Posts Tagged 'Facilities management'

I am I plus my surroundings

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Occasionally the press will have a bit of a chew on some high(ish) concept such as asking what ‘the office of the future’ will look like or whether we must even face ‘the death of the office’.  Most of the better trade magazines steer well clear of taking this sort of stuff head on, figuring correctly that hardcore deskheads such as me have already had a bellyful of it.

Since I first tried banging on about this sort of thing in the mid 1990s, a period of time which saw a great deal of feverish speculation of this sort, an innocent world in which you still had to explain what you meant by ‘hot desking’ rather than sneer at it and before we all learned to spell Millennium properly, I’ve learned how naïve the debate can be. Whatever the business case, whatever the legislation, the demands of employees and whatever the potential of the technology, the workplace is valued far too much to be disposed of completely.

I’ve tended to frame my thoughts on this with reference to an idea from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which states that the history of almost every major civilisation tends to pass through three distinct phases; those of survival, inquiry and sophistication. The first phase is characterized 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 a rudimentary sense of style. Maybe not what you’d consider style, but if we all enjoyed the same internal quality control systems we’d never have heard of James Blunt.

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, so the inquiry stage is nowadays largely about what to expect from the workplace.

Then, at the most sophisticated level, we have a group of buyers 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.

It would be nice to think that the office design and management industry in the UK would be square behind this design-led and added value proposition, that most firms would rather not get themselves embroiled in a long term price-fight that they can only end up losing to people with lower costs and a willingness to make things a little bit cheaper and a little bit worse than them. It would also be nice to think that every UK based firm would look to talk up the industry whenever it could, through magazines and events and exhibitions and all the other opportunities it has to communicate to its customers.

Now, of course, a large part of the sector that actively does this. But I still think there is too much negativity about, too many people sniping at their own contemporaries, at the media and events, at individuals. In so doing, they are damaging the industry upon which they rely. They are sawing off the branch upon which they themselves are sitting.

A too large part of the industry needs to be more positive and it needs to be more sophisticated in the messages it sends out. It needs to do this not least because buyers themselves are becoming more sophisticated. Customers may not necessarily know at which of Douglas Adams’ three stages they currently are with regard to their property, but they do at least understand at some level that you can always be better. And that includes the desire to work in better surroundings.

Piggin’ marvellous

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One of the many things the Internet was supposed to kill off was the printed word. Books, magazines and newspapers, all screwed apparently. Yet while the growth of online media has had an impact – especially on newspapers, which do look pretty screwed – the media still has a tendency to proliferate, to evolve and learn how to thrive in niches.

That is why there is such an amazing diversity in British publishing. David Attenborough may become breathless describing the biodiversity of the world, but even he might raise an eyebrow at the scale of life either thriving in the fertile canopy of British publishing or grubbing around for an existence in the dank leaf mould on its floor.

The top level figures are intersting for analysts but it’s only when you get into the detail that things get really interesting. So, while a well-known media database impressively lists some 25,000 editorial contacts and around 11,000 titles, a quick search through it identifies that 65 of these are devoted to livestock farming. Drill down further and you see there are three of these dedicated solely to breeding pigs. There is only one for ostrich farmers but that may be because you can only write so many headlines featuring the words ‘head in the sand’ before you lose the will to live.

Everywhere you look there are similar evolutionary branches. Six magazines devoted to potatoes – growing them, not cooking them. Forty-two aimed at dentists. Three devoted to pigeon racing.

And it’s no good sneering at these titles and industries because you work in a different field. We all look the same to outsiders. For all I know, in the parallel universe of swineherds there is an editorial in this month’s issue of Pig International questioning the need for quite so many office design and facilities management magazines. So don’t mock. Because if you get involved in any industry, if it earns you a living, it will quickly become interesting enough for you to read several magazines a month about it.

Probably.

Edward Bernays

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 Whether you can’t stand him or just think he’s a bit of a tosser, Derren Brown is clearly on to something. And if you’ve read his book Trick of the Mind you’ll know that what he’s on to is ways to tap in to our fascination with how our thoughts and actions can be manipulated using some well-defined and researched techniques and principles. You can believe in the magical and mystical if you like, but Derren Brown is a creature of the Enlightenment and has no truck with any of that. He’s got psychology and science on his side.

It’s not just Derren Brown who has used the findings of psychologists to find ways to control people. Many of our current beliefs and the very workings of our society are based on this sort of manipulation. So it’s telling that the growth of consumerism in the middle of the 20th Century – especially after the War when we first began to move from a needs based economy to one fuelled by desire – was driven by the ideas of the nephew of Sigmund Freud. 

