Workplace Surveys: Living by Numbers

N.B If you have a short attention span or are easily bored please don’t read this until your ready. It may take as long as 15 whole minutes. Excluding the YouTube video at the end.

Tottenham Court RdIn 1988, which is incidentally 98.87% of the current dateline from year 0 to the present year 2013. I took up my first full time Design post in London. It followed four years arduous study of Interior Design in Glasgow or 8.33% of my life to date. I was just an impressionable young but ambitious fellow of only 23. So in fact at that time my college days represented 17.39% of my life.

Who isn’t ambitious at 23, or even 33 or 43, but at 48 and beyond it’s a matter of embracing reality, mortality and finding a wealth of happiness in what has always been there but never before seen. If I am lucky enough to live until say 80 I will have already now lived 60% of my precious 100%, or if you prefer fractions 3/5 of my short time on this big blue ball of stardust fun.

That’s 32 years or 11,680 days to go. 280,320 hours or 16,819,200 minutes, but if you look on the upside it’s 1,009,152,000 seconds, correction 1,009,151,999 seconds, correction…oh you get the idea! It’s probably best not to count or dwell on the numbers too much or is it? Lets see…

GPO-TowerOn a rare lunch break walkabout during the long hot summer of my first few weeks in the metropolis 25 years ago. I wandered down Tottenham Court Road and within sight of what was still lovingly referred to as the GPO tower (BT Tower), insert visions of giant white cat trying to pull it down in ‘The Goodies’ BBC title sequence. I passed the open doorway of a glass-fronted shop.

Through the blinding haze of reflected sunlight, I could see maybe a dozen or so people of all ages and genders writing intently on shallow little grey laminated desks, in four long benches of semi private booths; desk, screen, desk, screen, desk, screen etc. Half the positions were vacant, but all had been provided with a cheap disposable blue plastic pen placed on top of a sheet of cream coloured paper. The type of paper you can always guess is made from recycled sources and unsuccessfully bleached white. All the chairs at the little grey desks were of the stackable type I remembered using a decade earlier on a daily basis, at my secondary school in Glasgow in the late 1970’s.

It’s odd when you think back on an object or a room you used so often in the past, how much detail you remember. The tentative recollections fire off long forgotten synaptic impulses, which awaken in you as if you had been sleeping deeply in a silent green meadow. The emerging partial black and white thoughts are like droplets of light summer rain descending slowly and sporadically at first, but then more heavily and warmly until suddenly your caught in a colourful cascading shower of swirling fully formed memories running down the back of your neck, your unable to resist being soaked in the past. In that state of being drenched in memory we can recall smells, sounds, sight and touch sensations and often a myriad emotions. Our memories though, may be false and coloured by our age at the time, and even our state of development or perhaps attachment to others, but how can this be helped. Reality is in the eye of the beholder.

Our memories are by obvious definition personal, and as such they seem to hold great meaning for us, as they have been the stepping-stones in our development to who we are at any point in our past and of course now. At least this can be said in terms of our ego and any attachment we may have to our past and our previous experiences.

polyside-1-orangeSo anyway that said, these particular chairs were a distinctive flame red colour in moulded polypropylene. They were faintly stippled on the facing side, and smooth on the reverse. The continuous edge of the chair was curved away from the sitter in a gentle radius, forming a smooth bevelled surface beneath your thighs, and on each side where you could rest your palms and using the fingertips of your middle two fingers, flip back the plastic edges in a pointless displacement activity. The upper edge of the chair-back stopped at a height below your shoulder blades. Consequently, you could lean back heavily into the chair and push down with your extended legs and the chair surfaces would curve forgivingly at your back and thighs to take the added stress of it’s frustrated tensing occupant. They’re also perfect for tapping out an irritating little rhythm with your fingernails.

Given the chairs weight distribution and the squeaky friction properties of warm plastic, I remember you could pick up the chair from any corner or edge and have it hang under it’s own weight from only two fingers. The thin steel tubular legs were anodised in black, with hard rubber shoes on each of the four legs, with the obvious intent of preventing scratches to any hard floors, but perfect for producing occasional ear piercing juddering squeals every time they were pulled across the same hard floors. The chairs were in fact the design classic ‘Polyprop’ chair designed by Robin Day in 1963 for S.Hille & Co, and over 14 million have been sold, making it likely the best selling chair in history. Go figure!

