#BTWC – Soulful -v- Sold out & Soulless.

Posted: July 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

Beyond the Workplace Conversation – Street Wisdom

So I won’t take up precious wording in this post to explain what Street Wisdom is – there is a website which explains it all.  http://www.streetwisdom.org/

Suffice it to say that there was a reason for people to come together on 24th July, in blazing heat in London to use the Street Wisdom methodology in looking at the baffling topic of people and place. All part of the joint work of BIFM and CIPD. Into the issue of 21st century thinking, acting and doing in the workplace and the existing constructs of work still largely hung up on Industrial Revolution thinking and siloed mentality. Or something like that.

Anyway, the essence of the whole piece of joint work is to look into what IS a great workplace. And no, we don’t just mean like Slides and Table Tennis Tables or Cubical Farms at either end of a spectrum.

In essence, something needs doing about the place we call work.

For many people now – like me – don’t even have a place they call work anymore. It is coffee shops and hotel lobbies and any place with connectivity of digital device to the mothership/cloud (whatever). Not if you are in a factory or hotel though when really you need to be at a workstation /shop floor/front of house to do what you do. But even that needs to be something conducive to flow. Flow in a sense of allowing you to do not only what you were contracted to do but what you know is the right thing to do for the consumers and customers or service users or partners or whoever to get what they are after from you. Yes it’s bare transactions, but it’s also experience, and dignity and people helping people.

So this place we call work. Back to that. What’s so broken and naff about it? I hear the FDs and Board Members bellowing into the corporate airwaves.

We have light, heat (mostly), water, toilets and a fixed abode. Heck some of us even have astro turf and pool tables.

Well it’s this scant regard to many of the places we call work that has gradually calcified the situation and created, well, nothing.

Now that people have more options to connect and work elsewhere, they look to the environment they choose – be it home or coffee shop and think “If i can be this productive here, why should I put up with the bland, distracting and often counter-inspiring place provided for me by the organisation?”

Yet it’s not that either. It’s partly that but more to it. So what is that more?

So today, having the chance to do something called Street Wisdom I got to think about a specific question. Which was this.

“That CIPD has joined BIFM to look at the future of the workplace is great but how do we make it relevant to a profession where – frankly – many people don’t give a shit about it”.

“It” being the state of the workplace in most cases and the static thinking embodied in unimaginative ways to build and kit out offices, workshops, factories and communal buildings. I’m not having a dig specifically at architects, interior designers, feng shui consultants, HR types, Facilities Managers or workplace consultants. It’s less about blame and more about better.

Better Work #FFS.

So, on this Street Wisdom thing, I walked around Trafalgar Sqaure and streets around it with the question in my head and an open mind about things to give me inspiration and help make sense of the question and maybe even conjure up answers.

Did I get some answers? I think I have something akin to more refined questions rather than answers. So here goes.

In noticing what I was drawn to it was initially this starkness of the scale and greyness of the main street buildings. Until I turned up Orange Street and true to its name, there was colour. Smaller and more human looking outlets. Not mega structures; cool shacks. It got me thinking musically – Edwin Starr’s Northern Soul classic “Backstreet”. In it there’s a section which goes

“…but the people on the backstreet, they swing all night long. Although I live on the main street, the backstreet is where I belong”.

I found more belonging amongst the rag-tag ensemble of barbers, coffee shop, newsagent and delicatessens.

I thought about the main street as conventional mega corporations. The backstreet as the smaller businesses huddled together in resplendent difference and the physical place we call work reflects that. Slick, marble, glass and teak of corporate and the white walls; kitchen table and reclaimed chairs of the backstreet.

“If I find the backstreets of any town, I know I’ll find a friend”.

Friendly workplaces. Such a tall order to ask? Workplaces where the uniqueness of you isn’t lost in the branding of corporate life.

I also came across an inscribed wall. It was part of the National Portrait Gallery but in gold script was the story of a merchant house, a bombed out shell, a reclaimed glory and a last rites as it became consumed in the name of art.

I thought about the workplace. Where are the stories of the buildings we park ourselves in to generate some affinity with what we call our place of work?

