Food for Thought

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Criteo’s Mike Walley reveals his hidden culinary skills and whets our appetite with analogies in the evolution of the restaurant and the workplace.

I may have mentioned that in a past life I was a chef (really? I’m sure I did). Anyway, in the 1980s, the style of cooking known as ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’ turned the food world upside down. It shook the established order to its very core. The idea was that food should become lighter, cooked more simply and presented beautifully. Diners would choose five or six small dishes to allow for a range of flavours, temperatures and textures to be experienced throughout the meal. Truly a feast for the senses!

Sadly, in the 80s, we were not as sophisticated an audience as we are today (what with every gastropub now offering a Tasting Menu) and, for many people, dinner was still a three-part affair – starter, main course and pud. Now, if you applied this thinking to a Nouvelle Cuisine menu, you were definitely going to need a cheese and pickle sandwich before bed. The other element of Nouvelle Cuisine that really took hold was the thinking around presentation. The idea was to make it beautiful on the plate so that sight could join the group of senses that were excited by the meal. For a number of restaurants, trying to join the movement without a deeper understanding of the principles, this meant one of three things…

1. A vegetable (usually a carrot) hand carved into something mind-bendingly complex, like the Taj Mahal or a Phoenix, perched on the side of the plate.

2. A slice of kiwi fruit.

3. Both of the above.

For a long time, kiwi fruit was only used as a badge denoting ‘This is Nouvelle Cuisine!’ No one actually ate the things. It went on everything. I was once served a pork chop with a slice of kiwi fruit on it! As for the decoration, should you ever want to render a chef speechless, just bite the top off his Phoenix and eat it.

The sad thing was that a wonderful concept was tainted by badly set expectations and poorly understood concepts, all inexpertly delivered. The phrase ‘Nouvelle Cuisine’ became one of derision. It symbolised highly decorated food in tiny portions, followed by a big bill.

I see a lot of parallels with the current rise of Activity Based Working in business. At its best, it is wonderful. An excellent way to optimise the volume of workspace required by a business whilst at the same time offering a range of work settings for employees to choose from. At its worst, it is diabolical. Simply not enough desks for everyone to sit at.

Today we tend to go to our desks, dump bag, coats etc and go find a coffee. Then we come back to the desk, do a few emails and then go to the first meeting of the day. Back to the desk for a few emails, maybe a call or two, and off to lunch.

Back to the desk, a couple of emails then more meetings, then home. A little simplistic, I agree, but essentially we tend to use our desks as a bag drop, locker and focal point.

The objective of ABW is to make the whole office the focal point, not just the little circle around our desks. So, we create a gravity point, with coffee and lockers and seats so you can arrive, grab a coffee, dump your stuff, check your schedule and decide where best to go. We create a menu of different work areas with lots of different flavours, so you can focus, meet, make calls, drink coffee, work with others and chill a little, all within the same workplace.

The problems arise when people go into this type of space with a ‘Three Course Meal’ mindset – desk, meeting room and kitchen as the only three definitions of workspace. It will not work, you will be miserable and you’ll need more than a cheese and pickle sandwich to solve the problem.

The transition to ABW involves some of the most intense change management I have ever had to undertake. It takes a deep understanding of the human psyche with regard to personal space, fear of change and how we are validated as employees by our workplace.

But…done well, it also makes for some of the most fun workplaces on the planet.

A word of warning, ABW is more than desk sharing and desk sharing alone is not ABW. Users need to be educated about the main principles and encouraged to see the entire office as ‘their space’ and not to base their entire day around a desk. They need to be part of the planning and design of the space, and you need data about what people need to do in the space. Lots of data. Then you build your space to fit the data. Then, and this is the really important bit, you need to explain it to everyone. Really explain it!

So having done all that, it is time to stand back and watch how it is received. Hopefully, like a good meal, it will surprise and delight in equal measure.

Just wait until they see what’s for pudding!