Toward a new lexicon for the workplace – again
Among the issues we regularly confront in the work that we do is one of the "lexicon" of the workplace. As the discussions begin with our clients' representatives, 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 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 despite the reality that it is also the place that enables the generation of the company's revenue. "Square feet per person" is the language that lets you know your place on the organizational ladders (you'll still have to struggle to find a place to contribute value to the organization).
More recently, concepts around the open office, innovation, and culture have produced another lexicon of obfuscation. "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.
As with many of the other designators of new workplace concepts, this one is transparent to its subjects. In a survey conducted by consultants in a company that is suffering from lack of collaboration and without any places for it to occur, most of the respondents replied that not only was collaboration important to their work, 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 or 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, 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 think that it is absent because the lexicon of the workplace is internally focused. Its absence means that the places and spaces that should be generating value for the organization must instead be considered a cost.
I am beginning to think that we should shape our consulting and design services around a language associated with our customer's customers. If our concepts are derived from our clients' answers to questions about their customers' concerns, and from the processes, activities and behaviors they use to uncover and understand those concerns, 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.