Bullshit Jobs

Post #112 by Laurie Aznavoorian

Yes, I know it’s been ages since I’ve composed a post. Other pursuits such as PHD proposals and novels have occupied my time. If you know any publishers or agents who might be interested in a humorous memoir or a cynical tome titled ‘The Pitch’ – a story of three design firms competing for a prestige project, please let me know. By the way, should either be published, you would not find them in the literary fiction section.

Yesterday I did a presentation to our office on pre and post Covid workplaces and commercial office buildings, I talked about the inevitable imperative for place to now ‘earn the commute’ along with other key themes including employee’s strong desire for their work to align with their individual sense of purpose. Pragmatist may argue there’s no need to pay attention to such silly woke ideologies, which is true if you’re happy to have younger workers, in particular Millennials, leave. This is the cohort that a new report by McKinsey says are three times more likely that others to be re-evaluating work.

The same report found that 70 percent of employees’ sense of purpose is defined by work, so it makes sense for organisations to pay attention because it is becoming clear the work first culture is being replaced by something more personal and altruistic. Also, people who live purpose at work are more productive, they’re healthier and have greater resilience and when an individual’s purpose aligns with the organisation’s, they’re more engaged, loyal, and likely to recommend the company to their mates.

These findings mirror recent research conducted in the US and Australia by Atlassian and PWC. They don’t mince words with their recommendations.

It’s now clear that employees expect their employers to make a difference. We are seeing an increasingly activist workforce that holds business to account and prioritises wellbeing over career progression.”

Atlassian Co-Founder and CEO Scott Farquhar warns the consequences of inaction will be real in the war for talent, he says there has never been higher expectations of businesses and their leaders.

So how do you know if your job aligns with purpose? It’s a tough question, one test would be to ascertain whether you have a bullshit job. The term comes from the anthropologist David Graeber’s 2018 book. He postulates some jobs are meaningless and cause societal harm, he goes on to suggest that over half of societal work is pointless and psychologically destructive, particularly when comparing what we do to a work ethic that associates work with self-worth.

Mentioning bullshit jobs in the office caused my colleagues to laugh nervously and look at each other, their eyes silently imploring – are our jobs bullshit jobs? The answer is no. For a job to be a bullshit job the person doing it can’t even justify its existence, and if a bullshit job is eliminated society would be no worse off. If architects or interior designers suddenly vanished the world wouldn’t work very well and face it things would be butt ugly. Society might not miss us the way they would teachers, garbage collectors or shelve stockers at Woolworths, but our absence would be felt.

In addition, bullshit jobs are often highly respected, and they pay well; we all know that architecture is all flash, no cash. It might be easier to explain the concept of a bullshit job using Amazon as an example.

If the rocket carrying a ridiculously wealthy boss exploded, would we care? On the other hand, if an underpaid shift worker failed to pack and post the HoMedics Pedi Luxe Foot Spa with heat boost power ordered during lockdown for a pick me up, well that would be a different story.

What does this have to do with workplace and commercial office buildings? Quite a bit, Covid has changed how life and work are conducted, it constitutes a social legacy that will lead to social change and that will manifest itself in both our mindset and how we use physical space. In some instance it may demand we reimagine spaces.  

One priority that should drive a potential rethink of environments should be mental health given researchers suggest this is the most important issue of 2021. Hopefully it is now understood that supporting mental health involves more than breakout areas, fruit bowls and temperature checking stations. Workplaces must now demonstrate to employees that the organisation cares about them and the issues they worry about, which is increasingly humanity, community, and the planet, not shareholders and supporting a neoliberal economy.

Looking at the projects that are currently on our digital drawing boards suggest there is a greater likelihood of acceptance and inclusion of places that are designed with mental health and social responsibility in mind.

Ideas such as access to multi – modal areas and blurring of public and private space are the same as those pitched pre pandemic, but now they are seriously being considered indicating this may be the time that organisations not only listen but act.

One concept gaining traction involves reimagining commercial building’s ground planes and podiums as spaces that can support and be shared with the broader community. This includes the spatial arrangement, supporting technology and security to enable activation and extended hours of operation. The concept benefits community in that there is somewhere and something to go to at night and on weekends and combats the expected change in city’s population due to changing patterns and the uptake of hybrid work.

Embedded in this idea is the notion of creating zones for building tenants and invited guests that when creatively conceived offer the opportunity for space to support social causes.

It may not be an idea most developers, landlords or organisations can stomach right now, but including the thought and provisions to execute the concept later is damn smart move, especially if Scott Farquar is right about an activist workforce.

An example of how and why this might work came to me after a Zoom catch up with old friends in Seattle who delivered an earful about how hot it was. The Pacific Northwest had experienced what is referred to as a ‘heat dome’ resulting in several days where temperatures were well above average. Roads cracked and bitumen buckled, overhead cables that supply power to electric busses melted, further North in Canada over a million mussels and clams baked in their shells. Oh, and a bunch of people died too because this is a region where no one has air conditioning.

To save lives cities set up cooling centres, big spaces with cots where people escaped the heat. They looked a lot like commercial office lobbies! More cooling centres are being established in the Pacific Northwest to contend with a second heat dome scheduled to hit this region this week.

Australian climate scientists are paying close attention to this weather phenomenon because it is likely there will be a heat dome coming to your town soon, no doubt squeezed in between the bushfires, floods, and pestilence. I would suggest any Aussie architect who comes up with a clever way to use vacant commercial office space to help us out when that all hits the fan would definitely not be someone with a bullshit job.


