History was made on Wednesday the 15th of October 2014 at the @workplacetrends conference #wtrends14. Well, maybe thats stretching it a bit! But it’s certainly the first time I’ve ever seen or had the privilege to be involved in the initiative that was @workstock. Cue a “guerrilla presentation” if you can call it that, consisting of a motley crew of 11 random people with something to say on the matter of the workplace, all presenting Pecha Kucha stylee, back to back, time limited to 6 minutes and 40 seconds each, no breaks except an introductory story for each speaker written and narrated beautifully by the incredibly creative Cara Long.
And so it came to pass that this whirlwind of opinion, perspective, expletives and rants blasted into the face of what was largely a suited and booted audience of workplace professionals representing property developers, designers, facilities managers and even the odd HR pro. I am still not sure quite what they made of it, except it was a massive contrast to the format for the rest of the day. As one of the presenters of that crazy 90 minutes, I’m not going to cover our session here, i’ll leave that to others.
Instead I’m going to share my thoughts on the conference itself, and my reflections on where we are with the workplace issues having seen the good and the great present in a more normal fashion before and after the @workstock ‘gig’. So, in no particular order:
1) The workplace “audience” still seems very conservative. I pitched up for the conference in regulation black T Shirt, black jeans and converse boots. I am, after all, a #MAMIB (Middle age man in black). The venue was superb – 155 Broadgate – very corporate and polished. And so were the audience. I felt somewhat adrift in a sea of suits and ties. Having spent a day in their company and listened to the variety of speakers, “conservative” is the word that sums it up for me. Don’t get me wrong, there was lots of ‘coolness’. You can’t discuss modern workplace design without lots of images showing state of the art facilities and this conference was no exception, with glimpses inside Jay-Z and Kylie Minoges ‘working’ environments, if you can call them that. But the visuals mask a predominantly conservative and, dare I say, male perspective.
2) We are still designing for the collective, not the individual. I have worked in depressing, cubical type work environments – open prisons in any other name – and yearned for something funkier, more collaborative and overall just a lot nicer to be in. But it seems our obsession with personalisation in every other area of business has yet to make it into the world of workplace design. We are still designing for a “one size fits all” approach. I didn’t see much psychology going on in the design either. Sure, there are quiet spaces and collaborative spaces in abundance, but this is less than a hat tip to personality which is a core driver of how we show up at work. Nowhere do I see any real work done or any reflection of personality differences being built or designed into workplaces. If it’s new, then its white, bright and funky. If it ain’t cool, it ain’t cool. Unfortunately, this makes them all seem depressingly similar.
3) We are squandering technology and social advances by not embracing more flexible working. We now have access to technology that I would have not thought possible only 15 – 20 years ago – super computers in our pockets, global connectivity in real time, internet connectivity pretty much everywhere you go, video and voice conferencing at the drop of a hat and for pennies. I can, literally, work comfortably from anywhere in the world. Everything I need is only a click away. Yet to an alien observer watching our workplace habits, they could be forgiven for thinking that very little has changed in the last 30 years. And it hasn’t really has it? Our obsession with “physical presence” means we are totally squandering the technology opportunity and personally, that makes me angry.
4) Re point 3, we keep coming up with new names for flex working eg. Agile, but doing nothing. Flexible working, Agile working, work life balance, work life integration. Every year we come up with a new and sexy name for it. Every year another 1000 metric tonnes of research is published on the subject. And every year the speaker circuit is jam packed with people telling us it’s the way forward. So what do we do? Fuck all it seems. Lets stop talking and start doing. Lets stop dressing it up in yet another buzzword. Its not rocket science people. The tools are there. The workers by and large would welcome it. So why have we not done it?!
5) We are designing 21st c ideas/practices into 19th c infrastructure I.e. The central ‘office’. I applaud the introduction of these new, more collaborative office features I really do. Unfortunately the flaw in the plan is that we are building them into the same old office space. This usually means an office stick in the middle of a city somewhere, which, for many, lies at the end of a crappy, expensive and long commute. For cities like London and Manchester, thats over an hour every day – on average. For many it’s a lot longer. For five years I did a minimum of 3 hours a day, if it all went well.
This is a criminal waste of life. And yet we think modern workplace design is simply to rework the existing work infrastructure? Its not. To do so is to fail. It’s lipstick on a pig. Modern working can be done anywhere – how about building flexible and collaborative spaces in the suburbs where we live? How about we replace some of those charity shops, hairdressers or boarded up retail outlets with co working spaces for those who can’t travel?
6) Which all goes to tell me we are still fixated with inputs, not outputs. This is the crux of it. And it comes down to one word – trust. It was the unsaid word of the conference for me. We don’t want people to create their own workspace because we don’t trust them to do it right. We don’t want people to work remotely because we think they will slack off. We don’t want people to make their own decisions because they will go completely insane and buy a new car on the company stationary account. And of course the worst one of all, if I can’t see you, I can’t control you. It really is time we grew up. It’s time the workplace, and the work, grew up. From what I saw on Wednesday the workplace industry needs a kick in the face. It needs a pecha Kucka swat team to cleanse the world of corporate bollocks with extreme prejudice.
Perry Timms summed it up beautifully in what for me is the quote of the conference:
“Work is fucked. We need to unfuck the work.”
Amen to that.