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Paradoxically speaking: Experience

Taking a positive, memorable experience from somewhere we attend regularly is a challenge not to be underestimated, says workplace expert Neil Usher.

19/08/2021 4 min read

A modern update of the famous question – attributed to (but not proven to have been said by) everyone’s favourite household philosopher, Bishop George Berkeley, in the early 18th century – ‘If a tree falls in the forest but there’s no-one around to hear it, did it make a sound?’ runs ‘If I had a great experience but no-one at all saw my Instagram post because I accidentally deleted it and my phone fell in the lake before the photos could upload to my cloud storage, did I really have a good time and will anyone actually believe me?’

It’s all about experience today. Everywhere. That memory itself becomes the ‘product’ – the basis of what Joseph Pine and James Gilmore described as the ‘experience economy’ in an article in 1998. Marx obviously wasn’t around long enough to witness his theory of the historical inevitability of the fall of capitalism take a wrong turn and, instead of leading us to altruistic, communal bliss, volunteer itself for a freewheeling narcissistic frenzy. The memory has, through social channels – much to the disappointment of aspiring politicians attempting to erase past inhalations – proved itself fairly indestructible.

As a Millennial gimmer in his mid(ish) 50s, I have about 20 photos of the first 30 years of my life. Many others that were required to find their way through the development service by post have gone the way of tea spillages, multiple house moves and failed relationships. The trouble is, my memory has faded a little, too. I kept all my gig ticket stubs during this period, lest I forget who I’d seen – and even some of those ended up going through the laundry. I look through them now and can’t recall half of them. I can’t tell you when the Cocteau Twins gig I finally got to go to was, as they tore the ticket in half on the way in and kept the stub with the date on. It was a great experience. I think.

Yet, when it comes to the workplace, we now expect a great experience every time we attend. Even on a really mind-numbing day of meetings we don’t want to be at because we’re frantically trying to meet deadlines that were imposed by the very same psychopath who happened to have arranged the meetings. Great workplace experience today? Other than being thrown under the bus – twice – and having my project budget and timeline simultaneously cut, yes, it was massive.

How we can expect to extract a positive, even memorable experience from somewhere we attend regularly – even if it is for the much-vaunted ‘two to three days a week’ – is a challenge not to be underestimated.

That’s because we can’t divorce the experience of the physical space from the human sphere it occupies. It’s the same with wellbeing. We don’t lie awake at night worrying about the imbalance of primary and secondary settings in our allocated neighbourhood. Instead we’re pacing the carpet at 3am, catastrophising what someone did or didn’t say or do. Or, more likely, what we anticipate they’ll do or say, or won’t. Our paradox therefore becomes: my workplace experience was great other than for what happened.

How we can expect to extract a positive, even memorable experience from somewhere we attend regularly – even if it is for the much-vaunted ‘two to three days a week’ – is a challenge not to be underestimated. And where are we going to store these memories? Our Insta account will be heading for junk status – ‘Here’s Kat fetching a new notebook from the stationery cupboard. It’s got a green cover. Her last one was blue.’ As will using precious brain space for anything barely resembling a typical day at the office. Unless of course it relates to people – our interactions – because, just as we’re prone to fixating on the trials, we celebrate and treasure the surprises, humour, coincidences, intimacy – the human stuff.

There’s also something about experience that plays to uniqueness: the very essence of the gig, the one-off, the event you just had to be at. Not a picture or object, or tangible representation of any form. Pure frozen emotion. Which naturally exacerbates the potential for the joy of the day’s proceedings being inflated by those present to fuel the FoMo of those who didn’t slip out of their slippers. We need the unremarkable day-in-day-out routine, endlessly punching the amber smiley face button on the panel at the airport toilet. It allows the sporadic, magical moments to flourish, to inspire.

What we’re here to do is to make the humanity of the workplace possible, to create the potential and opportunity for positive experience. By doing so, we’ll also, of course, create the possibility for the negative, and the stupefyingly mundane, too. But we shouldn’t overreach our claim. We’re not alchemists. Or, like Lord Percy in the ‘Money’ episode of Blackadder from 1986, we’ll make green. Strangely, I can recite the whole scene, 35 years later. Which reminds me, did I tell you? Kat’s new notebook has a green cover.

Neil Usher is Chief Workplace & Change Strategist at GosSpace AI, and Author of The Elemental Workplace and Elemental Change

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