I first became interested in the idea of the influence of the workplace itself on feelings about work when I read ‘A Time to Think’ by Nancy Kline, a book that has had a continued influence on my practice as a HR professional.
Kline is of course focusing on place in this context as a space that can, or cannot, influence great thinking. She says that it not just about appearance. There are some places in which it is hard to think, some places which almost invite good thinking. She argues that a workplace can reflect back to people; ‘you matter’. In the book, the chapter dedicated to this particular issue concludes with a question (or perhaps a challenge); ‘what would you have to change about your work space, or even your home, for it to say back to you, ‘you matter’.
This book prompted me to make some changes in a former organisation. I worked in what can best be described as tired. It has suffered greatly from a lack of maintenance. At some time in the past, someone had made some terrible decisions around the practical stuff. The carpet was grey. The walls were grey. The filing cabinets, of which there were many and many, were also grey. Many workstations lacked natural light. Meeting rooms either boiled or froze. The furniture was old. The basics were poor; the toilets, the food provision, the car parking. No one really seemed to care. How was that relevant to hitting the financial goals?
I inherited a training room. It was the place that old furniture had gone to die. Two tables, different in colour and height. Eight chairs, each a relic from an bygone age. Broken blinds. Dirty cream walls, old blue tac marks creating a greasy dot to dot for anyone so inclined. This was not a place that said ‘you matter’. It was the funeral of ambition. It was not a place that leant itself to thinking, to learning, to spending time lingering or talking.
It was a place that said we don’t care much at all. You don’t matter, and neither does your learning.
So I changed it. I persuaded our facilities team to paint the walls a calming blue. I had the furniture tossed into a skip. I used my meagre training and development budget to order some new furniture. Instead of the usual office stuff we went for sofas and comfy chairs. There were cushions and a coffee machine. New blinds and fresh water. The day that the Ikea delivery van arrived, some eyes rolled. It was that girl in HR again. I was lucky enough to have a boss that believed in me and the decisions that I made, so I carried on regardless.
It didn’t involve much effort. It cost less than a £1000. But I believe we created a space that whispered softly to our people, ‘you matter’.
So it is with this backdrop I eagerly awaited the book ‘The Elemental Workplace’ by my Twitter friend Neil Usher, who is also, in my humble opinion, one of the best bloggers out there, writing about this work stuff. When it landed on my doormat I dove straight in and I was not disappointed. His usual sharp sense of humour is present throughout, along with his evidently deep knowledge of his subject matter. I love the book because it is practical. You don’t have to be building a new office building right from the plans. You don’t have to have a huge budget. There is always something we can do to create a better place of work for the people that move within it in the every day.
It feels to me that in the ongoing discussions about human resources and employee engagement and better work, this is a piece that we too often miss. We instead focus on leadership and management, and reward and recognition, wellbeing and corporate social responsibility and so and so on. We survey our people to assess their percentage of engagement, if there is even such a thing. We ask if they understand the vision, if their manager makes them feel valued, if they have a useful performance review – but do we ask them if their chair works or they can access fresh air or if they are within reasonable distance of a water machine or if they can control the temperature in their office? Do we create a place that says ‘you matter’ for our people? Do we even think about it when designing our people strategy and our annual operational plans?
You can buy Neil’s book here. If you work in HR, if you are a leader in an organisation, you really should.* If we really believe our people matter, this stuff matters too.
Neil did not pay me to write this blog post. He should however be aware that he can buy me Prosecco if his sales go up as a result.
I totally agree with you Gemma. Reading your post, it struck me how many backstage areas I’ve seen over the years in retailers and hospitality companies. A large number of these are really horrible places. Cramped, dirty, horrible loos, covered in posters and signage that no one reads. The contrast with front of house is striking. The underlying message is that customers are important but you lot serving them do not matter. Despite the fact that invariably there will be posters on the wall espousing the company values about how ‘we care’ or ‘we are one team’ etc etc. The end result is that the retailer/hospitality brand struggles to achieve great customer service, and has to deal with the operational stress that high employee turnover brings. All of which is papered over with one off training programmes and celebrated mystery shopper results.