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’…

2 thoughts on “Workplace Surveys: Living by Numbers

  1. Now this certainly resonated for two reasons Adrian.
    Firstly, exactly the same happened to me, a few years earlier in my gap year – the Dianetics thing that is. (Even more disturbing – my ex brother in law was on the LRH boat, went through 2 marriages as a scientologist and has two very disturbed sons…..)

    And secondly, I had a bit of a rant yesterday about employee engagement in the foreword I did for HR Buzz, including a pop at the consultancy ‘strap on’ for employee engagement.

    So a good read for me this morning, though my experience of reliving memories is nowhere as vivid as yours. Lucky guy!

  2. Pingback: The Ministry of Truth: 2+2 = ? | Double Helix

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