#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.


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.


This is not just workspace research…

‘Simple camera icon’ by Srami8 (2012)

Blimey. What a cracking week. Not only have we had four different Facilities Management (FM) student groups at Sheffield Hallam at once (ever used the analogy that FM is all about juggling?!) but Wednesday was the milestone I’ve been working towards pretty much solidly since March. I got double green-lighted to commence the research phase of my doctoral studies. Ka-boom! Chuffed? Excited? Just a little bit. Sometimes I absolutely love what I get to do for a living…

Ready to explore what we think we know about workspace?

So this is where it gets exciting, because now I’m looking for people to get involved in something which should be really fascinating. Especially given all the people/place discussions triggered by the recent CIPD/BIFM collaboration announcement. Not that I shop at Marks & Sparks, but this not just workspace research. Piqued you interest? Splendid. Read on…

What’s it all about?

What I want to do has its methodological roots in anthropology and sociology, rather than the environmental psychology-esque studies typical of FM and workspace research. I am interested, as openly and as broadly as I can be, in what ‘matters’ when it comes to people and their workspace. That’s it. The method I’m planning to use is called ‘participant-led photography’. Deceptively simple? You bet.

How’s it going to work?

I’m looking to engage with ideally two UK-based organisational settings. One might have its own workspace (or workspaces), with the majority of people all working for one main employer. The other might have more of a co-working setup, where different people from different employers all co-locate within a collective workspace. From these two settings I’m looking for a small number of volunteers. Maybe about ten from each. I’m after both ‘providers’ and ‘users’ of these workspaces. By providers I mean some from this list: landlord, owner, architect, designer, FM or senior management. By user, I mean folks who work there regularly in the workspace provided for them.

When I’ve got my two organisational settings selected and participants recruited, I’m going to come and meet everyone for a short initial briefing. This is where it hopefully gets really fun and interesting. Because I’m going to invite each participant to gather a small collection of photos using their own camera-phones, about, quite literally, anything they feel ‘matters’ to them about their relationship with their workspace. The great thing about photos is that they can’t be right or wrong. Participants can be as creative (or conservative) as they like. It isn’t about ‘good’ photos, whatever ‘good’ actually means. I hope this becomes an interesting, enjoyable experience. Am I going to see pictures about work stuff, or other things entirely? Am I going to see pictures inside buildings or beyond? I have no idea. It’s completely out of my hands.

Wow. That’s workspace research? Tell me more…

The participants are going to have a few weeks to gather their ‘photo-sets’ before they ping them over to me for printing. Next, I’ll come back to site and meet them again, one at a time, for a short conversation (probably 45 minutes or so) about the photos: “Why did you take this one? What’s significant about it? What’s going on in this photo?” and so on. The conversations might well go wherever, because they are led by the participant photographs. It should be fascinating.

These conversations will need to be recorded because after that I’m going to analyse them to ‘make sense’ of what the conversations tell me about the participants and their relationship with their workspace. Confidential recording of information like this is standard practice for doctoral studies: rest assured, ‘research ethics’ is serious business for university research like this. Protecting participants so they feel comfortable to talk openly is paramount. The analysis will take a few weeks, after which the plan is to either come back to each participant with a summary of their key points: “This is how I would summarise the key points from our conversation – would you like to amend or add anything…?” or, if there is more complicated stuff to talk about, perhaps come back to site for one final round of conversations with some folk.

When is this happening?

This information, or data, will become the basis of my entire doctorate, which I (rather ambitiously) hope to be well on the way with by late 2015. So I’m on a serious timescale, and the research phase I have outlined above needs to happen during the latter half of 2014.

How much effort will volunteers need to put in?

In ‘real’ terms, it simply involves each participant attending the initial short briefing session, taking the time to gather the photos, ping them to me, meet with me on site to talk about them, then either answer a clarification email or phone chat, or perhaps meet one more time. In total? Maybe 3 hours or so over 5 months, depending on how much fun they start having with the photo-project bit!

What about organisational commitment?

