The radically changing nature of ‘Work, Workers & Workplaces’-using space as a starting point of innovation, by Parthajeet Sarma
Book Review by Paul Carder, 19th December 2021
NOTE: This book was published in 2018 i.e. before COVID.
Parthajeet Sarma runs a “boutique consultancy”, iDream, based in India and the first paragraph of the book is all about this consultancy, formed in 2003, and there are examples from their work throughout the book. But, it is not too overtly an ‘advertorial’.
Sarma clearly believes that workplaces (whatever they are today, discussed later) hold part of the solution for improving creativity and innovation in India. He comments (p.48) that the Indian tech industry “has largely remained focused on services and has failed to offer the world any path-breaking product”. And Sarma quotes Steve Wozniak, from 2018, who said “Success in India is based on studying, having a job…where’s the creativity?”
Towards this end, though, the messages are confused. Towards the end of the book (p.81) Sarma states, “This book is based on the premise that humans do not need to ‘go to work’ anymore. We are trying to figure out ways in which we can keep the workplace relevant and use that as a starting point of innovation itself.” I was still trying to figure that out by the end of the book.
I wonder, with the benefit of hindsight, having gone through the Covid pandemic, whether Sarma would re-write this book. For example, he says “most of my meetings today happen in coffee shops….more and more business meetings…are happening in coffee shops and newer forms of eateries”. Crowded coffee shops are the last place many of us would have wanted to be over the last almost two years. Most of my meetings happen online, and I cannot see that changing.
Sarma goes further though, when he says, “Work happens as much in trains and in coffee shops, as…in boardrooms. Work life and family life are integrated” – I disagree fundamentally with this last point. This book was written before Covid, and the tumultuous times we are living in now. But even before, the stress at that interface between work life and family life was obvious in the literature, and in practice. Now, having gone through the largest unsolicited experiment in working from home that the world has seen, people seem (in my opinion) to be desperate to create separation between work life and family life. And some really need the ‘social life’ that the workplace brings.
Throughout the book, technology innovation and the change that it brings comes through. Sarma says, “The new workplace is a blended space of the physical and the digital” and later refers this as the “new blended workplace”. But what of innovation, mentioned in the book title? i.e., “using space as a starting point of innovation”. Sarma talks about “what inspires workers today…changing nature of HR…how organisations can make this transition”. It is not clear to me what that transition consists of. But he does say “HR needs to explore newer perspectives and find new meanings of employee wellness”, which is a point I’m sure would be echoed around many organisations. Sarma covers many areas of social science, in a narrative style – but to put these points into practice needs far more advanced HR vision, strategy and policy. The book doesn’t get into how that could happen. For example, discussion of ‘play’ and ‘playfulness’ as a mindset. Sarma acknowledges that building playful environments will not work if the management culture doesn’t live this ‘play’ mindset.
Sarma opines that workers will have, “right-brained, creative, conceptual kinds of abilities” and that “workplaces need to facilitate the mind to wander, to play, to collaborate and allow social and neural connections to happen”. There is nothing to disagree with here. But, we also need spaces for the accounts team, customer relations, the operations call centre, etc. Technology is not doing it all with AI yet, though we all hear many claim that time is approaching.
One example given was from a blended workplace – physical and digital working together – at “an American multinational” in Mumbai. This was described as a “refreshing change to observe”, suggesting it is not common. Sarma describes the room booking system as a “proverbial sword hanging over our heads”, counting down the minutes, in “complete contradiction to the open, innovative culture, which the design of the furniture and spaces seemed to propagate”. Sarma seems not to accept that some spaces (scare resources, like meeting rooms) need to be ‘on the clock’; other spaces are different, more casual.
I found myself drifting at times, skipping over long narratives and sweeping statements, not backed up with facts. There are mentions of studies, but no references at all. Sarma says at one point, “while researching for this book, I came across the results of various social science experiments”; it is just a pity he didn’t include any in footnotes. One example was from the Paharpur Business Centre, where “workers…tend to be highly energetic and productive at work”. New Delhi’s air quality is “one of the most polluted” of global cities. But this is fixed by ‘hundreds of plants’ generating oxygen, and consuming carbon dioxide – I’d like to read that study.
The last five pages, covering ‘The Lab’, seem to be cut short. This looks at an “immersive” series of blended events, which extend the workplace briefing stage. It is not new (DEGW were doing similar things in the 1980s, all part of ‘design briefing’), but if this kind of thinking is happening in corporate India, it bodes well for future workplaces on the sub-continent. I’d like to read more about how these ‘Labs’ are working, who is involved, and the results they deliver. That would be a good book. W&P
Also extract published in: Ranjan, A. (2018) “Sarma, Parthjeet (2018) The Radically Changing Nature Of Work, Workers & Workplaces: Using Space As A Starting Point Of Innovation. Mumbai: Become Shakespeare”, Space and Culture, India, 6(3), pp. 194-195. doi: 10.20896/saci.v6i3.377.