Each attendant scribbler in this strange and curious little shop (of horrors) was filling out a vast questionnaire with multiple sheets stapled neatly together in the top left hand corner. As I soon discovered, the busy respondents were all ticking the answers to 200 multiple-choice questions. ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Maybe’. There were numerous questions of great philosophical and apparently existential importance. Such as how you thought in certain difficult circumstances or what you felt about others or whether you felt your personality was X, Y or Z etc.

Headband-GirlAs I slowly walked by and continued to gaze curiously into the shop front, a young woman approached me. She was in her mid twenties, with a smooth olive complexion, evenly tanned and maybe a little Latin looking. She had dark brown eyes, an unremarkable nose, thick and wavy shoulder length brunette hair, tied carefully back with a patterned red hairband, which lay tightly but comfortably across the hairline at her forehead and disappeared below and behind her small flat ears at the back of her neck. Her dark brown wavy curls were highlighted when they momentarily turned a bright copper colour as she turned her head toward me in the bright sunshine.

She wore a pair of white canvas lace up sand shoes, and short white ankle socks. I could see her legs were as smoothly tanned as her face when I noticed the narrow band of skin above her ankles exposed by the fashionable ¾ length white leggings, which disappeared beneath the French style navy blue and white striped cotton top, with a wide low cut neck edged in navy blue. The sleeves of her top had been pulled up and folded back just below the elbow. She wore no jewellery of any kind save for a simple small analogue watch, with a light brown matt leather strap, and a rather incongruous looking dark brown leather shoelace double wrapped around her left wrist and tied in a tight basic reef knot. Some kind of romantic keepsake perhaps?

She fixed my attention with a warmly inviting glance, too long for comfort. As if she knew me, and I had forgotten who she was. It was utterly irresistible. She held out the clipboard in the grip of her right hand, beckoning me towards her, and as such demanding my interest. She said “Hi, how are you?” in what was a faint wisp of an unplaced American accent, and she asked me “Would you like to take a free intelligence test?”.  Gulp! The irony of this offer still makes me cringe before forcing out a subdued chuckle to myself. My curiosity then, as it is now, is one of my very few super powers, as well as one of my many handicaps.

Now I don’t consider myself naïve or easily fooled, but I do try taking people at face value upon first meeting and I assume that what they are saying is honest and well intended, even when it turns out not to be the case, as in this instance. “It’ll only take ten minutes, come in and have a seat” she said, in a now familiar ‘Mid-Atlantic Droll’. “My name is Melissa by the way, what’s yours?”, “Adrian” I said confidently and clearly, whilst all the while holding a tight lipped but courteous smile. Not wishing to look over enthusiastic or gormless, which I recollect may have been my usual disposition at that time. We all have our crosses to bear.

L-Ron-HubbardI was ushered inside, thinking oh this’ll be fun, and it only takes 10 minutes. Even as I walked through the open full height glass door to take a seat on one of these orange plastic design classics, I could see off to the side, covering almost an entire wall, a huge job lot of identical thick books (More Irony). They were piled from floor to waist height, and all seemed to be the same book, with what seemed a one word title that I couldn’t quite see, but which was noticeably embossed in a large gold font emblazoned across the top half of the cover. My momentary attention to any detail was distracted as I was shown a seat by this outwardly cool and confident American girl, Melissa. I was firmly but politely directed to answer every question honestly, if the results were to be accurate. Of course the first thing I did, like we all do with an exam paper, especially multiple choice, is to turn each page to see how many questions there were.

As it was a beautifully warm sunny day, and I was feeling happy and optimistic with life, I merely laughed inwardly at the scale of the task ahead, and began addressing each question carefully in turn, still believing that as it was free and the outcome potentially very interesting, it was worth continuing. I did have my immediate reservations as it was evidently not a short 10 minute exercise. Ten minutes became twenty in the blink of an eye, and then thirty, and as I turned my left wrist to glance at my watch again, I could sense my frustration beginning to simmer, as it was now apparent that there was no air conditioning in the room, and the afternoon sunlight was edging up the now oppressive heat. I must have ticked ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Maybe’ against over a hundred questions. None of which seemed to be related to an actual IQ test.

The battery of questions were quite complex, personally invasive and actually a bit creepy given their now obvious intent to pick up on emotional states and self-confidence. Hey, hold on a minute! I thought. The penny dropped that I had indeed been duped into taking part in a farcical survey exercise in order to influence my thinking. I was presumably going to need a solution to the apparent problems that this daft contrived questionnaire was raising.

