The last two decades in workplace thinking, design and delivery can be characterised by one word: more. In being part of the competitive edge of an organisation, in respect of attracting the right people and retaining those it values, at every assessment the existing workplace has never been quite enough. Someone else always seems to have a better one. The response has therefore been more amenities, more worksettings, more branding, more services, more gimmicks, more natural materials, more focus on wellbeing, a more all-encompassing ‘experience’, all intended to deliver more occupant time ‘on site’ from which is derived more output.
Chuck a global pandemic into the accumulative party and what are we now suggesting? That in order to attract people back to the office, organisations have to do…..more. Renovate. Replace desks with collaborative settings. Throw in more incentives, gadgets, treats. All in the hope that at a future point the choice to attend will become instinctive, a critical mass will be reached where intervention is no longer necessary and the human ‘chain reaction’ becomes self-sustaining. Because the dialling up of the office experience and its components is predicated on the myth of full, five days a week attendance.
We’re likely to re-discover the value of being together before we associate it with the value of the office as the place for it to happen. So we may choose somewhere else instead, another option within the emerging ecosystem of space. That was already happening. It’s an oft-overlooked fact that ‘the office’ as idea and practice was only half-working pre-Covid, where utilisation and satisfaction levels hovered just over 50%. Even with the full attendance edict. I wrote The Elemental Workplace as a direct response. Other books such as Nigel Oseland’s Beyond the Workplace Zoo (2021) have followed. We’ve been aware for some time.
Now that for most attendance is a matter of choice, the office of today has to prove and articulate its own value. It means that from here, however much more we throw at the problem, it may never be enough. We’re on the verge of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, which Einstein pointed out is the very essence of insanity.
This not just a corporate workplace conundrum, either. The flexspace sector is just as prone to throwing the gilded kitchen sink at it, too, in a bid to win customers in a hugely competitive arena in which, despite healthy gains pre-Covid, the genre itself still requires weighty promotion.
Why the MVW?
As we face the prospect of the urban environment continuing to struggle with levels of attendance and business, and people moving their domicile out of city centres and even suburbs, for the first time ever this is not merely a workplace challenge but a whole system problem. It therefore requires a solution that respects the entire environment. As with many other areas of the system, the starting point, the first matter to address: more.
The entirely counter-intuitive response may therefore be to do, create and offer less. But why would I come back to the office if there’s less than there was before? With that simple question, resistance to the idea seems at this stage to be hard-wired. For now. But it may not always be. In the same way that it has taken some time for the renting of exceptional clothing to appeal in the face of the ease of accumulating ever-increasing mounds of cheap tat made in sweatshops the world over and transported thousands of miles to a discount rail near you. Because less still means doing the things it needs to do extremely well. Just not everything else.
Less in this case means the Minimum Viable Workplace (MVW). I owe the idea for the term to Jon Husband, creator of Wirearchy, and I am ever grateful. You could hear the sound of the penny dropping on a number of planets in our solar system. It’s based on the idea of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), an idea and popularized by Steve Blank and Eric Ries, founder of the ‘Lean Start-up’ methodology but first used term by Frank Robinson in 2001. The MVP is the version of a new product that has just enough about it to work such that early customers can provide feedback to enable its development.
In workplace terms, it’s based on some core logic.
IF: we’re likely to see the office as an option and not a default, and are likely to be present when we need to rather than habitually or when have to, we no longer need to provide everything for everyone all day, as much of the provision will be wasted. We probably don’t need pre-dawn yoga, breakfast, gym, lunch, dinner and drinks. Or the lights and air con running all night.
IF: we’re only attending because we need to, it will invariably be to work with colleagues. It therefore needs to enable this to happen seamlessly, as a priority. Which means we probably don’t need all the in between spaces and attractions provided because we’re there all day every day.
IF: we still want some of the amenities and services our workplace used to offer, our cities can provide them in abundance. But they may not do so forever. If we want our cities to survive and thrive, the workplace needs to work with local providers of cafes, gyms, health centres and the like, those in between spaces, rather than replicating them within the office. Offices need to be integrated with their environment, rather than present but separate.
IF: the organisation is dynamic, ever-evolving, in a state of perpetual beta (which of course it is), then in order to remain relevant the workplace must, too. Which means not over-committing based on a hunch and blowing the whole budget at once, but maintaining an open, continuing and effective dialogue with users of the product. As in, the occupants of the office.
