There's been so much talk over the last 2 years about how we are working - in offices, remotely, hybrid. At the same time, in the UK we've been treated to lots of adverse publicity about the workings of the Prime Minister's office, 10 Downing Street.
Is this office still fit for purpose? Is the West Wing any better? How would we go about redesigning the working experience for the incoming Prime Minister?
Here's a quick overview of the discussion points in this episode:
AWA Host: Karen Plum
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Advanced Workplace Associates contact: Andrew Mawson
Advanced Workplace Institute contact: Brad Taylor
Music: courtesy of bensounds.com
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00:00:00 Karen Plum
Hello everyone. In the United Kingdom, we Brits have heard a lot about working practices in the Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street, over the last couple of years. But right now we're just weeks away from a new leader taking charge of the office and the country.
What should the new Prime Minister do to leave past missteps behind and establish a modern, fit for purpose workplace? Let's find out.
00:00:31 INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience helping organizations change the way they work, for the better.
00:00:50 Karen Plum
“We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us”. So said Winston Churchill in 1943 when arguing for the bombed out House of Commons to be rebuilt exactly as before. The rectangular layout of the Commons debating chamber reinforces the adversarial nature of the two party system in this country and is unlike the semi circular or horseshoe designs favored by other countries for their assemblies. The statement also resonates with what we see of 10 Downing Street.
A few weeks ago, AWA Founder and Managing Director Andrew Mawson was quoted in the UK press, talking about the need for the next UK Prime Minister to move out of 10 Downing Street into a modern, efficient office, rather than continuing to operate in a building that's not fit for purpose; leading to muddled decision making, poor information flows and a lack of cohesion within the teams working there.
I wanted to find out more about Andrew's thinking and also to see what he and our colleague, AWA Senior Associate Lisa Whited thought would be a good way to go about such a redesign. So I'm delighted to welcome them both to the podcast. Great to see you both!
00:02:00 Andrew Mawson
00:02:01 Lisa Whited
Hey Karen, thanks for having us.
00:02:03 Karen Plum
So you've made a very bold assertion there Andrew! Clearly 10 Downing Street is steeped in history, and it would take a very bold Prime Minister to move away from it. Can you expand a bit on your thinking about what makes an office like this dysfunctional?
00:02:18 Andrew Mawson
Yeah, well it's interesting, Karen. Obviously we've all been watching the ins and outs of the UK Parliament over the last couple of years and encouraged me to take a look at the building itself. And it's all sort of little nooks and crannies and during the pandemic particularly, when we're seeing people arriving and leaving 10 Downing Street, and we're seeing the ministers having to wrestle with technology which clearly they weren't very comfortable with.
People coming and going from 10 Downing Street with papers under their arm, no laptops. Now it makes you wonder actually how effective and how modern the workings of the government – the inner circle of the government actually is. And I was reminded -again looking at 10 Downing Street - reminded me of a project we did with a client, quite a number of years ago.
It was a big global not-for-profit organization. They had a beautiful head office down in the West of England in country grounds. But the Chief Exec basically asked us to do a review and tell him whether or not the building was fit for the organization as he wanted it to be - a modern, thrusting organization that was actually well connected and where people got on and made things happen pretty quickly.
And we found very quickly that even though it wasn't a huge organization, probably less than 100, there were little groups and cliques in all sorts of places that just weren't getting on together, and there was little battles going on and things weren't happening quickly. And the place, actually, going back to your Winston Churchill quote, the place did not reflect what the organization was really about and wanting to present itself as being about.
And when I looked at 10 Downing Street, I realized it was pretty much the same, and sort of thought about it – well would any major corporation, designing a building today for effective working, even think about going into that kind of environment where you really want people to be connecting, you don't want people hiding away having their own private little conversations in corners.
You want things out in the open. You want transparency, you want openness, and you want to be able to move quickly. And it occurred to me that really 10 Downing Street, although of course has huge historical significance, it just doesn't seem to me to do the job.
So that's what started me off with the article really. And that I think is what the press has picked up on.
00:04:42 Karen Plum
Yeah, and I guess if we look to the US, Lisa you're in the US and I guess many of us and our listeners will have watched the West Wing on television where people endlessly walk the corridors having conversations and work in small offices with just a few colleagues inside the offices.
Do you think the West Wing suffers from the same sorts of problems as 10 Downing Street?
00:05:04 Lisa Whited
I'm sure there are similar challenges with the design being - so many silos - and it's interesting, I think you think about those shows and some of the most interesting conversations are the ones that might be happening in the hallways as colleagues do have a chance to connect and talk and walk.
So I'm sure there are similar challenges, although I do think it's interesting that I believe in both 10 Downing and the White House that the shopkeeper lives above the shop, right? And that’s where the living quarters of the CEO, if you will.