You have to remember that in the late eighties in London, and in an age before mobile phones, or the Internet, or even more than 4 TV channels, very few people had heard of the author of this book, that I was dimly being tricked into buying. The author was the notorious box of frogs personality that was L. Ron. Hubbard, and the book was his 1950’s deluded pseudo scientific semi religious psycho-babble ‘Dianetics’. Yup! You guessed it, the founder of ‘Scientology’. Uh Oh!

Needless to say I left the remaining ninety plus ‘essential’ questions and headed quickly for the door feeling somewhat silly. Even so I still had a deeply earnest, Zombie like, basket case male staff member thrust a book in my direction, beseeching me to buy and study the wisdom within. Eh, no thanks mate I’d rather gnaw my own leg off. I’m Outa here!

The reason I recounted this vivid but brief episode in my life from 25 years ago was that it is primarily a story and as such a personal experience in my own words which you’re likely to remember, or at least be amused by, because it’s personal, detailed, and woven with some imagery, colour, subtlety and description. It’s length and descriptive nature and seemingly obscure asides are quite deliberate and serve to demonstrate the difference between a percentage rich ‘Pie Chart’ and a human story based upon experience.

If you have read this arguably long blog post in order to get to some kind of rich pay off at the end to justify your reading, you may miss the point about human stories versus numerical statistics. Sometimes we need to really slow down and listen to the stories people can tell us in order to understand them. Only you can determine whether you have the time or inclination to understand other people, in order that you can connect and help them grow and become more fulfilled, productive and hopefully enlightened. It’s a universal human truth that a feeling of being productive, and adding something to the whole, is as life affirming as a loving relationship. Also, very importantly this blog is also a story about surveys and the fact that all surveys are by definition predetermined and have a purpose in mind for the surveyor or their sponsor, and as such I would argue should have a warning or disclaimer. Something along these lines perhaps:

Generic Workplace Survey Disclaimer:

Pie-Chart‘This workplace survey will be used to generate percentages set against totals in order to generate graphic summaries, pie charts, histograms and priority lists under various predetermined headings. Your responses will be anonymous and aggregated, and your participation is as significant as a single byte of data. That is to say the computer memory required to encode a single text character. Such as ‘0’ or ‘1’. There is no room for narrative, imagination, creativity or questions not already in the survey software.

The main thing you need to remember is that WE are the ones asking the questions, and WE know best what those questions ought to be. There will be no traceable link between your responses and how this data is applied in a real world scenario, such as in the design of your workplace. Your new workplace will likely look the same as it would whether you complete this survey or not. This is in all honesty, primarily a PR exercise to ensure the executive management of our organisation feel they are addressing important environmental concerns for staff in an inclusive and open manner.

Our people are our greatest asset, and only marginally less expensive than our property. So rather than spend excessively long periods of time engaging with you and your colleagues in a complex setting such as an open feedback or workshop session over many hours or days, we felt it best you take 10-12 minutes to follow this link and complete this convenient e-survey. Remember your responses are important to us, and be reassured again that they remain anonymous and are aggregated, so you can rest assured that your participation is numerical at the end of the day. We feel that keeps things fairly simple and certainly it’s far easier to manage a few numbers in a spreadsheet than human experience. That is not to say that we don’t consider you all a very important member of the ACME widget production family. Thank you for your participation in this survey.’

Removing tongue from cheek at this point. It may be that the only people who feign interest in caring about the outcome of workplace surveys are those whose job it is to generate some data to bring to the board of directors in order to make a financial decision that generally benefits only the board and shareholders. So seriously, let’s be honest, stop for a moment and think, and say what exactly are we selling to workplace occupants to improve the workplace? Who is the client? Is it the 3% on the board or the other long-suffering 97% who put up with the continuous management and consultancy BS to justify suppressing them ad infinitum.

Here’s a noteworthy statistic for you; 100% of employees in 100% of organisations know you’re talking self-perpetuating 1k a day consultancy guff, but most play the game and maintain the conceit if only to hang on by their finger nails to their precious desks, which they can’t entirely identify with because they’ve been told to get with the programme, clear their desk and share. It’s a work anywhere world now, not because it saves real estate space, but because it’s a really fantastic idea that encourages much more serendipitous interaction, and far more creativity and collaboration. So if that doesn’t make sense to you we don’t want you. Charming huh? Thats what ‘Creativity’ and ‘Collaboration’ actually mean in the contemporary workplace.

