The Productive Workplace – Activities and Skills

The purpose of a workplace is to support the activities that need to be undertaken so that they can be done in the most productive way. Is it as simple as that?

In a sense, yes, I think it is as simple as that, what I don’t think is simple is an understanding of what those activities might be.

It’s clear from many workplaces that the view of activities is limited to two basic activities:

  • Individual working at a desk – either in an open plan room or in a small office
  • Teams meeting in a room

The other thing to note is that desks and meeting rooms are often kept very separate. Because of this the meeting room is somewhere that you go to for a planned interaction; it’s not an ad-hoc space. There’s often a special meeting room set aside for video conferencing, this is normally the loneliest meeting room of them all.

That’s quite a narrow view of modern working, it might fit some types of modern work where the activities being undertaken are primarily task based, but that’s not what the knowledge worker requires today or in the future.

In a world where people can undertake many of their activities from any network connection a workplace needs to offer more than the other places available if it is going to be used. That’s not to say that a workplace needs to be the best place for all activities, but it needs to offer something that the other places can’t or don’t.

Rather than focus on the current activities that the current workplace doesn’t support I thought I would consider the future activities.

As a framework for this thinking I’m going to use some work done by the Institute for the Future for the University of Pennsylvania Research Institute – Future Work Skills 2020 – where they identify key work skills for the future. We are going through a significant shift in the nature of work and people’s definition of a job will be radically different in the future, but it’s not easy to see what those definitions might be. The skills required in these jobs are, however, becoming easier to see as they are influenced by some significant drivers for change. They characterise these change drivers like this:

  • Extreme longevity – increasing global lifespans change the nature of careers and learning
  • Rise of smart machines and systems – workplace automation nudges human workers out of the rote, repetitive tasks
  • Computational world – massive increase in sensors and processing power make the world a programmable system
  • New media ecology – new communication tools require new media literacies beyond text
  • Super-structured organisation – social technologies drive new forms of production and value creation
  • Globally connected world – increased global interconnectivity puts diversity and adaptability at the centre of organizational operations

From these drivers for change drivers they then define a set of skills for the future workforce:

  • Sense-making – ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed
  • Social intelligence – ability to connect to others in a deep and direct way, to sense and stimulate reactions and desire interactions
  • Novel and adaptive thinking – proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond what is rote or rule-based
  • Cross-cultural competency – ability to operate in different cultural settings
  • Computational thinking – ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning
  • New-media literacy – ability to critically assess and develop content that uses media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication
  • Trans-disciplinarity – literacy in and ability to understand concepts across multiple disciplines
  • Design mind-set – ability to represent and develop tasks and work processes for desired outcomes
  • Cognitive load management – ability to discriminate and filter information for importance and to understand how to maximise cognitive functioning using a variety of tools and techniques
  • Virtual collaboration – ability to work productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team

From this list, and the associated more detailed report,  a number of things that characterise the activities involved.

That will have to wait for another day though because I think that each one will need some space to explore them. As an example, though, here’s something to think about – social intelligence requires the ability to “quickly assess the emotions of those around them and adapt their words, tone and gestures accordingly”, to do that though you need to interact on a basis that communicates emotions, social interaction.

What are the social interactions of the future?

Will a conference call continue to be regarded as an acceptable social interaction? Is it possible to adequately discern emotion on a conference call?

Will a slide-lead presentation continue to be regarded as an acceptable social interaction? Does it offer the best level of interaction?

Factors of the Productive Workplace – A Little Personal History

Before embarking too far on this series looking at the Productive Workplace I thought I would expand on my history, it might explain some of my viewpoint.

Today I do most of my work sat at an L-shaped desk in a set of six identically shaped desks all bolted together with mini-dividers between them.

In my first working environment I was sat at a rectangular-shaped desk in a set of six.

What goes around comes around, but the journey between these two places has been varied. Even between these two places there is quite a difference in the working environment both on and away from the desks.

