Research reflections #1 – a tale of two organisations

No comparison, just reflections!

On Thursday 17th I was in London for a few different reasons. One was to go visit a potential organisation I was hoping would become one of the workplace settings/groups for the research I outlined here. But whilst I was speaking at a seminar gig, the opportunity also arose to ask an entirely different organisation to consider getting involved. The differing experiences were frankly astonishing. So I thought I’d ponder them out openly here.

Ok, so first things first, this isn’t any direct, evaluative comparison. I’m not comparing apples with apples. Nor is it in any way judgemental. One visit was carefully planned, following a series of gentle emails to and fro, and a little patience waiting for the right people to become available to talk to: having learnt the hard way in the past, let’s call these ‘organisational gatekeepers’. The other was an entirely fortuitous opportunity: being the in the right position (physically and also perhaps reputationally, having just delivered a seminar presentation about people, workplace change and readiness) to ask the question.

But we can go deeper than that, and explore the similarities and differences. Let’s call these situations [the plan] and [the opportunity]. [The plan] is a coworking collective. [The opportunity] is an organisation in the property industry. It’s not really important to identify them any more than that here.

I sensed urgency from both. People’s time was clearly a valuable commodity not to be wasted. I also sensed the desire for straightforwardness. Personally, ‘academic’ is an ambivalent label. I am proud and honoured (it is a priviledge hard won, after all) yet also painfully aware of the risks of hubris and detachment. So when [the opportunity] gently challenged my difficult academic language, I was momentarily wrongfooted. I thought I was being refreshingly direct! We discussed back and forth for a while, folding and unfolding our arms almost in unison (the networking mirror dance, anyone?!) as we queried, clarified, and requeried to gain better understanding. Ultimately we agreed that I would send further, more complete, information so that the right gatekeepers could consider and make a decision. So what word are you thinking right now? I’m thinking ‘caution’.

[The plan], on the other hand, began by listening patiently and thoughtfully to my explanation for a few minutes. Having practiced my pitch on [the opportunity] it probably flowed a bit more smoothly. The discussion became more balanced. Ideas were shared, and two surprising things happened. Firstly, the ‘yes, we’re in’ was so, well implicit, that I had to double check! Secondly, my research approach became subject to a subtle reshaping to better support [the plan’s] collaborative, open source culture and desire for information to inform and improve. I was invited to speak with another gatekeeper, who appeared (I was rolling with the experience by now) to be the final ‘yes’ I needed. This was an even sharper exchange. I think I got about three minutes into my spiel before several pointedly direct questions about resource commitment, timing and ‘what’s in it for us?’ resulted in both the ‘yes’ I needed  followed by one last, energetic introduction to the right person to help me with the logistics. Oh, and by the way would I write them a blog about it, as part of the ‘what’s in it for us’ commitment? So what word are you thinking this time? I’m thinking ‘action’.

I’m not making a point about the right way to do things here, by the way. But I was very surprised about how unfamiliar [the plan] felt – and how alive it was with opportunity. [The opportunity] was what I expected it to be be like, reminiscent of the organisation I am currently part of; an organisation which talks endlessly of needing to behave more like [the plan], after it has taken a proposal paper about it to the requisite committees for consultation. At what point do we stop challenging (not the same as whinging, incidentally) and become part of the institutional behaviour?

Anyway, to cut a long story short, it doesn’t matter how academically robust and/or theoretically fascinating your research idea is. Can you clearly, convincingly articulate, in five minutes (or preferably less):

  • What you want to do
  • Why it is important
  • How, when, where, and with whom
  • What the organisation and/or participant individuals are going to get out of it
  • Specifically, what the resource commitment is likely to be

and appear approachable, credible, understanding and passionate about what you are seeking to do?

To cut a long story even shorter:

  • [The opportunity] was all about plans
  • [The plan] was all about opportunities

So what are you all about, and what do you need to do differently to ensure that is absolutely who you are?


#StreetWisdom, territory and micro-ethnography in Soho Square

Lanterns above a Chinatown street

Self-organisation in Soho Square

Self-organisation and seating in Soho Square

I pretty much wrote this post on my way home from a fascinating afternoon in the glorious, baking heat of London. This Thursday was the first ‘official’ #BtWC activity to challenge and consider what the future of work could aspirationally be, hosted by @dds180, @ChrisKane55, @KateGL, @davidmicklem and @SimonHeath1. I was there with Bob Seddon (the newly appointed chair of the @BIFM_UK Workplace SIG), @ChrisMoriarty3 (surely the best surname in the country?!) and about 50 other intrigued participants, keen to learn what #StreetWisdom was all about.

