Ditching the Decs

Gather round, Brethren, it’s been a while but the time has come to talk of matters of importance.

Hallowe’en is over. Retailers have turned to glitter, soppy (yet wonderful) adverts are on TV, and they have unleashed merry hell on the eardrums via the seemingly non-stop playing of Slade*. A track, that has, I’m convinced, been played continuously since 1973, the only thing that saves us is the January to November mute button. However, I digress….

In workplaces across the land talk has turned to Christmas.

If you thought how people use their desks is fascinating, just watch them negotiate the office decoration ritual. It’s a wonderful dance of people trying to recreate their personal tastes and usually trying not to trample those of others.

Fairy lights incite debates leading to a rota so carefully orchestrated between glowing pulse, static or psychosis inducing flash that it brings back memories of student flat shares, right down to the anonymous rule breaker who changes the setting with gleeful, mischievous abandon (we know who you are). You learn to love the dancing polar bear that plays one solitary, single, repetitive Christmas tune in faux jazz – while threatening to permanently remove its batteries with a spoon in an appropriately mock stern manner.

People stand on chairs on desks (no, really, I have seen this) to hang decorations from the ceiling. Decoration-making competitions result in a plethora of Santa’s Grottys (sic) and paper chain decorations festooning the motion sensors for lighting and security alarms. One interesting Christmas, blocking the fire route in an office containing over 2000 people, a real tree, about 5ft high, was discovered next to untended lit candles (“Because they are scented and we wanted to know what they smelled like.”) We never could figure out how they got the tree into the building…

It’s not that I have anything against Christmas, quite the contrary.  As a joyful consumer of all things Christmassy, I’m a sucker for it. But not between January and October**. And it is in those months that I have the longest, most drawn out debates about Christmas decorations with end users. Usually because decorations are to be found everywhere in the workplace. Dismembered limbs of fake trees are squirrelled away under different desks; scrawny tinsel and dangling ornaments are in plastic bags in storage units, in pedestals, in wardrobes, on wardrobes. Evverywhherre….

And there is always that one person who leaves their desk decorated all year round. Are they a Seasonal Buyer? Has their own particular interpretation of Christmas joy reached such disturbing levels colleagues are afraid to discuss 24/7 Christmas? Or are they simply too lazy to put them away each year?

And it all has to be moved with them when a space is churned.

“So,” say I to pretty much every department in a business, “this wardrobe…the one solely used for Christmas decorations…do we really need to relocate it?”

“It’s multi-use” they say, using my own language against me “When it is winter the decorations are up so releasing the wardrobes for coats.”

“And how often do you need to access it…?” Say I labouring the point with a thousand yard stare.

It lead me to conduct a study on how much it cost the business to store these increasingly ragged departmental decorations, very few of which tend to be bought with business funds. The maths worked as follows:

  • Cost of a new, fake, 6ft tree with lights and decorations, including square metre costs for one month duration in London’s West End: c.£320***
  • Cost of a new storage unit to store decorations, including square metre costs for 12 months office floor space in central London: £2000 PA.

Outcome: It costs less to buy new decorations each year than it does to store them. Ditch the decs. Keep Christmas fiends happy with new stuff, keep the grinches happy with ritualised seasonal destruction.

Merry Christmas!

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*I’m sorry, I can’t link to that track. I just…can’t. Have this one instead. Or possibly this one. Or my personal favourite.

** Yes, January to October. Love Christmas, loathe Christmas shopping crowds. The gifts are bought (and this year wrapped) in October. It leaves more time for eggnog and hobnobbing.

***Allowing for a luxury, pre-lit LED tree at £100 and average quality decorations at £50. Inc VAT. Excl D&I. E&OE.

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How Workplace Change is Like a Novel.

Long ago and far away I had a boss whose mantra was ‘Do it right, do it once’. This is critical within workplace change. This is because we are dealing with human frailties; each participant brings a different variable to the table.

Now I’m not saying design by committee; reducing everything to the lowest common denominator is a non-viable investment and delivers more disappointment than joy. What I am saying is: know how to engage.

