Three chords and the truth of workplace

‘Three chords and the truth’. Country music, as described by the American singer and songwriter Harlan Howard.

More songs than can be counted have been written using just three chords, across almost every genre. Status Quo carved a fifty-year career out of them. The 12-bar blues – the foundation of just about all the music we have ever belted out remorselessly in the shower convinced an A&R exec will be walking past and we’re going to make it – comprises three chords, based on the first, fourth and fifth notes of an eight-note scale.

There is something compelling about the fact that with three chords you can make a song. After all, they don’t get much better than Joy Division’s Atmosphere. That’s not to say you don’t need talent. In many respects you need far more songsmithing talent than if you let rip with dozens, as the entire progressive rock movement discovered shortly before it disappeared up its own 18-minute indulgence.

When I started talking about The Elemental Workplace after its publication last Spring the opening question would usually be: of the twelve elements that comprise a fantastic workplace, what are the three most important? I would explain that while there is always a temptation to further shorten a short list in this reductionist age, I couldn’t do that and every situation is uniquely defined by its context: dial some up, dial some down, as needed. Even in the same place tomorrow it may be a different mix.

But then while watching the Ramones, extensively featured on a documentary just called Punk about the earliest New York years of the life-changing genre, narrated by the granite-carved Iggy Pop, I found myself mulling it over.

There is some poetic (musical) license here. The three chords are not always the same, it depends which key you’re in. We could call that our context – of the twelve elements there will be three of particular interest, relevance or importance to that particular situation. However, I’m going to suggest that other than for exceptional circumstances, there are three that create the truth.

So, you must be able to make a fantastic workplace out of three things without denying the importance of the other nine, if three is all you’ve got. If you’re going to make a fifty-year career out of workplace consulting, setting aside the obvious question of why on earth you’d even think of doing that, from here you’ll need – connectivity, coffee (in the generic sense) and washrooms.

Connectivity – because it’s like oxygen. Unless you are on a digital detox retreat, how breathless do you feel when the Wi-Fi goes down or you lose 4G? Captain Bligh in a little boat off Tahiti. Work is almost exclusively digital in some form. We have never been so connected as a race and we’re likely never to regress, unless they put the Big Red Button in Trump’s morning throne room. There is absolutely no excuse for not having superfast connectivity, whether you plug it in or it’s floating. And really, if I’m a guest, don’t give me a hand-torn (‘artisan’) slip of paper with a 17-character alphanumeric password, it’s not a good look when I’m in your multi-million pound/euro/dollar (all the same about now) reception. Just get me online, I can’t breathe.

Coffee – which now means the morning elixir of the same name or tea or brewed chocolate or whatever your drink – is a word for pausing with a purpose, either alone or in company, or in the misty myths of workplace lore likely to make a new, unexpected and fruitful connection while queuing to admire the barista’s craft. We suffered decades of instant, powdered or vended gravy-like crap and so the prospect of drinking something worthwhile is a pleasure that those entering the workplace in the last five years or less probably won’t fully appreciate. There is no longer any excuse whatsoever for anything but bean-to-cup – and teabags that are not a miserable sack of dust. We know that coffee comes from beans, and tea bushes grow leaves, so we won’t be fooled any longer. I’m really not bothered that the conceptual motif for your workplace design was the dance of the seven veils, I’m here, I’m online, I’ve got my flat white, I can now do amazing stuff.

Washrooms – because you’ll need them physiologically and mentally – relief and sanctuary. They’re outside the realm of the workplace as we perceive it but very much within as we need. They are the quality barometer of the workplace – if you want to know what an organisation thinks of its people, visit their washrooms. Really, do it. They are simple and easy to get right, no rocket science involved, just a bit of plumbing, carpentry and decoration, and remarkably easy to get wrong. Yet they are often the first item red-lined on a workplace improvement budget, considered ‘non-core’. Yet unlike the fika gazebo, flotation tank meeting room and soft-play brainstorm creche, at one stage all deemed essential expenditure, we all use them. When researching The Elemental Workplace, it was surprising how much emotion was unleashed with the ‘bad washroom’ stories – everyone seemed to have one and remembered where. No excuses at all, get them right. Every last detail. Don’t be a bad story.

The three chords and the truth of workplace. You can do anything now. Like this. Be inspired.

2 thoughts on “Three chords and the truth of workplace

  1. There’s an entire world of debate in the reasons why people a) fully appreciate the washrooms angle and what it means for all manner of perceptions about their business, and yet b) get it so catastrophically wrong, so often.

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