There is inescapably only one thing employees’ need in any workplace change programme, and that’s to be told the truth by someone whom they trust. That may or may not be an intellectually shallow ‘Design Consultant’ only interested in door handles or pretty colours, or it may be an unsung toilet paper changing ‘Facilities Management’ invisible man/woman. It depends whom you trust? Trust is the basis for all human interaction, and if you remember that fact you’ll be able to filter out so much of the commercially focussed, look at me type distractions that seem to multiply daily like an insidious pointless blinding virus.

No matter how much you spin it, you can’t trust a number or a headline, or for that matter a tired old recycled platitude.

‘Living by Numbers’ Courtesy of ‘New Musik’…

The Sound of Silence: Tinnitus

It’s as much a physical wrench as psychological agony when you find yourself head in hands weeping or utterly lost curled in an embryonic ball of complete despair. There are many ways that life can remind us of our own fragile mortality, and the need for a little love, support and understanding.

Tinnitus-1aIn April 2009 at the age of 44, I awoke with a loud high pitched ringing in my ears, perhaps like the sound of a rapidly spinning circular saw combined with a high frequency continuous electronic tone. You could also compare it to the buzzing in your ears as you leave a rock concert. Although in most cases it will dissipate and vanish over a few minutes or hours. Maybe you can remember the feeling of being able to hear others talk and laugh after the show, or the noise of car engines as they roll out of the car park, but all slightly dimmed and muffled by the interference of the buzzing noise in your head. Certainly by the next day it will normally have gone.

Sadly in my case, I’m approaching my fourth anniversary of living with a continuous unremitting high-pitched drone in my ears. It doesn’t deviate, it doesn’t get louder, and it doesn’t get quieter. It hasn’t affected my hearing directly; it’s just that everything I hear is accompanied by this directionless internal high-pitched drone. Some environments which are tiled and reflective or have hard floors are a challenge, and I’m now very sensitive to sharp noises, like the clattering of cutlery or crockery in a cafe. In fact if I’m in any environment where there are multiple voices and much background noise, I will often have to concentrate hard to filter out the background to concentrate on a single voice speaking directly to me. I’ve even found myself craning my neck inadvertently like that of a dog when you call it’s name repeatedly, and it looks at you with head tilted slightly to one side thinking, yes I can hear you, why do you keep saying my name. I know I’m a good boy!

Tinnitus-4The first day of this continuous piercing noise of mine was merely annoying and confusing, as I had no concept of its source. I hadn’t been to any concerts recently, I hadn’t exposed myself to any loud bangs, I hadn’t blasted my brain through excessive iPod use. I couldn’t even say that I was suffering any levels of stress beyond that which we all suffer when we’re self employed and carving out a little niche.

The second day of the buzzing was now beginning to concern me, and I mean really distress me. What was annoying 24 hours previously was now the focus of my every waking thought, as I realised it wasn’t going away as I’d blithely expected. I used cotton buds to clean my ears, I bought liquid eardrops. I opened and closed my jaw while holding my ear lobes and pulling, in the vain hope that it may just be some blockage or other physical cause. I thought perhaps it was trapped water after a recent visit to the pool in the gym.  I even leaned forward every couple of hours, tilting my head over my shoulder and yanked vigorously on my ear lobes as if to open my ears and shake my head like a mad thing, hoping some tiny droplet of water would be released and I would be returned to silence. Had I an audience, It would have looked ridiculous.

Tinnitus-3The third day was the realisation that it was time to urgently see my GP, and get this noise source identified, diagnosed and hopefully halted. I managed to get an appointment within two hours, as opposed to the usual four days. My GP examined my ear canals with his otoscope, tapped a tuning fork a couple of times and presented it to my left and right ear, but he was ultimately non committal on a cause. He did of course do what all GP’s do when stabbing in the dark; he prescribed me a seven day course of antibiotics, just in case it was a bacterial infection. If only!  At my insistence he also referred me to a specialist ‘Audiologist’. Even on this third day my increasing despair and anxiety was tempered with the hope that the specialist would reassure me and remedy the problem. I had an appointment to be seen at the Rivers Hospital in Hertfordshire in ten days time. In the meantime, I wasn’t hopeful about the antibiotics, but I did want them to work.