Change is effectively a story about a journey that creates itself in the telling.  Confused? Walk with me a while….and let’s explore two tellings of a story that changed the world.

Story 1: It’s a story about a huge battle. There are swarming crowds of humanoids having a fight, lots of yelling, slashing, and strange, war-machine type things. There’s a big stand-off at the end between two of them, they both die. The end.

Do you care? Neither do I. Life is too short to invest in something that can’t be bothered to invest in you.

Let’s try that again.

Story 2: It’s a story about the innate goodness of people, of friendship and how a journey walked together forms the tightest of bonds. It’s about characters that slowly reveal their sometimes bruised lives, letting us connect and learn what forms their motives and inspiration to continue against all odds. They walk to stand against the absolute horror of oppression and murderous tyranny. They speak to you of the possibilities of a life not worth living while showing you the way to vanquish it. And 63% remember story 5% remember statswhen characters die, you grieve.

They are the same story told in different ways. Story 1 lands you in at the end. There is no context. It does not let you connect with characters and root for someone. It treats you like a commodity.

Story 2 treats you like an individual, introducing you to characters, experiences and emotions that you can identify with. It lets you immerse yourself in the tale. And once you have connected – it stays with you after the final page. That’s why this tale spawned a vast global market (and on reflection it’s a pretty good synopsis of a good number of other books or films that stick with you).

And this is what we get when applying this to a workplace change context:

Scenario: A business has traditional approach to workplace, everyone has a desk. Managers have offices. Space is territorial. The business direction is to expand headcount within the existing building footprint. Significant changes are required to meet business objective.

Workplace Strategy: Based on data analysis (utilisation studies, compliance assessment, densities, headcount forecast, business strategy including IT and Personnel). Decision-maker level meetings take place to discuss opportunities, including relocating headcount to regional (and significantly more cost effective) offices, risks and impacts per options. The Decision-makers arrive at a decision (for this exercise let us assume this excludes regional relocation) based on cost efficiency and speed of delivery, and the new workplace is installed. The employee’s engagement is limited to the grand reveal – and the glories of the rumour mill.

I can tell you now that people who have limited (usually zero) experience of a non-traditional working environment will not have a clue how to use the new workplace.  Where is their ‘home’ for the day? Where are their friends sitting? Where does the boss find their team – and ensure they are actually working? Where do they find the boss? Effectively, where is my ‘tribe’, where is my leader?

It’s Story 1 all over again: the end user is a commodity; the concern was to complete a piece of work and short term financial gain. Someone, somewhere gets some glory (hence the grand reveal) and everyone is dragged along for the ride. I have witnessed instances of resistance and conflict caused by this method.

Badly landed workplace change will result in it being declared a non-viable option, a failure. The end users have been trained that agile working means their worth to their employer is diminished, this will affect morale. Be mindful of your well-poisoners, they can instil an equality of misery more swiftly and effectively than you can instil a positive view of the new workplace.

There is little you can do to come back from a Story 1 method. The emotions associated with work have been negatively impacted; damaged. And people have been bluntly, clumsily, told what to do with the expectation that they will obey. Trying to persuade people that something they have experienced, and been hurt by, is actually a good thing, no really it is – is nigh-on impossible. It’s the old ‘fool me once’ adage in action.

Let’s invest in a scenario that will work:

The powers that be decide on the same workplace strategy as before. Behind the scenes selected stakeholders from across the business (respected, level-headed influencers with a balanced outlook) are approached to be part of the concept working group. Group members include the key stakeholder and appointed workplace strategist/consultant. The group establish a communication strategy.

The Board then make an announcement to all employees, outlining why the change is happening, what the framework is, and when it will start. Why is important. Provide context and understanding. Representatives (approachable, responsible, possibly resistant to change because, let’s face it (and to quote my school chaplain) ‘there’s none so devout as a convert’) are sought for change workshops. Expectations are managed. Frameworks of influence defined. Then you ask a simple question….and listen.

Just. Listen.