Atlassian, PWC; Return on Action Report 2021 – The Rising Responsibility of Businesshttps://www.probonocentre.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/atlassian-2021-return-on-action-report-australia.pdf

Dhingra, N., Samo, A., Schaninger, B., Schrimper, M. (2020) “Help your employees find purpose or watch them go”, McKinsey & Company https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/help-your-employees-find-purpose-or-watch-them-leave

Graber, David; Bullshit Jobs, A Theory, Penguin Books, 2019

Milman, Oliver; “Nowhere is safe’: heat shatters vision of Pacific north-west as climate refuge” The Guardian, July 22, 2021

Spocchia, Gino; “Jeff Bezos criticised by Amazon workers and customers after thanking them for funding space launch.” Independent.co.uk July 28, 2021


Social Contagion at Work

By Laurie Aznavoorian

Futures Rambling # 104

Last week I exercised my rights of free agency and personal empowerment by unplugging my desk from the octopus it was tethered to and rolled it across the studio to the spot previously occupied by Peter Titmuss. It took about three minutes to link to a shiny new octopus and voila, I became a member of a new team.

Since the name is less than self-explanatory, an octopus is part of BVN’s boom & octopus combination that allows each of us to re- configure our studio environment at will. All desks are on wheels and both power and data drop from fibre optic cables nestled in overhead circular booms that connect to a host, or octopus, which supports up to eight desks.

Why move desks rather than people you ask, isn’t that somewhat hypocritical coming from people known for flogging alternative working? The answer is poor performance of programs like Revit, V Ray, Rhino or Grasshopper over Wi-Fi. For those who know me and are spitting their coffee on their keyboard, no I’ve not upskilled. But there are others here who are far more talented and unburdened by technical challenges than I who’d be crippled.

For organisations like BVN, extreme flexibility opens many doors, some like enabling teams to reorganise are fantastic, others are a work in progress. For example, we’re currently drafting guidelines that clarify when and how one can roll, otherwise to quote our office manager “it would be a real shit show.” And even though you would think it unnecessary to remind architects not to park in fire exits or blocking loo doors, the guidelines will dictate exactly where you can stop rolling.

In parallel, we’ve embarking on a research project intended to track desk movement. This is critical since a successful rolling studio will inherently rely in part on human nature. We all know that just because an individual has the right to roll, doesn’t mean they will. Humans abandon privileges all the time, just look at American voting records. The psychological aspects of rolling we might explore are plentiful: what inspires one to roll while others are happy to stay still, do some people have roll phobia, is the fear of recrimination due to location real?

We also wonder whether people will learn anything from rolling. Perhaps some will become roving studio journeyman, or roll to locations where they’ll amass skills or positive behaviours via osmosis? The hypothesis could be tested on me, we can take note if I’ve become more hip sitting next to Sebastian and a wiz at photoshop, or if being in the mere vicinity of Selina encourages me to learn Revit.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds, particularly if you know anything about social contagion. I recently learned about this theory listening to an interview with Dr. Gary Slutkin, a physician and infectious disease control specialist at the University of Illinois Chicago. He knows plenty about spreading things.

He also happens to live in a city where the murder rate surpassed 1400 in July; therefore, is well placed to pursue his vocation of studying infectious disease along with his other passion, the spread of crime. Cure Violence is the program he founded that’s being rolled out across cities in the US. It marries both spheres of Slutkin’s expertise and led him to suggest the spread of violence through a community happens in the same manner as a contagious disease.

Take something nasty like Ebola, your chances of contracting the disease increases with exposure and the disease spreads quickly or slowly depending on specific factors: age, overall health and living conditions. With violence the factors are exposure to gang wars, riots or childhood abuse. The evidence that Slutkin has amassed contradicts the common belief that violent acts are random. Instead, he suggests it follows the patterns of contagion and both disease and violence cluster in time and space.

Social science has reached similar conclusions about behaviours. Attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours move through populations like infection, they spread rapidly and are often accepted uncritically. Given the human condition is a combination of both a biological and social process, and each rely on replicated instructions, you can start to see the connection. In biology a gene is reproduced, in social processes it’s a meme, or culture.

It’s called social contagion and applies to both good and bad behaviours and the concept is by no means new. In 1774 Goethe’s publication “The Sorrows of Young Werther” inspired so many people to commit suicide that both book and Werther clothing style were banned. The Werther – effect is now a synonym for media induced imitation.

Social learning theory posits we learn social memes and behaviours by directly experiencing, observing and imitating and make cognitive inferences based on our observations. Back to our studio, based on the theory of social learning and contagion it is entirely plausible that I might develop new skills because of where I sit, or at least adopt an attitude or aptitude to learn.

Of course, we must be mindful not to spread bad behaviours, the research says this can be minimised by limiting exposure or inoculating people against the effects. Currently the only really bad thing that I can think of that could infect the studio would happen at the Christmas party when the New York crowd comes over. As far as I know there is no inoculation against stupid and our colleagues do live in the same city as the Trumps and may be infected. We should be thankful to have no office in Canberra.



Bushman, Brad J. PH.D, “How Violence Spreads Like a Contagious Disease” Psychology Today, May 31, 2017

Niederkrotenthaler T, Herbert A, Sonneck G.; The “Werther-effect”: Legend or Reality?” Neuropsychiatry 2007; 21(4)

Jack, B; “Goethe’s Werther and its effects – The Lancet Psychiatry”, The Lancet, April 30, 2014

Marsden, Dr. Paul, “ Memetics & Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same Coin?” The Journal of Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1998 Vol 2.

Slutkin, Gary MD, “Violence is a Contagious Disease”, National Academies Press (US); 2013 Feb 6. II.9, Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207245/

“How Treating Violence As A Disease Could Help Prevent It”, Here and Now, PRI WBUR, March 22, 2017




Distractions Part Two – February 9, 2007

Distractions part two

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 27 – February 9, 2007

In response to the last Future’s Ramblings I received an e mail from a colleague who pointed out that iPods are the least of our worries when it comes to workplace distraction. Of course he is right, and he would have been right even if he wasn’t from the Melbourne office; that as you all know, has been living through an office renovation that took longer than anyone imagined. Who could keep focused with loud saws, paint fumes and construction workers in shorts? Never mind poor guys like Lorenzo who has been skipping lunch for the past six months out of fear he might gain a few pounds and not be able to squeeze through the one foot aisle leading to his desk.

