IFMA Foundation Workplace Strategy Summit 2014

Flexible working chickens by @SimonHeath1


“Not managing facilities. Enabling communities” Melissa Marsh. #IFMAsummit14

On June 10th I found myself with the privileged ‘final word’ at the IFMA Foundation’s Workplace Strategy Summit 2014, having been invited to offer closing remarks at the conference. It was an exciting, humbling experience, given the some of the FM and workplace heavyweights in the room: check the programme of speakers for a flavour of who was there. This post is a re-working of my closing remarks.

My involvement began with an unexpected email from organising committee member Alexi Marmot, of AMA and UCL, nudging me to expect an invite for the role. So it seemed sensible to find Alexi on the morning of the first day to sound our her expectations: something not too lengthy, interesting, a bit serious, a bit funny – kind of like a best man’s speech for a conference? Hmmm. I mentally added ‘daunting’ to my list of adjectives describing the experience. Pay attention Ellison and make this one count…

I guess my overall role was to wrap a meaningful narrative around the event. Rather than just feature my own highlights, I was keen to tease out both common themes and also feature dissonant perspectives. As part of the introduction, Alexi called for “a bit more breadth with a bit more depth”, with concerted peer-to-peer exchange. This aspiration was embodied at conference dinner and breakfast tables. With significant attendee numbers from Europe, North America and far beyond, some began to reflect on the impact that different-enough surroundings can have to help powerfully reframe perspectives. Interesting food for thought for an industry striving to demonstrate the value of its organisational contribution?

“We know about zero” Frank Becker

Keynote Franklin Becker, of Cornell University, was keen to provoke debate about workplace data and innovation. Despite voluminous anecdotes, stories and hype, we still have little actual workplace performance data. Or as Frank put it, “we know about zero.” Bold words indeed, in a world seemingly obsessed with workplace productivity aspirations and claimed measures. Could we commit, mused Frank, to ditching the ‘P’ word and thinking more creatively about our data, including its value as an educational rather than performance measurement tool? To really make headway might involve specific, practice-based research “not instead of, but in addition to” more traditional research models. Businesses are calling for practical, timely “good enough” research. ‘Quick and not-so-dirty’, perhaps? Easy, of course, for an established FM academic with a bookshelf of publications spanning four decades to say. But it is a tremendously relevant point. In a world where knowledge creation and exchange can happen faster than ever (@SimonHeath1’s illustration above was doodled at his kitchen table in response to a conference participant analogy that I tweeted, which subsequently became part of my closing remarks…) what is the genuine, pragmatic value of the traditional rules of research? For Becker, timely ‘white paper’ output has more genuine utility than peer-reviewed publications. So how do we simultaneously play (by?) the rules of different games?

“The irony of persistent place” Ziona Strelitz

Ziona Strelitz, founder of ZZA, invited us to consider “the irony of persistent place”, asking “with the freedom to disconnect from place, why is it that people work where we find them?” Sceptically, a typical ‘industry’ response to this question emphasises the value and purpose of our organisational locations as social hubs. But is this an example of poorly founded rhetoric worth debunking? For Ziona, whilst workplaces might offer community and stimulation, they also afford the preservation of non-workplaces, including our homes, which for some are becoming invaded as “the ‘unchosen’ workplace”. Whilst technology is readily acknowledged to be a great work enabler, we must never lose sight of unintended outcomes.

“Tales of the unexpected within a building” Simon Allford

Simon Allford, director at AHMM launched a confident, intellectual diatribe on a wide gamut of industry rhetoric, asserting that at best we recycle the design ideas of the last fifty years with slightly more gloss. “Work is an activity, not somewhere you go? It is. It is somewhere you go to interact with and meet people.” And it’s not all about crusty Chesterfields and ping-pong tables. It’s about working hard thinking about difficult challenges. Perhaps learning is the most important element of this endeavour? We congregate to civilise and engage. Our buildings need to mimic this. Efficiency can lead us toward the most awful, vanilla solutions. If we are bringing people together we need to create a place where there is something memorable. Space with awkward moments can be used in in creative, delightful ways. You can’t design in the unexpected. But you can consider for it, and it certainly isn’t about efficiency. The “tales of the unexpected within a building” will afford a creative and productive place. So what would data representing these notions look like? Not actual or perceived productivity measures, I suspect…

“What makes a great place to work?” Alexi Marmot

Different speakers considered the role of place from different perspectives, alluding to (for me at least) its value far beyond utility and functionality, toward the far more nebulous notion of meaning. Is this one way to make a distinction between quantitative space and qualitative place, perhaps? Is this on our collective agenda? What makes a great place to work? Alexi Marmot observed that the Great Place to Work® Institute recognises pride, camaraderie, credibility, respect and fairness as key attributes to the very best workplaces they are aware of. What of the role of physical space then in this complex socio-spatial milieu?

