Seminar Propaganda: The Emperor’s New Clothes

newclothesThe Plot: A vain Emperor who cares for nothing except wearing and displaying clothes hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or “hopelessly stupid”. The Emperor’s ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the Emperor does the same. Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk play along with the pretence not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretence, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession.

When will the innocent, and I have to say often slightly naïve attendees of workplace conferences and seminars realise that the organisers and speakers have an agenda that is the polar antithesis of their own. These ‘Workplace’ guru wannabe speakers typically spout self-reverential apocryphal guff, using often misunderstood and borrowed consultancy vocab clichés. Doubtless picked up from someone else’s equally half-baked, grasping at straws, seminar the week before. Or if they’re a little up market, perhaps their source material was drawn from a seldom viewed 2007 TED talk found through a lucky Google search. Which resulted in a landing on someone’s decaying tumbleweed strewn blog page, hosted on a lesser known island off the eastern tip of ‘The Federated States of Micronesia’, thereby hoping nobody will have seen it recently.

Professor ObamaAs long as the conceit that their talk is a highly original insightful analysis based upon balanced emotional intelligence, considered intellect, and much practical experience; and all their own work, all will be well. So long as the audience is convinced that the speaker, has a massive presidential brain, is an expert (Allegedly) within their own field, within 20 minutes, it’s job done! However, it’s a game of performance and script designed to lure you in to believing that what they’re saying is true and will have a positive impact upon you and your business. Credit where it’s due when you come away thinking you’ve heard a great speaker, even if you can’t remember a word they’ve said. It’s quite a skill, and not to be underestimated.

Mary-PoppinsWith this in mind, there are several things to note when listening to these oh so confident gently gesticulating guru like speakers. It’s the free seminars you need to worry about most of all. Primarily, because they are selling a product that ultimately requires payment, a huge payment. It could be for desks and chairs, fitout and refurbishment contracting, ICT Infrastructure products & consultancy, property agency commission, or an architectural or interior design commission. There are equally inherent dangers in paying for a larger, more professional conference. Perhaps you’ve just clicked ‘Pay Now’ on an easy PayPal payment for the privilege of attending a broader less-partisan commercial event, discussing the weighty and evergreen ‘Workplace’ topics of our time, such as the perennial old chestnuts of ‘Wellbeing’, ‘Productivity’, ‘Creativity’, ‘Collaboration’ or ‘Agile (give me f***ing strength) working’, what is it called this week anyway? ‘Superflexi-Unrealistic-Bound To Be-Atrocious’. It will be if you let a marketing professional or narcissistic workplace wannabe convince you that their angle and take on it is the definitive word on the subject.

Hyperbolae like “We commissioned a survey of blah blah businesses considering a relocation in the next 18 months blah blah, and 92% of respondents stated that they thought walking was integral to getting from A to B” or “Our experience shows that 60% of property managers would rather make the wrong decision, than admit to their senior colleagues that they don’t really understand what ‘Agile (give me f***ing strength) working’ really is and why so many workplace pundits are referencing it as so crucially important to employee ‘Wellbeing’ and ‘Creativity’. Blah blah. Ooh, I’m feeling giddy now. I can only take so much creativity before I feel faint.

Star TrekIt used to be that workplace pundits headlined ‘Flexible Working’ as a big ‘Real Estate’ cost saver, but that’s not fashionable any more,  oh no, that’s passé. The way to attracting fresh new uninitiated clients is to sell the idea that in the new fluffy socially connected world (OK, ‘paradigm’, I can’t help it) it’s vital to have more zany and varied interiors, more bright comfy chairs, and multifunction sensorial play spaces. Especially if you want to attract the [braces himself]…yes I’m going to say it…Gen Y, and emerging millennials. [Winces with professional embarrassment] Like me perhaps you’ve heard it all before, and wonder why nobody has the answers to the fundamentals. It’s because the whole sphere has become so huge, that nobody questions its presence or origins. ‘Workplace’ as a topic has it’s own gravitational pull now. Attracting all kinds of low flying junk and detritus, having fallen out of previously stable orbits, far from the centre. Although sticking with a celestial spheres theme, I’m mixing my metaphors a little here; it’s comparable to the voyager spacecraft launched in 1977. Voyager 1 is currently leaving the edges of the solar system, rising above the ecliptic plane at an angle of about 35 degrees at a rate of about 320 million miles a year. Maybe life will reflect art and as in the original Star Trek movie of 1979, Voyager (VGER) will return one day as an all powerful thinking being demanding to know it’s creator, and asking why it exists?

