Up the hill backwards

Reverse engineering is the process of deducing design decisions from an analysis of the end product, with little or no knowledge of what went into the original idea. It is most often used when history has swallowed the evidence. We have something – how did it get here?

The modern office-based workplace is a product where the predecessor of the serviette – on which the concept design was sketched – was used to mop up some spilled mead, and thereafter returned to the soil. We have been struggling to understand the outcome ever since.

Much of the difficulty is due to the innate and undeniable complexity of the human condition and social relations. Scientists in particular have been trying to force the marshmallow into the slot machine for centuries. I could argue that artists of several genres have been more successful – something for another blog.

The workplace is a product, essentially, of the way we work. Those consulting for client organisations on a strategy for the workplace, its design, operation and future flexibility, by necessity need to understand the way employees of the client go about their business. As the way people work within the vast majority of office-oriented organisations barely differs in any substantive way, “the way we work” gets lumped into one bucket.

However all too often the process undertaken by workplace consultants in contemplating and understanding the way we work is one of reverse engineering, making deductions from a number of given physical situations – each of which was influenced by its predecessors – often adorned with myths peddled by the loudest charlatans on the conference platform.

This is where the present schism between the workplace profession and the progressive end of HR and an emerging genre of social thinkers is all the more concerning. Reverse engineering has produced workplaces that have barely differed for over a decade despite the supposedly uncontrollable pace of change. The workplace of today, and those in progress that will be delivered tomorrow based on the same limited skeletal brief, are fundamentally conservative and uninteresting because they are repeatedly drawn from a flawed reverse-engineered process.

This is why workplace consulting is – and will likely only ever be, in its present form – window dressing. I proclaimed it dead earlier this week, which may have been a little premature. “Retired” might be a better description. It is in fundamentally the wrong place altogether to understand work and where it may be heading, suffering from a paralysing insularity and groupthink. It will never understand work by looking at the workplace. The people and resources it needs to understand the fundamental essence of work are not within its own domain, and need to be actively sought and discovered, engaged and their ideas embraced.

The window boxes look lovely though, don’t they?

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