This workshop is not about you, it’s about them. It’s a ‘safe place’ where they get to voice their likes, dislikes, frustrations, hopes, fears. Listen to the tone. See who holds the floor and the ear of others. Are there any introverts in this group; with 30-50% of the

Photo: Quietrev.com

Photo: Quietrev.com

workplace[1] being introverted, one hopes so. Identify where there may be challenges – within the workshop group, the end users and the business’s processes. Nudge the conversation back on course, gently nipping rambling in the bud. Use your skills to obtain quality information.

Then, protecting anonymity as best you can, feedback the barometer; Personnel may need to develop management skills or change performance measurements. IT may need to get some investment PDQ. And exactly what is going on with the coffee machine on the 3rd floor?

Do this in each workshop, defining the parameters of each workshop on the outset. The first three drive out the workplace plan.

The second three, are to establish a ‘Charter’ of workplace use. This requires a different selection of people and includes ‘training the trainers’. This ensures a wider inclusion specifically including line managers – after all, how are they to support people in the brave new world if they are learning how it works themselves?IMG_3166

The ‘Charter’ is essentially how end users want to use their workplace. Is it ok to leave used coffee mugs on the meeting tables? Can we have the desks cleaned for us? Can I use my earphones? What about personal phone calls? Should the sofa area be bookable?

The Charter will be unique to each area of the business, it is critical that the end users lead this, thus reinforcing their feeling of ownership and contribution to this change. The Charter will be guided by the culture and moral compass of the business and the employees. Your role is to facilitate the conversation, to enable managers to feel confident leading the change post-completion, and to ensure timing of completion coincides with that of the workplace installation.

This is Story 2. Relationships have been forged. A journey travelled. We’re all in it together (including the bosses), we have not only survived but we have influenced direction; we have been heard. And when the big finale comes, we are ready for the dawn of a new day, for those first steps into a new workplace and we feel able to live here. We know how we are expected to behave. We understand our community.

And like many a good novel, there is an epilogue:

It is also critical that the leadership understands that the existing culture will take time to change so agile working is the norm. Changing the workplace is just the beginning; the workplace behaviour change will need to be regularly coached for many months after completion until the change is absorbed into the culture. Where habits return to the old method this is because the change “[Began] with a vision or story, but [failed] to put in place the management tools that will cement the behavioral changes in place.” [2]

[1] Susan Cain, www.quietrev.com and author of Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

[2] http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2011/07/23/how-do-you-change-an-organizational-culture/

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Bob and the Auditors

We battle-weary commuters come to know the patterns of our rush-hour comrades, not least because they mimic our own, right down to seat preference; anything over a year of taking (nearly) the same train, and targeting the same seats, leaves you knowing many of those you travel with by sight. Or you may break through the etiquette barrier and actually start conversing.

A friend of mine, let’s call him Bob, works in the city doing strange, incomprehensible things with global finance. He has more understanding about what I do – not least because he has an allocated desk, works in an office environment and has a rigid hierarchy structure reinforced by the provision of enclosed offices.

Recently, Bob and I met while striding down the platform to ‘our’ carriage.

‘Glad I saw you,’ he called out across the herd of stampeding wildebeest that are commuters on their home run, ‘I need your help. But we’ll talk when off the train.’ He performed a ‘never know who is listening’ finger wiggle at his head, narrowly avoiding clocking those nearby with his old-school attaché case.

A few minutes later we sat opposite each other. Initially, I was lost as to how he needed me. Our professional lives are polar opposites. I have no global interests worth financing (apparently, holidays do not count). Our work place theory debates have ended with his comedic sneer and a mock raised eyebrow. Then I twigged.

‘Oh God,’ I said, ‘You want to know how to stop the change, don’t you?’
‘Yep,’ he said, grinning, ‘You’re going to be my informant!’

Dang…..

His office has the work place consultants in. Strangers have been seen slowly walking through the offices, stabbing away at tablets while wearing broad, not exactly reassuring smiles while they scrutinise.

The train arrives at the terminus, our home station; we are last off the train and drag our heels up the long platform.

