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Beyond the bean bag

25 November 2010

Cathy Hayward

Being creative is more than ‘thinking outside the box’, heard Cathy Hayward at this year's Worktech in London.


Walking into the British Library’s conference centre last week for the annual Worktech conference, you could be forgiven for thinking you were attending a 1980s university lecture. The delegates from the property, FM, IT, architect and design and management communities faced a stage complete with overhead projector and armchair. When renowned management thinker Edward de Bono took to the stage, it felt, whether by accident or design, that the audience were sitting at the feet of a master.

Argument, he said, was a crude and primitive way of exploring a subject. “It’s negative, encourages fixed ideas without design, is an attack and a huge exercise of egos.” Instead of argument, De Bono called for more parallel thinking. “Instead of A getting angry with B, they must look in the same directions, but the directions vary.” In an inspiring presentation, where delegates were as fascinated by the way De Bono wrote on OHP sheets and discarded them across the stage, as with what he was saying, he talked about the concept of wearing different thinking hats to explore various aspects of a problem from the information required and the feelings involved to the negative risky aspects, the values and benefits, and creativity. This concept of lateral thinking has major benefits in the business community, reducing management time in meetings to a tenth. Giving examples of where lateral thinking had produced major results, De Bono described how oil wells had been driven vertically for 80 years until the application of lateral thinking meant that they were drilled horizontally and brought in three to six times more oil as a result.

Provocations can also encourage new ways of thinking, De Bono added citing the example of him challenging Boeing to land planes upside down. “If you land upside down the wings give you a downward thrust. That strange provocation resulted in Boeing putting on another set of wings on the plane upside down, which meant that in an emergency they give the plane extra lift – 70 per cent of crashes happen because of a lack of extra lift. You start with a provocation and you end with an interesting idea.” Even a random word greatly increases your chance of thinking differently, he added.

Spending time with different people can also help you see things differently and generate new ideas, said Charles Leadbeater, an authority on creativity and innovation. “If you stay with the same people you won’t have new ideas, so develop new relationships.” Location is also crucially important to the germination of new thinking and the office may not be the best place to do it. “Too much space in the working environment is pre-programmed, it announces what it does to and for you. I dread big companies when they say ‘let me show you our buzz room where we think up ideas’ and you see a space full of beanbags and painted orange and it’s always empty and dead. You cannot programme ideas into spaces.”

Innovative thinking
But that is exactly what Ernst & Young claims to have done with Cube – an innovative collaborative space complete with interactive technology. “It is a richer experience that a standard meeting environment” said Ralf Osswald who presented a whizzy video showing people demonstrating the technology. Other professional services firms have also followed a similar model. Delegates heard from both Alastair Young, head of property Europe at KPMG and Paul Harrington, head of property at PWC about their new premises. But many delegates felt they hadn’t been innovative enough with their plans. One asked why PWC had desks at all if they believed flexible working environments were the future.

“In time we’ll get to somewhere without desks but we’re not quite there yet; we have to provide workstations for all choices,” said Harrington. Young added that pushing people too far towards flexible working can cause conflict between customer and company. 

The challenges involved in the next generation of workplaces was all too clear from a group of three speakers given presentations about different aspects of the workspace: the built environment, technology and management. 

Professor Michael Hulme, director of the Social Futures Observatory at Lancaster University described the potential clashes between the baby boomers and Generation Y, the digital natives. While the baby boomers had fought against the establishment, they now are the establishment, he said. Both generations had taken a set of technology which had been established be a previous generation (broadcast in the case of the baby boomers and social media for Gen Y) and actualised it. “Baby boomers must look at how we can open things up so we can allow the real development to take place.”

Philip Ross, the CEO of Cordless Group and Unwired, which organised the conference, went a step further, presenting a view of the world where buildings have no technology in them as it’s all migrated to the cloud. People no longer commute in and out of cities and the focus turns to activity-based working. People work where they need to – at home, in local spaces such as libraries or service-offices or in big city buildings when they need to.

People keep in touch through jellybean working, a system which shows colleagues and contacts your status – including whether you are at your desk and free for calls, concentrating and not open for chat or travelling. It also allows shared working on documents from different points across the globe.

But Ross was keen to emphasise that collaboration was essential. “People don’t have brilliant ideas when they’re alone, it’s when they get together with other people.”

His comments were echoed by Dave Coplin, national technology officer from Microsoft who argued that businesses had fallen way behind when it came to technology. A quick audience poll revealed that most people had better technology at home than their company provided for them at work. “People are good at technology, and employers forget that, they’re not dumb users.”

While he agreed that technology was blurring the lines between home and work, Coplin argued that it was social networking which was the revolutionary concept. “Social networking is the same as the internet was 15 years ago and what business can survive without the internet now? That’s where the business dialogue is.”

Third workspaces again came to the fore with Coplin claiming that the only wires you see in Starbucks, McDonalds and train stations are people crowding around plug sockets charging up their laptops. “The battery life is the only bit of technology we’ve yet to fix. It’s not about wires and place, it’s about the end result of what you’re producing at work.”

In what was far the best presentation of the day, Ziona Strelitz, founder director of ZZA, agreed with fellow presenters that “centralised office palaces often frustrate sustainable working and living”.  But the home was also not always conducive to work. Strelitz, an avowed lover of the office, argued that people miss the buzz of the workplace if they are away from it for too long. Third spaces between home and work have long been talked about, but the rise in serviced offices (and particularly Regus’s recent launch of hubs in residential areas) is proving the success of that model, she said. “You spend your time enjoying the buzz of an office environment near your home and using technology to communicate with others, only travelling to big HQ buildings occasionally – thereby avoiding costly commuting time which is stressful, frustrating and expensive both to the pocket and environment.