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‘Lean’ shouldn’t mean ‘Mean’

Having recently viewed Tom Dyckhoff’s excellent ‘Secret life of Buildings’ on Channel 4 (UK) I’ve been reflecting on the number of work spaces I have visited as part of my consulting career.

I work with companies to help them find ways of developing their people, increasing their productivity, and creating a positive culture. And yet so many of the companies I work with ask their employees to function in bland, unappealing and soul-destroying environments.

What shocks me is how I have allowed myself to be fooled into thinking that a pot plant here or there, or a solitary piece of artwork on the wall is an adequate antidote to the blandness of open plan work spaces.

I’ve worked with the Highways Agency who, in one of their centres, had glass partitions with the image of trees embedded in them,  I must confess to being pleasantly surprised at the time by what I considered to be an innovative attempt made to ‘bring the outside in”. Of course, I only considered it innovative because every other building I had worked in made no attempt whatsoever to accommodate real people.

Most companies who want to do something about it feel hamstrung by the physical space they inherit (or lease) and are at a loss to know how they can adapt them (hence the pot plants!).

Three things strike me here:

1. Our quest for Lean working seems to be at odds with our basic psychology when it comes to minimalist office design

2. How have we reached a point where we design work spaces without taking into account what the space would need to look like to truly accommodate the psychological needs of workers?

3. How many other times have I allowed myself to be duped into accepting something is ‘good’ or ‘innovative’ or right  just because it is noticeably different to the norm?

Taking the last point first; I know I have been guilty of becoming transfixed by the big & bold new idea. It’s so new that I find it invigorating. That’s my nature and I am easily-led.

But this isn’t the worst thing I have to contend with about myself. It’s the more insidious, the trickle effect, where bit-by-bit I lower my standards without even realising because the change has been slow and incremental. It’s only much later when the veil is removed from our eyes that we see what we have become and what we have allowed to happen.

This was shockingly brought home to me when I visited Venezuela in the 1990’s. Seeing a seriously injured (and possibly dead) man lying in the middle of the freeway through Caracas, I urged my host to stop and offer some assistance. But people in Caracas have gradually become immune to death & suffering. Normal western rules no longer apply. “What if he has been placed there by people who want to steal your vehicle if you stop?” “Who’s going to pay his medical (or burial) fees if you stop in a country that has no social health provision?” So over time, gradually, newcomers to Caracas adjust. I hadn’t adjusted, but my host had, and maybe I would have adjusted if I had remained in Venezuela for the long term. It’s amazing how we adapt to the environments around us when we know we have to live in them for the long-term.

Back to places of work, quickly! There’s usually much less bloodshed there.

My wife is a writer and works from home. We’re not stupid: why pay for office space when we already have 4 walls?

Her working pattern always varies (so no pattern, really!), but it consists of various elements and activities that look something like this.

  1. Lying in bed, snuggled up with a duvet mulling over ideas and trying to resolve tricky plot and character issues.

  2. Sitting in front of her computer, hammering out words on the keyboard.

  3. Pacing around the house talking to agents, producers, editors, etc on the phone

  4. Grabbing a bite to eat in the kitchen

  5. Doing some research (using old fashioned books or the gloriously unregulated world wide web!)

  6. Going for a walk to clear her head and allow ideas to coalesce in her brain

  7. Spreading herself out on the living room floor or the dining table with reams of notes/ideas/articles

Now I’ve been around for quite a while but I have never yet seen a duvet in the workplace unless the workplace happens to belong to a duvet manufacturer!

I’ve heard of ‘duvet days’, but haven’t yet seen duvets and beds provided for employees so that they can fulfil their duties at work. (OK, so the Fire Service used to provide beds for the night-shift, but they are now expected to work through their shift, which is a novel idea!)

It sounds daft, but why shouldn’t the environment that my wife inhabits be replicated elsewhere? Her work isn’t that different to the work of many people who are based in offices. They also need to talk to people on the phone: they also need to think through thorny problems in order to arrive at sensible solutions; they also need to eat; they also need to type or access the internet. But their workplaces assume that they should be able to do all this in one place. Sitting at their desk in front of an electronic screen. How daft is that?

Why is it that our office and work spaces do not more closely resemble our home spaces? After all, we spend a sizable proportion of our time in them?

Who says that we shouldn’t have our own furniture, artifacts, colour-schemes and personal effects at work?

Who says that we should be tied to our desks?

Surely, there must be a way to challenge this?

Of course there are arguments against this, but I think most of them are are lazy arguments. They are the arguments that say, we need the space to work for everyone;  and we need order and simplicity in our workplace so clutter is bad. Fine, but I manage to live alongside other people with other tastes and we manage to knock along very well, thank you.  And I achieve order and simplicity in my home, even if my furnishings might not be to your taste. I have successfully managed my ‘clutter’ so that it doesn’t impede my work but adds colour, character and ambience. I work better as a result and people enjoy inhabiting the space.

Most of us leave our colourful homes in the morning, travel along colourful streets with colourful shop windows, only to arrive at our colourless workplace. The shock is almost too much. We feel the grey (or beige) descend upon us like a cloud of toxic waste. No wonder we don’t feel inspired, motivated, energised by work!

‘Lean’ was never meant to mean ‘mean’. We shouldn’t have to punish ourselves in return for having tidy workspaces. There’s ‘tidy’ and there’s ‘devoid of life’.

So I think we need to rethink our attitude to our work spaces. What do we need them to do for us? What do we need them to enable us to do? And then we need to create the space (or spaces) to fit the activities and the people that need to inhabit them.

  1. If that means a winged-back chair or a mural with flying ducks, why on earth not?

  2. If that means separate spaces for separate activities, why on earth not?

  3. And if that means stretching our imagination (or simply applying the imagination we use in our own homes to our work spaces) why on earth not?

Let’s stop tolerating the bland: let’s be adventurous. If our work spaces don’t work for us: change them! And let’s not be afraid of allowing people to bring their strange and wonderful personalities to work.

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