In the workplace circus, it’s always the wire

Balance works. Falling over doesn’t. It has ever been this simple. In many quarters it’s deemed a sense, enabled by the vestibular system in our inner ear. It’s the essence of the ballerina’s art, where it’s expression can be breath-taking. We seek it in our working lives. In many roles, we instinctively balance creativity with routine, focus with interaction, planning with doing. We may have to force ourselves to pursue one over the other, or be driven by necessity, but it’s balance we seek.

At a broader level, of course, we’ve had ‘work-life balance’ in its current guise since the 1980s. Some claim the idea originated with manufacturer Robert Owen in the early 19th Century with the snappy campaign for “8 hours for work, 8 hours for our own instruction and 8 hours for repose”. But Philip II of Spain was well ahead of the game with the “Ordenanzas de Felipe II” of 1593 which divided the day into two 4-hour stints. It wasn’t just to maximise productivity. For those labouring, it “attended to ensure their health and conservation.” Workplace wellbeing is far from a new idea.

That aside, it’s an awkward phrase, as work is a sub-set of life. It should probably read ‘work-personal’ balance — but we understand it, nonetheless. Attempts to re-define it as ‘mesh’ or ‘weave’ have fallen flat, probably because they both suggest that they’re inseparable. For many, since the first lockdown, inseparability may well appear a more accurate reflection of reality.

Emerging from the pandemic, balance is the essence of hybrid working; home and office, pursuing the benefits of each. Attitudes balance, too. For everyone who experiences a degree of FoMo from working remotely there is someone who is so over it they’re NFI (as the sense of inevitability rises that everyone will soon be back in the office, it’s time that we were all very much FI). In balancing the isolation of home with the distractions of the office, we also seek balance within each location — the benefit of isolation for focussed work, while limiting the negative feelings of seemingly being the only living soul on the planet doing any work.

While some areas of workplace thinking require us to lean on the scales somewhat, there’s often a balance within. Take equality for example. While we have no desire to balance it with inequality, there is an equilibrium to be struck within, somewhere between equality of opportunity (we all start equal) and equality of outcome (we all end equal). If we can simultaneously achieve both, we can say we’re heading for equity.

Theano of Crotone (Calabria) was a 6th Century BCE philosopher, reputedly (but not definitively known to be) the wife of Pythagoras, the patriarchy ensuring she was overshadowed by her other half. Her most important written work was The Theorem of the Golden Mean, which argued for the middle path between two extremes as a primary virtue. After this, all the boys in school jumped on the bandwagon — Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, amongst others.

It’s easy to see the mean as a compromise, but on the contrary, it was clearly intended to be considered a conscious and worthy choice. For this contribution, it might be considered that Theano was the first workplace strategist.

While we still tend to think of balance as unexciting, despite the recent tendency to dogmatically pursue more extreme ideas at the expense of all others, balance is the place to which the energy always returns. It therefore forms the basis of workplace design as a challenge characterised by the need to navigate fundamentally divergent individual needs, together with the competition inherent within the sustainability triangle of human, organisational and environmental demands. It’s why workplace design remains so damned difficult.

Some — but by no means all — of the choices we face in creating workspace are shown below. We can’t say with any confidence that the columns have any degree of commonality, as in one is ‘progressive’ and one ‘traditional’ — that would be too much like a LinkedIn post. Each exists on a sliding scale that in creating a workspace we need to understand and set. The balance sought might, too, be overall or within defined areas. Or, of course, both.

It’s hard to imagine any steps being taken at all towards creating a workplace without a full exploration of where and how it should be poised on the scale in respect of each. Yet inevitably they are, often in the pursuit of an Insta-ready dopamine rush. In the clamour to stimulate a return to the office, we need to caution on the pursuit of short-term delight over longer term effectiveness and the ability of the space to evolve with the organisation.

Our workplace has to ensure the right people can work together in the right place at the right time. In achieving this, Theano’s Golden Mean is as conscious and worthy a choice as it’s always been. Everything in balance.

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Neil Usher

work & workplace protagonist | #ElementalWorkplace and #ElementalChange originator | rumoured to create human environments | known to blog