Pearly dewdrops’ drops

While sifting through the scattergun array of questions and statements on which to respond to another well-meaning workplace discovery initiative, the Stoddart Review – none of which particularly bear any specific relation to the question the review seeks to answer, interesting as they may each be – I found a subject on which this blog had, rather surprisingly, not specifically addressed: workplace design principles. Given that in time it may be a challenge for the committee to find anything including their shoes beneath the collected volumes submitted by the usual suspects, I’ve posted my ha’penny-worth here too. Dewdrops that may just catch the light.

As an aside I do need to call out the invitation’s over-use of one of the most ghastly expressions known to humankind, the “C-Suite”. It’s mentioned four times. As long as this term persists we accentuate an arbitrary differentiation, and undermine ourselves and our ability to influence. Every one of those amazing workplaces you see case studied, published and #conferenceslideblah’d had executive sponsorship and release of the cash to create it. While I maintain that everyone deserves an amazing workplace and there is still much work to be done, particularly the further away you travel from key metropolitan centres, we are by no means or measure collectively starting from a zero base – there just needs to be a more uniform distribution of the commitment. The next thing you know we’ll be demanding a seat at the table.

I would hold that the following good design principles are valid whatever the desired form of workplace to be created, whether you’re and want a hovering gazebo or Boggins Toff and Twaddle furnishing their dreams in walnut. As it’s a matter of the blend, they’re in no particular order, chuck them all in and whisk.

Be smart-ish: Gather evidence – but only just enough (paraphrasing Lloyd Davis) – and thereafter focus on opportunities to allow people to choose to do things differently. Evidence should be both quantitative and qualitative, data and story. We hear far too much blether about Big Data (which for most people of course is just data) but there is as much insight and power in small stories, I would probably argue even more. Creating a great workplace is an open-ended road trip. The rear view mirror – your evidence – is for safety (if you’ve ever tried driving in India without one). What’s ahead is far more intriguing.

Be beta: On the theme of the above, understand that space itself is a journey not a product – a permanent beta trial – which means you are also enabling change long after the space is “finished”. How many change programmes wind up a few weeks after the last move? Very often the success of one space or area mitigates against the success of another, and invariably this occurs over time as people get to understand the space. It’s important to continually observe, test, discuss, measure and be prepared to tweak and change the space, because no-one wants to wait fifteen years for next crusade. It’s also worth remembering that a flexible or activity-based workplace takes much more of this form of managing than a static 1:1 arrangement.

Brief, not brief. Spend time on the Brief. Crikey I must have said this so many times. I think I say it every day. It’s the most important work you’ll do on any workplace creation. A great deal of the time you’re talking to yourself, to ensure it’s what you want – there’s nothing wrong with a bit of self-doubt, but best to have it before you’ve started. It’s important in this process that we talk to people like adults, listen carefully, understand but be prepared to challenge: we should not be waiters taking orders. It’s also worth remembering that the brief isn’t the solution, it’s an aspiration drawn from the data and stories captured and the possibilities the journey prompts. If the Brief looks like a design, it’s a design.

Be clear. Smartarse Briefs like “make us feel uncomfortable” can be easily met with reclaimed seating. Unfortunately in an age where proclamations of the passing of a thing or idea are rife, there is an almost institutional pressure to be “disruptive”. Walk away. Don’t try and be too clever with people’s productivity, wellbeing and comfort, nine times out of ten it will bite you on the very same smart arse (that is, the nine times we never hear about).

Balance like a ballerina. Mark Catchlove captured it beautifully here in this post I wish I’d written. And this has nothing to do with the red herring of introverts and extroverts (which interestingly only introverts seem to talk about). The workplace “industry” continually lurches from one panacea to the other, awaiting the messianic idea. There won’t be one. Balance might not get your scheme in Forbes or FastCompany but let’s face it, that’s probably a good thing. We always rock back on the pendulum to the balance point, when the latest fad proves to be just that and the procession peters out in embarrassment. And as the Gensler Workplace Survey points out every few years, we spend around half of our time working alone, half working with others. That’s a good enough starting point for just about every workplace scheme.

Human being first, aesthetic second. The installations have to work. If you can get them looking beautiful too, that’s delightful. Paraphrasing an architect from many years ago, there is always room in a scheme for something beautiful. But very often aesthetics and ergonomics have to step outside to settle it. Ergonomics should always win. I can hear the long, deep and troubled sigh of a million interior designers, but if more energy went into beautifying ergonomic solutions instead of complaining about them, we might not have to face the challenge.

Include. By definition, just about every installation and space, to some extent, excludes. Steve Maslin (@Bud_Maz) writes about this kind of stuff far more than I am able. But suffice to say as many people as possible must be able to experience and enjoy as much of every workspace as possible. As with the comment above, most of the time we find the beauty of the form mitigating against inclusion and it’s a constant struggle to remain inclusive while delivering a space that’s aesthetically appealing. As with ergonomics, inclusion should always win.

Simplify. But remember than simple isn’t simplistic. Workplace is not a complex subject, despite the attempts of many to make it so. Don’t overcomplicate the Brief, the typologies, the segmentation – you’re just funding a needless consulting sector. There are some lovely ideas associated with this process like Occam’s Razor. And there is no better quote than Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “we have achieved perfection when there is nothing left to take away”. If you’re starting to lose the thread or not understand it, imagine how your colleagues will feel.

Gift choice, not a seating plan. The greater choice you provide, the easier it is to hand control of the workplace to the occupants you’ve created it for (quite a scary proposition for some). A recent article that was so ridiculous I’m not even going to provide a link suggested that organisations should genetically engineer their success by seating the most talented people together. I’ve also seen some barmy stuff about choice being too heavy a burden for people. We provide workspace for adults, and should treat people like adults (even Millennials are adults, which may come as a revelation to some). We need to avoid being too prescriptive, and allow people to use space as they wish. If we provide a considered choice of setting from the most focussed and private to the most interactive, the occupants of the space will do the rest.

Stay relevant. Fads can be so expensive when they’re woven through the workplace. You’re not Google and never going to be Google but by all means learn how and why they do what they do with their space and then decide if there’s anything in it for you. Consider the approach, methodology, thought process, permissions – not the outcome. Your design may then last longer than the initial two second dopamine rush from seeing a climbing wall in the corner.

Sweat the small stuff. The success of the workplace scheme is so very often in the detail and not the vision. Spend less time on chiselling the mission statement and more on what it means to people at the micro level – they’ll look through your grand ambitions to see if their locker is big enough and there’s space in the kitchen for their muesli. As buildings should be designed from the inside out (but never are) then workplace should be designed from the kitchen cupboard out (but never are). Try it.

Actually, try them all.


3 thoughts on “Pearly dewdrops’ drops

  1. Having talked in front of the Review panel myself this week, I (separately) made several of the points that you allude to, most notably that I suggested that most workplace project Briefs are Pants. The consideration that a designed solution can be provided to solve the problems of one moment in time deeply misunderstands and oversimplifies the nature of both human nature and of a place of work. I like the metaphor of workplace as a open ended road trip, it suggests that there could/should be some discoveries along the journey!

  2. Pingback: The lines converging where you stand | workessence

Leave a Reply