Edward Bernays became the ‘father of PR’ by first popularising his uncle’s theories in the US then by taking Freud’s ideas and applying them to mould the subconscious desires of the American masses. He did this not just in the name of commerce but also in that of politics because he believed that society was becoming increasingly irrational, immoral and dangerous. How the father of psychoanalysis begat the father of PR is evident from Bernays’ own writings. In his 1928 book Propaganda he wrote: “if we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits.”

The reference to propaganda is telling. It’s a dirty word nowadays, largely because of its association with the era of fascism and communism, but at the time Bernays wrote his book propaganda was still enjoying its heyday while sewing the seeds of our modern preoccupation with manipulation, media, the message and marketing. Bernays’ statement was very much of its time but still resonates today.

The outstanding documentary maker Adam Curtis made the manipulation of opinion based on this kind of thinking the theme of his amazing, eye-opening series The Century of the Self which was first aired in 2002. (The series is now available online at www.archive.org.) As well as describing the work of Bernays and his contemporaries, Curtis’ series brings the ideas described in this pre- and post-war era up to date and extends it to the actions of contemporary politicians, especially with regard to the government and its attempted, sometimes successful, sometimes cack-handed manipulation of opinion and thought.

What this demonstrates is that as soon as somebody describes a theory or discovers something about how people function, somebody else will take that knowledge and attempt to use it as a way of modifying somebody else’s thoughts and actions, not least while they’re at work.

A good example of this can be seen in the modish application of psychogeography. Psychogeography, as defined by one of its founders Guy Debord is “the study of the precise effects of geographical setting, consciously managed or not, acting directly on the mood and behaviour of the individual” and started life as an offshoot of Situationist thinking in Paris in the 1950s. Now while it may have originally been about the manipulation of the aesthetic and political, the idea has now been bastardised and reinvented by our post-modern sensibilities to mean whatever the hell anybody likes.

Talk of psychogeography, while at best nebulous, at worst meaningless, still has a particularly appeal given our ongoing fixation on the relationship between people and place. Which explains why the use of the physical environment to either manipulate people or enhance their well-being and moods depending on your point of view is a recurrent theme in both the domestic and commercial design press.

I can see two problems with the way this material is presented. The first is that there is often too much emphasis placed on cause and effect. We are sometimes told, for example, that a particular shade of blue will give an air of tranquillity to a room or make people more productive. Well it might, but only if the other 57 factors that make people feel calm and productive are also sorted. As well as their relationships with their work and their colleagues, these will also include some factors beyond the control of the employer; the person’s home life, what they had for breakfast, whether they like blue and that git who carved them up on the A57 on the way in. There is a clear limit to the impact that a factor such as the colour of your office can have in isolation.

The second is that much of the thinking about the way we design workplaces is still based on need rather than desire, the exact opposite of what we expect when designing our homes. Office design and management is still about rationality and practicality rather than the subconscious desire for stuff we just plain want.

 

Adding insult to injury

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As I’ve already mentioned, Panorama this week looked at the subject of health and safety which  is no laughing matter is it? Well actually, yes, sometimes it is.

One of my pet ideas is a sort of Darwin Awards for health and safety. (For those who don’t know, The Darwin Awards is an annual celebration of ‘those people who improve the species by accidentally removing themselves from it’, such as the Croatian man who in 2002 was killed while trying to open a hand grenade with a chainsaw to retrieve the explosive inside to make fireworks. Or there’s the one on the Darwin Awards website entitled ‘Scrotum Self Repair’ but you’d better look that one up yourself if you really want to.)

This is all a bit unpleasant, tasteless and childish but laughing at other people’s misery is what we do. It was Steve Allen who observed that comedy equals tragedy multiplied by distance and it was Mel Brooks’ assertion that ‘tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die’.

You only have to look at our own favourite comedies to see the wisdom of this. Fawlty Towers? A man teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown; in one episode he tries to hide a corpse from the other guests in his hotel. The Office? I’m Alan Partridge? Dr Strangelove? The entire output of Laurel and Hardy? Modern Times? All full of violence, misery and thwarted dreams. The Apartment? An apparent romantic comedy centring on a series of affairs and lies and a botched suicide attempt?

Yet whenever I’ve pitched this idea at the editor of a health and safety magazine, the reaction tends to be the same. They laugh, recount their own favourite funny tales of death and serious injury (such as the one about the woman who during a health and safety exhibition was following a group of about 28 health and safety inspectors when she fell down a drain; the demolition workers who blew out the floor they were standing on Wile E. Coyote style; or the man who had his arm ripped off by a machine then reached in to retrieve it with his other arm…

Then they say they can’t do it. Which is a shame really because health and safety managers do worry an awful lot about the image they have in the media. I recall an issue of one of the sector’s best magazines – Safety and Health Practitioner – which raised the issue as its cover story. ‘How the profession can fight the media’s tendency to present health and safety as a killjoy profession’ ran the cover line, heralding a counter-productively po-faced attack on the media along with the apparent minority of health and safety officers who make decisions that discredit the rest of them.