Frankenstein & MonsterOr is Frankensteins monster a better analogy I wonder? There is so much workplace BS now that it’s a self-perpetuating, self-feeding monster beyond anyone’s control or understanding. Bolted together workplace terminologies along with unconvincing psychobabble regurgitated in regular workplace seminars scare the hell out of me. Unpicking the complexities of what constitutes a clear and simple ‘workplace’ occupancy strategy is not helped by regular misinterpretations reinforced by desperation driven by professional pride, and interwoven with ignorant misunderstanding and platitudes borne of commercial imperatives. There is a virtual domino effect spreading ever outward like a relentless unstoppable virus through seminars and conferences, and tweeted instantly around the planet by well meaning attendees who accept that convincing well rehearsed speakers must be credible, and understand their subject.

Now we can all be misinformed in the blink of an eye, and in just a few retweets and with a little more plagiarism and editing, it’s picked up by some young blogger in Moscow, who posts excitedly to his followers that the 140 character nano post from London’s latest ‘Workplace’ seminar is a revelation. Which then gets picked up by the Guardian newspaper online, which influences an editorial in the New York times, read by a blogger with a huge following in south Africa, who tweets that apparently if you do X you get Y…with easy to follow link to New York times story to verify.  Ad infinitum. It’s a tragedy of global proportions that the social media age has not helped.

Sideshow Carnival ClownsIt would obviously stretch credulity to have a carpet manufacturer or partitioning company put on some ‘Workplace’ related seminars, for after all they just weave carpets, and erect partitions, and what would they know about the subtle/complex interplay between occupiers, workspace and property. Whereas fitout contractors, furniture firms and self-proclaimed IT futurologists clearly have the inside track on what’s relevant because that’s what they do on a daily basis. Er! Wait a second! No they don’t, do they? What they do is by merit of their association, through their core business activity, is to align themselves to the ‘Workplace’ debate. They find a passable justification to ramp up their marketing machine to gloss up what little ‘Workplace’ strategy knowledge they may have, and that’s mostly none, to put on a little ‘Workplace’ show. Much like an attention grabbing fairground sideshow that draws in the curious and wide-eyed. “Roll up! Roll up!”, “Come hear the mesmerising honeyed tones of ‘Madame Mellifluous’, she can transport you to the most beautiful and productive workplaces you can possibly imagine, and never leave the comfort of your stackable seat. You’ll be amazed at what she can make you believe”. “Roll up! Roll up!”. It’s free! “Don’t forget to fill in our short feedback form with your contact details at the end, because we care deeply about what you think of our speakers, and what is relevant to you”. Don’t forget your email address?

Working Very SociallyWith the clever use of only one bubble diagram, two small info-graphics, one (fairly recent) case study and a royalty free image of laughing workers co-working themselves hilariously and productively across your field of vision, you too will believe that she is the most erudite, witty and awe inspiring voice you have ever heard on this subject. You will feel as if red rose petals are falling from the sky, whilst the blinding light of ultimate truth shines behind her, silhouetting her goddess like figure, as she sweetly, almost hypnotically tells you that research tells us that by 2025 40% of us will be working alone (Speak for yourself), and that when designing your office it’s important to create spaces to think. Oh for f***ks sake! Seriously! Yup, it’s important not to forget to think. … [Thinks] … Oh Sorry, I just lost my train of thought there as I fell out of my ‘acme’ (patent pending) big purple sound proof ‘Think-o-pod’ before completing the sentence. Oops!

All I am saying, and not for the first time on this blog is question what you hear in ‘Workplace’ circles and seminars, especially free ones, challenge the veracity of suspiciously apocryphal statements, and don’t be afraid to say “I don’t believe a word your saying” or “you have no evidence whatsoever that anything of what you have said is true or has any validity with anyone”. You’ll find that the more you probe and interrogate the closer you will get to the actual truth; namely that you must remain vigilant and make up your own mind about what’s right for you and your business. There are no panacea solutions.