Hints toward an answer might lie in the ‘equation’: workspace + culture = workplace. Christina Danielsson, from the Stockholm Stress Research Institute, referenced the enduring legacy of Sweden’s 1938 co-determination treaty on Swedish workplaces, where employees have to be, by law, involved in the organisation of their businesses, and a ‘win-win’ perspective is emphasised. Wim Pullen, co-founder of the Centre for People and Buildings at Delft, seconded that context and history matter, perhaps both regarding organisational and more personal life events. Just what is the relationship between our innate, human spatial needs and the sorts of spaces we are currently designing? Are we in danger of trying to rewire too much too quickly? What might the intended and unintended outcomes be?

“I am not charismatic. I have wonderful people” Frank Van Messenhove

For many, the highlight was Frank Van Massenhove’s cultural case study, in his role as president of the Belgian Federal Social Security Service. “I am not charismatic. I have wonderful people. I have only one talent: spotting good people.” Politely rebuffing any inspirational leadership assertion ventured his way, Frank conveyed a story about people rather than space; of a transformed high performing culture enabled through its workplace, resulting in a “sexy” public service department with an honest, transparent, collaborative approach. Walking, not just talking a great, desirable place to work, by way of value and mission statements etc. Where performance metrics followed business outcomes as opposed to driving them myopically, and where his positive, visionary, and downright maverick behaviour took decisive steps, seeking forgiveness rather than asking permission, creating unprecedented performance improvements. Is this the organisational “cunning” that Boris Johnson was talking about recently (lampooned by Simon Heath here) or something more altruistic? “Get under the radar. Become invisible. Or you kill the creativity of someone else. And then the organisation dies… Steal [workspace ideas] from everyone, but do not copy… You have to change. Changing is like breathing, and if you don’t do it, you die.”

Frank’s story also took the conference back to the reason people seek offices. At the BFSSS, 92% could work from home, yet only 69% chose to. Why? In Belgium, “they come to the office because it is very silent there. You must feel at home when you work for an organisation.” To step beyond family commitments and focus properly on Simon Allford’s “difficult challenges”. Clearly, future-orientated workplaces may need to be more than the energetic social hubs some predict. Which also reminds me of Herman Miller’s perspective in 1948, “the ideal working environment being “a daytime living room” that would be welcoming and humane” and a declaration by their first design director in 1930: “the most important thing in the room is not the furniture – it’s the people.” So does space transform culture or reflect it? I know what our industry prefers to claim, but what did Winston Churchill say in the 1940s? “We shape our dwellings, and thereafter they shape us.” Noodle-cooking philosophical stuff indeed…

“They come to the office because it is very silent there” Frank Van Messenhove

Personally, it’s this interplay between trying to change, and staying the same, which lives at the heart of our challenge to create better workplaces. In the 1970s Anthony Giddens framed this perpetual conundrum in terms of structure and agency, which was rather nicely reflected at the conference by Simon Allford: “the more specialised you are the more you create a set of rules that become your own support network.” We are caught between evidence and possibility. What are we going to do about it?

We already have a huge legacy from the likes of Frank Duffy, Frank Becker, Alexi Marmot, Wim Pullen, and Andrew Laing (etc), who have been saying powerful things for such a long time. And yet, how many genuinely ‘great’ workplaces do we have, by any measure? Is this where the “beyond the workplace conversation” (#BtWC) comes in, courtesy of Chris Kane, CEO of BBC Commercial Projects, et al? Is the time finally right to create a huge groundswell of awareness through new conversations about both the production and consumption of workplaces? It’s about “FM and the language of business. We are all either numbers or words people, but you have to understand what the organisation is about. You have to get over the hump of credibility.” For Marie Puybaraud of Johnson Controls, place and space are now finally on the customer agenda. They are listening, demanding and driving collaboration and innovation. So will we finally get beyond dominant customer cost-reduction spatial drivers? We shall see…

As the conference drew towards its close, Alexi Marmot offered a captivating, conscientious, humane perspective, gently reminding us of the broader environmental and human-capital challenges surrounding our often insular workspace concerns. First world problems, anyone? For sure, any organisation failing to consider the multiple facets of sustainability and corporate social responsibility for ethically robust reasons will struggle to achieve genuine workplace innovation.

Beyond all of these fascinating perspectives, one stood out for me, and if you’d have blinked you would have missed it. Melissa Marsh, of Plastarc, articulated the future of FM in one simple premise. This is not about managing facilities. This is about enabling communities. And as far as I am concerned, that is an aspiration a world away from our current collective capability; from any perspective you might care to observe from. The greatest productivity measure of all? Perhaps it’s the smiles on people’s faces.

To read more, the conference-supporting third edition of The Occupiers’ Journal ‘Work&Place’ is available here.



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