One of the problems here is that health and safety managers seem to have no problem finding bitter humour in poking fun at other people for not listening to them. Elsewhere in the same issue of SHP, there was the now standard picture of some bloke doing some work on a roof without a tether of some sort. Building magazine runs a similar picture each week; typically of some imbecile standing on a sloped roof in shorts working with a chainsaw on some overhanging tree branches. What could possibly go wrong?

Now, having a dig at such people is perfectly reasonable. Or would be except for the fact that the profession and the law believe that an employer has a duty to not only ensure the reasonable health and safety of people but also anticipate accidents brought about by the actions of bloody idiots. How exactly firms are expected to guess at what their staff and customers, some of them thick or mentally ill, may do in all circumstances seems to be rather less clear.

This principle has been reinforced by recent rulings from the House of Lords without much negative comment from the health and safety profession. In fact, such ideas seem to be broadly welcomed in the profession. One of the best examples I can think of to demonstrate this is the now infamous example of an Edinburgh hotel that was fined £400,000 a couple of years ago after a guest climbed out a third floor window for reasons known only to her and fell to her death. This was a complex case and there were some health and safety failings but the apparently key factor – why exactly this woman did what she did – didn’t affect the fine.

The ruling was broadly welcomed in the H&S sector. And that is precisely where things have gone wrong. Forget the out of context quotes and distortions of the media, the profession’s biggest enemy is itself because it works on the dogmatic principle that people need protecting from themselves, when what is apparent is that sometimes people need to take the consequences of their own actions. And that includes other people adding insult to injury.

Health and Safety Gone Mad

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Tonight’s Panorama seems to be premised on a piece of bar-room wisdom; the one that tells us the world is going to hell in a handcart thanks to health and safety killjoys. Well, sometimes the bloke at the bar might have a point of sorts but maybe not for the reasons he thinks.

As we all know, the modern workplace is a death trap. Most of us are lucky to get home in one piece at the end of each day, regardless of the job we do. Of course, technically the most dangerous professions are those such as agriculture, forestry and construction. Proper, hardcore industries which employ proper, hardcore people, some of them working miles from the nearest outpost of civilisation, in the open air, doing what used to be considered the core functions of work, namely making things or destroying things or moving things from one place to another.

This kind of work is dangerous because it often involves operating machines and tools that use hammers, winches, tungsten blades, cables, scoops, belts, wheels, cogs, drills, explosives and spikes to chop, lift, skewer, smash, pierce, detonate, slice, chip and topple heavy, pointy otherwise inanimate objects such as trees, buildings, rocks and dead cows. Sometimes the people putting their arses on the line in this way do so while they’re up ladders, driving or stood on top of, next to or at the base of the heavy, pointy, suddenly moving objects.

Of course, you’d never believe this sort of stuff was all that dangerous compared to the work of us poor lambs who stare at computers all day. Not if you were just to read about the sheer number of risks that we apparently take when we sit down. No part of our body is now safe from the degradations of office work, not our hands, arms, backs, necks and legs; all of them at risk of moving too often or not enough or in the wrong direction. Our noses are assailed by smoke, perfume, solvents, poor air and positive ions. Our ears by ringtones and machines and other people’s yap. Our hearts, lungs and bodily fluids subjected to the most appalling risks.

Even our genitals are not safe. The Lancet once reported the case of a 50 year old Swedish scientist who had burned his penis with his laptop after working with it in an armchair for an hour without moving. The man claimed he was dressed at the time, but it’s fair to say that expert opinion on this matter veers towards the sceptical.

Then of course there’s the impact office work has on the inside of our heads. Recent figures show that stress is now the number one source of magazine articles in the world today. Regular readers who occasionally make it beyond the first two paragraphs of this column will know my views on this so I don’t feel the need to rehash them here.

Suffice to say that based on what you might read, nobody is actually doing any work in Britain nowadays, because, if they’re not at a physiotherapist, they are rendered completely unproductive by depression and murderous fantasies about their co-workers.

There are lots of reasons why we have arrived at this point but the most important one is to do with the way that marketing functions through the media in the UK. Companies with a product to sell need to build a business case for it and that means raising a concern with customers or possibly scaring the shit out of them either with a direct personal appeal to them or with the threat of harm and litigation.