We are all rejoicing because the Melbourne office renovation is complete and it looks great!  Now we can get back to normal, a relief not only to the occupants of the Melbourne office, but also for those of us that talk to them on the phone. Working without distraction is necessary in the workplace. The Journal of Facilities Management  conducted a study in the US in 2002 and found that the workplace attribute found to be most effective was the “ability to do distraction – free solo work” followed second by “support for impromptu interactions (both in one’s workspace and elsewhere)”. Now with the construction complete all we need to do is worry about all of the other distractions.

When it comes to distractions the most explored subject area is around acoustical privacy. In studies done by ASID 70% of the respondents claimed they could be more productive if the workplace was less noisy. Noise level is something that can be easily measured in the workplace but it is not the noise that is the issue as much as how annoying that noise is. Annoyance levels fluctuate with sound level, but also are impacted by predictability and variability. Spikes in variable noise can be annoying but less so when they are expected. This is why the guy that presses the button on the printer does not get as annoyed with the sound as the guy sitting next to him who didn’t anticipate it.

Visual privacy is also important in work environments but visual distractions are different from auditory distractions because they elicit a different response from the brain. It is more difficult to return to ones thoughts after a visual distraction than an auditory one because the mechanism that helps re-orient task relevant information in the brain does not engage; making visual distractions more harmful to our productivity. Boy there are so many visual distractions that confront us each day! In the futures pod alone we can lose a good thirty minutes of work if someone has a new outfit or haircut.

Clothing or the lack there of, can be quite a distraction in the workplace. This is why I will share with you David M Kruk’s feelings on what people wear to work. In his article “The Corporate Dress Code” he identifies the clothing that is not suitable for the corporate environment because it is too distracting.

  • Sweat suites of any type – Sorry Sean I know you wanted to wear your orange track suit and diamond necklace from the Christmas Party again.
  • Clothes that are transparent or any part of an undergarment
  • Lack of proper undergarments
  • Unsafe footwear and flip – flops
  • Halter tops, bare midriffs, crop tops, tank tops – There goes my plan of wearing my Christmas Party outfit too, $20 down the drain! Good news for all of you that appeared in a wig at the party, they’re not on the list.
  • Low-cut clothing, thin shoulder straps, sundresses

Mr. Kruck makes exceptions if you are good looking, which is of course subjective. He also suggests that many of theses outfits should not even be worn outside of the workplace, particularly if you weigh more than 150 pounds. I should point out the source for this is Red Tractor USA touted as The Best News Satire in the Field. David has apparently not heard that the world is changing and that people wear jeans to the theater and camisoles to church. Jamie Oliver did not wear a tie when he visited The Queen and the NorthwesternUniversity women’s lacrosse team went to the White House in flip – flops.

Sorry I got distracted; there are so many interesting things you can find on the internet!

Draught is rated as the most annoying climatic factor in a work environment. This is characterized by varying air velocity and turbulence intensity. One third of employees in large offices complain about draught, this can reach 60% in a cold workplace. Environmental quality has been linked to productivity in offices, studies done by The University of Sydney measured occupant satisfaction with seven comfort factors and found that these had a direct  impact on performance at work – they measured: thermal comfort, air quality, activity related noise, spatial comfort, privacy, lighting and building related external noise.

So big deal, we all know that noise, visual and climatic factors can be distracting, we experience this daily, but why and what do we do about it?

To perform well at work, or in anything else, we need three things; first the knowledge, skills or abilities, second the motivation or desire, and third positive psychological factors. It is the psychological factors that give us a tough time because these impact our ability to concentrate and focus. There is no doubt that some people are able to control their attention, even in times of great stress, while others like Leyton Hewett cannot. This is psychological factors at play.

According to Robin Pratt from Performance Equations, Inc. our focus or concentration works in channels which range from external to internal and broad to narrow. There are three attentional channels that each of us moves through at any point in any given day.  The first channel is External and broad – which is about environmental awareness, concentration on the things happening around you. The second channel is broad and internal – a more analytical, conceptual style. Focusing on process, this style connects past information with the future and is good for planning and strategy. The final channel is narrow and external – this channel will focus on follow through and execution of tasks.

We use all three channels as needed; the catch is that we cannot be in two channels at the same time. Each of us has a different pattern of attentional strength and weaknesses and we differ in how quickly we are able to switch styles. The higher your distraction level, the more difficulty you have of switching channels and it is the ability to switch quickly that makes you productive. For example if I am happily concentrating in Channel two, perhaps  working on a spread sheet or reading something and suddenly an ambulance goes by my brain sifts to Channel one, external broad awareness. My effectiveness and the level of my productivity will depend on my ability to quickly shift back to Channel two. Some people are just faster channel shifters than others.

We each have a dominant attention style and if we are lucky we will choose professions that align with that style, I think we can all agree that we want an air traffic controller or brain surgeon to maintain a strong internal – narrow focus. Each of these dominant attention styles will have a different reaction to stress or distraction; therefore, a person’s attention style can be influenced by the type of environment they are in. As a result when someone says they cannot possibly do their job in an open office environment; depending on which attention channel is dominant for them, it may be true.

Someone like me has broad – internal focus this is good because it allows me to analyses and synthesizes input from various sources. I am able to conceptualize relationships among events, so I can easily develop strategies or plans and anticipate the consequences. My approach is conceptual and I like solving problems. On the other hand because I am broad, I have difficulty with focused concentration. Staying on topic long enough to take care of the details and finish something is a challenge for me. I am seduced by a new idea or project more than finishing the old one. Unfortunately I also have high external distractibility.

External distractibility falls into three types: the first is due to boredom, you would rather pay attention to things you find more interesting than the task at hand. The second is due to irritation, you get distracted because you’re irritated at someone talking or the phone is ringing. Finally the third type of external distraction is from feeling rushed; you’re so distracted by all the things you have to do that you cannot pay attention to what you are doing at the moment.

