thought piece: workplaces benefit by being convivial but is there a next level of community and team working that we should be aiming for?
The office is not a conveyor belt.
Even younger readers might be familiar with the hapless figure of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times trying to keep pace with an unrelenting production line, till he himself effectively turns into a piece of machinery.
Our views on the workplace have thankfully graduated beyond a simplistic, Fordist view of efficiency but are there those who view space plans with serried ranks of bench desking with suspicion and misgiving? Alternatively, are there those who feel the pendulum has swung too far the other way with a few too many touchy-feely break-out spaces and all this talk about staff buy-in? After all the office is ultimately about production and those recent figures which compared us unfavourably, not just with Indonesia, but with our European neighbours, made uncomfortable reading.
Or is it not so much about swings of the pendulum as our thinking that something has to be all of one thing or all of another? Talking about balance is always a bit boring and we can be easily misled by lurid headlines. And yet balance it is, if we are not going to miss out on important ideas. And the notion of community is just such a one. It is very far from mollycoddling, or so it should be.
Office-goers spend far more of their waking time in the office these days than they do at home. It would be surprising therefore if many did not start to look to the office for their social life or at least their sense of belonging. And why shouldn’t they? It’s not as though the office is generally the cause of break-ups of relationships or our inability to relate in a genuinely public manner. In the main we are talking about camaraderie and teamwork which, if anything, should help to bring out those who otherwise find it difficult to communicate. But the debate is about more than kerbing excess. It is about recognising something of value, something that indeed can be justified in terms of the bottom line.
To get a proper view on this notion of community we need to be looking therefore at what ultimately constitutes productivity and those activities and attitudes that might indeed enhance it.
An initial clue might be found in the world of learning environments. A new way of thinking (and one which is now fairly mainstream) was set out in two text books of the 1980s: “How Children Learn” and “How Children Fail”. It is John Holt’s clue to failure which is most recognisable and most applicable. Holt set out those defence mechanisms which we are all prone to and which can block our ability to take in what is being said or being asked of us, excuses like “Sorry Miss I can’t see the black-board”, or “That’s not what you asked for”. We are all of us embarrassed lest we look stupid. Increase our sense of security however and we might just admit to not knowing, and we might ask some of those obvious questions. We might even surprise ourselves with ideas that are quite clever. This, in progressive learning environments, is the logic behind social learning, that which might horrify the old school chalk and talk brigade. In these progressive establishments it’s not about lack of seriousness, so much as the serious idea of enabling students to be of a frame of mind that allows them to take in ideas in the first place. It’s about enabling learning. And something of the same logic can be applied to the workplace. Allow kids to exchange ideas about football therefore or allow conversations in the office about last night’s TV and it might just be that, having got to feel comfortable with our colleagues, we start to be brave enough to ask those ‘obvious’ questions that we were too scared to ask beforehand. Thus, it is that students learn most effectively from each other (with an appropriate injection of teaching support) and in, an office situation, workers can more effectively get hold of the right end of the stick, or at least overcome their fear that they may not be able to do what is being asked of them.
We work (and learn) effectively therefore when we feel confident, and confidence is helped by being familiar with our workmates. The space round the coffee machine or those social events in the office are essential in helping create a sense of fellowship. Those famous break-out areas are useful in providing a place to get away from one’s desk, to sense the daylight (maybe!), stretch one’s legs and ease the back pain, but they are essentially those places where different types of conversation legitimately occur, conversations which put us at our ease or sometimes go further, leading to a serendipitous fusion of ideas.
It is this last golden benefit that really justifies our focus on community, creating an ambience which is not just comfortable but stimulating – a place where ideas are valued, where debate (about work) is seen as being in the company’s interests. It is the kind of community, not only committed to working hard, but focussed on the future, that the new creative organisations are desperately looking for, that which does more than crank the handle of productivity, that which puts one ahead of the curve.
In terms of office planning therefore we have done efficiency, we are getting to think more cleverly about flexibility and are recognising the importance of comfort (or actual wellbeing). But being able to generate an atmosphere of creativity is more difficult. It’s about those physical aspects of space (fresh air and sunlight continue to go a long way) but it’s also about mental attitude. The kind of mental attitude which incorporates camaraderie, familiarity and confidence but goes further; further than the break-out area and the sunlight. It is something which incorporates ethos and value and is difficult to equate to physical surroundings. Yet, walk into a particular office, and you feel that it is there. It involves a sense of openness, genuineness (as opposed to stage-set décor), human scale, diversity and sharing. It involves trust and genuine teamwork and, if office environments cannot in themselves generate such intangibles, they can at least enable them – or that at least should be our goal. It’s a goal that cannot be achieved without supportive protocols and the active involvement of management. It’s a goal that, at the very least, involves the way that decisions are made and, in office design terms, it is something which involves genuine engagement and co-design, something the value of which we might just be starting to recognise.
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