‘We’re having a storage audit,’ Bob said, ‘they want us to go paperless.’ He pulled a face. Bob went on to tell me that his field has contracts as thick as phone directories and as plentiful as the tomes stored in  L-Space. They refer to them ‘Oh, quite often’; his tone of voice and body language hinted otherwise.Bob's contract

‘I’m not bothered about a desk,’ he said, ‘I can work anywhere, but the contracts are a different thing. Is there a way I can argue for keeping them, what’s the lingo?’

“You want me to give you insider information,” I said “you want to know how to use their language against them as a resistance technique?”

Bob does not squirm very often (nerves of viperously competitive steel, that man) but I warrant that he does not get questioned about his work preferences that often, either. At least not by someone who knows this field, knows how to push his buttons and has a friendship that means a work place related grilling can be far more robust than those I have at work.

It turns out that his employer wanted everyone to transition to agile working; the cost efficiencies were attractive. Only the hand at the consultant’s tiller didn’t seem to be very strong.

Everyone has gone to non-allocated desking, however there are now more desks than there are people, the majority have successfully pushed to retain non-standard desks and chairs citing:

‘Questionable unique needs.’ said Bob.
“Despite the fact that the best solution for adapting to a desk lies with knowing how to use your chair properly.” said I, with dogmatic fervour.

Ultimately, allocated desking remains, albeit unofficially.

It’s a merry dance we lead, encouraging people that change has its benefits. In brutal honestly, I have probably heard every reason going why people cannot change and why the work place should remain static, or even revert to times gone by. There are times when I have been momentarily stunned, and times when the only way to stifle a laugh is to bite down hard. And the unfortunate fact remains that for every end user’s timed-to-the-minute report proving why change is not possible, any work place consultant worth their salt has a way around it.

When change reaches the individual, it needs a darn steady hand on the tiller to deliver that change effectively for the business, the stakeholders and the end users. Given the choice, none of us want change – unless we are leading it.

In my experience the best way to deliver change is for the client to have strong leadership in delivering the change message – and a commitment to sustaining work place change beyond the length of the project – combined with a bottom-up engagement and communication strategy. Engaging with a select, fair and representative group of end users ensures they feel more part of the process and are more ready for new working methods. The consultants will need a clear instruction of end goal, remits of the end users areas of influence, and a steely determination to challenge resistance while they guide people forward.

One person cannot carry a successful change, but they can certainly whip up support for resistance.

So, did I become Bob’s informant? Of course I did, the man stands his pub round without prompting.

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The Five Generations

The Five Generations, eh? It’s a hot topic for those of us in the work place field, though is still taking many unawares. So, in a very small nutshell: we are at the dawn of a new age where five generations will be working side by side in the work place. It’s a huge topic with many peripheral debates and an awful lot of generalisation however, in the spirit of simplifying things, consider this a starter for ten.

Courtesy of graciejboutique

The Five Generations, according to ‘What’s It All About, Alfie‘ principle:

Traditionalists: born between 1938 and 1948. The so-called ‘hanging in there’[1] group with an estimated 5% (1 million) of this generation still working in the UK; this is estimated to diminish to 1% by 2025.

Baby Boomers: born between 1949 and 1967; the dominant working group with 14.9 million people.

Generation X: born between 1968 and 1980; the increasingly important group of 11.4 million workers poised to take over the reins.

Millennials, or Generation Y. Helpfully, this generation is the last to be born in the previous millennium, not those born since we hit the 21st Century. Born between 1981-1999 this is a quickly growing group of 15.8 million people. The youngest will be eligible to enter the workforce in some form this year (2015) . This generation soon ‘[…] will account for nearly half the employees in the world.’[2] By dint of volume they are an ‘enormously powerful group that has the sheer numbers to transform every life stage it enters’.[3]

Generation Z: are those born since 2000. There were 11.5 million of them in 2010; and their numbers are still growing. Currently in education, but will be eligible to start entering the workforce part-time in 2016.

Note: Absolute generational dates are frequently debated though give a good basic framework.

The reason why people (i.e.: work place junkies like me) are getting in a twist about this is that it has never been experienced before. It will impact all areas of business, from how managers communicate with their team to how businesses are run, from IT provision to levels of nurture managers will need to provide. It’s a game changer.

