Monthly Archives: September 2011
Having recently viewed Tom Dyckhoff’s excellent ‘Secret life of Buildings’ on Channel 4 (UK) I’ve been reflecting on the number of work spaces I have visited as part of my consulting career.
I work with companies to help them find ways of developing their people, increasing their productivity, and creating a positive culture. And yet so many of the companies I work with ask their employees to function in bland, unappealing and soul-destroying environments.
What shocks me is how I have allowed myself to be fooled into thinking that a pot plant here or there, or a solitary piece of artwork on the wall is an adequate antidote to the blandness of open plan work spaces.
I’ve worked with the Highways Agency who, in one of their centres, had glass partitions with the image of trees embedded in them, I must confess to being pleasantly surprised at the time by what I considered to be an innovative attempt made to ‘bring the outside in”. Of course, I only considered it innovative because every other building I had worked in made no attempt whatsoever to accommodate real people.
Most companies who want to do something about it feel hamstrung by the physical space they inherit (or lease) and are at a loss to know how they can adapt them (hence the pot plants!).
Three things strike me here:
1. Our quest for Lean working seems to be at odds with our basic psychology when it comes to minimalist office design
2. How have we reached a point where we design work spaces without taking into account what the space would need to look like to truly accommodate the psychological needs of workers?
3. How many other times have I allowed myself to be duped into accepting something is ‘good’ or ‘innovative’ or right just because it is noticeably different to the norm?
Taking the last point first; I know I have been guilty of becoming transfixed by the big & bold new idea. It’s so new that I find it invigorating. That’s my nature and I am easily-led.
But this isn’t the worst thing I have to contend with about myself. It’s the more insidious, the trickle effect, where bit-by-bit I lower my standards without even realising because the change has been slow and incremental. It’s only much later when the veil is removed from our eyes that we see what we have become and what we have allowed to happen.
This was shockingly brought home to me when I visited Venezuela in the 1990’s. Seeing a seriously injured (and possibly dead) man lying in the middle of the freeway through Caracas, I urged my host to stop and offer some assistance. But people in Caracas have gradually become immune to death & suffering. Normal western rules no longer apply. “What if he has been placed there by people who want to steal your vehicle if you stop?” “Who’s going to pay his medical (or burial) fees if you stop in a country that has no social health provision?” So over time, gradually, newcomers to Caracas adjust. I hadn’t adjusted, but my host had, and maybe I would have adjusted if I had remained in Venezuela for the long term. It’s amazing how we adapt to the environments around us when we know we have to live in them for the long-term.
Back to places of work, quickly! There’s usually much less bloodshed there.
My wife is a writer and works from home. We’re not stupid: why pay for office space when we already have 4 walls?
- Lying in bed, snuggled up with a duvet mulling over ideas and trying to resolve tricky plot and character issues.
- Sitting in front of her computer, hammering out words on the keyboard.
- Pacing around the house talking to agents, producers, editors, etc on the phone
- Grabbing a bite to eat in the kitchen
- Doing some research (using old fashioned books or the gloriously unregulated world wide web!)
- Going for a walk to clear her head and allow ideas to coalesce in her brain
- Spreading herself out on the living room floor or the dining table with reams of notes/ideas/articles
Now I’ve been around for quite a while but I have never yet seen a duvet in the workplace unless the workplace happens to belong to a duvet manufacturer!
I’ve heard of ‘duvet days’, but haven’t yet seen duvets and beds provided for employees so that they can fulfil their duties at work. (OK, so the Fire Service used to provide beds for the night-shift, but they are now expected to work through their shift, which is a novel idea!)
It sounds daft, but why shouldn’t the environment that my wife inhabits be replicated elsewhere? Her work isn’t that different to the work of many people who are based in offices. They also need to talk to people on the phone: they also need to think through thorny problems in order to arrive at sensible solutions; they also need to eat; they also need to type or access the internet. But their workplaces assume that they should be able to do all this in one place. Sitting at their desk in front of an electronic screen. How daft is that?
Who says that we shouldn’t have our own furniture, artifacts, colour-schemes and personal effects at work?
Who says that we should be tied to our desks?
Surely, there must be a way to challenge this?
