It’s not about us…it’s about them

We design great spaces….for people. Design without end-user input is easy but will it create a space that people actively want to use?

Visioning sessions reveal desires. After a few years of leading them you can predict the requests, the wish list items are achievable. But what about when the request is viable but is disruptive to the status quo?

It’s very easy to say no and to simply repeat what has been done before. It’s less work. A cookie-cutter model is a quicker, simpler project to deliver. We don’t have to figure out a solution or negotiate with other people’s work streams or agendas. road-less-traveled

The get out clause of  “It’s not standard” can be translated as “It’s nothing to do with me, Guv’nor, I am just the delivery agent, I don’t make the decisions.”  The risk here is that this gives a message that the decision has already been made; it fosters the question ‘why bothering consulting with people?’

Or we could say ‘yes’, or at the least “We’ll consider it”. So when end users ask for low hanging fruit such as….:

  • To be part of the furniture selection process for their office
  • A choice of designs for spaces they are going to work in
  • To have a vote on colours they will be surrounded by
  • To influence the graphics/artwork choices they will have to live with…

….we can start talking to the team and figure out what the right answer is.

We can say “No”. We can say “That’s not how we do things.” or “We only give you X choice.” Or we can work out how to say “Yes” and be able to deliver a responsive workplace that people feel is theirs.

Workplace design isn’t about us, it’s about them. Let’s take the risk and make it happen.




Turn the Beef Around

An example of how a change in workplace strategy benefits people, place and budget and can be quite different to people’s perceptions.

A long time ago in a galaxy campus far, far away….we broke the mould.

In a rather traditional company I had managed to influence a director to take a calculated risk and adopt agile working. Not long after moving day,  a letter was published in the internal newsletter:Picture6

I notice Team X has got a new office that is different from everyone else’s. As the company goals include cost reduction and our values include equality for all staff, please can you explain the costs, how this office compares to the rest on campus and  what consultation took place? *

These are some  everyday misunderstandings about what is needed to adopt a new workplace strategy.  Designing a different type of workplace does not have to be expensive, time-consuming, or unfair.

  • Costs can be mitigated by clever design and by getting your collaboration groove on with other workstreams.
  • Programmes can incorporate engagement requirements  (yes, they can). You might need to support hard-core construction PMs through a learning curve.
  • Quality can be maintained, you’re going to have some criticals that must be achieved, but the rest, as they say, is gravy.


*This is paraphrased verbiage of an actual though rather more challenging letter. The response covered the below:

  • The Director took active ownership of leading the change and achieved Board-level buy-in.
  • The staff engagement model was thorough, well framed and end-to-end.
  • The project cost 15% less than a traditional project.
  • The SqM PP met the campus standard.
  • The space was future-proofed for the next three years while maintaining standard quality for existing staff.
  • Homeworkers chose to come into the office just to enjoy using the space.

A year later:

  • Reduction of churn requests from 50 per year, down to two.
  • The annual staff survey saw an 11% increase in workplace satisfaction.
  • The project was the gateway to changing workplace strategy at an organisational level.


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More Than Meets the Eye

A short piece on when people are more than their CV, how a simple engagement direction has made some people very proud, and how going the extra mile benefits the project.

At one interview the curveball questions at the wrap-up was: ‘Does your sewing machine have a name?’

We’re all long enough in the tooth to understand that the dreaded ‘Hobbies and Interests’ section of the CV gives people a glimpse behind the professional mask, though when was the last time you actually used those hobbies at work? Or asked your employees to share those skills…and they actually agreed to give up their free time?

So this comes back to two of my favourite subjects: 1) engagement and 2) delivering a quality space on time and on budget.


These images were taken by employees. Their roles had nothing to do with photography, graphics or artwork.  I run a photography competition on live projects. The competition is only open to end users at the affected site; the short list is created with Brand influence before being shared across the site for peer-voting. The winning image is installed with the staff member’s name embedded in the image for all to see.

Their skills, their office, their pride and recognition. No matter how many projects we roll this out on, it’s a humbling and uplifting experience.


Delivering on Budget

I object to paying 70 Euro for a single, simple cushion. There, I said it. So when the budget is (once again) directed towards infrastructure and the FF&E budget is cut, there is only so much I am willing to sacrifice. The cuts need to still provide an effective, appropriate solution from Day 1.  In my view, one does not simply walk into Mordor install bleacher seats without something soft to sit on.

Which is how I found myself sewing 22 identical cushions, all with inset zips (without a zip foot on the sewing machine) for a project. Would I do it again? Ask me in a few months. It gave me a whole new respect for professional machinists.

milan cushions



The Great Divide

Bridging the generational divide with 360 degree mentoring and acknowledging that ‘talent’ is to be found in all generations.