We can’t change who we are, but we can learn to deal better with our weaknesses by altering our environment and surrounding ourselves with a team of people with complementary skills. If you have a high level of external distractibility you may need to put yourself in an environment where there are fewer distractions, like the quiet room for certain tasks. If you have a high level of internal distractibility, you get lost in your own head, it may be best to team with others who can help you to see a broader perspective. If your dominant channel is broad you may need to learn to slow down, learn to not overload your agenda, keep notes to maintain focus and team with more focused individuals who will keep you on target to get the job done.

Finally, at a business level here are a few thing employers can do to help:

  • Be more flexible – allow time outside of work for people to deal with their family issues
  • Provide an employee assistance program – to resolve personal problems relating to health, financial situation or family
  • Install acoustic products that absorb office noise – sound masking
  • Institute a work – safety program – disaster plans, fire safety procedures
  • Control the rumor mill – be honest with employees about the company, its financial situation and their future.



“Removing Employee Distractions”

Business Toolbox – A library of business management info.

By Vicki Gerson

October 2, 2004

Paper – “Environmental Quality and Productivity in Offices: Some Local Research”

David Rowe – School of Architecture, Design Science and Planning

The University of Sydney.

Paper – “Auditory, visual, and physical distractions in the workplace.”

Justin Mardex – CornellUniversity, Department of Design and Environmental Analysis


“The Corporate Dress Code”

By David M. Kruk

Red Tractor USA – June 13, 2006

“Going toe-to-toe on office etiquette”

By Olivia Barker and Sarah Bailey

USA Today

August 14, 2005

Paper – “The Psychology of Distributed Workers”

Robin Pratt

July 2003

Future of Work Executive Roundtable

The Attentional & Interpersonal Style Inventory

TAIS Business Report for Laurie Aznavoorian

October 2, 2003

Enhanced Performance Systems Inc




Workplace Trends – November 30, 2006

Business issues that create workplace trends

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 25 – November 30, 2006

I have been in New Zealand so much that I am beginning to wear nothing but black and white. You will note the affect this has had on me at the Christmas party when I break out into the Hakka after a few drinks. Needless to say it has been quite a busy time, so when the request came out to attend a session to discuss workplace trends my first response was, sure I’ll get right on that in my plentiful spare time. Fortunately, it occurred to me that  I could kill two birds with one stone and turn this exercise into this months Ramblings. One item off the to do list – 7000 to go.

You can view this months ramblings like the fashion magazine’s yearly “ The big hair issue” except in this case it will be the “Big trends in workplace” issue you have all been waiting for. What I have done is assemble a collection of what I believe are the pressing issues that drive workplace trends. This is after all the purpose of the Ramblings, especially now that the thrill is gone from the secondary purpose of Futures Ramblings – summed up beautifully by my friend Susan in Seattle who wrote in an e mail  “It is ALMOST not as fun to poke fun of Bush these days. Since the elections he has been so humble it is nauseating”

One of the challenges we have in identifying workplace trends is the gravitation toward thinking about responses before thoroughly considering the issues that drive the response. Business, social and political issues are catalysts  that companies react  to, which in turn start trends. We put a desk on wheels to respond to a desire for greater flexibility which is a response to a volatile business climate.  This is why I believe it is necessary to consider broader issues as a starting point, mostly because it will give us a greater number of touchpoints to generate interesting solutions from.

Imagine five blind men trying to describe an elephant. The blind man holding the tail says it is as skinny as a snake, the blind man holding the ear says it is big and thin like a fan, the blind man holding on to the elephants leg says it is strong and solid like a tree trunk – you can see where this goes. It is impossible to effectively define or describe something if you can’t  see the big picture. Such is the case with understanding trends, this is why I have formulated what follows into issues.  I am hoping that you will begin to see the more of the whole picture, you will begin to see the way the issues link to one another and hopefully by having more to grab on to will generate many more fantastic ideas for how we solve these problems.