Of course there are arguments against this, but I think most of them are are lazy arguments. They are the arguments that say, we need the space to work for everyone; and we need order and simplicity in our workplace so clutter is bad. Fine, but I manage to live alongside other people with other tastes and we manage to knock along very well, thank you. And I achieve order and simplicity in my home, even if my furnishings might not be to your taste. I have successfully managed my ‘clutter’ so that it doesn’t impede my work but adds colour, character and ambience. I work better as a result and people enjoy inhabiting the space.
Most of us leave our colourful homes in the morning, travel along colourful streets with colourful shop windows, only to arrive at our colourless workplace. The shock is almost too much. We feel the grey (or beige) descend upon us like a cloud of toxic waste. No wonder we don’t feel inspired, motivated, energised by work!
‘Lean’ was never meant to mean ‘mean’. We shouldn’t have to punish ourselves in return for having tidy workspaces. There’s ‘tidy’ and there’s ‘devoid of life’.
So I think we need to rethink our attitude to our work spaces. What do we need them to do for us? What do we need them to enable us to do? And then we need to create the space (or spaces) to fit the activities and the people that need to inhabit them.
- If that means a winged-back chair or a mural with flying ducks, why on earth not?
- If that means separate spaces for separate activities, why on earth not?
- And if that means stretching our imagination (or simply applying the imagination we use in our own homes to our work spaces) why on earth not?
Let’s stop tolerating the bland: let’s be adventurous. If our work spaces don’t work for us: change them! And let’s not be afraid of allowing people to bring their strange and wonderful personalities to work.
Perhaps if we’d been more minded to say…
“Hang on a minute, if I buy this property today, it will be worth twice as much next year? Are you serious?”
“If I take on a mortgage that’s 8 times my salary, won’t I get into financial difficulty at some point?”
…we might have found ourselves in a very different situation.
So I’m going to think the unthinkable and argue that perhaps it’s time we re-branded Cynicism.
Now I can hear the cynic in you thinking, “But this flies in the face of everything we’ve ever been told. Aren’t we supposed to be positive and look for the good in everything?” And do you know what? I think you’re absolutely right, on both counts. But looking for the good doesn’t need to preclude looking for the bad, or the ugly, or the just plain wrong!
Let’s take a look at the opposite extreme. Blind positivity is as bad (and arguably at lot more dangerous) as sticking your head in the ground and refusing to budge. Unbridled positivity can be as damaging as cynicism in full flight.
Alternatively, if you’re standing at the altar about to get married, it doesn’t help to convince yourself that your partner won’t turn up just because all the others didn’t! Better to focus on all the reasons why they fell for you in the first place.
But I’m not interested in extremes. The trick is getting the right balance: just a smidgeon of cynicism goes a long way.
Take a moment to think what a little more cynicism might give us.
- It might just prompt us to stop and reflect for a few seconds longer than it takes for the salesman to sell us his grandmother
- It might stop companies hurling themselves into futile and catastrophic ventures based on some dodgy data that at first glance looks very convincing
- It might just prevent organisations introducing a wildly optimistic new HR system, or repeatedly re-organising teams and departments
- It might just reintroduce a little bit of sanity back into the workplace.
But…. (Ah, there’s always a ‘but’! Of course there is, that’s what being cynical is all about.)
Here’s the rub. This re-branding isn’t a licence for all the ‘after the horse has bolted brigade’ to sit smugly on the side-lines saying “I told you so”, when in fact they had simply sat on the fence, not committing to anything other than stasis when the plan was being conceived.
Let’s face it cynicism has received a bad press. It’s been usurped by the doom mongers and naysayers: the people who have turned being curmudgeonly into an art-form. And our reaction has been to brand all cynicism and scepticism as negative..
So for cynicism to work, small and well-measured doses are better. A fixed stare is scary, whereas occasional eye-contact can be reassuring. You can have too much of a good thing.
So for all of you who are now thinking, “Great, now I have a perfect excuse to be a thorn in the side of my team, because Tim Lambert says so”, read on to find out why that wouldn’t be the appropriate response.
Cynicism can work, and we have a right to use it but, as we all know, with rights come responsibilities.
So, what’s the responsible way of being cynical?
