Workplace Stress

Futures Rambling #92

By Laurie Aznavoorian


A friend of mine has been going through a rather challenging stretch at work and recently confessed current incidents were not only having the typical impact on him that many of us experience daily due to our jobs: loss of sleep and anxiety, but that he now attributes specific physical manifestations such as: heart palpitations, itchy skin rashes and fever blisters on the lips and face to the stress he’s experiencing at work.

Over the past decade there’s been a shift in mindset regarding employee health and wellbeing, as a result the fact that someone was presenting physical signs of stress over their job was no striking discovery. What surprised me was who it was happening to, this person is strong, centered and supported and he works in a field that is hardly stressful. He’s an interior designer.

Despite what some of you might believe, neither interior design nor architecture appear on The Most Stressful Jobs list created by CareerCast, an American online source for jobs and career advice. Reviewing the list one would be hard pressed to draw similarities between selecting scatter cushions and the top four vocations that appear on the list: being actively enlisted in the military, a firefighter, airline pilot or policemen.

On the other hand a designers might share a number of the 11 stress factors used to create the list which includes: requirement to travel, deadlines, working under public scrutiny and physical demands. But when it comes to other stress factors like: environmental conditions, hazards, risks to life and interaction with the public at large – you can hardly compare.

Similarly being a designer doesn’t match the criteria for CareerCast’s list for least stressful jobs either, the top four are: Information security analyst, Diagnostic medical sonographer, tenured university professor and Hair stylist. Designers don’t make the least stressful list because they sure as heck cannot meet that criteria: the ability to offer job security, a good hiring outlook and salary, no physical demands or deadlines.

Anyone with a brain knows work stress is not wholly related to the job one does, but the conditions in which you do the work. Also, stress is very personalized, what floats one’s boat sinks another. Taking this into account any role can be stressful for a variety of reasons: the organisation you work with may be understaffed, poorly managed or the company is undergoing rapid change.

Digging deeper, the most common causes of workplace stress come from a lack of control, or not having the latitude to make decisions and that can happen in any job. Another key factor in workplace stress is unpredictability, not knowing what is happening with the company, a deadline or having clear expectations limits an individual’s ability to plan ahead and that makes it impossible to blend work and life.

Now that the sources of stress are clear, what you and my stressed out pal must take note of the following important point. Scientific studies indicate employees’ subjected to high demands at work with little control e.g. unpredictability, are at increased risk of heart attack, hypertension and cardiovascular disease – it’s nothing to ignore. In America some industries understand this well, a police officer who has a coronary event on or off the job is assumed to have a work related injury. Doesn’t matter if you’re shooting a black teenager or pulling in a bass sitting in a rowboat, you’ll be compensated accordingly.

To add additional fuel to the fire consider the analysis of data from more than 200 studies completed by Stanford and Harvard found worrying over losing your job makes you 50% more likely to experience poor health and having an over-demanding job makes you 35% more likely to have a physician-diagnosed illness, but that’s not all. The big ‘ah ha’ from this research is JERK BOSSES ARE THE NEW SMOKING.

This will be a trending topic at cocktail parties and workplace conferences in the future. Forget yesterday’s pithy bylines and all of the brew haha over sitting is the new smoking, cease the endless diatribe over the benefits of a sit stand desks because the Ivy Leaguers have found the negative health effects from a rotten boss are as bad as what is seen in people exposed to high amounts of second-hand smoke!

This is backed by research from the American Psychological Association who reported 75% of US workers identify their boss as the most stressful part of their job, 60% would take a new boss over a pay raise. While 27% of people quit their job as a result of a bad boss a staggering 59% stay and suffer. That is very sad. Given these statistics it’s amazing more organisations don’t seriously consider the impact leadership has on workers and act accordingly.

We know few organisations do and that has led to the development of a caste of people who suggest you won’t be stressed about things you don’t care about, the approach they take to workplace stress is to cultivate what they call a F**k it attitude. Proponents of F**k it are not suggesting you shouldn’t care, but recommend being care less. By telling yourself that something doesn’t matter so much you’ll relax, feel better and shift to lower and less stressful gears.

They do warn of the possibility of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction, to a point where a person stalls and finds life meaningless which is equally damaging. The clue they say is to take hold of certain things and give up on others. It’s an old adage, pick your battles. Do something about the things you can do something about and when it comes to others just say F**k it.

Many people are buying into this approach, in America the ‘maker movement’ is revitalizing US cities. Makers are entrepreneurs who are fed up with generic, mass produced merchandise, they are bringing back local industry, building local economies and strengthening the workforce. What better way could there be to share ideas, innovate and send a message to the corporate world. One could argue this is a manifestation of the F**k it attitude

The US presidential election is another example. There is one candidate who it is said represents the status quo establishment, the second is on the Christian far right and described as ‘Lucifer in the flesh’ by fellow Republicans. The third talks passionately about the injustices done to working people by unequal income distribution and the final candidate is just a cashed up bogan who hasn’t’ said anything intelligent in months. One might conclude the latter two are running on F**k it establishment platform.



Bradburry, Travis; 4 Signs Your Boss Is Worse Than Cigarettes;; March 8, 2016

Parkin, John; How F**k it Helps With Stress & Anxiety; ; March 8, 2016

Patel, Sujan; Why More Entrepreneurs Need to Make Health and Wellness a Priority; Brooks Rainwater; March 8, 2016

Strauss, Karsten; Where Most Job Stress Actually Comes From;; February 10, 2016

The Nosh Report – Digesting the Statistics of Workplace Stress; How The Maker Movement Is Revitalizing Industry In American Cities From Pittsburgh to Chattanooga to San Francisco, people are making things again; March 8, 2016



Smart Pills

Futures Rambling # 91

By Laurie Aznavoorian

I met my love by the gas works wall. Dreamed a dream by the old canal. Kissed a girl by the factory wall. Dirty old town Dirty old town

This lyric from the Pogues’ song ‘Dirty Old Town’ is the unofficial anthem of Dublin and can be heard bellowing out of the many pubs in the Temple Bar area. It was written by Ewan MacColl and is in fact about Salford, Greater Manchester England, not Dublin. Never the less after spending several weeks in Dublin I understand why it’s been adopted, Dublin is a dirty old town.

In the four block walk from my vanilla short stay apartment to the office it is necessary to traverse a veritable minefield of dog poo that’s been left on the sidewalk for the rain to wash away. And in the tiny playground nestled between my apartment block and the headquarters of Facebook, dog owners allow their pets to defecate in the very same very sand pit that the tech company’s employee’s children play in.

Revolting as it sounds, dog poo is the least of my grievances regarding that area of Dublin, what is more annoying is the loud metallic cha ching sound that echoes through the buildings every time a car drives over a grate in the street just near the Bord Gais Theater that’s not properly secured. It’s a block away and the apartment’s double glazed windows are tightly closed, still it’s impossible to ignore cha ching, cha ching, cha ching that goes on all day and night.

It’s a wonder the people at Facebook get anything done at all! Perhaps that is why they spend so much time out front smoking and work all night, oh wait they don’t work all night, they just leave their lights on all night. Clearly when you’re only paying 12.5% corporate tax, the lowest rate in the developed world, you can afford to let your electricity bill run high.

