Articles of Interest

30 Nov 2015

Work/Play/Lifestyles and The Viable Performance Environment

Work/Play/Lifestyles and The Viable Performance Environment

The Integration of Flexible Employment Arrangements and Physical Space

“Respect Your Elders”. Kurt Vonnegut

As well as being a sound sentiment and increasingly attractive as our own years advance, the idea that ancient and enduring wisdom can inform modern practice is attractive. Respect for the understanding people had about themselves before psychology, is deserved.

When we consider growth, fresh approaches and new, exciting ideas arising from the rich wisdom of the past, it is interesting to note the research pointing to the trend towards independent and more flexible employment arrangements. As a designer it is even more interesting to ponder on the work environments that will need to be designed to support such a movement.

Ostensibly the move to independent and flexible work arrangements is cost and technology driven. It is easy to understand why organisations, driven to find and eliminate unnecessary overheads and make more use of telecommunication and IT solutions would increasingly explore such avenues.

However there may be far more primeval drivers. This trend may in fact be more about it being instinctively natural and satisfying to operate more flexibly and in tune with the other facets of our lives.

“99% of children are born geniuses, it’s only what we do…” Buckminster Fuller.

As organisations and individuals increasingly laud personal responsibility and management accountability, successful accomplishment or outcome is valued over task completion or time on the job. The responsibility for the entire “how” rests increasingly with individuals who deliver the “what”. Organisations that have got to grips with the principle of accountability are providing values based policy frameworks of guidance then outcome challenges for their people. People, now, are clear that the outcomes for which they are accountable explicitly link to business objectives.

With less prescriptive work instruction individuals naturally begin to flex into their preferred patterns of work/living.

The demarcations between work, home and play often merge as people write their own position descriptions. Those for whom traffic, parking, office politics and dress standards hold little attraction will make choices.

Equally, employers perceptive enough to realise that people taking responsibility for all facets of their lives and focussed on achievement are rare and valuable will be keen to support this flexibility.

“…Of the great leader, the people said they did it themselves.” Lao Tsu.

Is the concept and practice of intrinsically motivated people in control of their own destiny an invention of the cost conscious corporate or treasury policy mongers? I prefer to think that when we have the capacity and space to choose, we choose imaginatively, ethically and instinctively. The idea of individuals acting independently in the workplace is ancient, and the environment that will support interdependence of enterprises and individuals is primordial. This environment taps into our deepest commitment to values, principles and instincts.

Enterprise values principles and goals do not guarantee the commitment and behaviour of individuals. Rather, individuals will understand and respond to their own deepest commitments. Enterprise philosophy will enable rather than force alignment when it is ethical, consistent and human. This is a prerequisite for new millenium viability. Individuals with whom it is attractive to do business will increasingly exercise their options. The enterprise that reinforces just such an independence of spirit through explicitly linking individual responsibility to viability is then engaging its resources in the creation of the environment for excellence of the future.

“Losing implies learning. Losing in a curious way is winning.” Richard Bach.

Just as regeneration requires the richness of the past, nothing has been lost in the process that has led to our current thinking. It is not a matter of regarding previous ways of working as wrong. They were always right at the time. The learning and development of ideas has created an increasingly fertile source of inspiration for the right environment. Such an environment will only be limited by the imagination of its creator. In the past, necessity determined design. Now the preferences, personality and lifestyle of the individual may be key determinants.

Patterns of the past may provide clues to the prototypes. Even if we go back before the accommodation over the general store and the travelling farrier working off the back of a wagon, flexible and independent work/lifestyle choices were made.

The environment conducive to individual performance and satisfaction needs to be cognisant of the need for individuals to exercise discrimination and flexibility, inherently desirable attributes of any human resource.

This will necessarily involve individuals and employers enabling choice and flexibility of physical environmental and contractual arrangements. The challenge for both parties then becomes to define the options. For the individual it means understanding their own performance, the influences on it and gaining clarity about preferences associated with achievement and satisfaction.

The self-awareness search this need for clarity prompts is a key input. It separates the mature, responsible individual from the victims.

“A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”

Omar Khayyam.

Most of us will quite naturally seek and if necessary create for ourselves the environment in which we know we will excel. Even in our homes we gravitate to the room or area best suited to the activity.

In any day we may need a combination of spaces including relaxed informal, quiet, private, workstation, food preparation and social/eating. The awareness of these life/work style environments and the subsequent discrimination needs to be encouraged in the workplace.