  1. ISSUE –       Shrinking talent pool  –  To focus on recruitment      and retention is too limiting, this is a broader issue. There are fewer      people to choose from when it comes to finding talent, not only do we need      to make sure our clients are able to attract the dwindling source of      company sustainability, the cities and countries  we live in are in the same boat. They      too are trying to attract people, and people attract companies, and      companies bring money and then the city thrives.  This elevates the discussion a bit. It is      not just about getting people to work for our company, but getting them to      come to your country or community. What makes them come? assuming we are      after young talented knowledge workers they want to be in places where the      ‘three T’s’ are present.  Talent –      more smart people to learn from and hang out with Technology – a      government and community that will finance research and development and      embrace new technology (eg if I am an up and coming biologist am I going      to go live in a place where the government will not allow the type of      research I want to do, such as stem cell research?).  Tolerance – living in an area that      tolerates diversity: age, sex, religion, sexual preference. These are the      types of communities that will be attracting the next generation of      talented workers.  What does this      mean in terms of environment: We need to create environments for knowledge      transfer and to create learning communities that give younger workers      exposure to senior workers enabling their careers to advance – this too      plays into generational drivers. For the same reasons the environment must      be used as a communicating device (perhaps through technology) to let      workers know what else is going on within their company and the community,      and the world.
  2. ISSUE –       Outsourcing / off shoring / partnering –  As companies respond to      shrinking talent pools and increased competition they will want to      leverage themselves for competitive advantage. Particularly in places like      New Zealand,      a country who is geographically isolated but has an  insatiable passion to align with the      rest of the world in technology/ consumer goods/ art/ fashion ideas etc.      For a small country like NZ to play in the big world scene they need to      join forces or partner with others to       become a part of a larger community. Increasingly smaller companies      and countries are doing this as a means to increase scale and reach. What      does it mean in terms of environment – the physical environment will need      to accommodate people who do not work for them but are working on projects      for specific periods of time. We need to design more ‘partnering rooms’      that can be a home base for employees and outsiders. Technology will need      to be better to enable clear inexpensive communications with out sourced,      off shore partners (this is why the HP halo communication is making such a      big splash) Also security issues will need to be addressed physically and      virtually.
  3. ISSUE – Conflict resolution – Not a new idea but one that has hidden      impact on how a business will perform. While we cannot make people get      along and work together many of our clients hope that the environment can      help repair severed bonds (the same way couples think babies will fix      there problems perhaps?) Some times there is conflict due to personalities      and differences, an extreme case is our client Ngai Tahu who are joining      several  Maori tribes to come      together to promote their culture and business proposition. The issue of      conflict resolution or difference is more often seen with companies that      have merged and are attempting to create a single culture. What do we do –      This one is really tough, going back to the couple analogy perhaps focus      on what the common goals are and create an environment that support common      values but allow the differences to still exist? EG the building and work      environment  communicates      overarching value but each employee has a name tag that is customised,      graphics to define groups?
  4. ISSUE – Technology and technology backlash – While we demand and      require great technology that is simple to use and gets beyond security      issues, we also need to consider that many people are bloody sick and      tired of it. There is a bit of generational differences here too, the      younger generations have much more tolerance for multiple points of      stimulation. We need to consider environments that provide opportunities      to just get away, Cisco has done this in San Jose with the creation of a library      space where there is no technology or noise permitted. Do we help our      client develop signals and protocol (like PMC did last week with no e mail      Friday)? Obviously, creating spaces that foster community – particularly      as workers have greater mobility and flexibility in work hours,  will encourage face to face      communication to augment the great freedom we will have due to technology.
  5. ISSUE Consumer activism, awareness, corporate social responsibility  –  This      is a big issue. People are beginning to question authority more and are      drawing stronger connections with a companies values and their behaviours.      Companies in the US      are spending lots of time and energy defending themselves and their      motives – taking out full page ads in the New York times to tell everyone      they are really good guys and not just a big multi national that only care      about money.  A while ago I wrote      about Wal Mart creating a ‘situation room’ to brainstorm and respond to      negative press. The public and employees have greater expectation that      companies do not behave the way Enron, Worldcom or the AWB did.  What does this mean in terms of      environment? – Clear ESD implications, also alignment of brand values to      building and workplace image. Provision of community spaces on company      premises .
  6. ISSUE Faith and meaning – As people we are searching for meaning, I      am not sure why there is more of this now than before, but there is. There      is a definite push in the US      toward religion to achieve this – sadly thru fundamentalist views, just as      there is with other cultures and religions. Countries like New Zealand and Australia have a large number      of new immigrants, and are also seeing more ethnic gang activity and      violence. In a simplistic level these gangs are a means of providing      community, connection and meaning to people who cannot find another way to      fit with the culture – in the US I believe it has more to do with social      and economic differences. Others are increasingly finding meaning through      other means, such as yoga obsessions, or environmentalism – which has been      coined as the new religion. What does this mean – People want a community,      people want meaning in their life, particularly gen Y. Work environments      must support differences and provide a sense of community that allows each      person to feel like they belong.
  7. ISSUE Depression, stress general well being – As I described in last
  8. months Future’s Ramblings organizations are now being held responsible for      the well being of their employees. About a week ago Michael       Greer sent out an article describing an Australian      company that was in some hot water because they did not tell their      employees before hand that they were shifting from offices to open      worksettings. What does this mean?       Depression and stress are closely related, and we can certainally      have an effect by designing workplaces that don’t drive people nuts. It sounds      like design 101 but: zoning loud activities away from quiet activites to      avoid distraction, use full height spaces as buffers, provide a variety of      ‘fit for purpose’ spaces, create areas to decompress, provide good      acoustics,

New Spaces – December 13, 2005

New Spaces

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 15 – December 13, 2005


We often find ourselves in the situation where we are explaining to clients that new ideas and initiatives in their organization may well lead to the development of new spaces in their work environments. It is true that ten years ago quiet rooms, prayer rooms, or the various types of meeting and breakout spaces that you see in today’s work environments were not as prevalent as they are today. So hearing about a company putting a unique space into their mix is nothing to stop the press over, never the less, the other day I read a story about a new space that caught my attention.

The aspect of this story that compelled me wasn’t the space itself, but the aspirations the company had in creating this space, their drivers were interesting. The company is Wal-Mart, not being American some of you may not have heard of Wal-Mart. They are a large US retailer, a single buyer for a number of major markets. In fact Wal-Mart control 38 % of the market for several goods, it’s the kind of place you can go to and buy just about anything: bicycles, margarine, shotguns. They are the largest toy seller and grocer in the US. Their sheer size gives them power to dictate price and delivery times of goods to their 21,000 suppliers. If a manufacturer chooses not to follow their edict, they run the risk of seriously hurting their bottom line.

Wal–Mart is quite a fascinating company. In 2002 Wal-Mart shifted the balance in the Fortune 500 away from companies like General Motors and Exxon to mass consumer – merchandisers and retailers. Wal – Mart is now number one, they are the largest corporation in terms of sales in the WORLD. They sold $244.5 billion worth of goods last year and in a three month period sell what the number two retailer sells in a year. They have no real rivals and are growing at a rate of 15% per year. Wal-Mart is a template firm that has set the standard for many others.

Consumers in the US have benefited , Wal-Mart is partly responsible for the low inflation rate in the US and a McKinsey & Co. study concluded that about 12% of the US economy’s productivity gains in the second half of 1990 could be traced to Wal-Mart alone! How do they do it? Well their leverage lies in the fact that they are the end of the supply chain, they know what is being sold and are able to then tell the producers what needs to be made, when it needs to be done and where to deliver it.