I will say this in concluding. If for the most part there is good open communication, trust and belief between everyone in your organisation, you will be able to arrive at an acceptable consensus, with a well-considered viewpoint and occupancy vision for your organisation. It won’t necessarily require any external consultancy BS served up by strangers, struggling to look and sound interesting, and looking for a five-figure fee or big juicy fit-out contract at 35% margin.

Don’t forget that consultants charge you to take your watch from you in order to tell you the time.

‘Duel’ Courtesy of ‘Propaganda’ 1985…

Tomorrow Started

I awoke this morning having had a perfectly deep and comfortable but somewhat broken sleep. My eyelids had drifted open imperceptibly slowly just before 4am, as usual. I often awake around 4am for no apparent reason; there had been no noise, discomfort or disturbance of any kind, no unresolved or disturbing dreams. I simply breathed into consciousness, quite against my desire to remain fast asleep. A long deep refreshing sleep is simply one of life’s immense pleasures, I’m sure you agree? Not withstanding what else life may cast in your direction on any given day, it’s better handled after a good nights sleep.

Digital Clock-2In my line of sight, I had unconsciously glanced at the orange glowing characters of my digital tinnitus inhibiting radio alarm clock. Unrelated to my tinnitus, I could hear a wholly inaudible click in my head as the fourth, seemingly enormous hazy numeral, changed from ‘1’ to ‘2’. Ker…lunk! I said to myself, without conjuring up a single conscious thought. This was merely a silence (Tinnitus aside) in the night followed by another louder more defined silence, and marked only by my observation of the tiny change in the energy levels in front of me. Nothing had happened, save for my semiconscious observation of the clock, one outward involuntary breath, which would barely mist up a mirror, and the passing of a single second.

Ever since owning my first digital watch as a kid, in the 1970’s, I have been oddly fascinated that given their geometry, you can represent all the numbers 0 through 9 from a single symmetrical pattern formed of seven little straight lines, four vertical and three horizontal, which you only clearly notice on observing the number 8. Did the original creators of numbers (Hindu-Arabic Numerals) as symbols in India 2,500 years ago know this? I guess so. It’s also odd that if you write out 3.14 using the straight-line geometry in digital clocks and hold the number to a mirror, the reflection alphabetically spells PI.E. A joyful little coincidence I fear, rather than proof positive that we’re all part of a complex bio-software program, à la matrix. Although, the thought of the possibility of being in someone else’s irrational pointless game amuses my mischievous and curious mind.

Sleeping ClocksIn that millisecond in time between the last second of 03.51am and the first second of 03.52am, accompanied by an equally faint inward breath, I thought of nothing. Although, I was evidently awake and conscious to a degree, as I had registered the time on the clock, and it’s display change just at the very same moment in which I had gazed peacefully but involuntarily ahead, through my weary dark brown eyes, which now wouldn’t close.

It may seem odd, but whenever on those rare occasions, I turn to look at a digital watch or clock and in the same instance it changes from one minute to the next, for me it’s like looking at the stars in the night sky and smiling inside, when you see a meteorite strike briefly across the sky; as it burns like a stricken match upon our thin frictional atmosphere. It’s a tiny instant in time, but observing the moment is life affirming. Seeing the change, and making it your own experience, for nothing but the pleasure of it. Although, effecting change yourself seems to be even more life affirming, absorbing, and fulfilling. There’s something about our consciousness and it’s relationship to seeing or creating change that enables us to be more content than we would otherwise be.

shooting starOur highly evolved DNA programming does not work in our favour when nothing changes; we become unhappy, disillusioned or even frustrated through apparent boredom. Although, I would say that what keeps us content and motivated is not merely change itself, but moreover the arrival or realization of the unexpected. I obviously discount natural disasters, bee stings, tax demands and skin disorders and the like. I have in mind a colour rich country landscape of blue and green caught in a hazy orange/pink dusky sunlight, or seeing the first full cherry blossom of spring or receiving an unexpected phone call from an old friend in the early evening, fondly remembered; or perhaps on hearing a piece of music for the first time, or even better, hearing or seeing something you hadn’t noticed before in the otherwise familiar.