I’ve been reading Gallup’s ‘State of the American Workplace 2017’. While it is US-centric and I am sitting in an exceptionally warm England right now, it does have relevance.

An item that caught my eye was “Millennials are more likely […] to say a job that accelerates their professional or career development is ‘very important’ to them. (45% of Millennials vs 35% Gen-Xers and 18% Baby Boomers).”(1)

As we well know, career advancement and opportunities stem from the ‘who’ we know more than the ‘what’ we know. An aspect of this is having the ability to get that influential individual to notice you/your talent. And this requires people skills, understanding how to interact or, as they say in Japan, ‘read the air’. This is not a taught module, we can book-learn, but putting it into practice still requires honing though life experiences. I’ll come back to this in a minute.

I have been debating with a few peers about whether the focus on the Millennial entering the workforce has been so successful that other generations may feel marginalised or disregarded.

On the one hand workplaces need to change to be efficient, challenge costs, attract talent etc. On the other is the risk of alienating your existing talent base – those who have been hired for a while, possibly a looong while. I’ve led workplace change programmes where it’s been a challenge get buy-in from non-Millennials. Some of it is education, some of it is assurance, some of it is ensuring that they are, and feel, heard. The common theme of resistance is the fear that the workplace will become uncomfortable, thus unwelcoming to them.

adult ball pit

‘Jump In’ Art Installation,  Ball Pit for Adults, London  |

‘We can inject a fresh approach in your space to support your way of working and creativity, as well as celebrating your department’s personality – which is quite fun.’ I said.

‘I don’t want ‘fun”, Bob scowled, ‘I don’t want something like a ball pit or a shed to meet in. I’m not in a playground, I’m at work.’

It’s an extreme RL example though it is clear: people have seen Google offices…and it is outside some comfort zones.

Adding to this is the debate about how to maintain the company culture with influxes of headcount or where younger people join the business and move on swiftly. And let us not forget IT changes – oh Lordy, let’s not even go there.

Is it me or is there a divide starting here? Which brings me back to my point.

We hear that people want to further their careers swiftly. We hear that people moan about the changes (and their IT). So we have a choice. We can either carry on moaning, working hard to grind down enthusiasm and youthful ideas about changes (I’ve been on the receiving end) or we can learn from each other.

ignore the laptop


We Gen-Xers and older have skills born of experience, the ‘battle scars’ if you will of projects, people, business culture. Where we may struggle is, as IT adopters, with changes in technology (I routinely teach non-Millennial colleagues how to use Gmail). The changes in moving away from an annual review, with documented school reports* employee progress to measure against can be a challenge, it requires a change in management skills. It requires change, full stop.

Where Millennials may struggle is how to navigate office politics, how to layer on information to give end users the illusion of control while stacking the deck in your favour**, or how to challenge a client without undermining or embarrassing them. These skills are life lessons. Some may already have these skills in natural abundance, others have a deep, aching paucity.

We are st risk of creating a ‘nether the twain’ environment. Remember: Space is easy; people are hard. Maybe it’s time to start focusing on the people.

An easy (and cheap) way of resolving this, and creating a win-win situation, is to instigate a 360 mentoring process. Assign a new hire to an existing employee mentor, preferably one that has been around the block a few times. The goal is to ensure ongoing, impartial support, people skills (office politics) development, cultural adoption and swift feedback in both directions. Bear in mind that each of the items in that (in-exhaustive) list have different meanings to different generations. It’s not about “gettin’ down with the kids, dude” but to do with developing understanding of how we each are optimised to work at our best potential. Each generation can teach and support the other.

But that’s the manager’s job, surely? Not always; what are the chances of a manager teaching their direct reports how to manage up?

There is much we can learn from each other. Let’s give it a shot.


(1)  Gallup 2017, Page 31

* I have been accused of being a Millennial in the past; studiously avoiding the risk of sun damage to my skin is evidently paying off..! One thing I do identify with is immediate feedback and continual development. No point saving it all up for year-end and citing examples that can barely be remembered.

** Example: they know asking for a pool or crèche is a non-starter. They also know they can argue loopholes into your data to argue for more desks or more space than is appropriate. This is why you stack the deck – and use the Framework of Influence to do so.




Creature Comforts

Changing ways of working is about changing the mindset, adopting new tools and finding ways of what works for the individual.

