If you came to last week’s Workplace Trends event (London, 15th November) looking for answers, you’ll have been disappointed. But if you were looking for ideas you should have come away happy, as there were plenty.

The notional theme was ‘Designing for inclusion’ and Charlotte Sweeney [@charlottesweene], from BIS’ external diversity & inclusion advisory panel, opened the event by reminding us just how diverse the workforce is becoming. In five years time, she said, 36% of the UK workforce will be over the age of 50 and for the first time we’ll see five generations in the workplace.

As the day unfolded and we were shown more pictures of “innovative”, “agile” or just plain crazy offices, it became clearer that “design” is only a small part of what makes a workplace welcoming, productive and inclusive. It may be that the role of the physical workplace in reflecting, reinforcing or propagating “corporate culture” is overstated.

If it does play a part then are we not in danger of creating echo chambers for a set of views, rather than encouraging diversity?

Architect and access consultant Steve Maslin [@bud_maz] covered the physical aspects of the workplace but his talk came alive when he moved onto the psychological dimension and the need to “design for the mind.” On one aspect of flexible working environments he said, “If you give some people no scope for predictability in their workplace they may exhibit stress – but with no way of knowing what is causing it.”

Maslin questioned design determinism  – the idea that the design of a space can change behaviour or at least change it in the way the designer intended. Flexible workspace may not really be that flexible he said because, paradoxically, it has to be used in a certain way!

He warned of sensory overload, visual and auditory. We got some of that later with Lee Penson’s  [@PENSONgroup] images of funky workspaces for clients such as Google, Jay Z and Roc Nation. I asked Penson if he was concerned with longevity in the firm’s designs. Depending on the client, it may not be a priority, he answered. Some just want to have fun.

It’s getting harder to distinguish the before and after of office design. When Francisco Vazquez Medem [@fvazquezmedem] of 3Goffice showed us a typical Latin American office in Lima, all neutral carpet and mismatched desks, there was a hum on Twitter – “actually I quite like that!”

Fuelled by the coffee break, we re-assembled  and (in possibly the most ritzy and corporate venue that Workplace Trends has ever occupied) Workstock attempted to throw away the conference rulebook.

It may have left parts of the audience bemused but there were enough ideas fizzing during the 11 Pecha Kucha sessions (curated by Neil Usher @workessence) to give everyone something to get hold of. I particularly liked Richard Martin’s [@IndaloGenesis] extended cycling metaphor for the responsive, adaptive organisation. The professional cycling team pursues a common purpose but within the team there’s competition, collaboration, cooperation (even between teams) and co-creation. There’s strategy, tactics and continuous improvement and there are individual, specialist roles – the baroudeur, a fighter and in Martin’s analogy a change agent; the domestique, who will sacrifice individual performance to help a teammate and the climber or visionary.

Richard Martin

One of the most moving and effective Workstock PK sessions was Andy Swann’s [@AndySwann] call to unleash John, his archetypal “forgotten” employee with unrealised potential. Andy showed us John (a real cardboard cut-out) going through the motions of a typical day at work , unseen, unappreciated. “Someone needs to rip up the Job Description, re-think his workplace and unleash John,” said Swann.

Andy Swann

You can read the full and rather poignant story here: https://medium.com/the-work-project/john-unwilling-production-manager-ce8c2f7b2a27

The other Workstock participants are all worth checking out and following:

Perry Timms @PerryTimms
Lloyd Davis @LloydDavis
Gareth Jones @garelaos
Janet Parkinson @JanetParkinson
Doug Shaw @dougshaw1
Brian Condon @brian_condon
Anne Marie McEwan @smartco
Jon Husband @jonhusband
Euan Semple @euan

The debate between Paul Morrell (the UK Government’s first Chief Construction Adviser) and Paul Finch (editorial director of the Architectural Review and Architects’ Journal) on the proposition “One size can fit all and we cannot embrace individuality” never really ignited.

Finch opened for the motion with a good story on the perils of trying to provide an environment to suit everyone, based admittedly on his rather limited experience of trying to organise an office move. His argument, simply put, was that you cannot please everyone, so better to design and manage for the average and let people adapt. I suspect that those trying to manage facilities for some demographics will have more sympathy for this view than they may be willing to admit in public.

Paul Morrell focused on inclusive design in relation to disability, a hard point to argue against and the debate got bogged down.

Francisco Vazquez Medem said that coming to Workplace Trends, he felt a little like a village priest visiting the Vatican. There were certainly moments when I felt I was being inducted into a cult or witnessing a religious revival meeting. Events that push the boundaries are tricky to pull off and there were some awkward transitions between more left field sessions and conventional but no less interesting presentations on real estate and workplace design.

Chris Kane [@ChrisKane55], CEO BBC Commercial Projects, said: “As an industry we spend a lot of time talking to ourselves. Why is it that we haven’t reached the sweet spot of people/place and process.” The two statements are of course connected.

Workplace Trends is certainly bringing new voices to the discussion and it would be good if the event could attract a broader audience beyond the A&D or FM communities. Of course, following the social media explosion last week the conversations continue, ensuring ideas will either take flight or crash and burn.

Here’s a good place to start engaging http://www.mem-events.com/news-were-tweeting-workplace-trends-designing-for-inclusion-live-here-40

Thanks to @SuButcher for pulling all the SM stuff together
Thanks to @VisceralBiz for the photo of Richard Martin presenting