Boomers hold the majority of senior positions, with some Traditionalist executives alongside[4].  These are the knowledge keepers, the business drivers, the leaders – and roughly 10,000 of them will turn 65 today, with 10,000 more each day for the next 19 years[5]. They are the outgoing generation, albeit over the next twenty years.

Generation X are close at Boomer’s heels, but there are more Millennials, many of whom are in management positions already, than there are Gen Xers.

Logically, everyone else will be upwardly mobile, bringing inevitable change and challenges around preferred communication styles, IT adoption, work mobility and employment styles. The challenge is that each generation has its own way of seeing life and living it – and it’s never as clean-cut as we would like it to be because everyone is different.

Below are some fairly significant generalisations, but its a start:

Traditionalists: Hard working, financially conservative; change and risk averse; hierarchical, logical and loyal; obey and set rules with a ‘command and control’ leadership style.

Baby Boomers: An egocentric generation; work is a defining part of their self-worth and evaluation of others; ‘Live to work’; seeks collaboration and team building; culturally diverse ideals.

Generation X: Independent, resilient and adaptable; feedback and recognition; ‘Work to live’; comfortable with authority though not impressed by titles; ethnically diverse approach.

Generation Y: ‘Digital Immigrants’; Taught to question authority; distrustful and cynical; rapid adapters craving challenge; emotional resilience; flexibility is key for work life balance, dress code, management style and location; work is an extension of themselves, not a definition; global perspective with easy integration with diversity; exceptional multi-taskers that seek continuous learning and challenge; feeling of entitlement.

Generation Z: ‘Digital Natives’; entrepreneurial with strong focus on social and environmental issues globally and in the local community; Highly welcoming of diversity and less likely to subscribe to traditional gender roles; highly adaptive and seeks change. The cut-off date for this generation has yet to be identified therefore the full framework for Gen Z is not set and values, morals and behaviours are still emerging.

The crux we are all facing is that generational preferences are considerably different; communication, hierarchy and work, to name a few, are frequently polar opposites. And they are all in the work place at the same time, forging ahead in business with different agendas and approaches.

As the man (well done, Bob) said: Times they are a-changin’.

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[1] Boomers and Millennials Whitepaper, Orangebox 2014
[2] Working with Five Generations in the Workplace, Forbes April 2011
[3] Overcoming Generational Gap in the Workplace, United Nations Joint Staff Pension Fund
[4] Volkswagen AG; Samsung Electronics; Warren Buffet etc.
[5] ‘Baby boomers Retire’, PEW Research Centre, Dec 29 2010

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What’s it All About, Alfie?

Daily I talk about subjects that cause many a furrowed brow. Subjects like Incubators, Accelerators, Millennials, touchdown, free address, five generations….  These are subjects that work space obsessed folk such as myself trip merrily off our tongues without a moments thought, we all instantly know what the other person is talking about.

When it comes tquestiono bringing new, far-reaching concepts to an organisation, this is not often the case; in communicating work space change we are divided by a common language.

In these interesting global times it is increasingly important to talk openly about the human element of doing business. Employees are a cost, the buildings they inhabit, a cost. Inefficiencies in both are being sought out, and addressed, as businesses position themselves to survive – preferably thrive – in these turbulent times.

Though how can you talk about work space, and work force, change if the consultant is using words that do not mean anything to you? For example, one of the buzzwords of our time is ‘generations’; significantly, the five generations. This is a massive subject; more of which in future posts.

A quick search for ‘What are the five generations’ resulted in several HR reports on motivation and management, an excellent intro piece by a mechanics site and the ever reliable Forbes.com. Not much about their impact on the work space itself.

This, and the educational journey I walk with many people, have led to the tongue in cheek category called ‘What’s it All About, Alfie?’ where I aim to make the language of work space, and fork force, trends more accessible.

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1:1 desking = one desk:one person = Me:Worth

desk - old

The chances are, if you’re reading this at work, you’re at your desk. That would be ‘your’ desk, allocated to you. And there are lots of good to be had with that, there are many roles that need to have an allocated desk – and there are many businesses that can afford to provide them.