- Don’t keep it to yourself…cynicism needs a voice so shout it out loud and own it. If you’ve got doubts, give people the chance to hear them. Don’t sit quietly convincing yourself of all the reasons why “this will never work” without affording your team the courtesy of sharing your wisdom with them. If you articulate it, and explain it, you might realize that you are talking baloney! Or you might realize that you actually have a valid point.
- Spread the load. It’s not helpful if you only have one cynic on your team. It just becomes accepted that they will always resist change, so their outbursts are tolerated and quietly ignored. Instead, give everyone a chance to be cynical. In fact, why not take it in turns?
- Set Aside ‘Cynic Time’ and Limit it. Make space in your meetings to carry out a ‘Devil’s Advocate’ exercise just before making your final decision. Ask simple questions like, “What if it doesn’t work?”, or “What’s the worst that could happen?”, or “Why won’t it work?” But keep it brief and balance it with time to ask, “Why might this work?”
- Target your Cynicism. Be specific rather than generic. Be precise about the issue or idea you are cynical of, and don’t allow that cynicism to colour your judgement of all the other elements. Evaluate everything on its own merits.
- Keep Your Attention on the Prize. Never lose sight of why you’re even considering doing something new. It’s usually because what you’ve already got isn’t working, or isn’t working well. The role of Cynicism here is to make sure you don’t end up with something worse, not that you stick with the rot you’ve got.
- Ask Lots of Questions and Get Your Facts Straight. Don’t proceed on faulty assumptions. Make sure you probe and analyse with an open mind. People often mistake this for not showing enough commitment, but the alternative is worse.
- Don’t apologize for being cynical, but do signal that it is cynicism and not something much worse like sabotage!
- Be Discerning with your Cynicism and your Positivity. Use them both wisely and don’t dismiss either out of hand. You can be positive and cynical at the same time…in just the right amounts.
Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. Be responsible, exercise a little bit of healthy cynicism, and try it out for yourself! After all, “What’s the worst that could happen?”
With teams it’s how you behave when you are apart that determines how successful you will be when you are together.
It’s traditional for us to invest in our teams by organising team events. Some of these are adventurous, others are more social. And some of them are all about creating the right conditions for a team to operate effectively.
Taken together, all these forms of team investment are important and valuable. Teams do need to spend time together working out how they will work together.
But what happens when they aren’t together? After all, for many people they spend more time away from their team colleagues than they do with them.
Addressing this challenge (how to maintain effective team working whilst apart) has vexed many teams. And when teams do come together they often have to spend time smoothing over issues that have arisen since they last met.
So it seems sensible to look at how we can keep the relationship strong and the communication lines open when teams disperse.
Is it a Marriage Made in Heaven?
It’s hard to be a really successful team if people aren’t consciously (or unconsciously) thinking and acting as a team member when they aren’t together.
Just imagine a married man who is loving and attentive at home, but as soon as he leaves the marital home it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind’. We wouldn’t think this acceptable and we’d probably have severe doubts about the strength and longevity of the marriage.
It’s the same with teams. During the team meetings (which might be as few as four a year in some cases), team members can be very warm to each other, cover off lots of agenda items, make great plans and commitments.
But as soon as they get back to their local patches, start dealing with the day-to-day issues, and focussing on delivering their personal objectives, it’s easy to forget about the team.
This often results in decisions being made locally and expediently that should have been opened up to the team for discussion, input and team approval because they have team implications.
It’s not a deliberate act of sabotage in most cases. It’s just that the functional responsibilities become more absorbing day-to-day.
It’s a hard reality, especially with global teams, that it simply isn’t feasible to get the whole team in one space together very often. But this doesn’t have to mean that regular contact is severed, nor that people lose sight of their team connection.
I don’t forget I’m married when I go to work. Can you imagine me arriving home and confiding in my wife, “I’m sorry about the affair when I was at the conference, but it completely slipped my mind that I was married”?
So it seems that in order to keep the team strong whilst apart, we need to find something as strong as the best marriages to bind them.
Honey, I’m Home!
You probably belong to a team right now. You might even belong to more than one. Or you were part of a team in the past. Few of us have managed to avoid team membership completely.