If employees at Facebook are anything like most of us, they don’t need cha ching, cha ching to distract them when there are myriad distractions right at their fingertips: work and personal e-mails, text messages, social media, phone calls, coworkers wanting to catch up for a wee gossip, micromanaging supervisors, people talking on mobile phones, copy machines, printers, the elevator…

No surprise research has shown distractions have a damaging effect on productivity and work safety, not to mention one’s mood. Distractions lead to poor performance which adds to one’s stress levels, this sends workers on a downward spiral. Michigan State University recently published findings of a study they did in the Journal of Experimental Psychology that found interruptions as short as three seconds double the chance of an employee making a mistake. It’s okay when your mistake is putting a pickle on a burger, not so good when you’re in air traffic control.

Unfortunately, a challenge we have with distractions in the contemporary workplace is that they’re sometimes a necessary manifestation of encouraging collaboration and mentoring. When a senior employee passes on knowledge it benefits the organization, but does little for that person’s personal productivity. Experts also suggest that workplace distraction can also be a good thing because they keep us from getting burnt out.

Distractions are on the rise, there are two theories why. The first is that our society is designed to distract with all of its high-tech gizmos, the second has to do with our souls being troubled, we therefore can’t stand to be alone for a second and need the distraction of cat videos to heal ourselves.

The philosopher Matthew Crawford has written a new book titled “The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction” in it he recommends we re-engage with reality and the physical world by participating in extreme or highly focused activities such as motorcycle racing and playing ice hockey. He’s dedicated the final chapter of the book to interacting with a firm of organ makers to retain the ‘attentional commons’.

If donning skates and playing a game of ice hockey is not your bag you might want to consider neuroenhancers. These have been called our eras defining drug. You will get them from one of your pals with ADHD – have them share their Adderall or Ritalin with you, assuming you’re normal it will improve cognitive function. University students love this because they can party like its 1999 and still be a great student.

Before you assume this is a practice of lesser institutions check out the BoredAtPenn site, or go to BoredAtHarvard for stunning testimonials “I don’t want to be a pusher or start people on something bad, but Adderall is AMAZING.” The University of Michigan’s Substance Abuse Research Center reported that in the previous year 4.1 % of American undergrads had taken these off-label drugs. Other research suggests the rates are even higher.

Some people like Anjan Chatterjee a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania is very concerned about where this is all going. He has coined the term “cosmetic neurology” to describe the practice of taking drugs developed for medical conditions to strengthen ordinary cognition, sadly he believes the horse has already bolted and that this will become as acceptable as cosmetic surgery

If the recent poll in the scientific journal Nature that explored whether taking drugs like Ritalin to sharpen focus, concentration and memory was acceptable is any indication, we’re in trouble. One out of five believed it was just fine even if there were side effects, 69% believed it was an acceptable risk! So we had better watch out for organizations who might use this to get a leg up. Doping is not limited to bicycle riders anymore.



Aamna, Mohdan, “Tech giants, stay in Ireland and pay even less in corporate tax” – Quartz, October 14, 2015

Brennan, Andrew; Minimising the impact of disruptions in the workplace; Andrew Brennan Blog, February 18, 2013

Crawford, Matthew; The World Beyond Your Head: Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June 16, 2015

Rothman Joshua; A New Theory of Distraction; The New Yorker, June 16, 2015

Smith, Jacquelyn; How To Avoid Distractions In The Workplace; Forbes; June 20, 2013

Talbot, Margaret; Brain Gain – The Underground World of “Neuroenhancing” Drugs; The New Yorker, April 27, 2009



Disruptive Innovation

Futures Rambling # 90

By Laurie Aznavoorian

We often begin projects by asking our client what they think we should put in their workplace. This makes little sense and is particularly counter intuitive when dealing with client’s who claim, as many do, that they want to create a workplace that’s sparkly, new and innovative or that they want to be ‘disruptive’. Why? Because the majority of companies looking for a workplace design hardly know what their problems are, let alone what tactics and resources there are to solve them.

I would have to agree that this sounds like the attitude of a snobby, narcissistic, know it all design wanker, but since we’re living in the golden age of narcissism (nothing reinforces that more than the likelihood of Donald Trump capturing the Republican nomination for President) it’s quite acceptable to toot your own horn. What’s the harm in acknowledging that if we really want to help clients be innovative or disruptive, that they’re the last people we should be listening to regarding what we should do?

There is no harm, other than getting fired. And since we all know where our bread is buttered we bite our tongue, remain politely mute and keep to old adage that the client is always right. It’s a well-intentioned approach that ensures your mortgage gets paid, but does little for the promotion of innovation and nothing to promote the all-important buzz word of the day ‘disruptive innovation’. Listening to clients is exactly what breeds the ‘sea of sameness’ that defines most workplaces.

I would have been loath to make such smarty pants statement before I read about Disruption Theory in the Harvard Business Review. Clayton M. Christensen introduced the idea in 1995 and now it’s a powerful approach to thinking about an organisation’s growth adopted by both small, entrepreneurial companies and large, well-established ones. Unfortunately, now HBR tells us we are using the term they coined too loosely, in fact they suggest those who have not read a serious book or article on the subject should just keep their trap shut.

Well la de da, talk about narcissism! Sadly I fall squarely into this category of fakers who they recommend stick to their knitting because I haven’t read a book and only just started reading articles on the topic but have been asking clients for many years to tell me what disruptive changes in their industry might impact their workplace. I believed I was quite clever, but after reading the articles I’ve concluded asking a client about disruptive innovations in their industry is tantamount to asking them what they think we should do.

Here’s why, the theory of disruption was initially a correlation between who did and who did not do well in business. Research indicated incumbents outperformed entrants in a status quo context, but not in a disruptive context. This outcome perplexed the brains at HBR, after much pondering they concluded incumbents didn’t do well when it came to disruption because they listen to their clients!! And clients focused on internal processes and on what’s called sustaining innovations rather than disruptive innovation.

To appreciate the difference: snivelling competitors working on the periphery are just pains in the behind, but those on a disruptive trajectory can really hurt. The way to tell the difference is in a disruptive context a smaller company with fewer resources challenges a larger more established one, the big boy is so busy defending turf that they pay little attention to what they wrongly perceive as a nonentity. Then when ‘the nobody’ gains a foothold they’re shocked.

Disruptive Innovators come in two styles: those that create a market where one never existed and those they call the Low-end footholds, companies who take advance of incumbents ignoring customers and propose a lower price slightly different offer and then evolve to compete directly. The next thing the incumbent knows they’ve been Ubered; the entrant has an equally comprehensive product and can demand similar prices.

The key in this definition is that in order to be disruptive the entrant must come from below. Following that logic Uber isn’t actually a disrupter because the organisation didn’t take advantage of a low end opportunity, nor did it create a market where none existed. Uber provides rides, often for less and with better service, but what they have done is not technically a disruptive innovation.

On the other hand, when Netflix emerged in 1997 Blockbuster paid no attention, customers rented new releases on impulse and were happy to drive to a store and wander the aisles for hours searching for a video. Netflix initially appealed to a small customer group who were happy with a limited selection and to wait for the DVD to come in the mail. Blockbuster didn’t care, because each company steered clear of the other filing a different need for a different customer.