The majority of offices, be they private or public organisations, are still 1:1 desking, meaning one person to one desk. It’s the way things have been since time began*.

The desk is a fascinating institution that represents us more than we may realise. Having a desk says you have worth, that your employer recognises you as an individual. It can indicate if you have – or are assuming – a position of authority, are aloof or approachable, if you have trust issues or how confident you are. It can tell us something about your work/life balance and how you might handle change.

Think back to when you first had a desk, that day you were told ‘That’s your desk, that’s where you sit’. Would this be your first office job? What about when you started school?

In junior school we had allocated desks (admittedly, mine was one of the vintage flap-topped desks in which we stored all out school books, but at least we didn’t need the inkwell!). In secondary school, that clique-laden maelstrom that I certainly look back on with horror, we had allocated lockers but human habit meant that we all returned to the same spot, thus demarcating a seat as ‘ours’.

In university it was more flexible in the lecture theatres but where we merry design students had work tables, we created owned tables; we marked our territory with habit. And then we all went to offices where we were given our new home. I use ‘home’ deliberately, believing that work influences our behaviour patterns more than our personal lives do – but that is for another day.

The desk is all about us as individuals. It’s about the ‘me’. My desk, my space, my things, my place. The desk is the one thing in our working lives where we can be sure to express ourselves, mark our place in other people’s awareness and firmly anchor ourselves in our understanding of our validity as employees. It is the physical manifestation of your employer stating you have worth as an employee, as such you are entitled to some of the employer’s territory.

Conversely, a desk of our own can be about our fight against The Man who tells us what to do and when to do it, it’s about sticking it to our need to be working stiff for lack of a private income, it’s about stamping our ownership on part of our employers environment.

That is not to say the desk is a bad thing, quite the opposite, it has a vital part to play in any field – and it’s not going to go away. It simply may not provide us with what we actually need to do our job effectively, efficiently and happily.

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The Apartment (1960)

*Possibly not that long ago, more like the 1900’s when Frederick Taylor’s drive for efficiency revolutionised how the ‘modern’ office was laid out. Ironically, this layout was also considered as giving people personal space, convenience and a spot of comfort and privacy to boot. (Really…!?! Ed)

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Uber Work Space Spod – and Proud!

Far away and long ago there was a recent Design graduate, lost in a vast, grey sea of possibilities.

Invited back to my alma mater to teach, I was asked to devise a module for the course that extended the curriculum. And then, a miracle happened: I discovered Space Planning.

My students loathed the module: it wasn’t fun (au contraire, Ed.) it had no Interior Design aspects they had come to expect. No vast fabric books or tile samples ultimately destined for life as patchwork pieces or a mug coaster. No mighty decisions on dissecting a double height void with glass block walls (it was the early 90’s…). No ability to create sweeping curves on the page with no clue how it was going to be built, let alone hold up the unsupported lantern roof. Nope, just boring desks, boring meeting rooms and thinking that environment meant adding plants.

For me, it provided a direction, it lit a fire. Within 6 months I was head hunted for my first position as Space Planner for an office furniture manufacturer in London. The journey to get to that point included working for petrol money, learning CAD in my personal time with a three-month deadline, commuting 80 miles a day, driving adventures in Bristol’s nerve-shattering rat-runs and building a experience-backed CV with intent.

These days I work for a blue chip organisation and manage their head office work space of just over one million square feet. Work revolves around calculating work space strategy, efficiency and effectiveness to support the organisation through times both good and challenging.

And I love it; work is serious play.

It’s a niche field, this obsession with work space, the business direction and the people who use it. Short of businesses marketing themselves, or the ever popular moaning about work, there do not seem to be many, if any, blogs that cover that holy trinity of work space management. You have to look far and wide, or within niche circles, to learn about why the desk is so important to people; about how space is used says more about the end user than they realize; about how you can give some fun back and encourage end user behaviour by the way you lay out a space; how a person’s psychological make up is the centre of our work space world, all while discovering that the desk has been immortalized in song (way to go Harry) so that’s what I’m going to write about.

Join me, it’ll be fun, honest.

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