts.

There was no place in the list for my favourite song, ever: Wire‘s Outdoor Miner. That’s just always been with me, through every phase of my life. It was my favourite from the first journey through the undulating piano solo in the middle, while I was undulating somewhere in 1979. I have an album called the Houseguest’s Wish with countless cover versions of the song, released to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Jarvis Cocker has a blinding live version of it out there too. So I know that some of this love for the song is shared.  Not sure whether I like that or not, but I’ll live with it.

And no room for anything by my ultimate rock’n’roll hero Howard Devoto, from whom the light surely pours, who trumped the incredible Magazine with Luxuria, the most artful fusion of lyrics and music you’ll ever hear. If you’re new to it, try Mlle – I’m sure Proust would never have imagined. I’ve got a book of his lyrics that I thumb through when I’m looking for a burst of inspiration. I always find one anew.

Thanks Michael for prompting these reflections, I’ve run through some lovely memories in searching for the seven songs. If you’re reading this – its your turn.

#Untrends for 2016 – stuff that just isn’t happening

Property and workplace suffers from a phenomenon we might call “repetitive reality” – say something enough times, irrespective of whether it has any basis in fact or insight, and it sticks like a half-eaten humbug on a mohair. Thereafter, trying to counter it is like trying to repel a plague of locusts with a spatula.

In recognition of the time of year when everyone with a snowglobe and a web browser rattles off a list of trends for the coming year, here is a list of stuff that won’t be trending despite most of the soothsayers telling you it will. They are the myths I listed in a five-minute sprint at the rather enjoyable Estates Gazette offices summit last week.

#Untrend 1: it’s a time of unprecedented change. It’s more likely a time of ubiquitous accountability, created by access to a multitude of accessible channels. Most of what we think is new is a re-hash – since we first emerged from the Gorge there have been far more significant periods of societal, commercial and technological change, and there is plenty of evidence to support a slowdown in innovation. I also love the argument that the washing machine was a more important invention than the internet – once that idea is in your head, it won’t leave. For this #untrend also read “work is changing at an unprecedented pace” – same swing of the spatula.

In this dizzying time of change, of course #Untrend 2 – the office is dead – gets a regular airing. The repetitive dribble associated with this one is the “work is something you do not a place you go”. Because we know that “work” is a verb and a noun. Demand for office space is many an urban centre is rife. And interestingly but often overlooked, the more we stress the importance of social and collaborative activities as essential contributors to productivity, the more the need for people to be in the same space increases. The “death of the office” isn’t a trend, its wishful thinking sponsored by technology companies.

Which brings us on nicely to #Untrend 3: technology will replace presence. This is also sponsored by many of the same technology companies. Yet the more tech we see in a working environment, and the more “digital” the subject matter, the greater the amount of analogue space is required for effective collaboration. Hard-baked agile culture preaches little-and-often interaction puncturing periods of earplugged solitary activity. The innately multi-sensory experience of face-to-face interaction has no rival in any technology yet invented. It’s even touted as a vitamin against depression. There’s no app for that.

#Untrend 4: everything has to look like a workshop. It’s a design fad. You know the look: exposed ceilings, rough timber, raw metal, concrete, old Chesterfields, cast-off furniture from e-Bay, stuff you found on the way in. It’s like dragging a freshly-tailored James Bond behind a tow-truck through Lagos until he looks like Steptoe. Like all design fads, it’s time-stamped. And the more we see it, the harder it becomes to be original. Eclectic is tough brief – most looks like a mess. It’s taking over our homes too. Remember the day you bought a pair of Birmingham bags the day before they went out of fashion?

And everything has to look like a workshop because apparently #Untrend 5 – the TMT sectorsays so. That’s actually two #untrends. The TMT sector is an invention of uncomfortable convenience for an agency sector starved of anything interesting to talk about. It’s not a movement or a grouping with common interests and approaches any more than any other random collection of organisations deemed a “sector”. In regard to culture, management, workstyle and workplace each sector has its arch radicals and its arch conservatives and a bulk of normally-distributed folk in between. And every business is a technology business now.

And because TMT has become the byword for “cool”, #Untrend 6“cool” is something to aspire to. Cool is utterly and completely subjective, but we’re battered into believing that an empty, soulless, novelty-studded over-indulgent space is an aspiration. Cool is all about the aesthetic of sprezzatura, and nothing to do with the occupants. Yet the desire for cool seems to be plugged by those who, in the same breath, want us to know its “all about people”. In the imagery, people are blurs, shadows, because they don’t fit or belong. It is by definition without warmth. It’s not about cool, it’s about what works for you and your organisation, and if that means vanilla, that’s just fine.

In #Untrend 7 – in the gig economyeveryone will be freelance. This is intrinsically connected to Myth 1, where those who are freelance are convinced everyone else will join them in a Macbook-and latte-wielding frenzy of freedom from the corporate yoke. There is a darker side to the dream. What “freelance” often means to the less privileged is akin to the stevedores “standing on the stones” (in America called “shaping”) waiting for the chance to work. For the under-employed professionals, pay rates are being forced down by a market becoming ever more saturated. Unshackled from an employment contract, in all respects the freelancer is shackled to uncertainty. It’s a simple trade-off. The future is more likely a hybrid of the traditional employment model and the over-romanticised freelancer of today – but it’s a long way off.

Linked to the above, #Untrend 8 is that everyone (really, everyone) will be co-working in (wait for it……) co-working centres. That is, despite the fact that the vast majority of people work for larger organisations who provide workspace. Because co-working centres are “cool” (see #Untrend 6) and don’t look like corporate offices. That is partly explained by their being smaller, and the fact that people pay to use them – so their product has to appeal sufficiently for people to part with (ever larger) amounts of cash. While it has a place in the market and has helped corporates consider their workplace design, injecting a depth of personality from the more domestic and leisure influences, in its physical form it remains a niche product and idea. To a significant extent it is already moving away from its original ideal of workspace-as-mutually-supportive community, instead in many instances becoming a hipster version of Regus. At the end of the day, whichever way you look at it, without the spirit and practice of community, it’s an office.

Where there is mention of co-working, under the same stone can usually be found talk of #Untrend 9 – that Gen Y will change everything. That’s because from absolutely nowhere and with no foundation in anything approaching objectivity has emerged the idea that this “digital native” tranche of the population will bring an attitude and perspective that the insulted and inured hordes over whose bodies they now lightly tread could not. There isn’t a #generationblah tag for nothing – its bunkum, pure Age of Aquarius stuff. It could be argued that Generation X made a more lasting contribution to the invigoration of an era – and by that I just mean Billy Idol’s combo.

And so the last for now – #Untrend 10 – in this “VUCA” world providing a fantastic workplace is complicated. It’s not, it’s ridiculously simple if we just stop looking for problems and excuses for not doing something about it. It just requires the application of simple sense to create the #elementalworkplace. When we get to the point of taking blood samples to work out whether we’re enjoying a collaborative space, we know we’ve come too far. But we don’t like to admit its simple, because then there is nothing to hide behind. Time to cut the Gordion Knot.

Building into the future requires a flexible, functional and generic approach that can let everything else ebb and flow around it. Trends, untrends – if we keep it simple, they just don’t matter.