Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Over use of the C-Word in the workplace

I often hear my fellow workplace strategists using the C-Word when referring to the office. I’m not talking about the obvious expletive and I certainly don’t mean that other offensive term “Consulting”; nor am I referring to the C-suite or even my Seven Cs of Change. But it seems to me that whenever we prepare a workplace strategy or design brief, there are a whole host of C-Words used as descriptors. Many are overused and misguiding, whereas others are fundamental to creating a successful workplace.

My dirty dozen C-Words used in Workplace, in no particular order, are:
  1. Collaboration – Designing spaces to enhance collaboration has been a firm favourite with interior designers for a while now. Clearly team-work and collaboration is important in many industries and can lead to new innovative products, cross-selling and faster time to market. Design can indeed facilitate collaboration, but it firstly requires the organisational factors to be in place. Factors such as the right (knowledge sharing) culture, appropriate management, rewards for collaboration and, most importantly, mutual trust and respect. True collaboration is when two or more people come together and create something that they could not produce alone. Interaction nodes, mingling spaces and team spaces etc will all contribute to building a collaborative working environment but not in isolation of the organisational factors. We also need to acknowledge that some roles and work tasks do not actually benefit from collaboration.
  2. Creativity – This is another hot topic with designers. Providing stimulating, colourful, quirky, fun and buzzy spaces might contribute something towards creativity. However, we know that the creative process involves people coming together to share and test ideas followed by long bouts of time in solitude thinking through and developing those ideas. We also know that taking time out (from the desk/office) also assists creativity. Taking solitude in natural environments, going for walks or having a bath all offer a setting for “non-taxing involuntary attention”, which helps us solve problems and progress.
  3. Concentration – Thanks to Susan Cain, we now accept that we need to provide working environments for concentration as well as for collaboration and creativity. Whilst high proportions of work time continue to be spent carrying out detailed or complex tasks, we will need areas for focus and concentration. In open-plan environments we may need to offer alternative work settings such as focus pods, or create quiet zones (free from phones and chatting) or allow working outside the office, such as the home or third spaces.
  4. Confidentiality – We also need spaces for confidentiality. This may be related to personal private matters or sensitive information regarding our colleagues. I don’t condone the need for private offices, or segregated areas, based on confidentiality but I do accept that some spaces offering good visual and acoustic privacy are required occasionally.
  5. Control – We all have personal preferences for temperature, light, noise etc but control of the environmental conditions is often ignored. This is largely due to the difficulty of offering personal control in open-plan environments. However, desk-sharing does allow people to move around and choose spaces that offer the conditions that best suit them. I also think it is time we revisited offering control via the environmentally responsive workstation or other such products. Control may also refer to workload and the ability to reduce stress through better planning.
  6. Cost – Even though we are out of recession and austerity measures, cost is still and will remain a key metric in Workplace. As I have discussed previously, I believe we can measure productivity (it’s just difficult) and also believe using performance metrics will lead to better, more informed, more people focussed, workplace solutions. But right now the Finance Directors are blinkered by their faith in cost data (or rather lack of faith in other metrics) so cost is still king. The good news is that high potential cost savings from office moves at least allow us to invest in new workspaces.
  7. Connectivity – This is crucial both within and outside the office, regardless of whether in a co-located or in a virtual team. I like the cartoon (right)
    showing Wi-Fi as the most fundamental human need, and it is now the key enabler rather than the IT kit itself. And of course, connectivity also refers to human connectivity. I find after wokring a couple of days at home I get "cabin fever" and actively seek human interaction.
  8. Choice – I still think that offering people choice of where, when and how they work is fundamental to productivity. I’m a fan of the Club style environment with a rich menu of work settings on offer as and when required. With agile (or activity based) working spaces we need to monitor that the focus is not just on desk/space reduction. We also need to accept that the primary choice of some workers may be their desk 9-5 fiver days per week.
  9. Caring – I accept I’ve cheated a little here; my point is that wellbeing, health, active design, mindfulness etc are all very on-trend at the moment. It’s great to see a focus on the employee’s welfare, even if (cynically) it might be extend their time at work or result in cheaper healthcare cover.
  10. Comfortable – It’s important to get the hygiene factors right. Based on Herzberg’s model, if the hygiene factors are right then performance will be degraded (as opposed the motivational factors, such as reward, which enhance performance). As mentioned, above, the challenge is providing comfortable environments when a group of individuals share the same space. Noise is the biggest problem in the office and the greatest challenge now facing interior designers.
  11. Co-working & co-location – Our recent report for the City of London highlighted that co-location of teams is still important to most organisations. There is acceptance that alternative spaces are also required, but nevertheless the team need to congregate at certain times. The report also highlighted that co-working spaces are on the increase. Such spaces are being used by individuals, SMEs and corporates.
  12. Co-creation & co-operative – I am a firm believer that change management is critical in the success of implementing agile working environments. This involves communication, consultation and cooperation with those migrating to the new workspace. Co-creation, allowing some input to the design either from a range of options or within a set budget, may help the transition as well as create some alternative interesting and eclectic interior designs.