I find that quite interesting, 'cause I also think about what we're trying to do with today's environments - live, work, play and make things more integrated and connected. So I think there may be pieces that could be quite interesting to push further and others that definitely could welcome a challenge.
00:05:58 Karen Plum
I'm interested to loop back to what you were saying Andrew, about the organization that you worked with and where we see these little cliques and little silos. When you think about what makes that group of people productive, is that what makes them productive in what they're doing? Or are they just becoming very siloed, very separate and that they're not actually communicating well with other teams?
00:06:25 Andrew Mawson
Well I mean, you know we know from the research we've done over the years there are a number of factors that have a bearing upon the effectiveness of an organization, knowledge based organization, and they include things like social cohesion, which kind of requires a bit of openness and connectivity and people getting on. Trust, which is not something which is synonymous with most political situations! Vision and goal clarity - what are we trying to achieve? Getting to one kind of common view.
So there are a number of things that we now need to be achieved if you're going to operate in an effective way, and it seems to me that the physical environment in which you do things does play a part either in impeding or signaling different modes of operation, and that's where I think this whole thing is going.
You go back to your point about living over this shop. In the days when then 10 Downing Street was a originally created, there wasn't any alternative but to live over the shop if you wanted to be kind of connected to what was going on and be able to respond and whatever.
Now there's loads of opportunities to do that, but without that sort of physical proximity. I don't think buildings change behavior, but they can certainly get in the way of good behavior.
00:07:41 Karen Plum
Yes, and I guess if people are sitting in small offices with small numbers of people, they become the little silo, the little tribe and may be at odds with other people trying to do other things. But then again, being part of a tribe is also important to us as humans, right? I mean, we know from David Rock’s SCARF model that sense of relatedness is important to our sense of well-being, we want to feel that we belong.
So where's the trade off here? Is it just that we take any strength and it becomes a weakness because we've gone too far with that sense of - feeling that I belong to a particular tribe - but I don't belong to the bigger tribe?
00:08:21 Andrew Mawson
I think that's the point. What you want is people to feel that they're all connected to the big tribe. I mean this is not a huge organization and yet as far as I understand it's a few 100 people. You want people to be connected to the big tribe. I mean clearly there are little tribes as well, but they all need to be kind of interconnected, and I think the danger that that you have when people are sort of cocooned in different physical places, the strength of those tribes becomes substantial and they start to play their own tune.
They start to drive for the objectives and the things that they themselves want as opposed to necessarily thinking about the bigger story. I mean, in the end we want these people to lead our country in a way that makes sense, that is fair as seen by most of us around the UK, and that puts bread on the table and keeps everybody safe and happy. That seems to me to be the job and at the moment it seems to me like that isn't really, the job!
00:09:25 Karen Plum
No, but I guess if we look at the subject more broadly and move away from these seats of governmental power, other organisations like the one that you spoke about earlier, they obviously found themselves with a working culture that wasn't serving them well, and that wasn't helped by the building that they were operating within.
I'm interested in your thoughts, Lisa, about the move to much more remote working practices now. So if we think about the buildings shaping us, are our homes going to start shaping us more than our offices, I wonder? How are working relationships being influenced now when people are together much less often?
00:10:07 Lisa Whited
I think there's a tremendous opportunity for people to take a good look at how they're working and making sure that they've got physical space that supports them - how they're working, wherever they're working,
And so I definitely am a fan of a home office or home working arrangement audit, to really think carefully about what supports me to do my best work. Am I left-handed, am my right-handed? Where should different components be? What's around me? What do I see? Do I have access to natural light?
We often, and it's so true in the office that we're all well aware of, as well as our homes - we pretty much just make do. I compare it to - if you live with other people in your living abode and if you're one who puts something on the stairs with the expectation that somebody else is going to pick it up and bring it upstairs, you're often very disappointed!
And the joke about the thing on the stairs is that we after a while we don't see it any more. It's there, it becomes just part of how we are, and I think it's the same with how we work. We just sort of work a certain way 'cause this is the way it's always been arranged. We don't pause to say what could we do better and this is what the pandemic has given people in large offices, or any type of shared office, is to really rethink what is it that would best support our people, instead of doing things the way they've always been done.
Instead of leaving that equipment right there, though it's all, well, we've always done it that way - it seems to work. Well, you know, this is why people have enjoyed working remotely because they were able to have a bit of control and set things up for themselves.
And yet again, I think people would go further, and I would encourage listeners who are working at home now, really pause and say how am I best served by how I'm working and interacting, so that's the physical part.
But our relationships also need good work, don't they? How we interact with our colleagues? How we decide to engage instead of having that regular weekly recurring meeting, let's take a pause and say what serves us? Let's have a conversation. What are we trying to achieve with this? So I think that it's the opportunity to question all sorts of how things have been to reimagine what could be better?