If we’re re-imagining something, we don’t start with what we have now and embellish it — as the industry has a tendency to do — we begin with nothing. A razed horizon, a blank piece of paper.
For the office to do much less but do what it does do bloody well and remain both relevant at all times for its occupants and thoroughly integrated with its host community, in building our re-conception we can follow the lean start-up approach, Using this, we focus proportionally on four key characteristics of any creation:
Typically software development fails because it focusses too heavily on functionality at the expense of the others. For workplace, the fault often lies in the inversion of the pyramid, with an entirely disproportionate focus on the aesthetic.
Essentially we begin with only what we need as opposed to what we want, or think we may want. The proportionality ensures it works, is reliable, usable and appealing in the right measure. Only then do we begin to consider what might be justifiably added to enhance the MVW. It may be nothing. Yet too great an addition and we no longer have a MVW — we begin to revert to the old habit of more. It takes conscious, responsible restraint to stop and perfect.
It also entails a raising of the consciousness of the occupant, in order to generate a healthier and more productive dialogue. Not to a workplace philosophy like ‘activity based working’, but to the drivers and the intended outcomes, and how they align with the needs of people, the organisation and the planet. We’ll come back to this before we close.
What is the MVW?
So what exactly does the MVW comprise? Essentially the following:
LESS of the things that increase cost, generate waste and are often still rejected — but that have dominated workplace thinking for the last two decades:
· Space: the MVW is inevitably smaller for a given population due to variable attendance. No rocket science, just necessity. Plus, there will be less of other things, as per below.
· Amenities: an audit of the host environment will suggest what isn’t needed in the workplace — and how occupants may benefit from discounted access, usually a much cheaper proposition than providing it within the building.
· Services: if all the services of the host environment are accessible and promoted, that’s likely to be an impressive array with little or no commitment. The specific required services that remain in the workplace can then be delivered to the highest standards.
· Availability: whoever needs a building 24/7 in this day and age?
· Uniqueness: brand expression can be achieved easily without the need to create a carbon-loaded unique experience, the appeal of which is often transitory.
ENOUGH of the things that reduce cost and waste, and improve performance:
- Functionality: a simple palette of team (enclosed and semi-enclosed) and focus spaces as the two fundamental building blocks of the workspace, with an accessible social ‘heart’, the landing point. 100% ‘up’ time. Scheduling underpinned by dynamic, intelligent (AI) technology.
- Inclusivity: Space that addresses all matters of access and use from the widest possible considerations of equality, diversity and inclusion. Which calls for simple, functional treatments. Complex outcomes are often those most likely to exclude.
- Responsiveness: the ability of the space to be easily and cheaply reconfigured when needed — not on a day-to-day basis, but in response to changes in the organisation’s and its people’s needs and priorities.
- Responsibility: the least embodied carbon possible, ethical sourcing, re-used and re-cycled installations. Every item included to have a known and beneficial end-of-life use.
- Pride: a celebration of the above, rather than the visible waste from the pursuit of uniqueness for its own sake.
MVW and the triple bottom line
The triple bottom line, an idea dating from 1994, is an incredibly useful gauge for strategy development and decision making. It comprises an evaluation against three criteria — social (which we sometimes refer to as ‘people’), financial (or ‘organisational’) and environmental. Very often a focus on one negatively impacts one or more of the others. It’s a rare approach that is able to satisfy all three. The MVW is able to make a thorough claim to being able to do so.
· People: with the facilities and amenities that are needed, the space is effective, intuitive, responsive and inspiring. In being a specialist tool to accomplish specific and defined tasks, rather than offer itself as a general compromise, it forms a necessary and understandable part of the ecosystem of space.
· Organisation: the office in being appropriately sized and scoped for its purpose is affordable, flexible, responsible, responsive and therefore efficient. In being so, its worth can be quantified and its place in the ecosystem of space entirely justified.
· Planet: In being designed to suit it enables the economy of use of materials, maximising the opportunities listed above under ‘Responsibility’. High utilisation minimises the waste associated with under-used space that has been tolerated for decades. In being integrated with its host community, drawing on the amenities and services it provides, its social value is maximised.
If we do nothing but pause in our relentless pursuit of MORE! as a solution to the role of the office, the MVW will have justified itself as an idea. If we pursue it actively, and begin to integrate our approach with the environment around us, we may just be taking the first steps towards a future that works for everyone.
We can have it all by having less.