So I am confident there are more relevant C-Words that I have missed, What’s your favourite?


  1. Nigel - I would add CONVENIENCE - I think its one of the least used words in the workplace vocabulary- it follows the premise that people are fundamentally busy, lazy and attracted by shiny things (credit to Nats on that last point). Those levels of business/laziness/shininess vary by culture as well. Theory is that if you want people to change from and old behaviour pattern to a new one you need to make it MORE CONVENIENT ... that is its easier to make water run downhill than uphill. The question you need to ask when you design workplaces where people have CHOICE (any amount) ... is how far will people travel away from where they are SAT right now to go somewhere else to do something. That how far will vary according to what that task is. I might travel twenty floors to get to a large meeting room once a week, but I may not travel more than twenty metres to use a phone room. I may move to a quiet zone to work if I have three hours of focused work to do but won't move there if I have three minutes of focused work to do. Understanding these CONVENIENCE factors for your organisation, for the culture in that location, is fundamental to the success of new workplaces that give CHOICE. CHOICE by the way is the favourite of my 'C' words.

    On the other hand, I think COLLABORATION is the least understood of all the C words - I see way too much of the wrong kind of collaboration spaces built ALL of the time - essentially because people don't understand the CONVENIENCE factor. Workplace observations studies time and time again show that levels of collaboration are not as high as we might imagine them to be ... and most collaboration is short, sharp and WITHIN the work area. What is really interesting with collaboration is the emergence of what I call "working together" - two people working very closely together, often sharing the same computer, or with two laptops parked side by side. Watch the prevalence of this type of working grow in the future. Working together should not have to happen in cafe and lounge spaces - the work space at large needs to support this way of working.

    Nice summary Nigel ... I often talk about the 'C's too - great that someone has articulated it!

  2. Excellent post Nigel, got me thinking a lot over what goes on at work on a daily basis.

    Most of what you've pointed out does happen in the company I am currently forcing myself to work for :D It's not like it's a prison or anything but hunger and shelterlessness is somehow less preferable.

    Anyhow, Unknown added convenience.

    Let me then add one of my own - CUSTOMER. It's a nasty one, admittedly. We do everything for the customer. Or more accurately, everything for their money, obviously a customer would be worth less than nothing if he/she had no money.

    So we go a great length in hopes of grabbing bigger bucks - we improve the design of our sites, the UX, we offer special deals, we lie, cheat, issue false promises, squeeze and exploit the workforce, all in the name of the customer. Oh apologies, their money I mean. But money starts with 'm' and they go together (sort of) so you can allow me to align them into a single entity.

    Very provocative post, thanks heaps for taking the trouble writing it.

    With kind regards,