Then the consarnit moment came. New technologies allowed Netflix to shift to streaming video over the internet and suddenly they began to offer a wider variety of films with an all you can watch, on demand, low price, high quality, convenient approach and they offered it to consumers who embraced the internet and liked it. As a result there are not many Blockbusters around these days

Back to HBR’s claim that we use the term ‘disruptive innovation’ too loosely, why should we tax our brain over a moniker– who cares? Not surprisingly, they do and suggest that in not knowing the nuances of disruption theory or applying its tenets correctly an organisation could pursue the wrong strategic choices and the researchers, writers and consultants who use the term to describe any situation where an industry is shaken could cause harm.

This all hasn’t convinced me to abandon asking companies what disruptions might be on the horizon, but has confirmed my initial tenet – that we need to ask the right questions of the right people at the right time and that might not be our clients.



Anthony, Scott; “How Understanding Disruption Helps Strategists; Harvard Business Review” Harvard Business Review; January – February 1995

Christensen, Clayton M Raynor, Michael E, McDonald; “What is Disruptive Innovation?” Harvard Business Review; December 2015

Doster, Adam; “Upstart Distributor A24 Is Making Indie Films Exciting Again”; Fast Company; January 11, 2016

Lindzon, Jared; “These Will Be the Top 5 Business Challenges of 2016”; Fast Company; posted January 11, 2016

McCaffrey, Tony; Pearson, Jim; Find Innovation Where You Least Expect It; Harvard Business Review, December 2015


Shame in the Workplace

Futures Rambing #89

By Laurie Aznavoorian

Now that agile work is being embrace around the globe, even appearing in conservative office space typologies; the link between establishing appropriate behaviour and creating a successful work environment is all the more pronounced. Unfortunately when it comes to behaviour many workplaces are falling short because some people simply refuse to get with the program.

Bad behaviours in open office environments are on the rise and it’s high time we did something about it for the sake of the evolution of contemporary workplace. When considering why it’s so hard to convince some employees of the benefits of new ways of working, it’s not a far stretch to suggest it is a manifestation of deeply engrained habits that have built up over a life time of working, perhaps more of a stretch is to suggest adverse behaviours in the workplace are due to a sneaky neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Dopamine plays several important roles in both our brain and body, the one we are most interested in here is its function as a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. When an event happens that is rewarding or pleasurable dopamine floods the brain and it will flood the brain again at the mere expectation of that same event, if it doesn’t happen dopamine switches off and we are disappointed. It’s a vicious cycle.

Unfortunately, a variety of addictive drugs and other bad things increase dopamine neuronal activity. Appreciating the link between dopamine and cupcakes or snorting coke is easy once you appreciate what this neurotransmitter does, but linking it to people who consistently misbehave at work? Now before you start laughing, know neuroscientists suggest dopamine plays as a role in creating feedback signals for predicting reward.

Crazy as it sounds, some people find pleasure and reward by sitting in the same desk every day; and given that neuroscientists believe dopamine is to blame for the endless information seeking loop that has led many people to be addicted to their phones, it’s perhaps not such a great stretch to understand why we’re so attached to our desks! Heck a recent Forbes article went as far as to attribute dopamine to American’s addiction to guns, they said hearing the sounds of shots fired in the night released dopamine – hmmm.

Far-fetched examples aside, we can all agree the brain’s motivational system is complex, so why wouldn’t dopamine play a role in how we relate and behave in a new workplaces? Therefore, I suggest it’s high time to engage in similar tactics that are used in society to keep people in their place. Now is the time to introduce shame into the workplace.

Jennifer Jacquet would agree, she’s an assistant professor of environmental studies at New York University and has authored a book titled, Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool (Pantheon, 2015). She suggests small groups of concerned citizens could use shame to change the behavior of big corporations and governments. Why not? Just look what a little friendly shaming about chartering helicopters did to Bronwyn Bishop.

In America the use of shame is working wonders. California uses it to combat ‘grassholes’, those are people who continue to water their lawns despite a four year drought and well publicized water bans. Governor Jerry Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are encouraging residents to ‘grass’ out their neighbours who violate the ban on a website, it might surprise you to learn Kim Kardashian has been outed as a grasshole.

Those crazy Californians aren’t the only ones using shame to force people to get in line, judges around the USA are handing out shame based sentences. A Cleveland judge gave a woman a choice of going to jail or spending two days standing on a street corner with a sign that read “Only an idiot would drive on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.”

Interesting given the 8th Amendment to the US Constitution bans cruel and unusual punishment, they argue shame based sentences are no worse than time in jail time and claim prison fails to cause the same kind of vivid denunciation that public shamings do. Judge Peter Miller in Putnam County Florida also believes that seeing sentences carried out publicly lets his constituents know he’s doing his job.

So if shame works for shoplifters, rotten drivers and grassholes why couldn’t it work for offenders in agile workplaces? Why not use screen savers to out employees who monopolize work settings by reserving spaces with pieces of fruit, jackets and computer bags?

Why not use permanent markers to brand the foreheads of gasbags who insist on talking loudly with an LM like they did with Hester Prynne in “The Scarlet Letter”? Forget interoffice campaigns for charity bike rides, let’s use internal social media to shame those who give coworkers the stink eye when they use spaces they think are theirs, but are meant to be shared by all.

We’re ready for this, if it works for Pope Francis it should be good enough for those of us trying to create wonderful workplaces. Hats off to the pope for his encyclical call for action on climate change, ditto on his comments regarding refugees. If he can think differently so can we.


Bell, Vaughn; “The Unsexy Truth about Dopamine”; The Guardian; May 22, 2014

Choney, Suzanne and Popkin, Helen; “Yet Another Study Confirms Your Tech Addiction”; February 4, 2012

Devitt, James; “Is Shame Too Mean or a Tool for Change?” Futurity Website, posted June 16, 2015.

Korn, Christoph; “Brain Gain, Dopamine, Emotions and Behaviour Change”; Scientific American, January 10, 2015

Morrison, Pat; “Is Public Shaming Fair Punishment?” LA Times, May 24, 2014.

Weinschenk, Susan; “Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google”; Psychology; posted September 11, 2012

“Day in the Life of Hollywood’s Grassholes” The Sunday Times,

Procrastination and Anticipatory Design

Futures Rambling #88

By Laurie Aznavoorian

Having written Futures Rambling for many years, I’ve become somewhat of an expert in the art of procrastination; although to be fair it’s not a recently developed trait. Early signs of having the tendency to put off till tomorrow what you could do today surfaced during the completion of my degree in architecture. But contrary to the misplaced belief of friends, who actually had the audacity to imply architecture students were natural procrastinators, most of us worked hard to perfect our techniques.

Prior to last week, I believed procrastination was a harmless, benign activity that hurt no one. Yes, it led to the occasional feelings of unease, but this one could argue, is part of the creative process. Now something very spooky has occurred that’s upset the balance of life. I’m uncharacteristically sick and my illness coincides with reading an article titled “Procrastination is Literally Killing You.” Imagine my alarm, particularly after I’d comfortably bought into a conspiracy theory started by other sick coworkers that attributed our plague to being poisoned by the annual company sponsored flu injection.