00:12:19 Karen Plum
And I think again, as with so many projects that we've seen over the years, when there's an opportunity to change the physical space, that's often the thing that prompts the discussion about how we work and the behavior, and that's what moved a lot of people out of small offices within the building into a more open plan space where they could interact more, could see, could hear, you know all of those sorts of things.
The move to more remote styles of working as you were saying, I think you have to think about it. You have to think about it a lot more than perhaps people thought they were going to. They were just going to go work from home and that was it, whereas I think we have to really plan for the sorts of interactions that we need and the relationships that we're trying to build.
00:13:12 Lisa Whited
And I would add to that Karen that when organizations went to more open planning, they've missed it. So many, not all, but they missed recognizing that people still need places for focused, heads down work. They didn't give them focus rooms and it is so interesting. You know, maybe they gave them some phone booths for private phone calls, but the opportunity is focus rooms that are designed for somebody to go in and be highly effective with heads down work.
And when you do that and give a high enough proportion of those, usable by anybody regardless of title, then you're giving people what they were missing. The top complaints in the office before the pandemic - it's too noisy, I'm distracted and I'm too hot or too cold. Those were often the biggest complaints, noise and distractions were really bothersome.
So again, working from home, many, but not all, but many found that quiet, distraction free space that they needed. In our brains, research shows us we absolutely need to have that opportunity to focus, and we're lacking it, often due to this technology that's dinging and buzzing and as well as colleagues interrupting us.
00:14:21 Andrew Mawson
I completely agree. I think what the pandemic has done is to raise the level of awareness that we have of these things. And other things as well - wellness and so on I think have become much more of a focus. And I think we've become more sensitized to them as well. I mean, even traveling into London for instance. I live, what 25 miles out of London, and travelling into London now for a meeting is a chore.
I mean it, you know you sort of think well, did I actually need to go through all that to have that meeting and you think well, probably not really, it was marginal. So there's an interesting question really as to how many times of the things that you do, you really do need absolute face to face in the same space, communication and connection really.
And I think the pandemic just woke everybody up to, I think some of the things we were always practicing over the last 10 years, really. But yeah, I mean the great thing about hybrid working of course is it gives you the best of both worlds if you get it right.
I mean, you can have the environment to focus, which you can tune, as Lisa says, to your own needs; but you can also choose to be with other people and work on maybe things that are really tough. And maybe you want to build some relationships or deal with some sensitive issues or whatever it is. But you can choose the right moment to do that, you don't have to be doing it all the time and in to some degree, in the middle of all this it's the thing called the Metaverse, which everybody is currently struggling to see how it kind of works.
But I can see how the Metaverse could become - we could see a metaverse office in the middle of all this that sort of bridges between the physical and the virtual as well, so it's an interesting, fascinating time, I think.
00:16:14 Karen Plum
So just to bring us back to where we started the episode, thinking about the Prime Minister's office at 10 Downing Street or the West Wing, Andrew, if you were going to redesign that work experience, you've suggested that they move out of there to somewhere modern and effective, et cetera, but how would you go about redesigning that?
00:16:34 Andrew Mawson
Well, I think the first thing that we always do is start with a blank sheet of paper and say well what actually we're trying to achieve here? I think the first step is to work with some of the senior politicians and civil servants to establish what is the purpose, what purpose do we want to achieve, through the through the way we put the whole thing together - typical vision workshop or something which is not about design, predominantly, it's more about trying to get on the table the business needs of the organization.
I think then you move on to look at actually how people do work today and the tasks and the activities that they're involved in, both individually and collectively. And then I think you have to decide which proportion of those things you're gonna accommodate within a physical environment. And then you can, I think from that base you look at the technology and space and the policies and all the rest of it.
But from that base I think you then can construct kind of a start point in terms of the brief and then you can start translating that into the into the physical and the behavioral, but taking a pretty forensic approach to the whole process, I think that's the essence of it. And then of course involve those with a very strong design flair to turn it into something that’s very attractive and tunes into the image and the sense that we're trying to create.
We are increasingly a modern economy. Look at Kings Cross – its’ going to turn out to be one of the top technology hubs in the world. More of this is what we as a country need to be and I think the way we operate the government should reflect that leading position.
00:18:18 Karen Plum
I wonder whether you think the fact that this is an organization, a seat of power, it's the office of the Prime Minister. It's not, uh, I was going to say it's not a political organization, but it's all about politics. So to what degree do you think that the focus of politics in 10 Downing Street contributes to the situation that they're in? Does it make a difference? Does it mean that the normal things that you would ask yourself and look at when redesigning work for an organization? Does it make a difference?