For the organisations involved, it means granting me access to their sites to undertake the research as conveniently and effectively as possible. It means allowing participants to sensibly take camera-phone photos which might be of/in the workplace. We will discuss ‘responsible photography’ at the initial participant briefing, covering data protection, ownership and permission, and having other people in shot etc: this is massively important. It means allowing participants the time and flexibility to engage with me. It means, most fundamentally, trusting me to undertake the research ethically, carefully, and conscientiously. My mantra as researcher is always ‘do no harm’. I’m happy to discuss this at any point. Hopefully this all sounds far more fascinating than onerous, but obviously everyone will have their own opinion.

Why this approach?

Well, after 16 years firstly doing operational FM and managing workspaces, then latterly teaching and researching in the field, I suspect that if we ask typical questions about the people/place relationship, we probably get typical answers. But if we can find ways to allow new information to emerge, we might be surprised and enlightened by what we discover. I’m really excited to be contributing to this fascinating and perennially challenging topic in an innovative way.

Right. We might be up for this. What’s in it for us?

Research like this has to be a bit of give and take. Through this approach I will learn a huge amount about a small number if particular perspectives. These probably won’t therefore be totally representative of the organisations or topic overall, but I’d be really surprised if there wasn’t hugely valuable learning in there to help inform the people/place relationship in the specific organisational settings involved. So, I will happily report and discuss summarised findings with both the volunteers and organisations involved, fully respecting the confidentiality of participants at all times. Moreover, by entering this extended period of work with me, you get my FM/workspace knowledge, experience and enthusiasm for the duration of the research to boot. You never know, this could be the start of something beautiful…

Brilliant. How do I get my organisation involved?

I’m keen to get started as soon as I can. Tweet me @ianellison or email me at i.ellison@shu.ac.uk. Don’t forget, I need both ‘providers’ and users of workspace as my participants. Also, crucially, please think about the ‘organisational gatekeepers’ – the people who will need to say yes to this before we can crack on. This might be you directly, or it might be a small group of folk.

Remember. This isn’t your usual workspace research. I’m trying to innovate and push the boundaries. If your organisation already believes it has all the answers, maybe this isn’t for you.


Softly, softly, catchee monkey…

Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy (Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, 1773; public domain) via Wikimedia Commons










“On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées” (Victor Hugo, 1877)

This wasn’t going to be my third post. It was going to be about the wonderful Jane ni Dhulchaointigh’s perspective-shifting Sugru and the mass customisation of FM. You’ll have to wait for that. Soon. I promise. Why? Because something has happened this week that can’t go unacknowledged, and following the lovely messy reality of announcements and responses, it has left me reflecting on hubris… and humility. It’s easy to get carried away.

The BIFM’s annual conference #ThinkFM happened on Tuesday. Last year, as a chair for one of the conference streams, I experienced a day spent encouraging poor little FM to give itself a big sorry hug because no one was (still!) listening to how valuable it is. Sadly I couldn’t make this one, and I’m actually a bit disappointed. Because what transpired was, by the sound of it, a carefully choreographed reveal, primed by CIPD head honcho Peter Cheese, delivered (and masterminded?) by FM industry A-lister Chris Kane. The announcement was that BIFM and CIPD will be working together, because …drumroll… it’s all about people and place.

Now let’s be honeset here. Folk don’t half like to gossip and grumble. It’s part of human nature, right? When I heard, I was in a room with a group of our lovely Sheffield Hallam FM students, all mature, experienced, passionate, practicing FMs. What was the session about? Oh, you know, just stuff about the fact that until organisations realise that it starts with people, workspaces will never be on the money. You can have the slides if you like, on the house – give me a shout. Anyway. I digress. Our first reaction at Hallam was “aye, we knew that; about bloody time.” In fact we knew it to the tune of (a) working with CIPD on it in 2005, and (b) trying to catalyse a commercial university spinoff called Spaceworks to get some academic rigour behing the people/place thing: Spaceworks executive summary (2006). So yes Gareth Tancred, Peter and Chris, we sure as hell want a seat at the table. We’re so ready for this we’re about to pop.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, a range of reflections followed. All compelling, visionary perspectives in different ways. If you haven’t read them yet, you should: @ChrisKane55, @SimonHeath1, @markcatchlove, @workessence and @dougshaw1 are a great start. As Alfred Brendel said, during an episode of BBC Radio 4’s glorious Desert Island Discs in November 2013:

