Among the problems we regularly confront in the work that we do is one of the lexicon of the workplace. Almost every concept, metric, description, or program is framed in a language that has very little reference to the work that people do, to the work that the company does, to the purpose for which the company exists.
The conventional workplace is shaped by the language that created it. "Standards" is the language that expresses the organization's structure or hierarchy. "Cost per square foot" is the language that defines the place where people work as a cost regardless of the reality that it is also the place that is either generating or enabling the generation of the company's revenue. "Square feet per person" is the language that lets you know your place in the organization; you'll still have to struggle to find your place to contribute value the organization.
More recently, practices associate with innovation and culture have produced another lexicon of obfuscation around the concept of the open office. "Collaboration," for example, the unchallenged pathway to innovation and organizational performance in common parlance, is the language that provides a cafe table somewhere on the floor while reducing panel height and workstation size.
"Research" has now become an essential component of workplace consulting. We are always open for surprising insights that may come from the research – from surveys, observations, focus groups, and so on. We also see that organization without leadership, vision, or imagination seek data from research to prove a point or to find covering data to provide confidence when accepting otherwise common sense recommendations. Consultants and their clients now all assume that collaboration is an essential workplace goal, so surveys are designed to ask about collaboration.
As with all of the other designators of new workplace concepts, this endpoint is transparent to its subjects. In a survey conducted by consultants in a workplace that is suffering from lack of collaboration and without any places for it to occur, most of the respondents replied that collaboration was very important to their work and that they were quite pleased with their ability to collaborate. That is, they suspected that the "collaboration" that was a goal of their company was a program to take away their privacy and the status that their workstation or office gave them.
How can we shift this faulty lexicon?
I liked this article by Paul Isakson. In advising a shift from the annual planning ritual and its rapidly irrelevant products, he focus on purpose as an alternative driver of people's attention and direction. He suggests that a focus on purpose makes possible a continuous, agile, and positively iterating process of organizational development and value, generating ideas that "live, breathe and adjust with the pace of life."
His process has teams doing three things – constantly searching for the signals of unmet needs, developing strategies and solutions to meet those needs, and executing and adjusting for relevance and value. That is, the focus of the teams is consistently and empathically on the client or the customer.
But how is this alternative planning process related to workplace planning concepts? I suggest that the presence of the customer and appreciation of the customer's dilemmas is absent in the conventional workplace. I suggest that it is absent because the lexicon of the workplace is internally focused. I suggest that its absence makes the places and spaces that should be generating value for the organization must instead be considered a cost.
I think we are going to begin to design our consulting and design services around a language associated with our customer's customers. If our language is derived from questions about their customers' concerns, and questions around our customer's appreciation of those concerns, and around our customer's purpose and the processes, activities and behaviors they use to uncover and understand those concerns and provides the foundation for their most valued products or services, I imagine we will then have a lexicon that shapes an entirely different kind of design. I imagine we will then design and deliver a workspace that nurtures that culture, and a workplace that our client will continuously improve as an investment in the sustainable successes in their future.