I love caddisfly larvae.  This is probably down to reading Charles Kingsley’s ‘The Water Babies’ back in my dim and distant kindergarten years. The only time they are prettier and more charming than hermit crabs is when man interferes but I admire their ability to make a home for themselves out of selective detritus. Possibly a bit like the average desk user….

desk image - organised chaos

Many, many moons ago I had an allocated desk. It was a regular sized, regular desk, with a phone, a chair, a pedestal and a pinnable area.  It had just enough clear surface to house my laptop, my forearms and a re-purposed tile sample as a coffee mug coaster. My excuse was how my workload needed to be managed. There were a series of trays (in/out/pending/not sure), really big projects had really big files that sat separately. There were reference books; the company culture, company standards, a few novels I’ve been given but not taken home. The pinboard was covered in….stuff. In my defense, it was all work-related stuff; no family photos, no toys, no plants, no Star Wars figurines balanced across the top of the monitor in regimented chronological order.

At the end of the desk was a 2.5LM storage unit. It was full. Full of samples for old projects, printed reports, paper catalogues and trade magazines. There was even a pull-out filing rail holding a filing system for all work in progress or had been completed in the last 12 months. Once an active job had been completed, it would be filed. Every Christmas I’d go through the files and shred anything created before the previous Christmas. In effect, at the end of each year there would be 24 months of filing to go though.

Then there was the stuff in, on and behind my pedestal. Moods are fickle. Fancies vary. Where one end-user had seven pairs of shoes in her pedestal (not including the commute’s gym shoes and the pair of heels she had on her feet) mine related to breakfast fads and fancies, which happened at the office because, sometimes, caffeine just isn’t enough.

fb post - stuff on desk

A pretty bad FB update….the clothes were (slowly) en route to a homeless shelter.

One day I had an epiphany. It coincided with a lessened workload therefore space to think. So I chucked everything out. Everything.

  • Filing? The business had more computers than people, a network and our team had online filing. Who needs to keep paper copies, too? It all went. All in one go.
  • Trade Mags? Scan & electronically file anything you’re going to use, URL bookmark companies/products of interest, register for online magazine issues and chuck the paper copies into the recycling bin.
  • Samples? I used them once in a blue moon. Off it all went to the local primary school to help out with their arts and crafts.
  • Trade catalogues? They change every year. Trees give you oxygen, you should love them above the printed page. Recycle what you have and never accept another paper catalogue or price list again.
  • In/Out trays? This turned into an A5 notebook for actions to complete.

These days, I have reduced further still.  Six months ago I was getting through a standard A5 book a quarter. These days I’m working on reducing this to one book per half year as I wean myself off the unbelievably cathartic, deeply satisfying and emotionally rewarding act of crossing items of a list. Admittedly, sometimes with lots and lots of crossing-out along with accusations of having a marginally psychotic gleam in my eye. I blame the caffeine.

asana monkey thing

There have been years of trying different task management platforms, of looking for ways to combine a preferred way of working with whatever is available (and free), all in an effort to streamline effectively – and not have to carry everything around.

There’s an online project management tool now replacing that A5 book of mine. It cross references by task and by calendar giving multiple ways to track progress. It rewards every ticked item with flying unicorns, narwhals, hummingbirds, rainbows and some kind of flying monkey-buffalo thing. Silly? Possibly. But it does give one an enormous sense of gleeful satisfaction.

These days, everything is on GDrive. Nothing is kept on my laptop. The obvious positives are that I/the team can always access everything – and we can work anywhere.

One of the more challenging aspects about workplaces is that people ‘nest’ their desks, like I used to; it marks their territory and gives them comfort. Generally, a heavily personalised/covered desk is a sign that the end user will find any change to their workplace challenging, even if they get to keep their desk. It is hard to let go of all the ‘me’ that surrounds them; but letting go is liberating and confidence building.

I like caddisflies not just for their larvae’s case-making abilities but also for the fact that they start in one medium (water) and move to another (air). They are not constrained by what they are born into but are released as they grow. They let go of that which becomes unnecessary and take flight.


What’s it All About, Alfie?

Where I aim to make the language of work space, and fork force, trends more accessible.

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 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 Tag called ‘What’s it All About, Alfie?’ where I aim to make the language of work space, and fork force, trends more accessible.

Desk = Worth.

How we view our desk has a direct correlation to how we view our ‘place’.

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.

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?

So, here’s my example:

  • Junior School: Allocated desks. Sometimes in alphabetical order (mine was that kind of school….).
  • Secondary school: They took our desks away! We had lockers, and shared desks. And we demonstrated the power of human habit and created migration patterns with our desk use.
  • University:  Lecture halls were more like the Mobile habits we want to instil in people as adults. We design students had work tables; cue more migration patterns.

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.