Those with power alone don’t need status,
And those with status alone don’t have power.

 Previously, satisfying the need for comfort and different work zones was a privilege of those for whom choices went with power, seniority and status.

Executive offices would often provide many of these zones of use with casual seating, meeting tables, whiteboards, bars, small kitchens and even private bathrooms. Inevitably this strengthened management layer demarcations, caused accommodation space and cost blowouts and further squeezed the less senior into less attractive and spacious surroundings. The lack of choices this provided ensured people become less responsible and more dependent on the command and control structures. This at a time when employers were demanding initiative, flexibility and adaptability.

There followed in some quarters a swing to open plan arrangements. This solution looking for problems sought to address space effectiveness, fit out costs and the need for increased communication and teamwork. The result has been tiny “offices” with no privacy and high levels of noise. The impression is of a modern day sweatshop with a tedious uniformity and little creative design input.

“The key innovations usually come not from the centre of the industry but from the fringes…” C.K. Prahalad

Many workplace designers are still captive to user-unfriendly drivers. The equation tends more toward square metres per person relative to seniority, status and tradition than towards optimal performance.

Designers providing leadership are looking at the choices people are making about their life/work styles and bringing about exciting developments.

There are opportunities to pursue cost effective work environment design when the elements of preference, optimum performance, contractual arrangements and technology are integrated.

The resulting designs will be different, frightening at first and fascinating because we’ll recognise the familiar and comfortable feel of them. They will be environments that we’d like to take home with us and that we may in fact feel came from home.

“80% of performance opportunities reside in the environment”

Gery Rummler

As we increasingly see the modern home incorporate an office so the modern office will incorporate elements of the home. As the home is an environment in which we feel comfortable and familiar, so the office will be also. As we require flexibility of design and the freedom to choose our preferred employment arrangements and environment, designers will consider that flexibility a prerequisite in their designs.

Expect to see the vital elements deemed to determine optimum performance reflected not only in increasingly flexible employment relationships but also in workplace design. For example;

  • Modern IT and telecommunications solutions do not require fixed lines so phones faxes and computers on desks are limiting and in some cases unnecessary
  • Half of the work force will soon be independent, needing little or no floor space
  • Innovative furniture design is providing relatively low cost, attractive, flexible and people friendly solutions to the various work style needs
  • Greater daily interaction for many people is enhancing the effectiveness of relationships and consequently performance
  • The choices provided encourage personal responsibility and therefore feelings of achievement, satisfaction and intrinsic motivation
  • Weaker artificial demarcations between management layers creates the opportunity for robust, direct and mature relationships

When these new truths are design possibilities, imagine the result.

“…could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Thing entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits – and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s desire!”

Omar  Khayyam

If we are to “re-mould” our work arrangements nearer to our “hearts desire”, how might it look and feel?

One way to view this is to imagine being a bird soaring high in the thermals above the Kalahari.

The patterns of movement etched over time as the bush people and animals live in harmony with the environment tell a story. The natural confluences are where creatures come together to eat, socialise, drink and travel. Even favourite hunting trails are obvious.

Look more closely and the best relaxing, viewing and sleeping spots appear worn into the living rock. Private spaces in a village surround open communal areas with protective features. Once safety and survival criteria are satisfied, personal physical comfort is paramount. This observation of life in balance is invaluable when considering modern design.

If we transfer that thinking to home design we can begin to understand architectural movements and styles.

Office design lags behind. For example, how many staff refreshment and relaxation areas are sited at the hub of the floor? Yet where do people generally relax and interact? How many times have you seen valuable interaction taking place in a busy, narrow corridor or cramped staff tea bay? It seems that when designers recognise that these interactions are natural and valuable, designs will reflect our life/work styles. Then when flexible contractual arrangements are overlaid, the possibilities increase exponentially.

“Those who will stand for nothing will fall for anything.” Gandhi.

It is the responsibility of individuals to gain awareness of their preferences for the environment in which they will best perform, identify the options and consequences and then assertively exercise their choice. It is the responsibility of employers to create the environment in which individuals can take responsibility and choose. Not only will the work environments of the future be less costly in dollar terms; their inherent comfort and flexibility will make them less costly in human terms. Most importantly individuals taking responsibility for their own performance and achievement will have created them.