Together in eclectic dreams

It’s often said that parents spend the first year of their child’s life encouraging them to talk and walk, and then the next seventeen telling them to sit still and shut up. We’ve got to that in reverse with the workplace. After decades of designing the workplace so that colleagues would sit quietly, get on with their work and not disturb anyone until the bell went and everyone could put their chairs on their desks and file out, we are now encouraging the opposite – physical activity in the pursuit of wellbeing, mobility between worksettings in the hope of collaboration and network building, and dialogue through to ‘working out loud’ as a means of connecting, learning and developing.

All the research (which isn’t much) satisfying a basic level of credibility (scope, sample size, method) points to us naturally spending half our time in quiet, focussed solo activity and half in collaborative team pursuits. What the research doesn’t tell us is that while we’re doing our own stuff, we also need to be near our team, because we don’t split our day into neat self-contained halves either in terms of time or physical space, we integrate that activity.

Yet team planning in the workplace has never been easy. There are two overlapping alternatives. One, taken straight off the organisation chart, has all people under the same manager working in the same space, directly mirroring the functional hierarchy – the teams that people are told they need to be in. The second has those that come into being for the purpose of getting work done, mixing disciplines, with people often forming part of several teams with varying calls on their involvement – the teams that people actually need to be in. Work functions increasingly like the latter, and less like the former. It’s the reason for the rapid growth of collaborative platforms such as Slack. Yet in the physical workplace teams have to battle against convention to make it happen. We think that by calling a space ‘agile’ it caters for the informal arrangement of teams, that the job is done. Of course, it doesn’t and it’s not.

There is a central problem at the heart of all fourteen workstyles – they are created around the individual, the smallest non-divisible unit, and not the team. Even the more radical of the agile genre requires that individuals self-organise and find ways to make the environment work for them, carving out and congregating in spaces in any degree of co-ordinated fashion that happens to work.

In these agile workplaces, assumptions of mobility are inherent. There is an idealistic view that people with gossamer-thin plug-and-play laptops and tablets will flit around the workplace free of paraphernalia, docking and undocking, magically finding those they need just waiting to co-spawn that all-important innovation, while filing their time between by landing next to fascinating new people with time on their hands bursting with synergistic ideas. It’s Fantasy Island.

What often happens is we end up with the two worst types of workplace we see emerging at present. The first is ‘enforced agile’ (no-one calls it that of course) where stationary colleagues are cattle-prodded from their concentration or interaction into moving worksetting for no reason other than that is how the workplace was intended to operate. It doesn’t matter that they were actually okay where they were.

Alternatively, we see agile workplaces moving into the car-hire parking lot, cycloptic sensors beneath desks and a master screen in which each is marked red, amber or green so that you can pick a green (empty) spot and try and get there before anyone else does to get your head down for some serious e-mail. They come complete with no need whatsoever to speak to anyone at all. Strangely they are being seen as a solution to our inability to look for a desk that’s free when we need it, an inability that has never been identified. It is technology looking for a problem. It is the ultimate zombification of the workplace. A hundred years of workplace, and that’s as far as we’ve got.

The reality is that people work in teams, but invariably those not on the organisation chart. Teams form and re-form, they’re not static. People still need focus-time and the places to make it happen, free of distraction, but they need to know where their team is, and that they can work together when they need. Their patterns of need are likely different from all the other teams around them. That doesn’t mean social engineering or ‘playground friends’ as some organisations have created, it means planning for people being in teams of as-yet unknown shape and composition, and for indeterminate periods of time. It is an eclectic dynamic.

None of the fourteen workstyles has cracked it, because it’s not a workplace design issue. The trouble is, we always think it is because it’s the only tool we have. In many ways the agile genre is better able to deal with it, because it allows for easier form/re-form planning without lugging furniture around or re-building walls. But that’s not the answer, as any kind of workstyle or hybrid can potentially be made to work. The ‘open plan’ beat-up is an irrelevant distraction, ignore it, don’t get involved (say in the voice of Phil Mitchell). When teams form and re-form the workplace doesn’t need re-designing, it needs to be planned for better use.

Self-organisation wont crack it. The idea of the free-for-all activity-based workplace is too much to ask. People are too busy to try and solve dynamic workspace allocation along with everything they are supposed to be doing. Or even without everything they are supposed to be doing. This is mainly because every other team is trying to do the same thing at the same time. It’s like idea we once toyed with of the reconfigurable workplace, it never happened because some of the toys were always taken – it was a workplace designer’s idea of what people wanted, removed from the context of daily working life.

None of the existing technology has cracked it – if anything it has exacerbated the problem, looking at it from completely the wrong direction, killing collaboration and returning us to the poverty of the desk farm, all the while assembling mountains of entirely useless data for no reason at all because we just can’t get enough of it. We hide behind mounds of useless data we don’t know what to do with because only working with the data we need is too scary. For good measure it adds the dark potential for the Neo-Taylorist tracking of your every move.

The flexible workplace offer (co-work, in old money) hasn’t cracked it either, it has just perpetuated it. Its rightly shaken up an institutional lease model and its denial of the customer that had it coming for decades, but there is nothing in the design of flexible spaces you won’t find in a modern corporate centre. You just get a much smaller space in which to get frustrated. Or you get to rent two or three times as much to achieve the same level of frustration.

This isn’t about creating a fifteenth workstyle – its about making the fourteen we have work for teams and the way teams work, even when the team members need to do their own work. The days of planning the workplace around the individual are over.