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Time for a Bonfire of Useless Terminology about Work and Workplace!

There are certain words and phrases that consistently crop up in commentary on work and workplace that at best oversimplify, and at worst distort our understanding of changes to the nature of work. I’m generally not in favour of censorship, but there is definitely some terminology that is in dire need of being retired if we are to have meaningful discussions about the future of work.

The point of this is not just to let off steam (though that is fun). It’s a reminder that in taking forward discussion about future ways of working, we need to challenge many of the assumptions that may be embedded in the words we use, if we are genuinely to open our minds to new and tansformative possibilities.

Here’s my list of words ripe for the Bonfire of Unhelpful Terminology:

1) Remote Working

We know what we mean when we talk about remote working – but do we do enough to challenge the assumptions involved?

Lurking within the term is a tacit assumption there is a particular place that is the primary workplace, and people working remotely are just that – remote. Distant. Somehow less involved, less connected, maybe a little bit out of touch. Not where the most important stuff happens.

We see this attitude again and again from people who want to get everyone back in the office. And even people who don’t want to do that often feel the need to model “remote” working practices on the somehow more real stuff that happens in the primary workplace.

We’re entering a time where people work in many places, and all places should be seen as equal. One extended workplace, wherever people physically happen to be. In many cases, the person in the central collective workplace will be in the minority, with most of their colleagues elsewhere. In this sense, they will be just as “remote” as everyone else.

Everywhere where people work is the workplace, and no one in practice should be “remote”. Or else we all are, and then the term becomes meaningless – it’s just work. One for the Bonfire.

2) Open Plan

This one is almost too tiresome to talk about it. THERE IS NO ONE SUCH THING AS OPEN PLAN. And almost everything you read about it is valueless. (Apart from what I’m about to say, of course, as the final word consigning it to history!)

If ever you read an article, or a piece of research, or hear someone talk about open plan, ask a simple question: “What kind of open plan are you talking about?”

It could be:

  • Open plan with assigned desking – high density or low density
  • Open plan with “hotdesking” – high density or low density – with designated team areas, or not
  • Open plan desking areas (any of the above) alongside a limited selection of activity-based settings (informal breakout areas, quiet areas, focus booths, touchdown surfaces, etc),
  • Any of the above with different degrees of screening between different areas
  • The fully smart/agile/ABW office with many different kinds of settings, with different degrees of visual, acoustic and biophilic separation between them – yet still an open space.
  • Any of the above that operate in the context of mature Smart/Agile Working that enable people to have a lot of autonomy and control – or not.

Unless the author or speaker specifies which kind of open plan they are talking about, all commentary will be pretty much worthless. Or they’re trying to sell you something, some kind of solution to what they have identified as the evils of open plan.

As no organisation in its right mind would revert to private offices for everyone, unless their wealth far exceeded their common sense, all “open plan” means, in effect, is every kind of floor layout that’s used in modern offices.

So “open plan” is a term we should definitely boot into the Bonfire of Unhelpful Terminology.

3) Hotdesking

I’m told that the term “hotdesking” derives from the nautical practice of “hot-bunking”. When a sailor came off duty he’d collapse into a “hot bunk” just vacated by another sailor off to do his turn. An eminently sensible space-saving practice and economic use of resources – though maybe dubious from the hygienic or aromatic point of view.

Hotdesking has a bad reputation and is widely unpopular, especially when it’s specifically associated with saving space.

My main objection, though, is that the term focuses excessively on the desk – which is both a physical object and a psychological construct that invokes a sense of territory and ownership.

In Smart Working, the principle is that all settings – or nearly all of them – are shared. The practical issue for design and for use is about using space according to the needs of the work activities that people carry out. It’s about managing the right balance of informal and formal collaboration spaces, project areas, touchdown spaces, quiet spaces, focus spaces (etc), so we should not focus exclusively on one type of setting of diminishing importance.

So this archaic and unhelpful term should be consigned to the ashtray of history!

