It’s been seen so many times before. A cracking first album… new fans, fame, fortune, exponentially rising expectations… and then the second album lands to a mediocre reception. Personally I still enjoyed Second Coming, but let’s be honest, The Stone Roses is and always will be the real masterpiece. ‘I Am The Resurrection’? Cocky, Mancunian genius, but utter genius nonetheless.
So I have Neil Usher of @workessence fame, the workplace industry’s current sophist laureate, to doff my cap to as motivation for this. Not only did he warn me about the challenges of the notorious second blog post, but his recent ‘firedances‘ musings, resplete with his trademark wordsmithery, afforded rich ideas to riff from. Inspired move or just downright cheeky? Well, that’s entirely up to you.
If you haven’t already read it, principally, Neil is none too impressed with the current state of workplace affairs:
- Are we any further forward now than ever?
- ‘Industry expertise’ proclaimed everywhere and yet nowhere
- The real value of workplace still not organisationally recognised
- The notorious Google workplace halo effect
- …and a viscerally expressed lambasting of polarised media coverage
These are all, clearly, interrelated. Subtly and powerfully. Maybe this comes with age, but I feel an increasing, almost Socratic concern to be mindful of history’s lessons:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (Santayana, 1905, The Life of Reason)
Now I don’t know anywhere near enough about this yet, but in the 1970s Anthony Giddens began formulating ‘structuration theory’, a sociological perspective which sought to reframe the perpetual objective/subjective duality inherent in social science’s ‘paradigm wars’ of the period. His aim, recognising our seemingly inherent social nature to have to take sides – rightly or wrongly(!) – was to recognise the interrelated, recursive nature of human behaviour. We are bound by structures of our own (cultural) creation. We also have the agency to do something about these very structures. Or do we? Such is the critical challenge. Others have suggested similar, in various guises, but all roads seem to lead back to Giddens. Clever chap. If only structuration theory was just a little less, well, impenetrable…
“The structural properties of social systems are both the medium and outcome of the practices they recursively organize” (Giddens, 1984, p.25)
This is the rub with workspace and place, and links to the frustration, certainly from an enlightened minority, who perceive that something is worryingly awry with an industry that may or may not grow the balls (agency) to climb out of @workessence’s toilet cubicle window (structure). There is a lovely, ironic acronym coined by Waddington (1977) – ‘cowdung’ – the conventional wisdom of the dominant group. This is always the case. The first challenge is recognising it exists; only then can we start understanding what it is, and what it does. To quote Morpheus, during his first meeting with Neo (yup, sci-fi geek out time):
“There is something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad … it is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth”
From this hilltop, it sometimes feels like the media fall on the same old turgid workplace issues time and again, using biased (yes, even ‘credible’, peer-reviewed academic sources are axiologically compromised) or attention grabbing headlines, like “Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell” (I mean, really @OliverBurkeman?!) Maybe though we’ve started to become a bit oversensitised; they have been collectively picking at the scab of this one forever. Even the hacks need to make a crust, after all.
Media, maybe increasingly, is professionalised gossip. Some facts. Some fiction. Perspectives and perceptions. This is nothing short of what makes us human. It is biased. It is socially constructed. It is a version of an ever unobtainable, fleeting truth. The challenge/opportunity is to recognise the structure/agency at play in all of this. What is perhaps more telling is number and nature of the comments. The article mentioned above? 258 responses. Burkeman’s latest offering from Saturday, based predictably on Nikil Saval’s new book, ‘Cubed’, out in the UK in June? 107 and counting. Polarised, visceral, personal comments, where accepting one angle means rejecting another. What if this couldn’t be further from ‘the truth’? This is human nature; human being. This is what we have to deal with as workplace professionals. This is why spatial ‘solutions’ get compromised, by us as much as anyone else. So what would a workspace ‘anti-solution’ look and feel like, I wonder?
Certain ‘pioneers’ were raising similar issues, with similar concerns to @workessence, about the workplace derived Facilities Management (FM) industry over 25 years ago. We are 40 years young, yet already verging on the historical. And a myopic desire for progress creates nothing more than @smartco’s concern of a ‘delusion with novelty’. Which is where Google, Innocent, Microsoft and all those shiny, pimpy office designs come in for a DIY and Ikea obsessed nation.
“In 1981, Franklin Becker … noted, “The way the physical setting is created in organizations has barely been tapped as a tangible organizational resource”. Over 25 years later, almost the same statement could be made.” (Elsbach & Pratt, 2007, p. 217)
So why are we still bound by these shackles? Because, according to Giddens (and Morpheus) these very shackles which enable us, recursively and paradoxically limit us. Perhaps only when we recognise that the change comes from within, as opposed from without/elsewhere will we seed a groundswell of something different. Picture yourself, sandbags in hand, frantically trying to keep an ensuing flood from destroying your cherished home. All by yourself. That is the scale of the current challenge, in a world largely that isn’t ready for different. But how do we change our collective system that should have invested in better levees?
More than the media effect, I worry that if we regard workplace pseudo ‘laboratory experiments’ which treat humans deterministically as valid ‘knowledge’, about something as subtle, nebulous and complex as our interrelationship with space and place then we only have ourselves to blame. You can take your potted plant and shove it, right there. It might be FM’s role to manage space. But perhaps it is our job to protect place too, and for the very customers we claim to serve:
“Undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value” (Tuan, 1977, p.6)
To paraphrase Tuan, place is security, space is freedom. Is there a future for FM where it can climb back down from its attempted escape through the toilet cubicle window, freshen itself up, and proudly walk back out the door ready to do things differently?
“Remember, all I’m offering is the truth…”