After reading the article on procrastination who in their right mind would not ask, am I sick because I have procrastinated in writing a blog post through the entire month of May? Coincidence, I think not. The article goes on to explain habitual delay can infect us both physically and professionally and the tendency to procrastinate is linked to headaches, digestive troubles, colds and flu! An alarming connection, backed by a study of 800 people in Canada and the US, goes as far as to associate procrastination with hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

The psychologists conducting that study suggests it’s not the occasional goofing off that most of us indulge in that does the real harm, but a condition called ‘trait procrastination’, which is a type of chronic procrastination that afflicts up to 20% of the population. Fortunately, it’s not the procrastination that kills you, but the trait of procrastinating that leads procrastinators to avoid taking care of themselves. They avoid doctors, eat poorly and rarely exercises which makes them vulnerable to illness.

Making matters worse for trait procrastinators is they not only respond to a problem by avoiding it, they exacerbate the issue by beating themselves up over their avoidance and being self-critical increases their stress loads. Holy smokes – when you combine this news with the now often repeated mantra ‘sitting is the new smoking’ is not painting a rosy picture for people who like to sit on the couch and push off what they’re supposed to be doing.

Thank goodness, in all of the gloom and doom, one bit of positive news surfaced and that is if the world continues to lumber along at the pace it’s headed, and it looks like it will, we’ll be in a position of having fewer things to procrastinate about. Every day the average person is burdened with approximately 35,000 decisions a day: ham and cheese or pastrami, Game of Thrones or House of Cards, third glass of Pinot or a headache.

Fortunately what the Internet giveth, it can now taketh away. The rise of the internet has made us even more aware of the many choices we have, but now technology promises to relieve us from the well-documented phenomenon of decision fatigue by taking over some choices for us. It is called Anticipatory Design and like Crime Prevention through Design it relies on ingenuity and creativity to solve the nasty problem of having to think. This is the next big break though in design and technology. We will see products, services and experiences made and executed on our behalf and it will all happen while we sit on the couch and procrastinate.

Oh No! It’s Big Brother! I say who cares the choices technology plans to alleviate are not one’s to care about, most of us would be happy to relinquish them for the reduced levels of stress promised. Besides the horse has bolted, if you travel by mass transit in Sydney you can program your Opal card to automatically top itself up, but in Melbourne an empty Myki results in a painful search for an appropriate convenience store to top it up because why would you be able to complete such a task on a tram, train or one of the many tram stations scattered about the city. Similarly Amazon and Netflix offer top picks based on past user preferences and that saves valuable television watching time.

Returning to the comparison to the favorite workplace yarn regarding sitting is the new smoking, that little ditty made employees much more aware of the dangers of prolonged sedentary time at work and their health and they also learned running around the block after work did little erase the physical damage of sitting in a desk all day. This awareness has led to change and as a result more workers are standing and moving.

Canadian researchers analyzing the benefits of standing and treadmill desks found that physiological health and psychological performance improved. The studies also indicated a lift in employee’s moods and greater health benefits including: heart rate up by 8 to 12 beats per minute, increase in HDL “good” cholesterol, weight loss and changes in body mass index. Attitudes have evolved and today no one is poking fun of the sit stand and treadmill desks anymore.

So I say bring it on, I am all in favor of having technology take ownership of the decisions I procrastinate about: doing my expense report, timesheet, laundry, renewing my passport and writing Futures Rambling. I for one look forward to the improvement this will bring to my health and free head space it will afford to ponder other more pressing issues in life such as whether I’m sick because I didn’t write a post in May or whether it was the fault of the flu injection. Maybe it was all of those people sneezing on the last Melbourne to Sydney flight I took?


Shapiro, Aaron; “The Next Big Thing in Design? Less Choice.”

fastcodesign; Procrastination is Literally Killing You; posted April 7, 2015

fastcodesign; Everthing Science Knows Right Now About Standing Desks; posted April 22, 2015

Noguchi, Yuki; “How a Bigger Lunch Table at Work Can Boost Productivity.” NPR Morning Edition, May 20, 2015

5 Workplace Predictions

Futures Rambling # 87
By Laurie Aznavoorian

Unless you are a poetry buff you’ve probably never heard of Phillip Levine who died in February at the age of 87, he was a Pulitzer Prize winner, the US Poet laureate 2011 – 2012 and he won the National Book Award for Poetry in 1980 for the collection What Work Is. In his poetry, Levine paints vivid portraits of characters and their jobs, made richer by glimpses he offers us of inner lives, dreams, and the manner in which his characters ponder the world.

When What Work Is was first released world events fuelled Levine’s imagination: unemployment in the US hit a seven year high and America started and ended The Persian Gulf War. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait sent oil prices from $17 a barrel to $36, resulting in a recession that impacted countries around the globe. Having an appreciation of the damaged conditions of American labour provides a context to Levine’s work, which adds an important layer of appreciation.

Few would deny that provides meaning. It offers us just a little more to grasp on to when we understand the motivations behind an action. It’s an argument we frequently make to clients, although, most fortunately now recognise greater transparency of the goals behind planning and design of a new workplace leads to higher employee acceptance and less snarky behaviour during the process.

Recently I was asked to make predictions about future directions in workplace design. For me, the only way to do this was to nestle my crystal ball in context: world events, popular culture, retailing and fashion trends. These are the things that influence us. They have the ability to jump species becoming a catalyst for new initiatives in unrelated areas. The following are five themes which I believe we will see manifested in future workplace designs.

Why wouldn’t we expect and demand highly personalised, curated work experiences in the future? This trend is already evident in other areas, for example the approach Deil tours in Amsterdam takes to writing tour guides has evolved from the traditional city guide, that in the past focused on the author, to highlighting the traveller. Interests are captured using a short personality test about lifestyle, entertainment and culture preferences to create customised tours.

Another example is The Obama’s administration’s proposal for ‘precision medicine’ that moves medical treatment from a one size fits all approach to account for individual differences in people’s genes, environments and lifestyle. Finally there is our own Australian based Youi Insurance that claims it tailors policies beyond the typical demographic information all companies request. From the online reviews the jury is still out on them.

The opportunity for curated workplace experiences will go beyond what has already been started in ABW and co-working spaces. The potential for developers, property owners and landlords to come to the party by offering new models of space acquisition and new kinds of spaces is significant.

Genuine innovation begins when entrepreneurs take existing concepts and reinvent them as something new, or go against the trend and create a whole new experience. We’re well down the path of redefining what work means having killed sacred cows relating to where and when we work, but there could, and should, be more to come.

We can take notes about reinvention from the three M’s: Madonna, Miley and McConaughey. Madge has been reinventing herself for a quarter of a century, Miley Cyrus’s went from Hannah Montana to wearing Band-Aid nipple pasties and Mathew McConaughey’s Mcconniassance took him from “Fool’s Gold” to “Dallas Buyers Club.” All three prove change is possible with guts and clever marketing.