Manufacturers are dependant on Wal-Mart’s knowledge of the market. This knowledge is gained through careful analysis of data collected from bar codes that track sales of items on specific days, weeks, hour of the day etc. This knowledge wields them great power. One example of this is the fact that many of Wal-Marts suppliers have been forced to lay off employees in the US and outsource their products overseas. This is the result of the pressure put on the suppliers to drive prices lower. Consequently, Wal-Mart’s success is due in part to the import of product from low-wage countries such as China. Despite the fact that Wal-Mart pushed a “Buy American” banner in the late 1980’s and early 90’s, they have doubled their imports from China in the past five years, buying $12 million in merchandise in 2002. This is nearly 10% of all imports to the United States.

Another contributing factors to Wal-Mart’s success is the way they treat their employees. Here is an excerpt from an internal memo describing Wal-Mart hiring practice. “all jobs to include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart – gathering)” “ It will be far easier to attract and retain a healthier work force than it will be to change behaviour in an existing one,” “These moves would also dissuade unhealthy people from coming to work at Wal-Mart”. You don’t have to read between the lines too much to see why statements such as these have given birth to entire web sites such as Wakeup Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch that are dedicated to bashing the company and exposing their bad behaviours. With any luck it will also earn them a well deserved Americans with Disabilities Act class action lawsuit.

The negative publicity has become a real pain in Wal-Mart’s behind, right where their wallet is. In fact a confidential report compiled by McKinsey & Co. found that 2 to 8 percent of Wal- Mart consumers have ceased shopping there due to the “negative press they have heard”The Company executives were not prepared to deal with the impact of the negative press going around and decided to do something about it, and that is where new spaces and innovative approaches to problems come into the picture. Wal-Mart has created a war room in their Bentonville headquarters to enable them to react to what they believe is the most extensive campaign ever waged against a corporation.

In addition to the war room Wal-Mart has engaged Edelman, one of the largest PR firms in America to help. Edelman has assigned two of their top operatives to the account, one who was a previous adviser to Bill Clinton when he was having Monica problems, and the other was the creative force behind Ronald Regan never getting blamed for anything. In addition, six former political operatives have been dispatched to the Bentonville war room to do damage control. They start at 7 each morning, the room’s walls are covered with display boards and to-do lists for the team. Two large maps on the wall show locations of all Wal-Mart stores across the US. The team scans newspaper article and television transcripts that mention Wal-Mart. Then they call employees around the country to plan for events, whenever possible the war room will try to neutralise criticism before it starts. Their strategy is paying off, they say that many of the stories written in the press contain their messages. It is a proactive response to a bad situation.

What is interesting about this is the unique blending of disciplines: retail, politics, public relations, and architecture to solve a problem. It is also encouraging to see the exploitation and abuses of companies like Wal-Mart moving to the front burner. Mind you exposing such behaviours and stopping them are two different things. Never the less there is hope on the horizon. As of 2004 any company listed on the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq is required to adopt and disclose a code of conduct. In addition, calls for a defined standard of corporate conduct are emerging around the globe the United Nations Global Compact and the Consumer Charter for Global Business have endorsed conduct codes. In other regions bodies like the Hong Kong’s Independent commission Against Corruption, South Africa’s King Committee on Corporate Governance, the Brazilian Institute of Corporate Governance and the Japanese prime minister’s 2002 advisory panel have all advised companies to create codes that will outline quality of life and corporate responsibility. 

What does all of this mean to us as designers? Well it reminds us that our jobs are becoming even more difficult because the problems we solve have a higher degree of complexity than ever before. Our client’s demands are different today to what they have been in the past and this may leave us ill equipped to help them. We may need to engage others to develop new attitudes and innovative approaches to tackle issues we never knew were in our realm. In addition, it reminds us that the more we know about the issues our clients deal with the more we will be able to help them control all of the things out there in the world that are volatile. The possibilities are both frightening and exciting because to really be on top of it, we will need to continue to evolve as a company and as individuals.

I will leave you with a story: When my oldest son Harry was about 8 he and a friend of his decided they did not want those gym shoes with the swoosh on them, Nike, because they heard the company employed and exploited children their age in other countries to make their products. I thought this was quite astute for an 8 year old, but he is my son – came out of the womb facing left. At any rate, we were delighted at this small token of compassion shown by our son; the real delight came from knowing we would save a good deal of money never having  to pay for expensive branded gym shoes. We were comforted in knowing we could just buy him something cheap at Wal-Mart. 

Geyer Future Environments wants to wish you a happy and safe holiday season, we look forward to sharing a new year of exciting opportunities and ideas with you.

Sources for this rambling


The New York Times

“A New Weapon for Wal-Mart: A War Room”

November 1, 2005

“The Wal – Mart You Don’t Know”

By Charles Fishman

Fast Company – December 2003

”Inside the Worlds Largest Company” by Edna Bonaciche

Frontline excerpts PBS

“Up to Code – Does Your Company’s Conduct Meet World-Class Standards?”

By Lynn Paine, Rohit Deshpande, Joshua D. Margolis, and Kim Eric Bettcher

The Harvard Business Review – December 2005

“Wal-Mart: Discriminate to Save Health Care Costs”

Labor Blog – October 25, 2005 http://www.NathanNewman.org

Innovation Process – February 29, 2005


Future’s Ramblings – Issue 7 – February 29, 2005

Yesterday I gave a talk to facilities managers at the AusFM conference. My talk was aimed at FM professionals, but I believe the message is also relevant to the design profession. The thesis of my presentation  was: FM professionals have a unique pragmatic and political knowledge of the organizations they work for, they know where control lies in the organization, who the squeaky wheels are and who the thought leaders are; they know a bit about everything! Consequently they are well positioned to take a more accountable leadership role in the creation of environments that can do more for their organizations, if fact they could behave more  like a Hollywood movie director might and assemble the most talented people, and direct them towards creating environments, that if they were movies, would sweep the Academy Awards.  As providers of space (both facilities managers and designers) need to get off their arses and rise to the challenge of making environments that go beyond the status quo and address tomorrow’s problems. Tomorrow’s problems are not communication and collaboration,  breaking down silos, or empowering workers – those were issues of the past. To really support the organizations we are working for, we need to begin thinking about how space can influence and impact the issues that are on the horizion. Those new pressing issues are supporting the creative class, shortage of skilled workers, management of distributed teams, and the cultural implications of offshoring to name a few.

