The impossible dream of total workplace

Neil Usher
5 min readDec 6, 2022

Imagine a workplace where everything with which you interacted was entirely seamless — people, systems, processes, environments. Where you didn’t have to deal with multiple access routes to information and services, where a task requiring multiple disciplines to respond didn’t require that you act as both bridge and interpreter. Where a printer technician could answer a question about booking a meeting room, and a day janitor could grab you a new headset.

Imagine a workplace where, as a specialist in one of the disciplines providing services, your peers in other disciplines instinctively put the experience of your colleagues before everything else when designing environments and services. Where a new initiative was shared at the earliest stages to capture every area of responsibility, so it didn’t appear that one function had a march on the others.

We’ve been imagining this for the full thirty years I’ve been in this business. Yet the reason for posting was prompted by a politely exasperated question at a seminar this week around whether this was possible. It re-kindled an analogy I used to use to describe this approach to the workplace, given I’d been a keen follower of the beautiful game for many decades — ‘total football’. And there’s a World Cup on.

Made famous by the Dutch side Ajax and their national team in the 1970s, I was surprised to discover it was invented by an Englishman, Jimmy Hogan who coached the Wunderteam that was the Austrian national side in 1930–31. The idea is that any player can play in any position. Which means that when a defender pushes up, they don’t leave a gaping hole at the back because anyone can drop in and competently cover for them. It was a style that was indeed beautiful, albeit eventually overcome by opponents who adapted to stifle its expression. It’s no surprise we’d rather watch Hogan’s version of football than the stiflers.

If we consider higher-end hotels, an industry from which Facilities Management (FM) has long claimed to wish to learn but has rarely managed to, the shortness of most stays requires immediate guest familiarisation. There’s no time for an induction and settling in period, to get to know that Janice in Payables or Roy in Marketing know how to get most stuff done. Which means information and access to amenities and services has to be immediately obvious, clear and efficient. What is deemed ‘core’ is just about everything. Services such as reception and concierge are there to deal with everything that falls outside of core. Where they are contacted for routine matters, the information provided has failed and the information or process is addressed.

Long before I entered the property profession, as a student I worked for a Summer in a large 5-star business hotel. I was struck at the all-hands meetings (and I mean all hands) at the importance of the shared view of quality and the need for the entire team to project itself as one. I was also fascinated in day-to-day interactions at how colleagues from different disciplines looked out and covered for one another. As a guest, at all times you interfaced with one team. Over thirty years ago, and it’s stayed with me.

Yet we rarely see this in action in an office environment. Irregular attendance at the physical office in the hybrid age has increased the similarity of the demand to that of a hotel. We’ve seen some of this in the coworking space, too. An office population is in a far greater state of flux than at any time before. There will be ‘residents’, for whom it’s their ‘normal place of work’ (when they’re not at home), frequent and infrequent visitors. Relying on familiarity or ‘knowdal’ colleagues (they know everyone) to get things done is no longer sufficient.

In a working environment, there are — and have always been — natural impediments to achieving ‘total workplace’. Impediments that are the default, the easiest and most natural position.

The first is the often global nature of functions, demanding a global approach is taken. This is often found with IT teams who outsource their support function centrally or regionally via a ticket-issuing and tracking contact centre with local on-the-ground response capabilities. So we have the awkward situation in which we find ourselves sitting with our malfunctioning laptop next to the person we know will look at fixing it while we call a contact centre on the other side of the world to get a case reference number before our helpful friend is allowed to do anything.

Second, specialisation. Silos are often derided within organisations, but they’re created naturally through specialist skills and knowledge, and the emergence of a sub-culture from a common language and challenges. We don’t have to make an effort to create silos, but we have to do so to counter them. And while we may chose not to believe so, not everyone wants to counter them. There is safety and protection within a specialism. Silo-busting takes more than a wish, slogan or rallying cry, and it’s not a one-off activity; it’s a multi-level commitment to act and stay acting.

Third, it isn’t every function’s entire focus, and very often only a small part of it. Even for colleague-facing FM teams (and we won’t call them customers because they’re not, which is a whole other story). For some it’s a tiny part of their focus. The Workplace sector pre-pandemic unilaterally assigned a huge expectation to the HR profession to solve its problems before eventually realising that for well over 90% of its time HR has little to do with the workplace or has any particular interest in it. Generating interest amongst resource and time-constrained functions in a minority pursuit takes effort, persistence and evidence that the effort will be worthwhile.

Which leads us onto our last consideration, that perhaps, it’s because no-one wants it. That there’s a sense that it all works fine cobbled together as it is, and that the dedication demanded to create ‘total workplace’ won’t return on the investment in time, energy and hence cash. Very often the measure of success is taken to be the lack of expressed dissatisfaction, a dangerous place to be. But we’ve all been in situations where expressing dissatisfaction just feel like more effort than it’s worth.

Naturally, therefore, I’d beg to differ. The return isn’t always visible or measurable, comprised as it is of literally countless micro-contributions, but is individually and collectively noticeable. Neither is it in the present. It’s an investment in the future as much as the today.

All of which means that there’s still a long way to go. The football teams of the 30s and 70s, and many in between, realised that ‘total football’ was worth learning, despite being more difficult and demanding. Those they played in front of loved it. Perhaps for our colleagues occupying our workplaces, knowing they love it might be enough of a reason to pursue it.

We can work on the rest.

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Neil Usher

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