It was also on this third day having seen my GP and filled my prescription that the possibility of Tinnitus crossed my mind. Believe it or not I actually dismissed the thought initially, thinking I couldn’t possibly have that, it would be too awful to contemplate. It came to mind that only one week earlier, I had seen an item on breakfast TV, where an otherwise fit and healthy guy in his mid thirties was being interviewed about coping with Tinnitus. I remember looking into his eyes as he spoke thinking that must be unbearable, how can you cope? To never know silence again. As the thought drifted across my mind upon leaving the pharmacist, I tried to suppress it in order to remain hopeful and positive. As if that would make a difference.

Tinnitus-2It’s a funny thing hope. In the Greek myth, Pandora’s curiosity to see what was in the box gifted to her by Zeus, caused her to release into the world all disease, poverty, suffering and pain but this was finally followed by the release of the last thing in the box, hope. As without hope how can we bear the worst that life can throw at us. It’s sustaining and a comfort when all seems lost and you find yourself at your lowest ebb. Although, strangely when hope is finally gone there is however a kind of accepting of ones fate. Acceptance is as one gets older the route to much happiness. Why stress over that which you cannot change. I can say that now, but I couldn’t four years ago.

Each day in my early experience of this condition was worse than the last, as the noise in my head was not dissipating and it was evident that the antibiotics were having no effect. What was happening to me was that my increasing anxiety over the terror that this noise was never to leave me was in fact making it worse. The distress and permanence of the droning had caused me to focus upon it more and more, as it was so blatant and unavoidable. All I wanted was for it to stop and give me some peace. Of course the more anxious I became the more prevalent the noise. It’s hard to describe, but my thoughts of hope, which focused upon switching off the tone, was altering my perception of the level of the noise. Although it was in reality no louder, it appeared to be getting louder because of my increasing stress at the thought of it never leaving me. It was and is a vicious and cruel cycle of despair.

My eventual appointment with the specialist ‘Audiologist’ merely confirmed that my hearing itself was fine but that I did indeed appear to have Tinnitus, characterised by a continuous high pitched tone. I was told it was incurable but that occasionally some people, perhaps 1 in 10 see an improvement during their lifetime. The condition can take many forms and have many cruel variations, sometimes accompanied by clicks and bangs and other unexplained auditory surprises. I occasionally have momentary episodes of extreme volume causing acute pain deep in my ears. I try to suppress it by blocking my outer ear canal with my middle finger and pressing it shut. Although you have to remember that Tinnitus is a function of the auditory part of your brain and not actually your ears. Stands to reason really. Duh!

Tinnitus-5I was given only two fundamental pieces of guidance, investigate meditation and relaxation techniques, and buy a device to play the sound of spring rain when sleeping at night. My wife was kind enough to buy a versatile multi function radio from the website of the good people at ‘Action on Hearing Loss’ (Previously known as RNID), which has selectable Tinnitus sound inhibitors, such as fan sounds, pink noise and rain sounds etc. It depends upon which frequency your Tinnitus operates. Apparently high pitch Tinnitus is suppressed to some extent by rain sounds. In those early days before diagnosis and in the first weeks and months that followed I went through untold agonies at the prospect of never being free of this appalling condition. Silence is one of the most precious things we can find in this bleeping ‘always on’ digital cacophony of 21st century life.

Initially, I couldn’t sleep due to the internal noise, or if I turned in my sleep and awoke I couldn’t get back to sleep. I have to add that Tinnitus is perceived much more loudly when your tired or stressed. I couldn’t find any peace I was miserable and desperately unhappy. The other notable point about Tinnitus is that it’s invisible; you can’t hear it, unless you have it. So when you try to explain how much distress your feeling it’s very hard to sympathise with a sufferer, as there’s nothing an observer can physically perceive themselves. There are no scars, wounds, or limping, no missing limbs or crutches, and there are no outward screams of despair. It’s a terrible irony that Tinnitus sufferers live with their horrific noise affliction in the sound of silence. You can’t go about handing out little cards saying, by the way I have a permanent screaming ringing tone in my head, please make allowances.

Tinnitus is a chronic pain like any other, and that’s when all said and done what it is. It’s a relentless unremitting unforgiving cold dark pain. It becomes familiar and part of your existence, and is deeply upsetting sometimes, and simply omnipresent the rest of the time. Imagine if you can, a close and distressing noise with no off switch, then move it inside your head. It defies credible description.