If we want to make a difference, we must take on this challenge. I offer two ideas for how to proceed. One is to change the process of how we talk about and use space and open the conversations we have to more people within the organization. The second is to use the skills we have as creative innovative people and think differently, sorry for the cliché but think out of the box which we sadly do not do often enough.

Pulling together a group of people with different interests and agendas is a scary prospect for most managers of projects, even more frightening for them is the concept of engaging their “clients”. There is a logic that if you don’t ask, they wont tell, then you wont know, so you will not need to deliver. Success!  In many organizations expectations have been managed by keeping them very low. This is a shame, companies  gain from their interactions with others, the act of interaction itself yield benefits if for no other reason than it has the ability to change our perspective. Companies get better at what they do by working with outsiders whose specialised capabilities complement their own. Some would argue that these kinds of transactions are a key to driving  innovation, the friction that is produced coined “creative abrasion”.  It is obvious that different enterprises and people  bring different perspectives and competencies to tackling a problem. When people from diverse specializations interact,  the potential for innovative solutions to result rises .

Assembling the right team is a start, there also needs to be a process to maintain control. There is a company in the San Francisco Bay Area called IDEO who has won more design awards over the past decade than any other firm. You probably have not heard of them because they don’t design buildings or fitouts – they design things. In the 90’s IDEO was responsible for the design of the Palm V,  Polaroid I zone camera and the first non squeeze stand up toothpaste dispenser for Proctor and Gamble. The founder of their company, David Kelly was responsible for the design of the first Apple computer and the first mouse. I heard David Kelly on a panel at the Alternative Officing Conference in San Jose. Later I had the opportunity to  watch a video called “The Deep Dive” which was a replay of a 60 Minutes spot on IDEO and their creative process. It was a great, very inspiring video about how this company has applied a process to innovation.

The process that IDEO employes looks chaotic but is very controlled and clearly produces fantastic results. The IDEO’s design process begins with a diverse team, they advise clients by teaching them through others eyes: anthropologists, graphic designers, engineers and psychologists. The creative part of the process is done very fast, they insist on client participation, and in creating mock ups to test their ideas.

The design process has five steps:

Step One – Observe

This is done by shadowing, behaviour mapping, having clients keep a camera journal, and having Unfocused Groups ( an odd mix of people to discuss an issue)

Step Two – Brainstorm

Intense idea generation where the word but is not allowed, only and.

Step Three – Rapid Prototyping

Quick no frills mockups to demonstrate creative scenarios

Step Four – Refine

Narrow down the choices, brainstorm and engage the client to get agreement

Step Five – Implement.

The video showed the IDEO team designing a shopping cart. There were a few things that have stuck with me about the IDEO process. One was the courage that David Kelly had in leading his team, he defined the goals, set assignments, outlined basic protocol (the task had to be completed in 24 hours) and then let his team go wild. The team threw out as many ideas as was physically possible, none were abandoned or labeled as “duds”,  they let their minds be free without constraint. After a set period of time, Kelly reigned the team in. The group narrowed down the ideas, eliminating those that could not be done within the time frame, or were unacceptable for other reasons. When they settled on the new shopping cart design they quickly built one and tested it in a grocery store, where they discovered flaws that could be improved.  My colleagues and I were impressed and wondered if we could use a similar process for interior design. We began our own version of rapid prototyping, which is the same as the Translation process we have done with some clients here at Geyer.

Whether we adopt this process, or some other, as providers of space we must take on the  challenge to solve tough problems, ask different questions and use the skills that we have as creative people. We do ourselves and our clients a disservice by following the status quo when it comes to workplace design because we know that ‘work’ is not what it used to be. The existing set of solutions we work with today will not effectively contribute to solving the problems of tomorrow. I am not advocating blowing the budget, or project program but suggest we challenge ourselves to provide greater value, by taking some time in a controlled manner to consider the issues and the different options that might exist.

The pressing issue for businesses in the next decade is the eminent labor shortage and associated problems that will result from it. So what are we doing about it? Nothing. In the same way that I challenged the FM professionals at the conference I want to challenge you. If we begin to develop some innovative thinking around this we are going to provide our clients much more than just a design for their new office. Lets start by thinking about how we make space take on an active role in the process of innovation? What process do you go through when you innovate? Can space be used to help transfer knowledge?

Worker Shortage – January 29, 2005

The Shrinking Workforce

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 6 – January 29, 2005



I have been think a lot about Peter Geyer’s Chris Kringle. For those of you in Brisbane and Melbourne let me describe the gift: A very very VERY large pair of white underpants, Y front briefs to be exact. On the back was stenciled the word STRATEGIC. Like the rest of us in the Sydney practice I thought the gift was quite hilarious, now after a bit more reading and thinking about it my thoughts have gone from humor to fear. You might ask, what is so scary about a huge pair of underpants?


What is so scary is that those are big drawers to fill, and Peter is not the only one in this organization sporting big drawers.


In a previous version of Futures Rambeling I made reference to a problem that will be one of the key challenges that dominate the world of work in 2005, that is the shrinking workforce. It is not a new problem we have been talking about it for some time now, but it is becoming more urgent and some say it will be a dominating factor in the world of work in 2005. Developing economies around the world are facing an impending talent shortage that will make competing for business seem simple compared to competing for skilled workers. Finding good people will be a major aspect of many companies future success, and we may see companies going under not for lack of business but lack of workers.


