Pretty Vacant

If there has one element of workplace that has progressed over the last decade, it would be hard to argue against the case for the aesthetic. Despite the sterility that has resulted from commoditised over-branding, in most cases standards of interior design and improvements in the management of build quality have produced a photogenic and richly visual experience. The newly-delivered workplace of today is invariably prettier than at any time previous.

That’s about as interesting as it gets, and may just be where it ends.

A twitter conversation last week – that in many respects exposed the straightjacketing limitations of trying to hold a discussion in stubs of 140 characters over an elongated period of time with five informed participants – exposed the probable limitations of our knowledge.

While Socrates espoused the virtues of being aware of what we don’t know as a basis for meaningful enquiry, it doesn’t sound right to admit that we are proudly aware that we know less than we used to. For despite over a hundred years of the office as a mass-participation staple workplace, and the devotion today of more thinking and application (some may argue talking, at least) on the subject than at any time previous, we appear to know less proportionately about work and the workplace than ever.

Fundamentals such as the following, are a kind of critical garden path – we can’t answer any of the questions without having answered the previous, or we always end up back at the first:

  • As I alluded to recently, we are not sure what work really is: despite it often being glossed over to reach apparently easier questions, it is our first base
  • From which, we must – it follows – be unsure exactly where work takes place
  • We must therefore be even less sure what constitutes a workplace – the two previous posts on Place, and the comments on each, underline this uncertainty
  • How we might best provide for work to happen effectively and productively, if we don’t know what it is, where it takes place or what a workplace is?
  • If we are not sure what a workplace is, how we can possibly know what constitutes a great workplace – or how to create and sustain one?
  • If we are not sure what the workplace of today really is, how to set about improving it?
  • And if we don’t know what it is today, surely we shall be less able to know what it will be in the gaping void of “tomorrow”…?

The exponential increase in the complexity and interrelationships of the modern commercial world are making it ever less likely we shall know the precise answers. The shallow, lacquered and laminated aesthetic makes no contribution to our enquiries, we can see our face in it, but little else.

We may – like it or not – have to accept a level of vacancy instead, flapping around in the slipstream of a general inclination or impression – social, conversational, and imprecise.

We may not be able to answer all, or even some, of the questions. But “we know how we feel….”

2 thoughts on “Pretty Vacant

  1. Here’s an idea. Why not encourage people to try their hand at painting. Give folks some materials and some time and see what they can come up with by way of a visual interpretation of work. Maybe their work – maybe ideal work – maybe hell at work? Paint your way to better work. Share the results. I’ve seen a recent example of graduate art on display in the main office of a hotel company – it looked great and gave a sense of what people working there felt about their work.

    Just a thought….

  2. I like where your head is at Doug. If employees feel like they are a part of the process in shaping their workplace environment, I think they will ultimately feel more at peace in that space.

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