People and place at work: clambering over professional boundaries

In the final session at the highly worthwhile Workplace Trends conference yesterday, I sat in a group of five and we scratched our collective head on the question given us: How can we have inclusive conversations to shape workplaces for the better?

Past five o’clock and – for all the conference’s energy – feeling the edges of fatigue, we started chatting about the photos shown in presentations. Many pictures we’d seen throughout the day showed beautiful, sparkling workplace designs with no human life in them. We quickly agreed on a preference for workplace photos that also featured people.

I ventured biscuits too. In my team, there are usually biscuits perched on the end of our row of desks. Sometimes cake or flapjack. Occasionally penny chews. I noted a general lack of biscuits in the photos of beautiful workplaces.

Where’s the human imprint in workplace design? Not just theoretical ergonomics, but the way people actually work best; the natural work flows of an organisation. Certainly the way some designs are presented treats people as shadows that pass through the elegant / funky / energetic / collaborative (delete as applicable) spaces. How often do designers understand the people they are designing for?

But then, how much better do HR and organisational development fare? It’s easy for us to say that office space should take account of how people work. But how strongly does the workplace environment feature on the radar of most HR professionals? Going by the sparse representation at yesterday’s conference, it seems not very.

But thank goodness for Workplace Trends, which from a starting point of design has been making inroads into the realm of people management (the theme for yesterday’s conference was designing for inclusion). The CIPD’s forthcoming collaboration with BIFM, the British Institute of Facilities Management, aims to build on this, further exploring this crucial intersection of people and place at work.

The central strand of the BIFM/CIPD Workplace Conversation will be fostering more conversations across professional boundaries – estates, facilities management, HR, workplace design.

I can entirely understand reticence towards cross-boundary working. Organisations in their very nature are vehicles for specialism and it’s a relatively short hop from there to the awkward silos of departmentalism. We need expertise and we need division of labour. It will always be so, just as there will only ever be so much time in the day. But there comes a point where we don’t get involved in conversations we ought to, because it’s easier to leave it to ‘those that know’.

So we need to challenge ourselves and push at the boundaries of our constraints, be they real or perceived, if we are to have workplace environments that genuinely serve the demands of our organisations and employees.

I don’t see it as revolution; more evolution from conversation and stretching our interests. We had a few references to punk from yesterday’s speakers – Perry Timms on ‘punk up your workplace’, Anne Marie McEwan on ‘never mind the b*******’, Doug Shaw on The Clash and even giving us live music. Boring as it may be, I think I missed being Punk HR by 10 years. But I’m convinced there’s mileage in New Romantics HR. Mix it up a bit, cross some boundaries.

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  • Work place design has a huge impact on organisational behaviour. Having recently moved from an extremely open planned office to one where the cubicle reigns has opened my eyes to this. If I wish to speak to a colleague I have to stand up to peer into his cubicle which now starts to del like an inadion of his private space whereas when the space is a shared space this clearly isn't the case. Another difference is the use in my new company of desktops rather than laptops which made sharing ideas much easier.