This is a perfectly valid way of doing business of course, and I wouldn’t have a business without it, but it can lead to problems. One of them is the potential for some claims to confuse the hell out of people. For example a year or so back, I saw a survey by Travelodge that claimed that late-sleeping workers are causing the UK economy up to £619m in lost productivity, based on the finding that half of the UK’s workforce will arrive late to work on any given day – 20 per cent or six million, of whom would have overslept. At the same time an organisation calling itself Siesta Awareness launched Siesta Awareness Day on the 11 July, claiming that a ‘20 minute nap in the middle of a working day can increase productivity by over 30 per cent and alertness by 100 per cent as well as improve memory and concentration. Recent research shows that we can also reduce stress and the risk of heart disease by 34 per cent. Sleep deprivation has been shown to make weight loss more difficult as well as cause accidents at work and on the road.’ Draw your own conclusions.

As well as confusing claims, there is also the potential for workplace scare stories to throw up some dubious claims and some that are plain nonsense. I know it’s wrong to stereotype people, but the worst culprits for peddling new age tat are magazines aimed at predominantly female audiences such as PAs and secretaries. For example – and I won’t name the magazine involved – I recently read an article about RSI that claimed that the solution had nothing to do with medical advice, seating and training but was to use magnets, which apparently draw blood to the afflicted area of the arm by attracting the iron in the red corpuscles. You could argue about that, but really there is a one word response to it.

 

 

Studs Terkel

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Studs Terkel was a particular hero of mine. I liked his name, his style and his look but also the way he wrote about things. When I was editing a magazine on work and workplaces, I was often inspired by his interviews with ordinary Americans about their jobs and how they felt about them. He did lots of other stuff but that was his work that was most relevant to my own.

What is especially striking is that he saw himself as a chronicler of other people’s lives rather than a commentator on them. The voices of others come across very strongly in his writing, especially in his book Working.

He stands in marked contrast to Alain de Botton, whose latest book on the same theme was launched recently. De Botton’s book has been backed by a very good PR campaign that has seen the new book forming the basis for feature articles in a wide range of newspapers and magazines from The Times to Management Today.

But in many ways de Botton is the main protagonist in his own book. The lives of other people are there as the grist to his mill. I’m not especially knocking him for this. He’s admirable in many ways and he is a product of our times. But like many of us nowadays he fails Lenny Bruce’s injunction to see ‘what is, not what should be’.

That is not something you could ever level at Studs Terkel. He was something that has been lost in the modern sea of opinion, an oral historian. Not trying to change the world, but record it.

The Blackpool Principle

donkeys_75088aOne of the publishers with whom my company works regularly and I were discussing a feature idea for a new building recently and he rattled off a checklist of things that he didn’t want to see if at all possible – clusters of desks with low screens, open plan in a speculative business park, blue-grey carpets and so on.

The problem is, of course, that this is precisely How Most People Work and they do so because that is Just How It Is.

But why should it? We have seen a proliferation in the number of workplace design models over the past twenty years yet still the majority of people apparently work in bog-standard offices. The reason I think is habit; and habit is a powerful thing. Why else would people bother with Blackpool?

Each year some 11 million people visit this shoddy, dirty, tired, cold, outdated and depressing town. Annually, over six million people visit the planet’s most inappropriately named place and the most popular tourist attraction in Britain, Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Many of them come from the industrial Midlands, North and Scotland, as they have done since the times when factories would shut en masse so that whole regions would flock together in migratory holidays. People still do this even though the factories in have shut and many of them now work in Tesco or a call centre with 24 days holiday a year and enough money to take when they like. They do this even when they know that it’s almost certainly cheaper, warmer and nicer to go abroad. It’s not even an age thing. Blackpool swarms with young people, hen and stag parties, keeping the 3,500 hotels and guest houses (more than the whole of Portugal) in business.

So how does workplace design overcome the Blackpool Principle? How do we break the habits and raise the lowest common denominators? How do we get people to think and feel differently?

It may be important for us to make the business case, but it is also important to build the emotive case for design. Domestic design and public architecture are sold to the world as something to which we should aspire, inviting a gut instinct of dislike or one of pleasure coupled with a sense that what you have now is not enough, whatever it is. Yet how many times do you see a workplace that makes you respond at an emotional level? When was the last time you saw something that changed the way you thought and felt about the way you work?

It happens, but it doesn’t happen often enough. And until we can conjure the same sense that people get from looking at other people’s homes, the business case will be the only cold weapon we have to make our point. And numbers don’t tell the whole story, when emotion can.


March 2017
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