There are many reasons this is occurring. There are fewer new, or “emergent workers”, some estimate we are roughly about  10 million knowledge workers short to meet our demand for the next five years. In addition to fewer new employees, the baby boomers will soon retire and when they walk out the door we will not just lose their bodies we will also lose the critical knowledge, important relationships, and wisdom about how to get things done.


In his book Lost Knowledge David DeLong describes four distinct types of knowledge that are important for organizations, the loss of any one of them can be devastating:


Human knowledge – basic intelligence, information, and skills


Social knowledge – embedded in relationships, some call this “social capital”


Cultural knowledge – that collective understanding of how things get done around here, in particular the values, norms, and shared assumptions that differentiate one organization from another


Structured knowledge – the formal systems, processes, and procedures that have been developed within an organization.



Beyond the four types of knowledge listed above there is something else we would lose when some people leave the work force ( I had to say some people because many of the baby boomers don’t have this due to extreme drug abuse) the Harvard Business Journal calls it “Deep Smarts”. It is not raw brain power, it is not emotional intelligence either, it is the ability to see the complete picture and yet zoom in on a specific problem.  Almost intuitively people with deep smarts make the right decision, at the right level with the right people. These are people whose knowledge would be hard to purchase on the open market, and in fact these “intangible” asset are increasingly recognized as legitimate sources of worth or merit in the global business context.



Human Behaviour and Physical Space – November 29, 2004

The Connection between human behaviour and physical space

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 5 –  November 29, 2004


There are global forces of change that are requiring us to re-think our accommodation solutions. Technology, globalisation and the disappearance of borders means that the customer has more power than ever before when it comes to choosing the range, quality and speed of products and services. This means that as the world begins to resemble one large shopping mall the key to competitive positioning is differentiation or demonstrating ‘value add’. This has given birth to the knowledge economy as we know it and attracting and retaining those ‘gold collar’ workers is the critical to a company’s long-term sustainability. This is especially important in today’s tight labour market.


These knowledge workers have certain expectations and needs if they are to deliver the innovative and creative solutions so necessary for survival today.


They seek a well-branded office as image is important. They look for an environment that provides life balance, technological sophistication and inspirational spaces.


The accommodation solutions of the future should provide design that not only enhances productivity and efficiency but also supports the sharing of knowledge, enable cross-functional relationships, promote brand, and reflect social responsibility and ESD. As product life cycles become shorter and shorter, flexibility is the key to long-term returns on investment although it must be said that it is virtually impossible to have a ‘future-proof’ environment.


The workplace must become a magnet for talent and structured around excellence in service delivery.


The key challenge in all of this, of course, is how we take people on the journey with us.

How do we ensure that we take the human factor into account when we require an organizations people to adapt to new behaviours and build new relationships? This requires a structured process for change that takes into account the difficult subject of human emotion and human needs for understanding, respect, empowerment and involvement. When an accommodation solution is aimed at supporting the business plan, then people need to understand and get excited about the future and their new physical environment.


There are three key cultural indicators and our physical environment is one. Our physical environment is a daily living reminder of who we are and the messages in the design can be symbolic as well as clearly articulated in the form of inspirational statements about desired behaviours and culture. (Clemenger Harvey is an exciting example of this where their corridors are lined with quotes from people like Einstein and Aristotle) The other two key cultural indicators are leadership and the reward system (both implicit and explicit) and it must be said that the greatest space design in the world will not compensate for dysfunctional leadership.


The link between these three factors is an understanding of the relationship between human motivation behaviour and physical space. People respond positively when they are understand the context (the purpose, picture, plan and part they are expected to play in their new environment*) Clarity leads to a reduction in anxiety that we have all experienced with any situation of uncertainty. Managers experience the ‘marathon effect’ when they race to the finish line on a project and look back to see no-one behind them because of the lack of communication efforts to buy-in ownership and accountability in the process. Other reasons why people stand at the starting line tapping their foot and refusing to budge are often related to parochial self-interest and individual differences. These can be generational differences, varying levels of tolerance to change and different assessments of the situation that have not been explored.


The retail environment very overtly uses psychological influences such as eye level product positioning and small items at the check-out that tap into spontaneous buying habits. Even the music you hear at a supermarket is similar to that played to battery hens to stimulate egg production. The casinos are outstanding in their use of psychology when it comes to draining purses. If the seduction of a retail environment can be used to effectively to influence behaviour then why wouldn’t we use this principle to stimulate alternative behaviours in a corporate environment?


Projects often fail because people have not been given the ‘user manual’. This would be in the form of training from anything to creative thinking, technology or change management itself for a company’s leaders.


We must be able to integrate design solutions that inspire and enable creativity and innovation in the workplace and be prepared to integrate a structured Change Management process as a critical part of the project plan so that people are engaged and committed to adapting to their new space as quickly as possible. There are many examples of where this approach was undertaken that led to significant productivity improvements. In these cases the transition and ending of the old space that was the key focus because this is where the productivity losses occur and the impediments to the ‘soft landing’ happen. There has been some valuable research done in Europe and the U.S. that demonstrates the links to productivity when Facilities Management adopts these strategies. In Australia the evidence is still anecdotal but the anecdotes are powerful enough to continue to inspire the blue chip companies to invest millions in Change Management and strategic briefing as it relates to design.


Facility managers can help decision makers make these connections by:


  • Engaging a wider range of people in the organisation, such as marketing, human resources, IT, facilities, finance etc. in their project teams so as to arrive at a more holistic solution
  • Exercise some degree of ‘push-back’ and insist on principles and guidelines from the executive about corporate goals as they relate to the physical environment so that they have a compelling vision for the new environment and adhering to these even when funds are looking low.
  • Identify and determine opportunities for all parts of the business to contribute towards the business goals with a targeted approach
  • Define an effective Change Management strategy that takes into account identifying success factors through stakeholder analysis, communication and engagement of end users and ongoing measurement of success.