With this desire for surprise and revelation in mind, at our ‘heart’ as a species we are arguably explorers, philosophers and scientists, whether we like it or not. We seek new experiences, new environments, original thoughts, alternative ideas and new ways of binding important relationships. We are on a journey of discovery in the cosmos, and on our little blue planet, but also within ourselves. We wish to know more, and our instincts tell us to investigate and assimilate. We live to push knowledge boundaries, and seek out new experiences, and gain greater understanding. The reason is that our very existence and the concept, never mind reality, of all life is a perplexing mystery, which demands many questions and answers; or if you’re so inclined, acceptance and mindfulness. A foot in both camps serves us well.

Although indeed much scientific evidence would suggest that our predisposition to exert control over our built and natural environments and socio-economic constructs is at odds with the cycles and patterns found within nature and it’s cycles within the physics of our universe. Yet, given that we likely know what is fundamentally broken within our societies, cultures, and economies (Workplaces) we persist in repeating the errors and follies of the past, in the vain hope that perhaps we/you/they will be the lucky ones, who can benefit from some short term financial gain, in order to achieve personal but passing desires and acceptable exit strategies. Particularly given external pressures from sources out with our control. A perennial challenge to all.

spiders webWhether you’re a Politician, Banker, Company Director or put upon ‘Employee’. A long term and sustainable organizational strategy that benefits both organization and individual is sorely lacking in virtually every arena of endeavor. Organizations fail and collapse with increasing regularity these days because they simply have no long-term vision about why they are in business, what they’re selling in terms of an idea and who sustains and nourishes that idea, both internally and externally. It ought to be a matter of sharing the vision, and encouraging others to contribute to achieving that vision, and to be clear in all channels of communication. Corporate goals should never be cash or profit for their own sake. Therein lies disaster and inevitable disappointment. When a vision is evident and recognized, bought into and rewards shared, you then have a potential for a wider shared stake in the outcomes.

The word ‘Stakeholder’ is sadly often over used as a politically acceptable BS term for ‘employee & minion wage slave’. (Please read Neil Ushers’ superbly well considered post on workplace related BS terms ‘It is what it is & nothing more’.)

butterfly-1Incidentally, salary or wages are now well known to be half way down a list of top ten workplace motivators in any event. The human condition responds to challenge and responsibility first and foremost, and in so doing we are part of something creative and life affirming. We bring about change in whatever form that may take, and we take satisfaction and psychological reward from personally absorbing activity and it’s manifest results. When our peers see what we have done and acknowledge this we are affirmed as alive and vital, and we feed on this positive feedback loop. That is to say that putting something of yourself; as artists do into their work will generate effective, authentic and meaningful feedback and outcomes.

You cannot put yourself into something if you do not care about the outcome. Whether it’s how customers feel if you’re in a service industry or whether it’s the design of a new fuel-efficient hydrogen engine, or a beautifully considered work of Art. Caring about outcomes at a corporate level will only occur when organizations recognize at board level that all employees are part of their business and can make it sustainable and profitable, because when everyone cares you get 100% motivation and genuine participation. This happens because at a neurological level, we are rewarded by being part of, and seeing the change we create. We have a shared mission. Making stuff happen, being creative, and discovering the new is at the core of who we are, and it’s immensely rewarding to be productive in this fashion, and equally we must be recognized by our peers for our efforts or the collective vision will shatter and dissipate. It will be seen for the façade that it is.

Sharp honeycomb beeDon’t wait for some other corporate entity to re-engineer the structure of their business, and watch from the sidelines whether it works or not, presumably on a short-term financial only basis. Get fully immersed in understanding the intrinsic link between human motivations and rewards, the power of personal responsibility, and the benefits of flexible working to support autonomous thinking in your organization. Be clear in what you are seeking to achieve and share your vision.

I’ll likely wake again tomorrow at just before 4am for no apparent reason, and unlike many I will hopefully turn one fleeting abstract moment and an unconscious breath into something I can use to share a vision in which I’m convinced we can all benefit.

Time marches on…

‘Tomorrow Started’ Courtesy of ‘Talk Talk’ 1984

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.

Building Design V’s User Needs

The question of ‘Building Design’ and ‘Users Needs’ is an interesting one raised this morning in an article titled ‘Building Designers Should Pay More Heed to What Users Need’, published by @officeinsight and written by the excellent @simonheath1. I may not agree entirely with the concluding sentiments which characterise and castigate ‘Designers’ generically as one homogenous mass of ego maniacs who don’t listen, but I value the perspective given and relish the opportunity to respond in humble defence of ‘Designers’, and to shed a little light upon the complex realities at play in ‘Building Design’ (Commercial Offices). My points may be predictably obvious to some readers, but not others. I’m not entirely sure who my audience is at this point.