Speaking of marketing, James Patterson’s self destructing limited edition book is a good example of reimagining the ordinary and Toyota’s Calling All the Heroes advertisement shows how men have evolved in an era where women are apparently their equal, the ad of course does not mention wages. Finally the The New York Times Upshot’s shows us how news can be communicated using infographics, appealing to a new generation of consumers that can’t, or won’t read a whole paragraph.

“Have a nice day – would like fries with that” is fortunately a phrase that is rapidly becoming extinct, we don’t believe fake rote sales pitches anymore and are drawn to the more authentic approach companies like Aesop have taken. They train employees to personally engage with customers and forbid them to discuss mundane topics like the weather.

We’re drawn to messaging that is highly revealing and exposes the warts and all in us, a good example is the Sport England ads ‘I jiggle therefore I am’ and ‘Sweating like a pig, feeling like a fox’ These are brutally honest campaigns designed to convince women to exercise, even if they’re uncoordinated oafs whose body parts continue to move well after the main part of them has stopped.

CEO’s of large hotel chains argue upstarts like airbnb are not legitimate threats to their business, but interestingly admit these companies offer travellers authentic experiences by giving access to neighbourhoods where people live, rather than the tourist areas. It is also interesting to note Marriot’s new brand Moxy designed with IKEA is geared to provide authentic, affordable and communal experiences consistent with millennial traveller’s desires.

When it comes to the manifestation of this theme in the workplace there is no greater communicator of brand values and culture than space. For businesses wanting to be authentic, this is often translated into a use of materials that don’t look as polished as those we’ve used in the past and appear to be handmade, where human imperfections is a part and parcel of the appeal.

There is plenty of room to go beyond this tokenism and push for greater authenticity, perhaps by pushing the blend of what is public and private. Companies who really want to be transparent and serve their community should explore this in depth.

One of the greater unknowns in predicting what the next generation of workplace will be comes from our limited understanding of how digital environments will impact physical space. There is no doubt we have barely explored ways the Internet of Things will steer both experience and space.

For a glimpse look at the HEXO+ drone which is the world’s first flying camera that follows and films its owner autonomously as they snowboard, motorbike or run a marathon. The HEXO+ hexacopter communicates with its user’s iOS or Android smart phone, this company raised over 1.3 million USD on Kickstarter and drones are currently retailing for under $500USD.

Starbucks, Taco Bell, Hyatt and Hilton hotel are all fine examples of using technology to improve customer’s experiences. Guests enrolled in loyalty programs now check into hotel rooms via apps and use their mobiles phones as room keys. While avoiding queues is the primary purpose of many of these apps, the Liseberg Amusement park in Sweden has employed gamification by allowing those waiting for popular rides to activate a mobile app with games they can play while they wait in line.

Workplace experiences will continue to be enhanced with similar new technologies that go beyond programmed lifts, smart lights and thermostats that we are all familiar with. Technology gives us license to push the workplace into urban space and precinct design seamlessly; blurring what is outside and around the building with what is inside the work environment.

We have so much data available to us today that it begs the question, how much is too much and what’s it all for? Andrew Keen coined the term digital narcissism in his 2006 book “Digital Vertigo: How Today’s Online Social Revolution Is Dividing, Diminishing and Disorienting Us.” He was using the term in the context of self-promotion and sharing on social networks, but it can also be applied to other types of data.

Is the data we are collecting providing real meaning or is it introspective? A trend is developing with millions of ‘post-status’ consumers who have rejected buying and having in favour of doing and creating. Perhaps data will go down the same path? As more objects are connected, clever people will imagine civic minded applications and novel approaches to deriving value from the vast amounts of data we have, coined ‘The Internet of Sharing Things’ the possibilities of using data for social good are endless.

An example is Easy Taxi, they’re one of the world’s largest taxi booking apps and they have recently partnered with Dettol to train cabbies in West Africa to diagnose and prevent the Ebola virus. Similarly the hashtag I’ll Ride With You used social media to combat Islamophobia after the Sydney siege and CrowdVoice, developed in Bahrain by civil rights activist, Es’ra Al-Shafei, relies on crowd sourced contributions to consolidate information about related social movements.

Alfa-Bank in Russia is addressing a community and personal concern when they suggest customers use fitness trackers linked to the banks services to track how much they exercise. For every step recorded by a wearable fitness tracker, funds from the customer’s existing account are transferred into a savings account, which pays a higher rate of interest than normally available.

It might be time to question whether the data we collect in the workplace from Space Utilisation Studies, surveys and sensors is as relevant as it once was; since it is mostly used to build cases for change when organizations generally already know they need change its questionable. This conundrum gives us another opportunity to raise the bar by considering how and why we collect data and creatively think about its application, hopefully devising output that is not just about proving points and is more geared to creating something meaningful to occupiers.

LSN Global Trend Tracker
Newman, Jared; Samsung’s $100 Million Internet of Things Bet Is Even Crazier Than You Think; Fast Company
Solomon, Micah; “Millennial Customers Hate Stuffy, Gilded Luxury (But Love Authenticity)”; Forbes on line; January 23, 2015
Rowley, Melissa Jun; “The Quest for Social Justice Goes Mobile” Co.Exist, Ideas + Impact, Fast Company, February 19, 2015


Futures Rambling #86

By Laure Aznavoorian

The political satirist Jon Stewart began a recent show saying “I think we’d all agree 2014 was not a great year for people.” He referenced the attacks on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and then went on to say that he hoped 2015 would bring a respite, we can only hope.

The Daily Show’s goal was not to make sense of the events, because they said, there is no sense to be had. Most of us would agree, attempting to apply logic to the killing of people who draw cartoons, manage café’s in Sydney, or attend schools in Peshawar baffles most scholars, and they are significantly more educated than the rest of us.

Even if we eliminate terrorist’s motivation from the conversation, we’re still faced with a conundrum in the aftermath of shocking events and that is determining what it means to our rights and our lives. It used to be that in places like Australia, America and most of Europe we could say what we pleased, satirize and criticize to our hearts content, regardless of whether or not we knew what we were talking about.

Most people generally accepted that with these freedoms comes a responsibility to not gratuitously offend or compartmentalize, and it is this acknowledgement that creates the challenges we all face now. We know we must resist the urge to: throw out the baby with the bathwater, judge the entire group for the actions of one and beat our chests demanding responsibility. But it’s so damn hard.

It’s our natural tendency to turn hypocrite – we #jesuischarlie out of one side of our mouth and then demand tighter migration policy and the silencing of Islamic extremist out of the other. The reactions are understandable, particularly when you consider the role a powerful force like groupthink plays.

The term Groupthink was coined by the social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, it occurs when a group makes faulty decisions due to group pressure. Group members are generally of a similar background, they insulate themselves from outside opinions and have no clear rules for decision making. The negative consequences are ignoring alternatives, taking irrational actions and dehumanizing other groups.

In his book Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes Janis documents eight symptoms of groupthink:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
  6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

This list reads like an al-Qaeda entry application. Of course we westerners would never make dumb decisions due to groupthink. What’s that, oh yeah – the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq before allies other than the ‘coalition of the willing’ could be convinced to participate. Never mind.

Collaboration is a veritable watchword for this era, we believe including others in decision making process generates better ideas and shelters us from mistakes, but that’s only if groupthink doesn’t stand in the way of honest analysis. A group of dumb people can be just as dangerous as one dumb individual; the worst part is groups can be made up of very smart individuals and they may still behave as a dumb group.

