A few weeks ago Adam wrote a comment piece for i-FM that is the first in a series of three addressing issues around workplace. In it Adam argued that workplace design is sometimes not as effective as it could be because clients and designers choose the soft or lazy option and consequently end up with what they deserve. We asked for some feedback on his piece. Here, in what could be a new departure for Burtt-Jones & Brewer, we’ve invited Simon Heath, ex-CRE pundit in financial services and global consulting and now freelance artist and commentator on workplace issues, to respond.

In his recent piece for i-FM, Adam Burtt-Jones dealt pithily with the failure of those designing and specifying workplaces to ask tough questions of the right people at the right time. Adam wonders if laziness lies behind this failing. He is, in part correct, but I don’t think it’s that people are too lazy to ask the questions in the first place. More likely it’s that people know that if you ask someone their opinion you’re likely to get it. As the old saying goes – Opinions are like arseholes.  Everyone’s got one. And who in their right mind wants to try to make sense of a multitude of differing stakeholder opinions to come up with a workplace that will fit all of their competing desires and needs. There simply isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Design becomes a series of compromises and minding the expectation gap.

Human-centred design is fast becoming a byword in cutting edge commentary on our industry. That is, work and workplaces need to take consideration of the fact that people are containers for emotions and their emotional, as well as their physical safety and wellbeing needs to be designed for. In “Drive”, Dan Pink proposes that the surprising truth about what motivates us is that it’s not money. It’s all about three things: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. It follows therefore, that a workplace designed to meet these three needs will be the most successful at enabling creativity, innovation, productivity and engagement. As with opinions however, the way each individual views the three motivators will differ. And very often there will be conflict.

Take international finance as an example. Scorcese’s Wolf of Wall Street shows what happens when autonomy, mastery and purpose go unchecked. Autonomous? Certainly. The left and right hands had only the most passing of acquaintances. Mastery? Sure. Masters of a game where they made their own rules and screw the consequences. Purpose? Wealth. Unimaginable wealth.  At any cost. I watched the movie this week. The following day the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and two US regulators levied fines totalling £2.6bn on six banks over their traders’ attempted manipulation of foreign exchange rates. Not only have we seen the consequences of highly motivated people during the longest, deepest recession on living memory, we’ve failed to learn the lessons and continue to fail to hold the individuals concerned to account.

According to recent polls, public trust in those in positions of power (CEOs included) is at an all time low. Trust in people is seen as a key attribute of successful enlightened leadership. It’s an inconvenient truth though that people so often can’t be trusted. Yahoo trusted its employees to work away from the office. They repaid that trust by goofing off or, in some cases, setting up and running their own companies. So they called them back in. And got hammered for reversing the trend in flexibility. Give people autonomy and they take advantage. You see what happens when people exercise a bit of autonomy all the time. At red traffic signals. In cycle lanes. On double yellow lines.

Is it any wonder then that we end up with the workplaces we do?

Title image Touch Tones, Human Nature by Interface