ChessWith the notable exception of new build design schemes for a single occupier/client, in reality Architects of office buildings will seldom if ever meet the final occupiers or tenants. Strange but true. Their brief is provided by the likes of Developers, Landlords or Pension Funds and communicated through intermediaries. Such as ‘Project Managers’ and ‘Cost Consultants’, who will equally have their own professional duties and even baggage to bring to the table. The architectural brief is indeed a complex one which has many restrictions. Including for example, Site Envelope, Local Authority Regulations, Sustainability and Emissions, Rights to Light, Traffic, Egress, Archeology, English Heritage, Utilities and Waste Infrastructure. The list goes on and is appreciably long.

A headline architectural brief may be as simple as ‘Design an office building that will attract occupiers from multiple market sectors, and maximise ‘Net Lettable Area’ with a net to gross ratio of at least 80%, and which will achieve a BREEAM Excellent Rating’. The location of the site will be significant in who is likely to occupy, and what yield on investment is likely over time. Prevailing property rents are of course a significant factor in what Architectural solution is possible in any given location. In London for instance you wouldn’t view the West End, City or Midtown in the same way as the Paddington Basin, Canary Wharf or an out of town Business Park. As a guide, the cost of constructing a new air conditioned office in a city centre location to Cat A, with raised floors, suspended ceilings, carpets, lighting and power but excluding Cat B (Tenant Brief) of say 12 floors will typically range from a low of £1,200 to a high of £2,200 per Sq M. One could half the costs if constructing in an out of town business park location. Data from ‘International Construction Cost Survey, June 2011’ published by Gardiner & Theobald.

Clearly ‘Building Design’ (Construction & Fitout) is an expensive exercise, and maximising return on investment in both Land & Construction, with a good rental yield over the building lifecycle is not going to go away. Commercial office architecture is always going to be the result of a number of compromises, given the stack of necessary restrictions placed upon Architects. That’s not to say the results are regularly a fudge or a failure in any sense. Architects are increasingly providing stunning new sustainable office buildings, which are a joy to behold and use, and which provide a long term return on investment. Some may arguably be a compromise too far and are designed at the expense of occupier wellbeing, and consequent productivity, profitability, and organisational success. Although I would contend this is very rare these days, and that most amateur Architectural critics are restricted to whether a building looks good in it’s own right, and whether it blends into it’s environment. Any failure in this aesthetic sense is arguably a matter of subjectivity and personal taste. The architect more often than not will notably be working to a generic institutional brief, and will bring personal style and influences to bear on the building design. In a sense solutions can be sculptural, and will doubtless be open to aesthetic debate. Although I’m pretty sure boring is still more fashionable than it ought to be.

The challenge and role of the ‘designer’, a term more generically used for ‘Interior Designer’ in this context, is quite different from the Architect. The interior brief (Cat B) derives from the occupier/tenant, as opposed to an institutional investor. The Cat B tenant specific brief on fitout costs will typically range from around £320 per Sq M (£30 per Sq. Ft.) up to around £1,000 Per Sq M (£90 per Sq. Ft.). Excluding Furniture and ICT budget. Obviously each tenant and market sector will have its unique operational needs and budget to provide further challenges to the design team. Although it should be acknowledged that a generous budget is certainly no determinate of a successful design. No matter what metrics or emotive anecdotes are employed.

There are two types of ‘Interior Designer’ (or Architect) operating in the world today, good ones and bad ones. The good designers never impose a generic ‘vanilla’ solution. A good Interior Designer will have a team that includes those experienced in organizational brief development, sometimes these professionals will be specialist ‘Workplace Consultants’, offering the client an extensive brief development and consultation stage in the project. This stage is sometimes termed as ‘Pre-Design’. This will determine in strategic terms, the design parameters for any specific organisation. Such as who, where, what, why, when and how? It is the operational and functional basis for the design before considering colour, materials, fixtures and fittings. The ‘Pre-Design’ consultation will also identify the degree of ‘Flexible’ or ‘Agile’ working to be employed, and what effect this will have on the scheme.

