In Pursuit of the Perfect Workplace

From the lower Palaeolithic to the late Neolithic, key periods of prehistoric human culture take their names from the sites of ancient tool production.

The European Gravettian, Aurignacian and Châtelperronian cultures, for example, like their African, Australian and American counterparts, are technically industries’.

Human culture, in other words, is quite literally defined by the workplace.

The Gravettian is named for la Gravettea place in southwestern France anciently chosen as productive, where people met to collaborate in economically useful behaviour: the production of tools and the processing of food. Even if the adoption of agriculture 12,000 years saw a fundamental change in the context in which work happens, there is nothing new about the workplace itself. It defines us to an extent that we have no cause to actually consider what it is. If we are to improve it (without, say, abolishing capitalism itself) we are required to take a difficult step back to see the workplace in context.

It is, ostensibly, simple: the workplace is a place where work happens. A building, most often, with objects inside it. Furniture and tools. If we look at the workplace more philosophically, however, we can understand it as a network of people, objects and ideas. And in this place, ‘work’ is not simply labour. It is an idea arising from the various relationships between everything in this network.

We have a name for the way this network is operated and activated“the culture of the workplace”.

We are increasingly working remotely. As we fly less, and work out of the office more, conference calls are increasingly important.

Ideal work culture

If we consider an ideal work culture – a functional, socially-affirmative, team-oriented culture of shared responsibility where one is individually invested in one’s work to the benefit of the quality of the output – it is surely inarguable that work culture must inevitably affect productivity. And the culture of the workplace isn’t something that simply occurs by chance. No, there are many models. And none of these models are accidental, being the result of decisions reflecting the idealism, pragmatism, character and goals of individuals.

Two sets of these relationships are particularly important: the relationships between employees, and the relationships between employees and the company. If your fellow employees are one of the reasons you go to work, then you’re working somewhere that has decided to prize the relationships between its people. This is a work culture that strengthens the relationship between employee and company. And it’s universally agreed to be a good place to work. You’re not going to want to leave for somewhere else.

If all this benefits productivity – and it does it’s also sustainable and, so to speak, civilised. A company that finds ways to foster a culture of trust, responsibility and care, and proves that it values these things through actions such as recognition of achievement and investment in expanding expertise, has made a practical decision to benefit itself materially.

The classic examples are found in Silicon Valley. Google consistently tops the Best Place to Work lists because it values its people – and if you want proof, look at what Google’s people say about working there. The famously excellent canteen at Dropbox and the restaurant at Apple, meanwhile, have been designed to allow people to meet and talk to the benefit of collaboration and innovation.

And this points to another key relationship governing every workplace: the relationship between people and stuff. The arrangement of stuff is everything. The decisions we take about stuff, our basic understanding of how we value the work environment, sends a very clear signal about work culture and respect.

Human culture, in other words, is quite literally defined by the workplace.

For the creative office, an open-plan desert of desks is a place where a single working practice rules. But the relationships we have at work play out across ‘an ecosystem’ of places: we do one kind of work at a desk, another kind of work in the kitchen, and another kind of work in the privacy of a soundproof booth. Different kinds of work require different kinds of attention. Writers don’t concentrate like designers. Designers don’t concentrate like office managers. Recognising this and developing an office culture responsive to place, time, and people is to give them their due. There are companies with ‘library rules’ of quiet at one end of the scale. And there are companies that engage in all-out Nerf Gun wars every lunchtime at the other.

Either way, if your work culture has developed without design, ask yourself if it’s working to your benefit. Maybe it is. But a consideration of the invisible relationships in your place of work is worth serious reflection.

If one of the key relationships in the workplace is the relationship between people and their tools – well, it pays to have the best tools.

We are increasingly working remotely. As we fly less, and work out of the office more, conference calls are increasingly important. In some models of the open office system, people turn to non-verbal cues to declare they’re concentrating – active noise cancelling headphones, for example.

And if the goal is to perfect the workplace, a good place to start is with audio tools engineered to connect people intuitively, effectively, and with the greatest attention to details and quality. A first step as good as any other.