Interesting Times by Steve Gale

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We should no longer be selling activity based working as original thinking, muses M Moser’s Steve Gale.

So both Brexit and Donald Trump happened, and I hear that we should have seen it coming. Back on planet earth, in my sheltered world of office design, I can see another change coming. Organisations are asking more from their expensive real estate. We must listen to their expectations. Having lived with a well-worn doctrine that poo poos the boring old desk/meeting room combo and advocates an array of settings for each activity you might perform, I am ready for the next big thing.

“Organisations are moving on from functional design to places that appeal to more fundamental areas of human nature”

The design dogma for your modern workplace has many names that you will have heard, and they vary from week to week or place to place. New ways of working gives way to smart-working, or agile working, flex working, new work or that crusty old favourite, activity based working – or just ABW.

The logic is that technology has liberated us from the desk, so we can enjoy a smorgasbord of work settings that are better engineered for the precise task you may be performing at any one time. The downside of ABW is that you may spend half your day wandering around, laptop and coffee in hand, while the upside for the business is fewer of those boring old desks – which frees up space, and serves more people per square foot. Result: happiness for the facilities manager.

This is actually an old idea that has gradually become orthodoxy. So let’s keep it, refine it and admit the idea into a conventional design language. But we should no longer be selling ABW as original thinking. Designers are good at providing appropriate settings, and by now that should be as standard as indicators on a new car – it’s not new.

Economic prerogative has long been focused on productivity, where ABW claims to help. But there are other economic advantages, for example finding and keeping the best people by making them happy at work as well as healthy, and promoting self-development and fulfilment. We can move people higher up that pyramid that Abraham Maslow called the hierarchy of needs.

Organisations are moving on from functional design to places that appeal to more fundamental areas of human nature. They want places that people actually like to be in, that do more than just support their activities, and that resonate with things they value.

We all know that some places appeal to certain people, and others don’t, and there is increasing interest in this simple proposition. It goes beyond the rational analysis of matching facilities to tasks, it admits that there is more to it. Things like how users empathise with their environment, how much they feel they belong, how much control they think they have, and how well it reflects what they personally value.

Is there a change we see coming? I’m convinced that there is a growing focus on culture and collective psychology. Emotional Intelligence enshrined in Daniel Goleman’s book 20 years ago is now a recognised phrase, even with people that have never read about it. More recently, Daniel Kahneman, wrote Thinking, Fast and Slow, and Leonard Mlodinow really laid it down in his great book, Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behaviour.

All of these point to the mysterious and powerful parts of the mind that actually drive us, make decisions and form judgements. They force us to acknowledge the unconscious, and admit its primacy, and consider how we can influence it. The rational side of our behaviour is a false friend, too easy to follow, but we persist because we can describe it and pass it on.

Simon Sinek, the great TED presenter, talks about describing why organisations do things, what motivates them. He said these big drivers come from, and appeal to, our limbic system (or primitive brain) which ‘has no capacity for language’. For me that says it all. Something that feels right will defy explanation, but carry the day. We can move on from ABW, and into designing for the subconscious.