But did your team feel like home?
- Was it a place of safety and refuge?
- Was it the place you retreated to when the going got tough?
- Was it the one place where you felt you could be yourself?
- Was it where you went to recharge your work batteries?
- Was it your home base?
I’ve asked this question countless times with teams and it’s sad how many of them honestly answer, “No”.
No wonder they seek solace and inspiration outside the team. No wonder they operate largely independently of the team when they are apart from it.
The Team Pre-Nup or Renewing of Vows
For any team starting out together, and for those teams that have been together for a while without ever really hitting it off, I propose three simple rules that will help to strengthen the team so that it can continue to function even when separated.
Rule # 1: Make Time to focus on the Team & Individual needs rather than just on Outputs & Operational Issues.
Take a moment to think about the team of which you are a member as if it were a marriage. Now consider this question: who are your children?
Most people have little difficulty answering this one: they can typically reel off all manner of people who depend on them, and who drive their workload.
But what about this question?
How much time do you spend on the marriage?
They are often so busy servicing others, considering others, and satisfying others that the agenda items are always about operational issues.
There simply isn’t enough room left on the agenda to just talk; to ask each other for help; to get to know each other’s strengths; to coach each other; to share problems and solutions and experiences; to learn from each other and to enjoy each other’s company.
It’s hard to imagine a successful marriage where people don’t make time available to do these things.
So instead of loading the meeting agenda with operational details, reduce the number of items and make space for Team Time every time you meet.
Rule # 2: Wear your team identity with pride.
Membership of a team can be signalled in a similar way.
The intention is two-fold:
- Remind yourself of where you belong
- Communicate who you represent to others
The wedding band is spoken for, but other ways of publicly announcing your team membership include:
- branded name tags
- team badges
- team membership certificates
- team photos
- team business cards with contact details for every member of the team on one card
Rule # 3: Make contact with every member of the team at least once a week.
Whilst these means of communication never quite match the experience of physical contact, they are a pretty good substitute in many cases.
When teams are located together, much of their communication happens by accident. It’s the ‘bumping into each other in the corridor conversations’, or sharing a coffee that provides the main vehicle for information exchange and relationship building.
But when you are separate, you have to make a conscious effort to connect, even if there is no other agenda than simply ‘keeping in touch’.
When I am working away and I ring home, my wife doesn’t usually say, “What are you ringing me for?” [I’d be quite worried if she did.] Because she knows I’m just ringing to say ‘hello’, or to hear a friendly voice, or to chat about the day. If I had to wait for some important bit of news or a problem I needed to discuss with her, I might not ring home for a week or more.
So making the effort to just ‘keep in touch’ on a regular basis, starts to build a team dependency and a team identity.
The only time this becomes a problem is if we are insensitive or if we over-do it.
- So if I ring home at the kid’s bedtime, just as my wife is getting them to sleep, I might get a sharp rebuke.
- If I rang six times a day, I might get short shrift.
- And if I launched straight into an energetic description of what I’ve been up to, or fell headlong into a great outpouring of emotion about what a terrible time I’m having without first gauging what’s going on for her, I might get the telephone equivalent of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
In addition, given the global nature of many teams and the access we all have to each other via mobile technology, it might not be appreciated calling at unsociable hours unless pre-arranged and agreed.
The calls needs to be about building and developing the relationship, and that won’t happen if we are insensitive to the needs and demands of our colleagues operating in a different space and time.
But it does require you to…
- build solid and communicative relationships
- keep in touch
- feel a strong connection
- set aside time to focus on team needs
- be sensitive to and supportive of each other
- create a strong partnership and forge strong links
It might look more like a marriage of convenience than one based on love…but whatever it looks like, it has to work! And that doesn’t happen by accident.
To quote Henry Ford,
“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”
But my observations have also led me to challenge some of the assumptions I have made about how much of our behaviour is dictated by our cultural heritage. In fact, I am drawn to the idea that perhaps we use our Culture as an excuse for failing to positively interact across cultures.
Culture is one of our great taboos. We’re minded ‘not to go there’ for fear of causing upset or being branded ‘racist’ or ‘xenophobic’. And this can prevent us from looking more closely at the way we behave. We can use our Culture too readily to condone behaviour that creates barriers between ourselves and others.