Tinnitus-6It’s astounding what we can become used to whenever life deals us a bad hand. It can also have a surprising upside. This outwardly silent but inner pain of mine, or indeed any pain you may have, forges your character, and makes you much more resilient, and shapes your world view. It makes you perhaps a little more enlightened than most. What I mean by that is that you realize what is important in life is not winning an argument, or a project, or a promotion, or profit, but knowing that our fragility is our common humanity.  We all hurt sometimes, but without the setbacks and difficulties we will not grow and develop stronger bonds.

One thing my four year experience with Tinnitus has reminded me is that we all suffer daily in one form or another but there is a commonly held conceit in business and in the workplace that everything is OK, when it manifestly is not. People are only ill or off their best at home, unseen. People always function 100% effectively firing on all cylinders at work. Well I have developed fully functioning prototype industrial quality ‘Titanium Bullshit Detectors’ (Patent Pending), and this may surprise some folks out there selling workplace satisfaction surveys, with interactive statistical features and graphic results, or purveyors of surveys showing 15% more creativity can be achieved through 30% more collaboration and 42% more innovation. Nobody at the coalface really cares about statistics, seriously they don’t, just make believe for a moment that their human and ask them?

‘The Sound of Silence’ courtesy of ‘Simon & Garfunkel’…

Tomorrow Never Knows: Evolving Ideas

Design-BrainJust because you have a strongly held opinion on an issue or even a doctorate on a subject, or just have a corporate marketing policy or company loyalty, doesn’t mean you’re incapable of objectivity. If an idea, product or service cannot properly take its stand in the marketplace of ideas without collapsing, if it cannot survive without constantly being guarded from outside attacks, then it is arguably not worth much in the first place. Surely good ideas or products have wider purchase because they work, and work very well.

In any group with a common interest, such as the workplace design and occupier community, there is always the danger that those who think alike gravitate together into a clique, where they will henceforth encounter opposition only in the emasculated and limited form of trade conferences, branded seminars, ‘broadcast-only’ blogging and bland corporate tweets from faceless logo avatars. The outcome is that the absent are easily refuted, complacent industry dogmatism thrives, and differences of opinion are often embittered and further entrenched by group dynamics and hostility. Each interest group, whether formal or informal hears only the worst that the other groups can say. Information exchange is based upon filtering noisy output from the other, whilst perched precariously on your own flimsy soapbox.

Ideas-1Outside of commercial interests, we should engage more often, approach each other and say hello, I think I have a different opinion from you, could we share some thoughts and find common ground. I think we could all have something to gain from the experience. We surely want to bring the best from all sides together in the workplace forum in order that we all benefit, and move the big picture agenda forward to the next subject. The agenda itself remains to be written, never mind agreed of course.

Economies and livelihoods depend upon our collective recognition that we have evolved since the industrial revolution to become increasingly interdependent, not only with nature and the environment, but with each other in business and in a wider social context. The lofty ideal of a single symbiotic system, where all connected will benefit, is still a hippy dream, but it’s a good one, and sooner or later I suspect it will happen.

Design-3In the meantime, I would contend that those businesses, organizations and individuals that do not debate or engage with their detractors, customers and employees will fail. Individuals, organizations and their markets are more interdependent now than at any time in human history. It defies logic that anyone in this digital age does not take advantage of social media and the web to engage as much as possible, rather than merely broadcast their narrow self interest agenda. It’s an old school mindset in a new more complex game. A vivid analogy might be that of the folly of a majestic cavalry charge in the new mechanized conflict of World War I. We all have access to new communication technologies now, and our ability to capitalize on them is restricted only by our imagination, and arguably our social skills and desire to engage.

Given the pace of change in this declining global economy, unprepared businesses will evaporate almost overnight. If your hoping everything will be OK in a year or two, and things will just pick up, they won’t. The global economy has changed forever; there is no going back. We can’t undo the banking crisis, the housing collapse, the Eurozone debts or the death of the high street, with the rise of the online marketplace and social media. It is doubtless already too late for some. On an almost weekly basis now we are seeing big traditional businesses calling in the receivers and declaring bankruptcy, or selling themselves cheaply to keep a few core jobs. Although an over simplification, the overheads of the old economy are too high, and better-designed higher quality products are increasingly available within hours from anywhere in the global marketplace. The same applies to news, entertainment, and other information services. I think we’re seeing the tip of a huge iceberg, and the ‘Titanic’ mindset of some is still piloting full steam ahead slicing through cold clear blue water, hoping all is well.