This was highlighted in 2010 study at M.I.T. that set out to define the characteristics of smart teams from those that weren’t. Each volunteer took an individual I.Q test, but the teams with higher average I.Q.s didn’t score any higher than those with members whose average was lower. And the teams with more extroverted and motivated people also fared no better when it came to the team’s success.

Therefore, you don’t need to have smart, extroverted or highly motivated people in your team for it to be good, so what do you need to be? The most important ingredients are to communicate a lot, allow members to participated equally and recruit people with good emotion-reading skills. That’s the ability to pick up complex emotional states from people’s eyes.

A surprising result the research delivered was the characteristics of smart teams were the same whether they worked face to face or on-line. Not surprising, the MIT researches learned teams with more women performed better than those with more men! This was attributed to women being better mind readers as opposed to men being inconsiderate dopes. It came down to what they call “Theory of Mind”, which is to consider and keep track of what others feel, know and believe.

Applying this new science of effective teamwork in organisations will help businesses immeasurably. In addition to enlisting people on your team who possess these characteristics, you can go one step further and actively avoid groupthink by applying the following tips, again from Irving Janus:

  • Assign each team member the role of critical evaluator.
  • Avoid stating preferences and expectations at the outset.
  • Routinely discuss the groups’ deliberations with a trusted associate.
  • Invite one or more experts to each meeting.
  • Assign an articulate and knowledgeable member to the role of devil’s advocate.
  • Survey warning signals from rivals and construct alternative scenarios of their intentions.

One of the most important aspects or characteristics of an organization, or community, is to find balance. Even though different groups may develop their own subculture, they still need to function as a team and work toward a common goal. Leaders set those goals and create culture and it is up to them to manage and maintain an environment that supports it, and they need to do that without silencing the views of individuals who cut against the grain.

Imagine if we were smart enough to do this in our communities. We wouldn’t need initiatives that curtail free speech like Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that make it unlawful to: “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people because of their race or ethnicity”. Nor would we need to fire university professors for tweets or arrest dumb kids who post stupid things on Facebook.


Breakey, Hugh. Charlie Hebdo Attack: When Should we Hold a Group Responsible for a Member’s Evil? The Conversation, January 8, 2015

Janis, Irving L.  (1982).  Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.  Second Edition.  New York: Houghton Mifflin

King, David R. PhD and Demarie Samuel M. PhD. Understanding Organizational Culture Using the Culture of Music. Graziadio Business Review, June 2014

Phiddian, Robert. Cartoonists are Defiant in Their Response to Charlie Hebdo Attack. The Conversation, January 8, 2015

Switzer, Tom and Hemmer Nichole. The Right Way to Tackle Offensive Speech. The Age, January 20, 2015

Woolley, Anita, Malone, Thomas W and Chabris Christoper. Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others. The New York Times, January 16, 2015

Privacy vs. Security

Futures Rambling #85

By Laurie Aznavoorian

The end of November marks my favourite American holiday, Thanksgiving. I prefer this celebration because it’s mostly secular and devoid of heavy commercial overtones unless you’re one of those idiots who rush off to Black Friday sales rather than take a sensible post turkey nap. The traditions of the holiday are many: watching football and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, eating and drinking too much, fighting with relatives and if you’re the president pardoning a turkey.

This year when Obama chose the lucky bird his daughters Sasha and Malia behaved the way normal teenagers do when they think their father is a bit dorky, they made faces and declining to pet the bird. This was captured on national television inciting comments from a now unemployed communications director about the first daughters’ lack of respect, clothing choice and apparent absence of class.

Snarky comments for sure, but quite benign when you consider the nasty digs made about Chelsea Clinton and poor Amy Carter who was called “the most unattractive presidential daughter in the history of the country.” It was with knowledge of the media’s history of crossing the line when it comes to privacy that Obama suggested politicians’ families should be off limits. Clearly that has not happened for him, or for anyone else.

Consider the poor celebrities, privacy eludes them, in the last few weeks several had their confidential files hacked from Sony Entertainment. Now the world knows Tom Hank’s secret name when he checks into hotels and that Seth Rogen earned $8.4 million for co directing and acting in a film when his co-star James Franco only earned $6.5 million. I almost feel as bad for them as I felt for Kim Kardashian and Kanye when Franco and Rogen spoofed their “Bound2” video.

It takes a bigger person than I to generate empathy for those who believe posting photographs of themselves on motorcycles naked is not an invitation to satire and invasions of privacy. But what really annoys me is that despite never having gone near a motorcycle naked myself, I too was impacted by a hacking scandal on Thanksgiving of all days. Given my no celebrity status it was grossly incongruous!

My favourite go to websites for local news was hacked. domain servers were down over the Thanksgiving weekend. Why? They were inundated with too many requests, the hacker’s attack was timed to coincide with Cyber Monday, a new US shopping holiday for those too lazy to get off the couch on Black Friday. The Conversation is of course not a retailer they were simply tarred with the same brush given their shared servers.

It’s an annoying conundrum. We are well aware the websites and online conveniences we use daily make us vulnerable and know we don’t have to use them. But that swims upstream from our basic human need to connect and know things. Some feel that so strongly they suffer FOMO, fear of missing out, when disconnected. For the rest of us who don’t have FOMO, are not offspring of the president or naked motorcyclist what are the real issues with privacy being invaded?

Many of us fortunate enough to attend the excellent presentation given by Gale Moutrey, Vice President of Global Communications for Steelcase were given a small snapshot into how serious a lack of privacy can be to our physical, emotional and cognative wellbeing. Sharing research conducted by Steelcase and others Moutrey suggested that many of today’s workplaces don’t support privacy because they contain insufficient space to concentrate and nowhere to recharge.

Their research indicates people’s thinking is interrupted every three minutes on average in the typical work environment and that impacts their ability to think which leads to mistakes; consequently, levels of stress rise. Sitting in a desk sandwiched between the Oce Printer and photocopier room on one side and the breakout and tea area on the other dis is not a koncept difcult for mee to magine.

Lack of privacy doesn’t just take a toll on us personally it’s also linked to lower employee engagement and that cost companies and countries a lot of money. The 2013 Gallup State of Global Workplace Report estimates actively disengaged workers outnumber engaged ones at a ratio of two to one. In Australian, Gallup estimates we lose $54.8 billion due to employee disengagement.

Steelcase’s research shows employees who are satisfied with the places they work are highly engaged. Before making the leap that engagement = privacy = a reversion to the built workplaces of the past, it’s worthwhile noting Steelcase and Susan Cain, who is now in collaboration with the furniture manufacturer and the author of “Quiet: The Power of introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking”, both suggest creating environments with work settings that support a variety of different interactions, including places to focus, as well as interact.

I’d venture to guess that there are few of us who would be willing to trade the flexibility and functionality of a well-designed contemporary workplace because of a lack of privacy, remember they’re not all well designed. The same cannot be said for the privacy lines crossed with technology and social media.

