A week tomorrow brings the Minimum Viable Workplace workshop in London, a piece of collaboration that started with a conversation with Anne Marie Rattray in the Spring.
We’ve got a dozen or more people from all sorts of organisations and background coming together to discuss and explore the ways in which organisations provide the platforms for people to work – from space to tools to structures, and the supporting functions to make it happen too.
There have been conversations online between many of the attendees (and many who won’t be there too) in recent weeks, and as a way to frame the day I’ve been thinking about two metaphors that have sprung up.
The first is The Room of Requirement, a place in the world of Harry Potter. I’m not a fan of the Hogwarts realm, but the Room of Requirement is apparently a magical place –
The room is thought to have some degree of sentience, because it transforms itself into whatever the witch or wizard needs it to be at that moment in time, although there are some limitations.
The Room of Requirement is a way of thinking about how some organisations think about providing platforms for working. Indeed, the 1964 Robert Propst-designed Action Office (a product from Herman Miller who are very kindly hosting us next week) was designed to provide a variety of appropriate work spaces to people to adapt to them as the sorts of work they were doing changed.
Room of Requirement thinking about workplaces is additive (by making more things accessible to people), inevitably involves quite a bit of redundancy (one can’t be using all of the tools all of the time) and so as a result is likely to be fairly expensive.
The fabled tech company culture of bean bags and ping-pong tables and free lunches is fairly square into Room of Requirement thinking. It’s a model that has been around a lot longer than most people think. In the excellent history of office spaces Cubed, Nikil Saval talks of an office campus that
…offered a bevy of amenities: swimming pools, sun bathing facilities, a snack and soda bar, shuffleboard courts, a ping-pong table, a card room, a games room, a lounge for noon-time meditation, a lending library, services for dry-cleaning and shoe repair, as well as flower and grocery delivery, twelve bowling alleys, two softball diamonds, four tennis courts, six horseshoe pits and a large cafeteria offering cheap, sometimes free, food.
Sound like a Silicon Valley company? Well, that was insurance company Connecticut General back in the early 1950s.
But the Room of Requirement approach isn’t common these days, other than in cash-rich growth organisations. Is a Ping-Pong table key to their success, or is the abundance of such stuff a trailing indicator of success? Who knows. If you are an established organisation the likelihood is that you are spending your time in Kerplunk mode anyway…
If you aren’t familiar with it, Kerplunk is a children’s game invented in the 1960s. It involves a plastic tube bisected with lots of plastic straws. Marbles are dropped onto the mesh of straws and the aim of the game is for players to remove the straws, one-by-one, trying to avoid marbles dropping through the gaps on their turn.
This is how organisations that are trying to get efficiency savings approach the redesign of their working platforms. How many straws can be extracted from the business (fixed desks, enough desks per person, home-based working, removal of administrative support staff, employee “self service”…) to a point where all the marbles (or at least most of the marbles) stay in place?
Despite claims of making better places to work, most such initiatives in big, established organisations are exercises in straw removal. It makes the resultant organisation very, very fragile. Single incidents can push them into chaos after all of the “fat” is removed. There’s nothing wrong with streamlining costs in an organisation, but if that’s the sole intention of workplace change initiatives, expect the marbles to fall.
So if most organisations aren’t in the position to provide the Room of Requirement, and they want to try to avoid making the social and organisational fabric of their business how might we approach it?
Well, let’s try to imagine an inverted game of Kerplunk. Rather than removing the straws, the aim of the game now is to add a straw so that on each go additional marbles can be added. The straws represent the systems, facilities and processes of organisational support, the marbles the people. This, I guess, is the essence of the Minimum Viable Workplace thinking: what straws do we need, when and where do they need to be inserted, to support the organisation that builds upon those platforms for work?
That’s the starting point for next week’s workshop. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can work out.
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