Splendid-1-97The insular dynamic in many businesses is also tragically due to the short-term profit motive of those on the board, and other shareholders who benefit from annual dividends and bonuses, at the expense of the sustainability of the business. Problems are also due in part to the rare but often-powerful moronic luddites who still think it’s funny to say ‘I refuse to use a computer’, and worse that ‘Social Networking’ is just for kids and the marketing department. In reality these people are not making any positive change to their business at all or addressing how their organization grapples with new concepts, idea generation, communication and more dynamic ways of tapping into the intellectual wealth of their people, and their customers.

A conversation on the mechanics and processes employed in any business, that may lead to material change and reconfiguration is understandably a concern for any executive, but if you don’t engage with your people to make your changes now by choice, you will be forced to emulate the market leaders, and pay lip service when arguably it will be too late anyway. The choice and responsibility is yours.

Whatever your business, this particular ‘Workplace Consultant’ and ‘Blogger’ would like to say ‘Social Media’ and the ongoing ‘Workplace Design’ debate is more than the sum of it’s parts. When you understand how it can connect ideas and people it will evolve your business model, and open up a world of (Profitable) possibilities.

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ courtesy of The Beatles…

Crunchy Creative Clusters: Seriously Nutty

I believe ‘Creativity’ is one of the most misunderstood and misused words in common circulation in workplace circles, and further afield. Its been doing the rounds again recently on twitter and in workplace related blogs. It’s as commonplace on twitter as it’s mystical more pragmatic twin ‘Collaboration’. The prevailing wisdom is that organisations need to be more ‘Creative’ in order to ‘Innovate’ and thrive in the new digitally connected workplace paradigm. Perhaps so, but how?

ArtistsIt’s recently become the pet marketing project of the folks who sell on behalf of ‘Design & Build’ and ‘Fit-out’ contractors. One could almost say there is a rolling bandwagon, which many can’t resist. After all it’s sure moving quickly and it seems to be going where everyone else is looking. Why stop, think and challenge? If you’re a marketing manager and you see numerous articles which state that organisations need to encourage greater ‘Creativity’ in order to innovate, then that’s what you do, no thinking required. Get the graphs and data out; issue an e-Survey, tappety tap tap on Google and ‘Bobs your uncle’, you too can be making highly ‘credible’ assertions about the power of ‘Creativity’, and how its going to be the panacea that makes everything better. Forget the fact that you’ve actually got no idea what you’re talking about or whether it matters or not. It’s what everyone else is talking about. Right?

However, 26% of respondents in your survey indicated more social spaces would boost creativity, and 18% say better coffee would do it, or 24% point to temperature control. 22% go for better food and drink, and 21% want better quality furnishings to help them be more creative (Comfier cushions?). Eh! Hold on a second! Isn’t that a total of 111%. Oh never mind, nobody really adds it all up anyway, it’s just a few statistics to draw the traffic to your online door. A bit of harmless brand boosting. After all you have to say something, and if folks actually knew what you really did to get that healthy profit margin, they wouldn’t believe a word you said on any subject, and certainly not pronouncements on ‘Creativity’.

BrainThe building contractors and manufacturers, who sell ‘Creativity’ to the commercial office community, do so in the same fashion as breakfast cereal companies sell vitamins and minerals at the breakfast table. It’s a marketing necessity to justify the expense of a mass produced product that both rots your teeth and makes you fat. We gobble up tasty breakfast cereals because of the sugary content, making it taste so good. We don’t truthfully care about the added vitamins that justify the purchase. Any marketing focussed on minor nutritional benefits we accept, but it’s not why we buy. If cereal firms (Metaphorically, Design & Build and Fitout) valued vitamins and minerals so highly perhaps they’d go into the fruit and veg business (Architecture & Interior Design), or perhaps that’s not so profitable?

In the meantime, please read the fine print on the packaging:

Crunchy Creative Clusters: Typical Values Per Serving;

(Served with 100 Semi Skimmed Tweets);

Energy: 217Kcal

Verifiable Facts: 8.7g

Collaboration: 31.3g

of which Creativity: 14.0g

Fads: 12.4g

of which Statistics 3.3g

Fibs: 2.5g

Social Media Content: 0.05g

Contains 111% RDA Vitamin (C)reativity.