If you haven’t heard of #BtWC yet then start here, catch up, and get involved. What would a better working life look like, and what are we going to do about it? What would make work great? What makes a great place to work? What role does space and place have in this conundrum? Join the movement. Join the LinkedIn group, keep your eyes peeled and ears pinned back for ways to engage. Better still, seed your own and make some noise about it.

But I digress. Because this post is about my own Street Wisdom experience. The methodology is deceptively simple. It’s about being present. Originally conceived by David Pearl and refined with these clever folks, offered as open source ‘freeware’ (with the courtesy of accreditation via #StreetWisdom and a reciprocal blog post), it’s all about making space to address a big question and using the ‘university of the street’ to help you answer it. The result? You’ll probably learn more in three hours than any recent afternoon you care to remember. Blue sky brainstorming think-tank, anyone? No. I thought not. And that’s being ruddy polite…

The question I settled on, given my ongoing workspace/place ruminations, was “is territory a good or a bad thing?” Once I’d been suitably ‘tuned’, I began my quest for an answer. I meandered northwards, beyond Trafalgar Square, skirting Leicester Square, then up through the back streets of Chinatown and into Soho. I observed that some (many?) indicators of territory are remarkably ugly, and create forced dichotomies laden with power dynamics and the potential for oppression: us/them, in/out, welcome/forbidden. I noticed that where orders are displayed, they are sometimes (often?) disrespected. I also noticed that without territory people might not have livelihoods, or a sense of difference, of identity. And when I saw the paper lanterns spanning buildings above the streets of Chinatown, I remembered just how captivating and beautiful identity can be. How often do we forget? (Tune up task #4: see the beauty in everything.)

Having already established (tune up task #1) that I am drawn to trees and the green bits of conurbations (it’s the country boy in me…) I sauntered toward Soho Square. I wanted to feel the flow of the space, rather than witness a snapshot. To conduct a micro-ethnography, if you like. I saw different folk. Individuals and groups. Social, solitary, lively, relaxed, even asleep! Seated, standing, lying. Business, casual, blue collar, white collar, children, old, young. On grass, on walls, on benches. What didn’t I see? Any rules or guidelines. No notices. No “this group belongs here”, or “that activity can only happen over there”. The people self-organised. A group of young lads shared a crate of beer together in the sun, next to a couple of girls catching up, near a chap pondering as he got his nicotine fix, behind a lady having lunch. Were they happy with their choices? Well, it certainly seemed so to me.

Many of the benches were split into three sections. Typically one of the end spaces became occupied first. Then the other end. Then, with nowhere else to go, the middle space, or maybe a less physically comfortable/more socially comfortable unoccupied wall instead, just far enough away?! I forced myself to take a middle seat, between two ladies. When, after a few minutes, I was the only one left, I didn’t move. Another lady approached and asked if the seat to my right was taken. After she had sat down, I plucked up the courage to ask (talking to a complete stranger: how very un-British and peculiar!) whether she’d have asked me the same question if I was sat at an end? Probably not, she replied. So by shifting a more typical behaviour/location, with a more comfortable (personal/cultural?) territorial expectation, I ended up in a new conversation. But I had to consciously become aware of, question, then challenge, my own preferences for the space to afford something socially new. But what did everyone have? Choice, autonomy, the ability to self organise and a desire to be there. Interesting workspace implications? For sure.

So, back to my initial question: is territory a good or bad thing? Well, I suspect it is part of human being, whether we want it to be or not. Where did my cheekly little daughter, stood at the threshold of her bedroom at barely two years old, saying “Daddy, no come in!”, with a serious frown and hand held up to emphasise the barrier, come from? At some point in a few years she’ll probably stick a carefully hand-drawn “Violet’s room: keep out!” sign on her door and find refuge behind it. I certainly did, and I still can’t appreciate any genuine reason why, other than sometimes it is, just, well, necessary. Learnt or innate behaviour? Intertwined both? Seriously, who honestly knows…? Then of course there are all the desperate, bitter, tragic wars in this world, if ever there was a topic to make us feel utterly helpless, with our first-world problems like whether we have our own desk or not. No, the irony is not lost on me…

Come on: we couldn’t eradicate the need for territory if we tried. Which, steering it cunningly around to modern workplaces, where we certainly are trying to do just that, worries the crap out of me as more and more organisations sign up to clear desk, non-territorial solutions with a cost-saving core. It just isn’t as simple as mine/yours, or allocated/shared. Such perspectives are myopic and frankly rather facile. @PerryTimms, also at the event, reflected on colourful, diverse, vibrant workplaces versus staid grey ones. The fundamental difference, he thought? The life-force of organisations: the people. So if I want a picture of my daughter to remind me of my human being, who has any legitimate right to say no? Don’t give me rules, dear seniors. Enable and trust me to be me. I’ll be more all the more valuable to you for it.