(I’ve written about some of this before in a series of posts titles My Changing Workplace, these focus on the technology within the workplace rather than the workplace itself)

These are a few of the places I have known:

The First Place

My first working environment was characterised by the number of storage cabinets. All of these cabinets were within easy reach of a desk with each set of six desks divided by a set of cabinets. This is on top of the storage that each desk possessed; every one of them had what we called a ‘mortuary drawer’ which would pull out the full depth of the desk and could contain several thousand sheets of paper in hanging filing.

Paper was everywhere because paper was the primary tool for working.

There was a certain character to those steel construction leather topped desks that I loved. It was my desk and I went there every day.

There were some computers, but they had to be shared and were on a special set of desks dedicated to that purpose.

The wall coverings were corporately dull being some form of beige or grey, I’m not too clear on which.

The office was large with something like ten sets of desk with six desks in each set. These sets of desks were divided by the cabinets. Some of the cabinets were decorated with pictures of the product that we were working on.

If I was going to a meeting it would most likely be in the meeting room at the end of the office. This contained a blackboard, tables and chairs. The table and chairs filled the room. More beige and grey with a few pictures of the product that were all working on.

Most of the people who I worked with were in this office, those that weren’t were on the same site.

I did some of my best learning in this office about different people’s attitudes to work. It was quite a productive place because we knew what we had to do and did it.

The First L-Shaped

My first L-shaped desk was in a first-floor office which was attached to a production facility. I used to like walking into the production facility to see what was being made.

This L-shaped desk was one of a set of four all bolted together into a cross shape.

The number of storage cabinets is lower and they have moved away from the desks. Most of them are pushed up against the wall that we share with the production facility.

(I’m currently looking at a set of storage cabinets which look very similar to the ones that I remember from those days. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are the same ones.)

Another change is that we all have a screen and keyboard on our desks. You’d expect that as we were a Computer Services department, but this was becoming the universal configuration.

I don’t remember their being meeting room in this office; we were on a large site and I think that we used meeting rooms in other buildings.

The chairs are different too. We’ve moved from traditional four-legged chairs to ones with wheels and pneumatic lift mechanisms.

On Monday I would come to my desk and that is pretty much where I would work until Friday. Occasionally I would go down to the computer room, but mostly because something had gone wrong.

This was also a large office with 60 to 80 desks in it.

Most of the people who I worked with were in this office, some were on other locations in the same country.

I did some of my best technical learning in this office; I was a member of a team who were discovering something new every day. We were all sat together and everything that one person learned the rest of us also learnt.

Let’s Try Something Different

For one particular project a team of us were provisioned with our own working space. The person running the team negotiated that we should design the office as a team rather than being given the corporate standard office layout.

Within this space we sought to create a number of working environments with in-built flexibility. There was a central large table were everyone was encouraged to start the day with lots of ad-hoc interaction. If you wanted to work together on something for a short period of time this is where you would be. There were a few shielded off desks for quiet focussed working. Some people spent more time here than others. There was a meeting room created from a small office; this was primarily used for conference calls. We had lots of whiteboards and were experimenting with a form of electronic whiteboards.

Everything was free-standing to allow us to change the configuration on a regular basis which we did on many occasions.

The enabler for most of this was a level of standardisation and inbuilt mobility. Every device was a laptop and every laptop used the same power supply. There were enough extra power supplies to allow people to get power wherever they were. We also deployed early wireless which removed the need to reconfigure the network every time we reconfigured the room. It also allowed us to move between working locations with little friction. Being an early form of wireless it wasn’t without problems though and sometimes people would have to move to use a physical connection to do what they needed to do.

No one had their desk, people worked where they needed to work. Although we were doing an international project most of the key participants were local and ideas flowed with few barriers.

This was a highly creative place to work and learn.

Working from Home

For a time I was doing a job that required me to interact with people around the globe, but no-one locally. For much of this time I worked from home.

During this time I had a desk set up in an upstairs spare bedroom with a laptop and that would be my primary tool for work, apart from the never-ending routine of conference calls. I had an internet connection, a laptop, my music, my choice of fresh coffee, a DECT speaker-phone for calls and a large monitor. Everything I needed to work.

Behind my desk was a sofa-bed where I would sit for long calls and reading.