(May contain nuts)

The irony is that I’m pretty sure the Property Managers, FM’s and bona fide Interior Designers know the truth, but nobody will speak up and say, what on earth are you talking about? What does a creative workplace really look like? Presumably for fear of appearing to ask a dumb question, when so many apparent experts have so many answers (Or is that questions?). Well don’t be fearful, speak up and debate the issue. You may end up being right and taking the workplace agenda in an entirely sensible direction, focussed upon designing beautiful functional spaces. Good ‘Interior Designers’ and ‘Workplace Consultants’ have always listened carefully to occupiers needs and employed their skills, and best practice to provide a solution to match occupier needs.

Human NeedsGood professional designers don’t invent marketing column inches quoting stats that they can’t justify. They just don’t need to, because they know what matters and what is important, and indeed always design specifically for unique circumstances. ‘Creativity’ may be the last thing you want to encourage in your business. Non-PC but true. What most people want is some challenge and responsibility, they want to be valued by their peers, they want choices in their career, and they want some degree of income security. Most folks honestly don’t care if they work in the office or from home, if fundamental needs are met. Given the choice of being valued by peers or working from home, most folks will gladly schlep their way into the office five days a week. Besides it’s life affirming and often just good fun. Getting a sense of proportion, we’re not talking about palliative nursing care on an oncology ward, sweeping the streets at 5am in the rain or dodging IED’s in far-flung lands. The office is the soft underbelly of this thing we call work.

Creative-1Sales and marketing professionals talk and write apocryphal multisyllabic guff as a matter of course. It’s a well-known fallacy that to sound clever you need to use big words, and speak with earnest conviction. The ‘Marketeers’ seldom if ever know how to make the product, or provide the service their selling. It’s a sad irony. They pick up some of the language of workplace design, especially online and think with a little knowledge they know what the issues are for occupiers, and can point to the solutions. A sure fire giveaway of the experienced marketing executive is the avoidance at all costs of plain language. It risks exposure. The truth is that the average call centre operative, accountant, lawyer or office worker of any description wouldn’t recognise ‘Creativity’ or ‘Innovation’ in any form whatsoever. They do however react positively when they see a well-considered, beautifully designed office with comfortable furniture provided for every eventuality, from focused work to large meetings. It’s space, simplicity, comfort, light and aspect, with pleasing shapes, lines and materials that make us feel good in the office, and make us happy to be there.

Creative-2However, the point needs to be made that ‘Creativity’ is an activity brought about by an inspired thought or vision. The perceived wisdom is that the more this can be encouraged in the workplace, the better the outcome for the organisation and its customers, and perhaps even society as a whole. But I’m not the first person to say; nobody has their best ideas at the office. Ever! It consistently tends to happen elsewhere. The reason being ‘Creativity’ is the opposite of a commercial imperative and defies rational analysis. You can’t in reality make provision for ‘Creativity’ and ‘Innovation’ in the workplace beyond what is already provided as a matter of course.

Namely, space to work intently, space to meet and space to relax. Sure, you can improve proximities and sight lines but you can’t force ‘Creativity’. Contrary to an ever increasing popular myth, you can’t make ‘Creativity’ occur simply because you provide a grouping of chairs shaped like a polo mint, the colour of lime.

David Bowie-06_0Any original ‘Creative’ thought which might precipitate activity and wider industry, only appears when your not looking for it. It can’t be forced, encouraged or cajoled into existence. There’s a good reason for this. It’s not a lost thought pattern hiding in the neurons only to be found through analysis or stimulating conversation. ‘Creativity’ occurs in the moments between the thoughts wherein lies quiet and calm. Stillness. It occurs by surprise because you were thinking about something else entirely or in fact nothing at all. Some people will never be ‘Creative’ or ‘Innovative’ at all, and that’s fine because ‘Creativity’ is also an instinct to produce, an instinct to self-motivated activity. Not everyone is motivated or required to care about creating stuff. You could say ‘If you aint got it, you ain’t gonna do it’.

In reality, original ‘Creativity’ is more commonly found where there is a background of genuine difficulty in a challenging situation. This isn’t often found in a comfy ‘Social space’ in a shiny new air-conditioned office in London WC1 or downtown Manhattan. Consider the creative circumstances of a youthful George Orwell, Joe Strummer, Jackson Pollock or even the brilliant ingenuity of the tunnelling escapees from Stalag Luft III in ‘The Great Escape’ during World War II. One could easily argue that genuine ‘Creativity’ is the result of a powerful need over adversity.

This also then raises the question of a further dilemma that I asked David Bowie in 1999; ‘Art’ versus ‘Craft’, is your next album ‘Craft’ or ‘Art’? Lets leave that particularly provocative topic for a later post.