OK let’s start with a difficult one. A brand new, Ikea-fied business park where there was nothing but fields before it was built. No story to tell there about the previous dwellings or working that went on there. Yet this place has been created to serve and there will be stories to tell so in the absence of heritage, decorate and stimulate. Then let people have the chance to start telling stories about what this place is there for.

Allow them to bring their art in. Decorated with photo montages of the first batch of human beings to grace these premises.

ENTIRELY individualised workstations if possible. Or an environment that feels like a mix between a coffee shop, the kitchen table, the heady days of university dorms, the set of a favourite film, a theme that represents the work you do in a non-twee corporate way but more reflective of the reason they are doing what they are in that place. Selling insurance? Themed around the home, the car, the features of life.

I don’t know – I’m not a designer so you can dismiss this as easily as you might the table tennis and deck chairs around a sandpit attempts to inject something different into workplaces.

But SOMETHING more human, living, and individual can be done with work.

Bland, same, grey, rigid, cubicle farms or open plan is just beginning to feel unworthy of people’s 7 hours of endeavours every day.

OK we don’t have many/any sweat shops over here but that isn’t to the baseline. A stimulating, conducive environment is what is deserved and we’ve all just settled for avergage for way too long. And it’s the case studies we hear of people self-organising; spontenaity and difference which is proving to be a draw and lead to better everything.

We’re not talking about suffering per se here.

We are though, in need of something different as one of many contributors to get people powered productivity back into the country and build something about working life that makes us proud and stimulated as human beings.

So, I saw a Backstreet. I saw an “epitaph” and they set me off. I saw more – much more – and did they answer my questions? Not exactly. Not really. But they did get me thinking about a set of questions that we – as HR Professionals – could start to ask.

1. When was the last time you said to ANYONE in your organisation “how does this workplace make you feel?”

Followed by

2. What would you change about the way and the place you work which would make you feel better and able to perform brilliantly?

And listen to the impacts and suggestions they may have.

3. As a new entrant, what do you EXPECT this place to be in terms of ways of working and the physical layout/style of environment?

4. When you need people, solitude or sanctuary at work, how well does your current workplace serve that purpose? What could be done to make this better?

And I ran out of steam there. It had been a tiring and very intriguing day.

Maybe many of us who have tried to kickstart an aesthetic and operating revolution have run out of steam too but if there’s one thing I hope to see happen, it’s that people and place can be improved to represent something better.

Find a better place.

Better for us all. Better for work. Better for life. 

  1. Tash says:

    You make me fondly think of my visit to DaVita in Denver last year – a workplace truly like no other – ‘a community first and a company second’ – you can positively taste the difference as you walk into the lobby and boy do they work hard, but they work hard tor each other and every person they touch. It’s a truly inspiring story of an org truly coming back from the brink and choosing differently ‘together’

    Keep at it bro’. This life sure is a windy and winding road – but none of us can deny what our hearts tell us.

    • perrytimms says:

      Ah thanks Tash. I love it that you have seen examples where the symbiosis of people and place can be perfect harmony and as good a trade off of organic/static as you’re evee likely to see. Realising the quagmire you find yourself in is – I hope – the first part in a process to find yourself sanctuary. A workplace that is that sanctuary seems all too rare an entity. Staying strong. Believe me. And thanks again.

  2. Tash says:

    Cheers Perry – as you know it’s my deep love too – to see us all, people and organisations be the very best we can be for each other. DaVita was the first example which sprang to mind and probably a great one given the size – 53,000+ employees – there are others here too in the UK which are just as inspiring with people who simply want to do better for the world and in the world together. Nixon McInnes I know you know. Propellernet’s Nikki has a great personal story to why she leads in this way too and you can’t help but fall in love with the Spook Studio / Happy Start Up Boys. Then of course you have Barrett Values – truly awesome conversations they have around people care and the success of the org.

    What’s interesting for me is I’ve only met a handful of people in my time who, when pressed, DON’T want this for themselves and others and that of course is a whole other interesting story

  3. Tash, come check out our beach hut meeting place and waltzer reception, you’re welcome to drop in any time!

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