At the 2014 Institute for Information Management and Knowledge Management conference held in Canberra in October, Hong-Eng Koh suggested this type of technical privacy invasions were just what we needed to fear. Koh’s presentation titled The Bad Guys Are Using IT. Are You? made everyone in the audience understandably nervous, particularly when we asked whether consumers should be worried and Koh’s was an unequivocal – definitely.

This guy knows his stuff, his career began with the Singapore Police Force and he’s currently the global lead for the Justice & Public Safety industry business unit at Oracle. If those credentials are not enough, he’s the Vice President of the Society for the Policing of Cyberspace, a non-profit that promotes partnerships with international criminal justice and corporate agencies to combat cyberspace crimes.

While he acknowledges it’s a pain in the behind for typical a Joe Schmo law abiding citizen to have their online activities tracked, and suggests it’s a must for governments to establish policies and laws to protect our privacy, he is also an advocate of surveillance. Koh maintains it’s impossible to have privacy without security and this is where the lines blur.

Social media is a natural extension of community policing. Koh offered examples where social media, analytics, videos and photos were used to apprehend criminals; most notable the Boston Bombers I suspect in the days to come we will learn of the role of social media on the Sydney Siege too. Despite these successes the challenge law enforcement faces is that there is too much data, noise and “sarcasm” out there to be effective. Massive volumes of data make a simple data analysis process impossible, and that is where Oracle comes in.

They have created an advanced analytical tools used decipher codes that create actionable intelligence. Called ‘Intelligence Fusion’, it’s a vehicle for information and key data to flow and be shared across different layers and sectors of government to help law enforcement agencies prevent detect and recover from threats such as terrorism, organised crime, public disorder etc.

Koh provided a real time demonstration of how the internet gives and how it takes away. Prefacing with the statement, “the internet is used by as many bad guys as good guys” he showed us how they could track paedophiles using the same social media avenues the criminals use to groom children. In less than five keystrokes all known paedophiles online at that moment appeared on the screen at the conference. And then to reinforce the power of Intelligence Fusion, Koh provided their names and addresses.

Yikes! No joke, right there on a big screen, their names and addresses, it was as impressive and terrifying. It continues to terrify me today, because in researching this article I repeatedly googled the words: paedophile, sex, internet, sex on the internet and then I got a message from the help desk reminding me of the company’s rules for using the internet.


Glance David; I Don’t Like Cyber Mondays: Cyber Attack Takes Down Hundreds of Sites; The Conversation; December 2, 2014

Howard, Adam; GOP Staffer to Resign after Slamming Obama Girls;; November 30 2014

Koh, Hong-Eng; Presentation The Bad Guys Are Using IT. Are You? ; 2014 Institute for Information Management and Knowledge Management conference

Sony Pictures Entertainment Hacked – USA Today, November 24, 2014; The Privacy Crisis Taking a Toll on Employee Engagement, 360 Magazine Issue 68

Behavioural Evolution

Futures Rambling # 84

By Laurie Aznavoorian

On the day of the Melbourne Cup I did not teeter around on stilettos, drink copious amounts of champagne or wear a foolish contraption on my head. Instead I retreated to a friend’s country house where I reclined on a cosy couch and watched a movie about time travel. It’s a concept I have a challenge embracing, I was never a fan of Dr. Who and know that even when people fly at high altitudes it messes with their brains.

Pilots that enter the upper atmosphere experience strange mental occurrences: some feel euphoric or peaceful, but others undergo emotional extremes that lead them to feel not only separated from Earth, but detached from reality. Medical psychologist studied this pilot anomaly and coined it ‘break-off effect’, but after the 70’s it disappeared because pilots stopped talking about what was happening to them and how they felt for fear of being labelled soft. At any rate, you can imagine what might happen to our brain if we travelled through time!

But supposing we could. Naturally, we’d visit the workplace of the past and find ourselves unable to ignore bad behaviours that were common back in the day, but today, considered repugnant: racism, sexism and homophobia. Any viewer of Mad Men knows what I mean, and is also familiar with the license one adopts when reflecting backward. A smug, holier than thou, attitude and claim of superiority because they believe we’ve eradicated such cringe worthy behaviours from our lives.

It’s a delusion – plenty of today’s workplace behaviours are equally vile.

Starting with sexism, workplaces of the past demonstrated a very cordial acceptance of women, but at the same time men were unashamed sexists. Prior to the 60’s feminist movement when the term male chauvinist pig came to the fore, this was commonplace. It’s a shock to know sexism is still around today; it’s just not as polite. If you mistakenly believed we’d worked sexism out of our system google Shoshana Roberts. She’s the woman who was recently cat called 108 times as she walked through New York City.

The really sad part about that story was none of the goons heckling her had a good line. If Don Draper, the main character from Mad Men, had been doing the harassing he’d have engaged Shoshana with eloquent one liner not something as insipid as “You don’t wanna talk? Because I’m ugly.” The appropriate reply to that uninspired taunt is – no, I’m not taking to because you’re a moron it’s got nothing to do with your beer belly.

We’d love to believe this is an extreme case and can attempt to convince ourselves that Australians are beyond sexism and rank in the top when it comes to equality. Sadly this is not true. The Australian Bureau of Statistics calculates the national gender pay gap is currently 17.1%, below countries like: Slovenia, Bulgaria and Lithuania. Putting a positive spin on the statistic we should take pride in ranking above South Korea at 38.9%.

A workplace behaviour we have managed to eliminate is smoking, again take pride, it only took a little over 400 years. Travelling back in time to 1575 we would experience the first ban on smoking that occurred in the Roman Catholic Church. They put a stop to the use of tobacco in churches in Mexico then but for the remainder of workplaces it took significantly longer. Smoking bans in public places and offices only cropped up in the US in the late 90s and in Australia around 2007. We’ve moved fast though, making up for lost time by considering total smoking bans across whole cities in some gutsy places.

This slow and steady evolution of behaviours is what makes workplace strategist and designers like me believe it’s only be a matter of time until all the belly aching and misbehaviour born of ABW has run its course. But that day is not today and if Don Draper might still be alive and has not succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver, he’d be the one to act smug and could legitimately accuse us of the pot calling the kettle black logic.

He’d wave his hand like he was swatting a fly, toss his head back and laugh at executive’s concerns for company engagement scores, employees demands for flexible work schedules and the term ‘wellness’. He wouldn’t know what OH&S was as anyone viewing season 3, episode 6 of Mad Men can attest, that’s the one where office hijinks goes awry and Guy MacKendrick’s career is ruined after another employee runs over his foot with a John Deere riding lawnmower. Afterward the partners of firm make their feelings about the disabled clear when they lament ‘any employee with a missing foot can’t work with clients.’

If Don Draper went into one of today’s ABW environments and observed the behaviours we’ve seen taking place he’d be screaming to return to the safe sixties: employees arriving early to capture the best desks, juniors or EAs assigned to mark the team’s turf and senior people telling juniors to vacate because they want the desk. And then there is the frightening propensity for groups of employees to exhibit gang like behaviour and steer unsuspecting interlopers from their turf with steely glances and rude comments.

