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Perkins&Will make world-first pledge to deliver zero-carbon office design

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19/11/2020 4 min read

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26/11/2020 1 min read


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Is the modern workplace a cargo cult?

M Moser’s Steve Gale discusses cause and effect in the modern office.

06/04/2020 3 min read

Back in the 40’s, some Melanesian islanders behaved very strangely when visiting US troops departed after the war. Their practices were labelled ‘cargo cults’ by anthropologists, for reasons explained below. Does our design industry ever indulge in its own cargo cult? Are there rituals or artefacts in the workplace that fail to achieve their desired outcome because their impact is misunderstood?

Cargo cults were observed when western visitors stayed for a while and then left, and the goods they imported and widely shared with the islanders dried up. When American troops went home and imports ceased, the islanders tried to summon the airdrops back again for their tinned food, woven clothes, jeeps and radios. They built artefacts and re-enacted the rituals they associated with cargo delivery, but in ignorance of the factors beyond their horizon that really made it happen.

In elaborate attempts to restart the cargo drops, villagers cut new airstrips, built bamboo control towers and full size straw planes, and even made headsets from coconuts to replicate the infrastructure that delivered the things they were missing. Rituals included repeating aircraft marshalling signals and performing military parades in homemade uniforms with wooden replica rifles. A cargo cult was born.

…islanders tried to summon the air drops back again for their tinned food, woven clothes, jeeps and radios

These actions instantly make sense because we can sympathise with people wanting to replicate desirable outcomes even though they do not know the full story, behaving in a way that seems irrational, making empty and irrelevant gestures. Like buying the same make of clubs as Tiger Woods to improve your golf swing, or planting tomato seeds in the same coloured pot each year because that one once produced a bumper crop.

Cargo cult is not a common term in the design industry, but every development engineer I have asked knows about it. For them, it describes the unthinking adoption of a couple of activities from the agile programming methodology, like stand-ups and bi-weekly planning sessions, with the hope of reaping the benefits of the working philosophy, but without the purpose and management structure that gives them value. Mimicking the appearance of ‘agile’ like this is, of course, a complete waste of time, and the resulting ‘cargo cult agile’ is a source of much scepticism in the industry.

If this is easy to understand, and we join the techies in their abhorrence of cargo culture in their working patterns, does it shine a light on our work in designing workspaces?

Google has installed slides in several of its offices, mostly in North America, and so, in an attempt to recreate the success and fun of this world beating company, it has been widely copied, but imitators have misunderstood the cause and effect. Slides did not make Google great, their healthy appetite for experimentation just allowed slides to happen. The slides are artefacts in a cargo cult.

Our facilities, spaces and settings must be driven by the culture and behaviour of the users – or at least by their future behaviour.

When we see a business enjoying a flat hierarchy with lots of healthy interaction and information sharing on sofas and around a lively lunch table, we might want to encourage the same behaviour for other organisations by building similar interactive opportunities into our design.

But it won’t work unless the culture is ready for it. People have been known to jealously guard their intellectual property, and see co-workers as competitors rather than colleagues – convivial space won’t magically fix that. We have cafeteria as cargo cult.

We might try to reproduce library silence with individual study carrels, but if users have not embraced the behaviour protocols, it’s a cargo cult. Unassigned desks can be seen as liberation to work with different colleagues, but this must follow a commitment to a clear desk policy and the whole idea of flexible working – or it’s another cargo cult.

You get the idea. Our facilities, spaces and settings must be driven by the culture and behaviour of the users – or at least by their future behaviour. Otherwise, we define a bespoke cargo cult – attempting to summon up things the facilities have no power to invoke.

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