4) Telework

This is a challenging one, as there are several countries that use the term within legislation. And there is a small industry within academia researching the impacts of telework – something I have taken part in myself in years past. Though sometimes it was called something shorter, like “ework”, or longer, like telecommuting. All of them should go in the Bonfire of Unhelpful Terminology.

What’s the problem? Basically, so much of the practice, thinking, research and legislation around telework – a bit like its voguish cousin, “hybrid work”, which I also hope has an expiration date – works from the basis that nothing else changes. That is, people do pretty much the same work as before, but somewhere else.

Sure, there are benefits in reducing travel and improving work-life balance – but a lot else needs to change around culture, management practices, teamwork, workplace and more, to maximise the benefits of working smarter.

In most thinking, and most telework implementations, it’s about working some days or every day from home. And that’s it. When I read teleworking research, I often want to shout at the authors, “What else has changed? Anything?” The organisational, cultural, technological and workplace-change contexts of telework can be so, so different and be crucial in whether it works well or not.

So much research I’ve seen about it is desperately lop-sided as a result, looking at a narrow range of impacts from homeworking. Then one study cites another, despite the probably huge differences in contexts, until we have a snowball of inadequate interpretation that bears little relation to modern working practices in the round.

We have to move beyond the limitations of this construct.

5) Serendipity (and the water-cooler that goes with it!)

One of the common, but mainly vacuous, arguments for “getting everyone back to the office” is the value of sparking great creative ideas and innovation through serendipitous collisions – those chance meetings we all have at the water-cooler when we come up with that revolutionary idea that will make us all billionaires. Or the bosses and shareholders, anyway. So buildings should be designed to facilitate this flow of connection and inspirational cross-fertilisation, all routes and sightlines converging on the water-cooler. (Here’s a Flexibility article from 2014 that skewers this illusion.)

Serendipitous innovation at the watercooler!
Serendipitous innovation at the watercooler!

Honestly how often does that light-bulb moment happen like that? How many miles of unnecessary commuting travel must employees put in every day, how much redundant space must be factored into a building, so that such rare events have a chance of occurring?

Is it not more likely that, if you have an idea, half an idea, or a “what if” intuition, you’ll find the best people to interact with by injecting a little more intentionality? For example, by floating it out across the company networks and communities of interest till the right people go “oh yeah!” and add their great ideas to a more open and inclusive mix? Then you can meet in person or virtually or both, and take it from there.

Serendipity is a seriously great word – but let’s not be seduced by its insidious mellifluous charm into talking BS about how work and workplace should be organised.

6) Desk Ratio

“Desk ratio” is a concept that had its uses at one time, but is now past its sell-by date.

A desk ratio is a simple formula for specifying how many desks are needed to serve a given number of workers in an office. 1 desk for one person, or 1:1, is the traditional way. As more flexible and mobile working took off, many organisations worked to average desk ratios of 8:10 or 7:10 – or lower if they had a very mobile workforce using the building.

I think this approach has always been problematic in its application. People get hooked on a figure, fighting to preserve “their” own desk or their team’s desks, as they can’t conceive of how their team can all fit in the building at peak times. And making a standard of an average ratio, as many organisations have done, misses the nuance of difference levels of mobility and the requirements of different kinds of work.

Worst of all, it subverts the transformation conversation into a battle about desks. It’s a conversation from a past era, and we need to consign desk ratios to that Bonfire.

The future of the collective workplace will have a much higher focus on community, connection and collaborative activities, rather than primarily sitting at a desk. We’ll still need settings for high concentration solo work to some extent, and surfaces to touch down at between more interactive activities – but desks (in the sense we are all familiar with) should not be the main focus of workplace design or the organisation of teams.

So we need to shift the focus to the variety of spaces and ensure that we have a good mix. And then adapt as we monitor how all the different settings are used. The surfaces we use for working alone or in small groups are no longer owned, but completely flexible spaces.