“I abhor the conviction that one has to find the one and absolute truth. There are truths with an ‘s’.” (Alfred Brendel, 2013)

And then something clicked. I realised (newb that I am!) that behind this big, shiny, corporate, industry pledge was a diverse collective of connected individuals proactively driving at a fresh conversation. And there’s the rub. By ‘going public’ through ‘going corporate’ to enable wider transmission of intent, yes, the idea can’t help but get institutionalised. And institutions very often limit agency. I was having a right old vaguely intellectual rant about this ten days ago in my second post, as I am fairly convinced, like Giddens and many others, that it is the crux of all our challenges. So what should we do?

Remember that time when you loved something really, really good? Something – maybe a band, or a restaurant, or a bar, whatever really – that you knew about but other folks didn’t. You felt close to it. You felt special. You felt privileged, because you knew about something exciting that the other folks didn’t. Then what happened? Sigh. It probably went mainstream, right? Because culture unfolds through people, and people love to talk. The first rule of Fight Club? You get the idea.

This might be how this feels to some of the visionaries right now. But there is a careful balance to maintain. If we can harness the value of the vehicle, and remain aware of the incumbent politics and tactics that come with it, then just perhaps we have a trojan horse to covertly wheel something really inspirational right into the middle of the city. Meanwhile our indispensable scouts are off exploring elsewhere. Not everyone can push the envelope of possibility. But they still have a right to know about it. Love or loathe him, Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘tipping point’ notion comes to mind. What do sticky ideas need to tip? There are multiple roles to be embraced or the system falters. And since I’m on a Gladwell tip (boom boom!) maybe we’re about to watch a David and Goliath dynamic play out, both actually and metaphorically. Honestly. I should be on commission, I really should…

So, following my slightly smug ‘about time’ knee-jerk reaction, I feel a bit humbled now. I realise that behind easy to criticise conference announcements and press-releases, subtle, passionate genius can be at work, stage-left or right. And perhaps at this point, saying “we knew that already”, even when tempered with “so please get us involved” is not actually that constructive. Timing is everything. Sometimes we push ahead too soon, blow up, run out of momentum and get caught; sometimes we need to spot the breakaway, get on board quick and work together to drive at something potentially successful… ahead of the peloton.

We can turn to one of FM’s many definitions to spot our hallowed holy grail, the intersection of people, process and place. It’s always been there. But maybe now though we are recognising and developing our agency to actually do something about it:

“Ultimately, the practice of FM is concerned with the delivery of the enabling workplace environment – the optimum functional space that supports the business processes and human resources … as an enabler in the first instance” (Then, 1999, p. 469)

If you haven’t seen it already, you could do a lot worse than watch Dave Coplin’s utterly inspirational RSA Animate to realise that behind people and place (and technology) lie the far more fundamental issues of perceived trust and value. My own perspective and prediction, for what it’s worth? The people/place intersection might not have been tackled by our industry convincingly yet, but there is so much knowledge to draw upon already. What we might learn will challenge our current wisdoms. It will challenge us to rethink our stale “property is an organisation’s second biggest cost” rhetoric, because it will force us to look at the first most important organisational element in a new light. It will be a qualitative step beyond quantitative considerations of economy and efficiency, towards enabling genuine effectiveness. Sorry folks. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Decision time. And that will challenge what we think we know about workspace, because to do this the focus will have to be specific, not collective.

Ultimately, despite all this talk, actions will need to speak louder than words. Someone will have to develop the cojones to do something about it. To take that leap of faith beyond the dogma and existing evidence. If I have learnt one thing recently, it is the way ideas can now ripple through this brave new socially-connected world; where knowledge, talent, passion and energy can find each other, independent of the confines of rigid structure and hierarchy. So, as Mr Ramsay has been rumoured to say, minus the trademark expletives:

“Less chit chat. More chop chop.”

Let’s get on with it. Don’t sulk if you don’t get an invite. Get involved. You have the power at your fingertips. Meanwhile, which is better, and what does better mean? You decide:



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)