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Pursuit of perfection impedes improvement
Print – Issue 171 | Article of the Week

Neil Usher


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There is a tendency to over-think what makes a great place to work. We put too much into believing that the more we evaluate and analyse it, the better the outcome is likely to be, and we only want to start when we are entirely convinced of the benefit that will accrue. “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”*.

Article by Neil Usher, Executive Consultant: Property, Workplace & Change – workessence, Executive Consultant – Unispace & author The Elemental Workplace 

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”*. There is a tendency to consider that the world, and the world of work, is changing more quickly and deeply than is actually the case. We have always had technology at the heart of our work, young people joining the workforce, and contractors sitting side-by-side with employees. It is just that we are more aware of change happening, it is analysed as it occurs and sometimes long before it has occurred, as is the case with the contribution that AI will inevitably make in rendering tasks less robotic. Threads of the way we have worked for decades still run through everything we do today and are likely to do in future – we still highly value face-to-face interaction, we still administer, we search for better ways to do what we do, we report and evaluate, we work in organisations with structures and methods that while they may have become more automated have existed for many decades. In some respects, there has been a resurgence of arts and practices we thought lost, from ‘artisan’ – hand-made and unmechanised – to taking a lunch or tea break together – you will undoubtedly soon hear more about the Swedish custom of ‘fika’.

 “In some respects, there has been a resurgence of arts and practices we thought lost, from ‘artisan’ – hand-made and unmechanised – to taking a lunch or tea break together – you will undoubtedly soon hear more about the Swedish custom of ‘fika’” 

Paradoxically, approaches to work such as Agile Engineering in which advanced digital applications are developed overtly demand the analogue – scrum walls covered with marker pen and sticky notes, created and managed by people daily working in the same physical space. The economist Ha-Joon Chang and colleagues have even argued that the domestic washing machine created more significant change than any recent invention, including even the Internet, freeing women to work and build careers like no other device before it, or since. A great place to work in 2019 – and beyond – lies in the perfect balance between people, space, technology, purpose and opportunity – each of which, in turn, provide inspiration, motivation and energy. To aid this thinking is a six-layer doodle. It is not a hierarchy – something we are often pressed for ‘what’s most important here’? – but a progression of thought, stressing that it is the ‘whole’ that is vital. We weave our own patterns within and between the layers. Inevitably, technology sits at the heart – our kit, connectivity and its servicing. We can work in poor spaces and make do – with these three aspects of technology in play – but not the other way around. Café working became the ultimate expression of this and notably, nobody has ever gone back to the counter after collecting their latte and demanded an ergonomic chair and a HD monitor. And as a foot note: when it comes to problems that staff complain about, there is no excuse for not fixing it, and fixing it facr. It should not need to wait for a ‘project’ or an initiative, it should just be done. Pro-rata the investment is tiny, and proportionately its potential is massive. It is not just a matter of the ROI of investing – consider the ROI of not. Kit should be over-specified to avoid near-instantaneous obsolescence, connectivity via cable or WiFi should be generous and simple, applications should be intuitive and make our work easier and more effective, and service should enable these three aspects to function 100 percent of the time. 

It has taken several decades of workplace design and planning – and the potential to be untethered from a fixed work position afforded by technology – to understand that amenities such as cafés and gyms provide just as important a social contribution as a physiological. These are the places where silos break down and connections are made, where people feel they can be themselves, where conversation is natural rather than meeting-mode. Whether the workplace is ‘agile’ of ‘flexible’ maters little in this regard, the challenge is to create an amenity-centric space. These features should be the first things on the space plan. Their arrangement is as important as their inclusion and specification, both reflecting and directing the flow of people and therefore conversation. From there we consider the workspace as we might normally understand it. This comprises primary worksettings, the spaces in which we generally do most of our work that are still usually a desk of some form, and alternative settings from breakout spaces to formal meeting rooms. They will form a spectrum from those supporting the most quiet, solo work to those enabling large-team interaction. They have to be defined and their performance criteria set before we actually design anything at all – things like their purpose, location, degree of enclosure, capacity, technology, acoustics, ergonomics, appearance and whether ‘off the shelf’ or bespoke. The spectrum should support solo and team tasks in equal measure, and we also therefore need to consider the proportions of each based on how we work today and the opportunities we create for working differently in future. Workplace design is always about balance – evidence and opportunity, solo and team. 

A fantastic workplace must have fantastic service. Our expectations of the availability of the appropriate space, technology and service has never been higher, but often the focus is on the first two and the third remains an afterthought. The proliferation of flexible space operators has also contributed to a far great focus on the range and quality of services available in the workplace – their popularity has in many respects been driven by a focus on the occupiers of the space, the ‘end consumer’, and not the commercially-focussed client organisation. It is not a case of simply providing more services, but of providing the right, appropriate services to the highest quality. Property teams are actively learning from other sectors such as hotels and leisure, but most importantly are starting to understand that they are providing colleague service and not customer service. The relationships is not vendor/provider or transactional, but one of mutual interest and support, and of committing to the same purpose, sharing the vision, mutually committed. This transition has beneficially changed the conversation within those organisations who have adapted to this understanding. It applies to all corporate support functions, including HR, in their relations with others within the organisation. 

Finally, the workplace can only function effectively with an awareness of, and commitment to, a series of enabling attitudes and behaviours. Workspace is empty and workplace is occupied – the challenge is transitioning from space to place. Fostering trust and community, creating and nurturing a ‘gift economy’, demonstrating the right behaviours, and not just talking about them – rolling up into the Bill & Ted approach, ‘be excellent to each other’. A fantastic workplace can contribute to a positive and supportive culture, but it won’t fix a culture that sucks. Creating a great workplace is not a task, and not something that is ever finished. Every workplace exists in perpetual beta. There may be spikes of activity or expenditure, projects that increase activity from time-to-time, but as the organisation and its immediate and broader external environment change and evolve, the workplace will need to do so to.  It has been understood to date that workplace projects encompass a period of downstream change management. Yet this is entirely the wrong way around: workplace professionals are leaders of change, who complete some downstream workplace activity. As Hercalitus said in around 550 BC ‘all is flux’. A great workplace in 2019 needs to remain a great workplace beyond, or it will all have been for nothing. We are never done, but we can certainly start now. 

*Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Terres des Hommes

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