Most of all, our thinking needs to change towards deconstructing the concept of “the desk”, and rethinking how the activities previously (and often inefficiently) centred there are now best spread across all the other possible settings, across the extended workplace – both inside and outside the collective office.

7) “Death of …”

As in “Death of the office”. “Death of the desk.” “Death of distance.” Kind of over-excited hyperbole. A bit like the much discussed “end of history” in the 1990s, which some us can remember – that term itself is in the dustbin of history now.

Offices of one kind or another have been around for millennia. Their nature changes over time, and according to different cultures. The modern office is changing – it’s not dead, but its future is probably smaller as a place we travel to. But it’s larger in the sense of an extended workplace – the office reaches out to wherever we happen to do officey-type work.

The Death of Distance is the title of an insightful book by Frances Cairncross in the 1990s, with an eye-catching title. It’s a metaphor really, to describe our changing relationship with distance due to new technologies, and both the changing possibilities and the impacts of carrying out purposeful activities with reduced need to travel. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from reading some of the articles that use the term, whether with approval or ridicule.

It’s interesting that we don’t tend to hear “death of” in relation to things that have really disappeared from the world of work, like typing pools and vacuum tubes. It seems to be reserved for big sweeping generalisations which, when we stop to think about it, are just unlikely to be true.

So – whenever we read “Death of …”, it usually means “the changing nature of”. Not so zappy, but more accurate!

8) Flexicurity

You may not have heard of this word, but it’s been current for quite some time. It’s a clumsy portmanteau neologism bringing together “flexibility” and “security”. I think initially it’s Eurospeak, being much used in EU policy thinking and has found its way into academia.

What’s wrong with it? There is a strong current of thinking, particularly on the political and academic left, associating flexible working with insecurity. The connection is more around flexibilisation of markets, temporary contracts, gig working and the like, but is used to encompass the types of flexible working that might be entirely secure and advantageous to the employee.

What this means, particularly in mainland Europe, is a misplaced assumption that all flexible working is a risk for hard-earned workers’ rights. Hence there is an urge always to nail down any kind of flexible working in government regulation and/or binding agreements drawn up between trade unions or workers’ council and employers. It lies behind phenomena like a legal “right to disconnect”, the European Charter for Telework and legal requirements in some countries for any new pattern of work to be negotiated between unions and employers.

Despite good intentions, perhaps, this approach often leads to ossifying flexible working practices,  and acting as a brake on more dynamic forms of flexibility. Counter-productively, it can also limit individual choice and autonomy by restraining choices within negotiated tramlines, as well as limiting innovation within organisations.

I’ve found this flexibility/insecurity assumption also leads to a degree of bias in research, such as an assumption that working from home involves work intensification.

So – it’s an unhelpful term that needs replacing with more nuanced thinking. One for the Bonfire.

9) “Bring your whole self to work”

OK, we’re now moving into the kind of management-speak cliché which could lead us on to an endless list. But it’s one which is very current and very irritating, because it doesn’t actually mean what it says.

“Bring your whole self to work” is the kind of maxim that will bring you a gush of approval on LinkedIn, or wise noddings of the head at a conference. “Whole self”: tick! “Human-centric”: tick!

But no one means it. Not if you think about it.

The intention may be a laudable one, connected to being able to be your authentic self in a diverse and inclusive workplace. So you needn’t mask your identity in any way, in terms of gender, disability, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Which is great, all for that.

But it’s not hard to think of a list of the kinds of people who need to be actively prevented from bringing their whole selves to work: from bullies, misogynists, bigots, kleptomaniacs, sexual predators and axe murderers through to pub bores and people who can’t help singing all the time or have urges to chew raw garlic.

What we ought to say, surely, is, “Bring your BEST self to work”. And save the crappy stuff for your private life (with police supervision, if necessary.)

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So – that’s an initial foray into workplace terminology cancel culture. How about you – any more suggestions to keep the flame alive on the Bonfire of Unhelpful Terminology?