When I was focussed this was a dream work scenario, but it had many drawbacks. I loved the quiet and the ability to focus without interruption. The lack of personal interaction was a problem though; I would have days when I would deliberately go down to the local coffee shop just to interact with someone. But who was I supposed to interact with, everyone I was working with were miles away from where I was. Boundaries were another problem; I wasn’t great at delineating the beginning and end of the working day.

I’m not sure that it was a very creative place to work.

(There’s a bit of a side story to this working from home period. In the winter I would struggle to stay focussed on work and I couldn’t explain it. Years later we discovered that the gas boiler that was in a cupboard in the office had been dangerously wrongly connected. Rather than venting the exhaust fumes outside it was venting them into the loft space from where they were descending into my home office. No wonder I couldn’t concentrate, I was being poisoned.)

The Small Shared Office

A change of role brought with it another change of location. This time I was working in a small shared office. There were two desks in quite a large room which also included a small table and chairs. There was also quite a lot of whiteboard provision. Although I shared this office the person that I shared it with rarely came in so it was either empty or it was being used by another colleague looking for a spare desk for a day.

Most of the key players for this role were in similar offices on the same floor. There was also some open-plan desks were other members of the team would sit.

We would have many ad-hoc discussions in one of the offices around the whiteboard, but we were also able to shut the door and get on with activities that required individual focussed attention.

An Assortment of Meeting Rooms

Having worked in many countries and on many sites I’ve seen an assortment of meeting rooms.

The most memorable meeting room is one that was decorated as a Greek tavern, including a large rustic wooden table, which was in Stockholm and was where I was working on the 11th September 2001. Most meeting rooms have been much less memorable; places where little thought has gone into the usage of the space other than for traditional sit around at a table with a set of meeting papers type meeting. There are few meetings like this anymore. Most meeting rooms don’t even acknowledge the now ubiquitous video project as the main focus.

I have, however, had some fabulous invigorating meetings in environments that contributed to the experience.

Back to Today

I’m currently back working in an open-plan office with low-level dividers and L-shaped desks bolted together in rows. This is a choice; I could be working from home but decided not to. There are a number of reasons for this but I’m not going to go into that now.

The walls are grey as is the carpet and the desks.

Light has always been important to me and in most of the places where I’ve worked I’ve tried to get a seat near a window. My current desk is right next to a window unfortunately it’s behind me but that’s better than most.

It’s my suspicion that most of us are working in environments that hinder our productivity, creativity and collaboration and not enhance them. My experience suggests to me that a better working environment can be created and it doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive, but it does need thought.

Factors of the Productive Workplace – Introduction

Prior to the Christmas and New Year 2013 break I spent some time considering the reasons that Bring Your Own is transforming the equipment that we use to do our work, particularly in the knowledge-worker** environment.

The primary drivers are a desire by people to be more productive, creative and collaborative. There are, of course, many factors that influence these things beyond just the tools being used. The major factor, I suspect, is the place itself.

I have overheard many statements that go something like this:

All I need to be productive is my MacBook and a Starbucks.


I’m much more productive at home.

I don’t think I have ever heard someone say:

I am most productive at my desk in the open-plan office.

I have heard:

I spend a couple of hours working at home to get something useful done; then I come into the office.

Why is that? Why do organisations persist with offices at all; if these statements are true?

Why are some organisations clamping down on home working if that’s where people are productive?

Why are so many people sat in open-plan offices with their headphones in (like I am now)?

What makes an organisation create a workplace like this:

Or like this?

Or like this?

Is this really a great place to work?

Why did we move away from offices like this?

How did we end up with offices like this?

Or like this?

What makes someone create a personal home workspace like this?

Or this?

There are hundreds more here.

If humour is best when it’s based in reality why is the cubicle such a rich source of comedy for Dilbert?

In short: What are the factors that go into creating a productive, creative and collaborative workplace? And how large an influence is the place itself?

I don’t know the answer to those questions at the moment, I haven’t done enough research, but I have some ideas.

This is just an introduction after all.

** I’m looking for a new term to replace knowledge-worker because I don’t think it really describes the new types of work and the skills required.

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