A good workplace designer will seek to involve as many people as possible in the design briefing, for the logical reason that casting a wide net will arguably lead to a finished scheme that will account for all needs and perspectives. Plus the act of consultation itself is a significant contributory factor in how stakeholders feel about the entire process. Nobody likes to be ignored, even someone who doesn’t actually have a point of view to contribute, its still good sense to ask what thoughts they may have. The technology now exists in social media to canvas opinions widely and almost instantaneously. Although, I think we’ve yet to see a filtering #hashtag on twitter as part of a design briefing exercise. It’s not that ubiquitous yet and it may have confidentiality implications, but one day soon perhaps. Maybe it won’t be long before we see the first workplace design brief conducted at least in part on ‘Facebook’, using not just language to communicate ideas, but also product/furniture/material/colour images, 3d walkthroughs and artists’ visuals. Why not I say?

On the pragmatic side, the perennial problem with planning a new workspace, whether in a refurbishment or relocation is that it will need inbuilt growth potential, and inherent flexibility for the organisation. After all, a major chunk of capital is being invested in what is when all said and done, a balance sheet overhead. It may well be a cradle of burgeoning talent and source of the worlds next great idea or product, but it’s still an overhead. So getting a return on investment is paramount. The benefits provided by an efficient occupancy solution allow for reinvestment in the organisation, and that means jobs and growth. This often sadly includes squeezing the space till the pips squeak, perhaps not on ‘Day one’ to use the design vernacular, but it usually happens eventually. It’s a costly and disruptive scenario when bursting at the seams two or three years into a new lease. Any marginal expansion will likely not justify an overspill space with all that it entails, but if space can’t be found in existing premises, organisations will suffer, with perhaps lost revenue, limited markets and initiatives, dips in morale and perhaps a loss of good people to the competition. It’s an unwelcome downward spiral. A considered compromise is always struck between cost of fitout, long-term occupancy and aspirations of occupants, and this must be gauged against the benefits to the organisation as a whole.

On a related point, the jury is currently out as to whether Yahoo! will lose staff having announced last week the removal of all ‘Flexible’ working rights commencing June 2013. They’ll certainly need more space if they plan to have everyone in the office at all times. To some observers that’s the proverbial ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’. I digress.

In-built flexibility and growth capacity is always possible on ‘Day one’ but it does require compromise at a cost, either financially or in terms of space allocation, and arguably to functionality, wellbeing and productivity. Equally, flexibility in every sense of the word is obviously one of the foundations of any business model and workspaces or work patterns (Agile Working) ought to facilitate a range of adaptions to meet unforeseen demands and necessary changes. Growth is an aspiration, if not a clearly defined business objective, but it would be foolish to plan for significant organisational growth in new premises over a short timescale. Flexible and shorter leases can play an important role in a buyers market. Some tenants may be in a position to take on additional floors in a building and sub-let on a short lease, until the space is needed. Most occupiers will seldom be in that situation however, so you need to be sure of the office space suitability to meet all your occupancy criteria, and key amongst these is that you fit, now and for the foreseeable future.

Many occupiers understandably think that their situation, constraints and dare we say boardroom politics are unique. An experienced ‘Workplace Consultant’ or ‘Interior Designer’ will have had the privilege and benefit of working with many organisations in different markets, and this has allowed them to see what often the organisation itself cannot see. This is not blind arrogance, but a common sense perspective that when we step outside a scene, or situation, we can view circumstances more objectively, unencumbered by historical baggage and internal politics. Good design consultants are conscious of the different agendas at play in putting together an effective and inspiring workplace brief (Strategy/Plan). The disparate objectives and aspirations of the executive, workforce and facilities team will be noted naturally, but there will be inevitable compromise. The 19th century Prussian general Helmuth Von Moltke stated, “Strategy is a system of expedients”, and ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy”.

In both Architecture and Interior Design, the brief required to facilitate a beautiful functioning office in order to accommodate any organisation, is indeed an inevitable but well considered compromise, but it is emphatically a well-considered plan. Inspired by Helmuth Von Moltke, I would say a good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow. ‘Building Designers’ do pay significant attention to ‘Users Needs’, but we must recognise that to achieve some critical project imperatives set down by parties beyond our control we must compromise. Without compromise nothing would ever get done. Where would you like to compromise?