There is no there: Workplace in 2019

We keep on getting there
Our nerves always raw
As it was long ago
We’ve been here before
Never, never again we swear
We keep on getting there
[Howard Devoto]

I promised myself at the start of 2018 that I would always maintain a positive focus in my blog – if I disagreed with something I would say what I would rather see instead, if something was annoying me I would point to how I felt it might be improved. That sort of thing. As its bloody difficult, I’ve written and filed away far more than I’ve published. I’m going to see it through to this last post though – really, I couldn’t have published the first attempt.

My transition this year from the occupier side where I have spent almost 90% of my property career to an advisory role (never underestimate how tough this is), along with a considerable amount of long-haul travel with Unispace, together with the quite fantastic conversations I’ve had as a result of the Elemental Workplace emerging in March, have all shaped a very different outlook. Its coincided with the most marked focus on Workplace in industry in my recollection. I have no idea what is going to happen next year either with my own career or with Workplace, but I hope we both stay relevant. Here are some ways that the latter can achieve this.

One: remain critical. We still love a shiny yet empty and meaningless soundbite, or a sensational stat from a jamboree bag research kit. We love it more when we don’t have to work too hard to find it. A lot of the bloggers I once loved to read have stopped, and we’re much poorer for it. The more that Workplace attracts attention the more the bell-curve inevitably bulges with mediocrity. Accept nothing at face value until you’ve thought it through. You’re not an influencer unless you’re sharing something useful, so avoid the rising torrent of click-bait and don’t pass anything on until you’ve read it and see it of value in a discernible way. Share less, but better. That way we’ll all learn together.

Two: seek balance, avoid extremes. The ruts they leave are the bandwagon trails: collaboration, engagement, biophilia, wellbeing, experience (now reaching an almost-offensive peak), to name a few. Each one has arrived in a frenzy and departed in quiet confusion. There is something valuable in each, to recognise, understand and deploy, but not at the expense of its counterweight. With every important emergent idea, we risk over-exposure, over-use and overdose. We need to treat our ideas better.

Three: move upstream. Be a salmon. We study and understand organisations through the lens of workplace, from its purpose to its values to its talent and markets. The workplace is nothing without understanding them. It’s not easy to do this, and it’s not easy to play it back to organisations – especially when they want to do the entire opposite of the stuff they have plastered all over the walls. We must never stop seeking the source, and mapping what we find.

Four: be generous. Acknowledge the origin of ideas, quotes, phrases, points. Just because its ‘on the internet;’ doesn’t make it yours. I’ve listened to and read my own stuff played back to me without a flicker of embarrassment. If we don’t know whose idea it was at least say ‘this isn’t mine but I’m not sure whose it is’. Chances are in this collectively unconscious world someone may have had the same thought as you, at the same time. If you turn up at the party wearing the same top as someone else, be gracious and laugh about it – one of you doesn’t need to go home.

Five: be discerningly open. Learn from others but don’t get hung up on structures. Nothing comes with a job title but an expectation, so be prepared to look past it. The latest unfair weight of expectation has been tipped out of the gravel lorry onto HR, hiding in plain sight as a ‘business partner’. It’s a simple check that shows that the overwhelming majority of an HR Manager’s working life has absolutely nothing to do with Workplace. Seek out the enlightened and committed. They could be absolutely anywhere inside your organisation.

Six: move on. From the open plan food fight, that is. All fourteen workstyles grapple with the same two polar issues – working together with teams and/or meeting new people, and undertaking quiet focussed work and/or interacting freely and spontaneously with colleagues – and all fourteen are unable to entirely resolve either. Its why there are fourteen workstyles and not one. We recognise that the open genre isn’t a panacea and like the other thirteen workstyles has its drawbacks, and so we navigate the challenge with intelligent strategy (being a salmon) and excellent, thoughtful design.

Seven: demand diversity. All male conference panel? Don’t attend. You’re a bloke and asked to be on a panel? Ask for the name of the other members, and if it’s not balanced, decline. Boycott until its resolved. Despite a growing awareness of the issue this year, the much-tweeted and quite shameful photo from a well-known workplace conference last month shows that we still have a long way to go. If conference organisers can’t get it right, we can ensure they do.

Eight: be humble. You’re not a thought leader, or a keynote speaker, or an influencer, unless others decide you are, for their own reasons. Workplace similarly needs to recognise and understand its contribution, yet acknowledge its part in a complex and dynamic environment. Mark Eltringham would say context too. Some of the claims to the near-mystical power of the workplace, or components of it, to enhance wellbeing and improve performance are damaging to the credibility of the industry, driven also by an uncritical consideration of what wellbeing means. We need to handle with care – yes, even marketers need to.

Nine: keep believing. We have started something. Don’t let it fall away, or descend into trivia, or become diluted. Keep thinking, sharing, writing, solving, exploring, pushing, enquiring, designing, creating, learning. In no particular order because there isn’t one. We have to keep getting better at what we do, we haven’t got there, because there is no there. I’ve said it enough times before, a workplace is a perpetual beta, a journey not a product. But that said, just for the next few weeks, take a long, slow breath.

As for me staying relevant, that’s tougher and I’m too knackered to even think about it. Have a super Christmas everyone.

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  1. Pingback: Meatspace, cyberspace, the uncertainty of expertise and some other stuff - Workplace Insight - Loved Workplace

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