Midges

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Criteo’s Mike Walley is in great demand – we’ve commandeered him for two of our own events in the past month. Thankfully, he’s found the time, headspace and inspiration for another great column. 

I must confess this has been a busy month and I have not had a moment to think big, complete thoughts from which to write an article. I do, however, have a cloud of smaller, half-formed ideas swarming around my head like midges on a Scottish walking holiday – and so I thought I would simply waft them in your direction and see what you think. I did take out the little buzzy ones and left only those that can bite.

1) Am I meant to make people happy or productive? This gets into the fundamental raison d’etre for the workplace manager. Is it our job to make people happy or productive? Does one follow the other? The simple fact is that the objective of a business is to make money for the owners, be they shareholders or individuals. Reading the trade press, it would be easy to assume that the sole calling of workplace managers was, despite the efforts of management, to make the workplace an uplifting and enlightening place to be! 

2) Are we simply overthinking it all? Does it all have to be this complex? We get strategists to look at the shape of the office, whether tables should be sit/stand, treadmill desks or lie-down meeting tables. We talk about the relative merits of non-territorial working against agile working against activity-based working against remote working. We talk about biophilia, white noise, pink noise, lockers versus pedestals etc. What are we trying to do? I sometimes think we are just trying to work out what the colour nine smells like? 

3) We have to stop making up new problems. For example, I read a LinkedIn post the other day that was talking about ‘Binge Sitting’. Apparently, that is what you call the tendency to spend too long sitting down. The problem is that people like sitting down. For example, if you give an entire office sit/stand desks, the majority of people still sit down. The post admonished us to give people the chance to move around the office. So what about the centralised printers, collision space cafeterias, ping pong tables and breakout spaces? The massages, the yoga and pilates sessions, etc? Don’t they count? I think there are plenty of reasons to move, but some people just like to sit down. Declaring it a binge issue doesn’t make it a problem. What about binge coffee drinking or binge standing up or binge emailing?

Okay, so I am seeing a pattern here. I like the way things get clearer as one writes them down. It seems that there are so many ideas out there that we are at risk of being buried in answers to the smallest of problems. In an attempt to stay relevant in front of the crowd, more and more of the businesses that support workplace are pushing their particular schtick as The One Big Problem that needs solving. 

Now, I get it. I really do. We all have a living to make, but workplace managers have a straightforward mission. It is to make the office a safe, functional and pleasant place to be, to attract talented people and to make it easy for them to be productive, so everyone gets to make money – be it profit, dividend or wages. We also have to do it on a budget, to a timescale and to meet other people’s expectations.

What we need from the supporting industries (design, furniture or services) is a recognition of the simple problems we face in workplace. We don’t need to invent problems like ‘binge sitting’. I have enough issues trying to explain why I bought sit/stand desks when no-one stands up to work. I’d like to see big simple solutions to the big simple problems of ‘How many? How big? When?’ – and, my particular favourite, ‘HOW MUCH?’

So, forgive the grumpy rant but I have to solve the problems in front of me and, as business pressures rise, those problems are the same as they have always been. How to get more people in smaller spaces and make them happier as we do it. I love some of the new thinking out there about activity-based design, and it looks like it could solve some issues for me, but not if it means trashing hundreds of thousands of pounds’ investment in previous designs and moving the entire workforce into a coworking space for six months while we do it.

So this is where it gets creative. A bit like someone with the name of a previous great love tattooed on their arm. You can’t erase it, but a skilled tattoo artist will turn it into a dragon, rising majestically from a bicep. I need strategists who can see the dragon in the drawing and furniture specialists who can help me adapt what I have to meet the new realities, and contractors who are willing to work with spaces that still have people in them. That is the reality of my world.

So, in the end, this is a plea for realism. Let’s not make up problems, let’s look at the real issues facing workplace today. 

Anyone got a fly swat?