The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the workplace

Our past successes and the role we have carved out in the world are not a guarantee of our future success, so we need to see the workplace for what it is

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By Mark Eltringham

Edition 7 – April 2016 Page 35

Tags: facilities management • technology • workplace

We know,and have for a long time,that the workplace is in a state of flux and so we often fall into the trap of assuming that there is some sort of evolution towards an idealised version of it.That is why we see so many people willing to suspend their critical facilities to make extravagant and even absurd predictions about the office of the future or the death of the office.

However we can frame a number of workplace related ideas in terms of evolutionary theory,so long as we accept one of the central precepts about evolution. Namely that there is no end game,just types progressing and sometimes dying out along the distinct branches of a complex ecosystem.

I’ve tended to frame my thoughts on all of this with reference to an idea from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by the great Douglas Adams which states that the history of every civilisation tends to pass through three distinct phases; those of survival,inquiry and sophistication.The first phase is characterised by the question ‘how can we eat?’,the second by the question ‘why do we eat?’ and the third by the question ‘where shall we have lunch?’

I think the comparison is clear.At the most basic level, owning an office is largely about survival.You need to have an office because you need somewhere to work. It doesn’t really matter that much what it’s like,so long as it doesn’t cost too much and it provides a basic level of comfort and possibly a rudimentary sense of style.This sort of office is far more common than most people care to admit and its role is certainly underplayed in media coverage.

At the enquiry level,people question what they expect from their offices or even why they need an office at all.This question is not as prevalent as it once was,but even the inquiry stage continues,although it’s probably asking different and more difficult questions.

Then,at the most sophisticated level,we have a group of people who know exactly what they expect,take it for granted, act on it,don’t mind paying for it if necessary and then just get on with the business of whatever it is that they do. If you have to picture what this sort of workplace looks like,then it’s this.

Now,I wouldn’t say that we are all moving towards some end point of workplace sophistication. Nor am I one of those people who claims that we are heading to a period of entropy and the eventual heat death of the workplace.We remain human and until we finally bow the knee to our robot overlords,we’ll still want to be around other people for very humane reasons. Apart from that there are lots of practical reasons why we should continue to work in buildings together.Tom Allen at MIT famously explored how physical proximity affects the way information is shared. Other research has shown how important it is for wellbeing,culture and the sharing of values. Even so,there is no actual reason for us to work in a particular place at a particular time unless we want to or are obliged to.

A quarter century after Frank Duffy and other visionaries first sought to square this emerging world with the static nature of traditional workplaces,we need to adopt a more sophisticated approach to where and how we work and with whom. By sophisticated we should acknowledge that this can also mean complexity. It also brings with it some major problems,not least how we adapt as individuals in a world in which space and time no longer behave as they once did.

All of us are going to have to adapt to this new world of the workplace.We must not allow ourselves to be suckered into believing that the world in which we have been successful in the past was built to have us in it. Nor should we panic ourselves into making bad decisions. We can all get religious about what we do and the teleological argument that suggests that the world was made to fit us has been used for centuries.

It explains our place in the world as well as underpinning the beguiling idea that because we so closely fit the world in which we live,we have been put here for a purpose. It’s all for us.The flawed thinking behind this compelling idea was,in my opinion,best illustrated by Douglas Adams:

“Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, may have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to

the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

This is an edited transcript of a talk delivered to the Workplace Trends conference in London in April 2016. mark@workplaceinsight.net

 

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