As a Brit (half Scottish and half English), I was struck by the warmth of welcome I received when I arrived in Puerto Rico. The ebullience of my hosts was a delightful surprise. I’d love to claim that this was put on purely for my benefit and that I had been singled out for special treatment. But this wouldn’t be true. My colleagues behaved like this with everyone.
Over the two weeks I observed behavioural norms that constituted hugging and kissing upon greeting and departing; people feeling very comfortable with touching and stroking as part of their normal, daily interactions; generosity of spirit; willingness to praise; relaxed about sharing their feelings and personal details; willing to open themselves up to each other; willing to put themselves out for each other. The list goes on.
Here in the UK, the picture is often very different. Can you imagine greeting your boss or your colleague on Monday morning with a huge bear hug? How routinely do you stop in a corridor to put your arms around a colleague, shake them warmly by the hand, share a joke and a smile?
The phrase I often hear is “We don’t do that here”; or variants such as “That’s not the way we do things”, or “We don’t find that culturally acceptable”.
Is this a distortion, a generalisation, an all-too-convenient smokescreen to divert our attention from the essential question, “What is the culture we need to create in order to achieve happiness and success?”
They really are the bane of my life. No matter what choices I make I usually end up making the wrong one and offending someone. Something as simple as the humble tie, it seems, has the power to make or break a professional relationship.
When I visit a client’s premises the question I always ask is: “Do I need to wear a tie?” (or “Am I expected to wear a tie?). If I know them really well and I have sussed out that they typically dress down, I might choose to go without. The risk is that on that day there are a number of people who are wearing ties and I am judged to be too casual for the role I am about to perform.
If I choose to err on the side of safety and wear a tie, I might find myself in an organisation that sees the wearing of ties as a symbol of stuffiness. It might set me apart from the client group and interrupt the rapport.
After years of struggling with this dilemma I have come up with a strategy that usually works. I always wear a tie and I make a big thing of removing it (often together with taking off my jacket, unbuttoning my shirt and rolling up my sleeves) if I judge the situation to be appropriate. It’s a semi-striptease, which more often than not helps to break the ice.
And yet I have worked in companies where the ‘culture’ has dictated that irrespective of the work or the environment, jackets and ties must be worn at all times. Even in extreme temperatures, the cultural norm is that a professional image can only be maintained by sweating profusely and enduring mild strangulation.
So back to Puerto Rico. I don’t think I saw a tie in sight apart from my own. Once ostentatiously removed, it hunkered down in a dark corner of my hotel room for the duration of the trip.
The tie serves as a simple metaphor for the conditions we appear to place on what is acceptable to us. Why should we wear them in the UK but not in Puerto Rico? It’s hotter there, but they have great air conditioning.
More and more we are operating cross-culturally. And something interesting is happening, but perhaps not fast enough. Work cultures are beginning to bleed into each other. Ultimately, a global work culture may be developed but we are a long way from this today. It should be possible to take the best bits of many cultures and blend them in a global whole that will allow international companies to trade and operate more successfully.
I am certainly not arguing that we should abandon cultural differences and identities. This is truly what makes our world so remarkable and intriguing. But it is possible to adopt and embrace some of the values that underpin the development of other cultures.
My argument is that we use ‘Culture’ in a misguided way to provide reasons for many bad or simply unhelpful practices, rather than to promote and share positive attributes.
Culture isn’t ‘out there’: it’s in here! It’s you, and every interaction you have with another person. It shouldn’t be an excuse. It shouldn’t be a restrictive label such as: “We can’t make autonomous decisions because we’re Swedish” or “We mustn’t show our feelings because we’re British”. Instead, we need to see culture as being a set of behaviours that enable all of us to find positive connections with our counterparts wherever they may be in the world.
If we can do this, our experience of work can be transformed.
My two weeks in Puerto Rico were perhaps the best I have ever experienced in my role as a consultant. The level of engagement; desire to learn; commitment to creating a positive work environment; genuine interest in each other; levels of rapport and sincerity; and above all, willingness to engage with other cultures, was truly inspiring. My visa application is in the post!