I’ll be hosting and facilitating a #StreetWisdom in lovely, hilly Sheffield with some of the other #BtWC revolutionaries before the end of September. Come and get involved.

Second coming

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…”


My name is Ian, and I’m an… academic

I wrote this in a bit of a feisty moment on the way home from a debate in London about the future of academic workspace. In the absence of other posts I thought it was finally time to get started. Interesting to reflect on this snapshot now – has my perspective shifted at all? Does being ‘an academic’ make any difference whatsoever? Perhaps one to revisit soon: 

My role is an honour and an opportunity; it is not a privilege or a right. I carry my office in my bag; I have no clutter or books in my workplace. I’m not saying this smugly, hubristically, or for any implied claim that this makes me ‘better’ than anyone else. I am just declaring – hopefully maturely and articulately – the way I am; how it makes sense to me. I believe how I engage with others, in all formats, is the most genuine indicator of my value and worth, rather than any ‘traditional’ trappings of academia.

I adore books. Real, tangible, books. Their value is beyond question. Kindles (etc) are great for PDFs and other documents, but rarely books. My books live at home and I travel portably with the ones I need, a few at a time.

I have no expectation of my own office or owned ‘private space’ in the workplace. I rarely do any genuine, focused, creative, concentrated work in the workplace, during work time, and rarely see anyone doing similar. For me, permanent workspace in this format would serve as little more than an expensive storage facility.

However, I do have an expectation that my organisation should provide me with appropriate spaces and enabling technology (and frankly I’d prefer to choose) to do my job autonomously, which incorporates a vast range of activities, some public, shared and collaborative; some more private. More fundamentally, I expect to feel that my organisation values and respects my contribution, whenever and wherever it is undertaken, and that this is represented in their provision.

“Flexible working, at its heart, is about being mindful about the tasks you have in front of you, and the best place to accomplish those tasks.”

(Dave Coplin, 2013, emphasis added)

I do not expect this to be the same for everyone. This is my statement of expectations; it is unique to me. It will no doubt shift and flex with time and circumstance. I expect my organisation to be able to celebrate diversity and choice.

I am concerned what we think we know about workspace is dangerously incomplete. I am doubly concerned that those who claim to know (professionally and otherwise) are both driving solutions, and resisting progress, myopically. Because we focus on physical space per se, and not what it, nor we, symbolize – within, through and around it; not how we are emplaced within it and bring it to life.

“Social beings are things as definitely as physical things are social”

(George Herbert Mead, 1934)

There are generative spatial solutions which can afford economical, delightful, diverse and celebrated workplace solutions; but we do not know what these are yet. We don’t know what we don’t know.

Organisational spaces and places are both catalysts and reflections; they represent organisations symbolically, and desperately need to be regarded accordingly. When this penny drops, we will be in a more capable position to be able to reimagine or workspaces and places with human value and choice at their core, ideologically, humanistically, and spatially. When this happens, we will stop putting metal slides in buildings and writing excited and envious articles about Google’s (etc etc… yawn…) workspace, because we will not need to look beyond our own. Moreover, when this happens, we will realise that ‘open plan’, ‘hot-desking’ and private offices (etc etc… double yawn…) are but superficial and misleading manifestations of a constructed reality which blinds us from the real issues, and always have been.

We will create spaces that celebrate diversity and choice, spaces that we will actively seek to be in when we need to, spaces that eager, inspired, envious others will desire to be part of. We need to be brave, bold, pragmatic, optimistic and imaginative if we are to challenge the way things have always been done. The world has turned. If we care, as we so readily claim to do, about all facets of a sustainable future, we need to get beyond ourselves… And frankly get a grip.

“The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things, and see there might be another way to look at it that you have not been shown. What you see later on is the results of that…”

(Gil Scott-Heron, 1982)