The Inability to follow or abide by the rules in today’s ABW environments is one of the more audacious negative behaviours apparent. From talking in focus areas, eating in no food zones to leaving belongings on desks meant to be vacated each night; employees dig in their heels and refuse to participate and follow rules. They act like petulant two-year olds with the added gall of becoming snarky about noise in collaborative areas, when it is they who refuse to move delegated quiet spots.

Wait – I’m not done yet – those were the nice behaviours. They also nick the cables, chargers, key-boards and mice and pretend to have OH& S concerns to get special desks assigned. They deliberately hide from team members and managers and refuse to check in as agreed. Some have developed formidable counterfeiting skills and fashion ‘anchor’ stickers allowing them to retain the same desk every day.

There are whole populations of ABW workers out there today who are convinced rules are for others and not them. Finally, the most egregious behaviour of all, tantamount to parking in a handicapped spot – occupying a sit stand desk and never once using the standing function!

That’s what a time traveller coming to our workplace today might find. It would be emotionally draining, they would have a tough time discerning whether the woozy feeling in their head was the result of “a spiritual epiphany that changes one’s perspective on humanity forever”, which is how pilots describe break-off effect, or whether they had just observed a bunch of people who need someone to give them a good swift kick in the behind.


Friedman, Ann; The New Workplace Sexism; The American Prospect, July30, 2010

Kokemuller, Neil; Male Chauvinism in the Workplace;

Mitchell, PL; the Challenge of Changing Workplace Behaviour, blog

The Break-Off Effect – Fast Company Co.Exist Daily

Is it time to bring back offices and parking spots?

Futures Rambling #83

By Laurie Aznavoorian

In the past few months I’ve participated in an activity that I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never engaged in before and given what I do for a living it’s somewhat pathetic. What is it? Watching people in the workplace, I am not talking about a quick ‘sticky beak’ to see how space is used, but an extensive study of how workers performed their jobs and interacted over the course of two months. As a workplace strategist, not having done this is tantamount to an actor never seeing a film.

These observations have been a part of a yearlong research initiative I’ve been involved in that seeks to learn more about what many organizations consider the panacea for all business woes – collaboration. Titled Designing for Collaboration, Delegation and Cooperation the objective of the research is to unravel the mystery of how physical environment supports, or doesn’t support collaboration. We learned plenty about the topic, but the real ‘ah ha’ came from paying close attention to people.

Physical environments have the ability to impact human behavior, both positively and negatively. This was very apparent in our research observations, but there was one very annoying and disruptive practice that we noticed that couldn’t be directly linked to the environment like many others – or so we thought. What is this unsettling trait? The propensity for senior people to interrupt people in the workplace regardless of they’re doing.

It’s a practice that sends a strong and clear message: A. your time is unimportant, B. I am really important – in fact hugely important and C. Interrupting is quite acceptable, even when you’re in a room engaged in a meeting with the door closed. Having experienced this troublesome drill myself over the years, I always assumed it was more a manifestation of the person being an inconsiderate sod than environmentally driven, but now I’m not so sure.

You could argue interruption is a necessary part of business, after all senior people bill at higher rates, and it is some people’s jobs to serve others. All of that is true. However, for most of us, we’re not brain surgeons whose time and decisions impact life and death. A ten minute delay for someone to finish a meeting isn’t going to sabotage the endeavor and everyone’s productivity impacts bottom line, not just those at the top.

As mentioned, prior to engaging in this research, I’d reached the conclusion these people were just jerks, plain and simple. I’m still convinced they’re jerks, but the lens has widened and I’ve even begun to question whether we’ve instigated this rude behavour by taking away offices, parking spaces, personal assistants, waiting areas and now, in the era of Activity Based Work, removed the last vestige of status and power – the desk.

I’ll admit, I’ve supported the evolution of the workplace arguing businesses must wake up and smell the coffee. The world is a highly competitive place and to survive companies must evolve, including their workplaces. I’ve rolled my eyes at the boo hooing of employees who’ve lost their desks and personal garbage cans, suggesting workplaces are pretty darn good around here; heck we could be American journalists in Syria.

That being said, there are documented challenges with new workplaces that stem from the absence of a physical spot to call one’s own. While these are mainly psychological, our research provided an awareness of another challenge involving the difficulty companies have in blowing a horn for employees the way they used to when they could allocate big offices and parking spots to special people. As a result employees are left to their own devices and some adopt disturbing tactics for blowing their own horn.

Dr. Justine Humphry highlights a few in her research into the impact of new media technologies on social, cultural and environmental implications. She suggests a change in perception of space and time has taken place that’s driven new forms of inclusion and exclusion. One of these is ‘nesting, a form of personally shaping one’s work environment, others are more elaborate strategies for claiming space.

Unfortunately, she notes some people don’t bother to personalize, they just get really snarky and are dissatisfied or frustrated; hence, the adoption of the bad behaviours. It should come as no surprise, early findings from the whole Chiat/Day experience described employee behaviours in free address environments as: turf wars, kindergarten-variety subterfuge, incessant griping, management bullying, employee insurrection and internal chaos.

Whether we like it or not, there is a hierarchy in almost every organisation and that creates a class system. In Somebodies and Nobodies author Robert Fuller suggests rank divides us more than we care to admit and that we treat others based on our relative rank. He says the key to feeling like a somebody is being recognized, because without it we feel discounted, disconnected, marginal and invisible.

Surprisingly, all of this has made me less critical of the tossers who interrupt in the workplace. I suspect they feel they’ve gotten a raw deal, stripped of all monikers of success and offered no replacement. I can imagine them thinking – “I did an undergraduate degree, a masters, then a PhD and am well known in my field – I’ll interrupt whoever I damn well please.”

On the other hand there is the business to consider, they’re naturally gaining from all that interrupting, I mean collaborating, but are they? Since we’ve stripped all outward signs that a person is special, more experienced, educated or connected in the industry from the physical workplace surroundings, it’s darn hard to pick them out of the crowd.

Having started a new job I’m acutely aware of how tough it is to not know who’s who. All week I’ve been struggling to operate the photocopier and complete a time sheet, if I’d only known the guy sitting next to me is timesheet guru! Of course I’m just messing with you, he’s not a timesheet guru, he’s been here ten years and still can’t do his. Applying this analogy to other tasks though, you can see the inherent dangers this poses to productivity and knowledge transfer.

What can we do? Here’s my idea – I’ve just completed a consulting project where I suggested there be a place in an Activity Based Workplaces called the ‘guru enclaves’. This is where specialists will go to profess. Of course problems might arise with people becoming self-declared experts, or the enclave turning into a soapbox, but it’s a start.

Alternatively, we could just continue on the current ABW trajectory and keep everything on our person as we move throughout the workplace. Specialist would wear hats like the fire wardens or long robes and mortarboard hats with appropriate tassels.


Holz, Robert Lee; Why Power in the Workplace Makes People Feel They Control Time – Positions of Authority Create a Sense of Control Over the Clock; The Wall Street Journal; July 22, 2014

Humphry, Justine; Mess or Nest: Do Clean Desk Policies Really Help Us Work Better?; The Conversation August 30, 2011

Ingram, Patreese D; The Ups and Downs of the Workplace; Journal of Extension, June 2006, Volume 44, number 3

Meyerson, Debra E; Radical Change, the Quiet Way; Harvard Business Review 2001