Secondhand daylight

So your workplace project is complete.

The aesthetic has exceeded your expectations, there are a myriad of space types for people to work in – and they are – and its was under budget and on time. You have completed your post-occupancy evaluation (please lets find a better term for it than that) and the results are more than acceptable. You see people “collaborating” (actually they are mostly just doing what they are told), focussing and all of the other activities your pre-project consultancy defined.

But something is still missing, and you cannot put your finger on it. Successful as the project has been against all known and commonly used measures, viewed through the lens of your innermost feeling, the image is greyed out. This is the end result of so many workplace projects –almost there, but not quite. As for what is missing, it is elusive – and so we settle for the evidence of the available measures, enter a few awards, turn up with the case study at a conference or two (or in some cases every one going), and happily proclaim success.

But it’s still greyed out. In, as Howard Devoto may have expressed it, – “secondhand daylight”.

I subscribe to the small camp that believes that the phrase “if you cant measure it you cant manage it” ought to be buried along with the code of scientific management that spawned it, alien as it is now to a complex, hyperconnected social world. Most of the challenges we now face in the wider world of workplace, HR, communications and other related fields, extend well beyond those that generate data or possess the characteristics required to be measured. Only when you can’t measure it, does it becomes interesting and potentially significant.

The wider workplace profession needs to understand how and why communities work – and why some don’t, and what can be done to stimulate them. The solutions do not lie in design, or briefing, or specification, a change management plan, or heaven-forbid an acronym. That has been the mistake of the last decade or more.

In many ways, what we want to achieve in real time and space is the type of community that Twitter has created: energised, self-regulating without the need for rules and policies, inclusive, expansive, simple to understand and navigate, facilitating of learning and development, mutual, unjudgmental, forgiving, good natured and humorous, and ultimately fair. It has never ceased to amaze me how willing and happy people are to share knowledge and experience on Twitter, with no expectation of return, and how motivating that experience can be. Attempts to measure the Twitter community have been frivolous and ridiculed, for good reason. It just has a certain entirely intangible ingredient that drives it on, and makes it what it is.

There will be more on this to come. I have been dusting down some old texts I believed had seen their day – nothing to do with workplace, I might add.

Mastering community is the ultimate workplace challenge. To do so, we need to move beyond the tools, processes and influences we have today, and draw from a far wider and deeper pool.

It may not be the holy grail, but it’s certainly the magic dust.

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