00:18:54 Andrew Mawson
For me, it does make a difference, but we as taxpayers fund all this to achieve our needs. And therefore it should have a - it has a business purpose really, and it should be designed that way, I think. From the ground up.
There's a read across into Parliament. What is Parliament supposed to do? Parliament is supposed to sort of bring together the views of a variety of different houses to preside over issues of the day, and one would hope that we get a good quality of discussion and debate which would ultimately arrive at decisions and policies that made better sense than they would if they hadn't been debated.
Whereas my strong suspicion is an enormous amount of what goes on in Parliament is one side putting their views on the table, haranguing the other side and the other side putting their views on the table and nothing much changes. It's quite interesting actually when you think about, when we had the financial challenges a few years ago, we ended up with a coalition government in the UK with the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, and it seemed to me that that actually worked quite well.
There was enough power in the room for both parties to be able to moderate the extreme position of each other and as a consequence had to talk. And I think David Cameron provided an environment in which there was more discussion. There was more debate and things kind of, you know there were sharp edges, but there was stuff that got talked about and it moved on. Whereas I think what we now have, because one party is dominating the other, we have this situation where we're not actually listening to each other.
We're not working to try to achieve some common goal, we just want power, and we want to dominate. I think we'd be a lot better served if we created environments and we created conditions under which there was more debate and discussion. And more listening. So we arrived at better solutions and better policies.
00:20:57 Karen Plum
And that really resonates with the podcast you shared with me, Lisa. The one where Adam Grant was talking about politicians. He said that they don't even bother to listen to each other unless they already agree with each other. He says that if we can disagree productively, we sharpen our own reasoning and we've become better. But obviously only if we're listening!
00:21:20 Lisa Whited
Just having conversations and arguing to win instead of arguing to learn. Interestingly enough, it's very parallel to what we recommend with our clients - that they need to spend time listening to their employees. Just listening and getting their input and then thinking and then acting and so many times it feels like in our governments that listening piece has been missed. There's just been conversation and action and we don't feel like we were heard.
00:21:47 Karen Plum
So Lisa, if you were redesigning the work experience in 10 Downing Street or the West Wing, how would you go about it?
00:21:55 Lisa Whited
Well, I 100% agree with Andrew always starting with purpose. What are we trying to achieve and really getting clear on that and ensuring though that in answering that question that everybody is invited into that conversation. Everybody in this case being those that work there and that are trying to do their best work so they're having conversations with intention and inclusion and clarifying purpose would be really important first step.
And then I think it would be really well worth doing focus groups with the public across section (Andrew being one of them) of many and in diversity, ensuring that that there's a real going out into the community and listening to what others have to say about what is the purpose, what are we trying to achieve? So truly making it an inclusive and democratic approach to planning and design, which is core to AWA’s belief as well in that inclusivity.
So that's where I would begin. Certainly it all starts with conversations, and honestly, those conversations might be better had outside of 10 Downing because that's already been proven, not the best arrangement for that type of conversation. However, I bet we could find a nice room within 10 Downing and take all the furniture out and just put chairs in a circle and have some focus group conversations that way, as well as using our technology to have some virtual conversations.
00:23:16 Karen Plum
Lisa, you've done some of this stuff before, I think you were telling me recently about a project that you worked on for your local City Hall?
00:23:24 Lisa Whited
Yeah, super fun project. It was called the Civic Design Fest and anybody in the community was invited to put together an idea that they would want to have as a sort of charrette - a day long brainstorming session that was held on, I think it was September 23rd, 2017 and the idea that I submitted at the time, I think I was on the planning board and we at that time, or I had spent a lot of time in the City Hall Council where we hold those City Council meetings and planning board meetings.
In that building, although gorgeous, the Chamber itself is so hard to access. There's stairs on the outside - now definitely there's ADA and there's a ramp and there's elevators and all that, but it's not really clearly inclusive and approachable as a building.
And when I would go to the Council chambers, all I saw was lots of people with white hair and white skin. And Portland Maine happens to be one of the most diverse cities within, yes, a very rural and old and white state, but Portland’s community speaks more than 66 different languages.
So my idea with the Civic Design Fest was how can we create this gathering spot with really important conversations taking place and that are going to impact everybody in the Community - to make it more inclusive and make people feel like it's more approachable. So it was really fun and even thinking through the architecture. So thinking through how we would do this with purposeful conversations and then thinking of the Chamber itself, that has levels of course of hierarchy, and even if you were the Mayor or the chair of the planning board, if you had a disability, it would make it really hard to get up onto that dais to be able to present.
So a lot of things could be done differently. We looked at the access into the space and how that is designed. We looked at the chairs themselves and the layout of the room. It was very fun. No, they didn't rebuild City Hall because of our work, but it was a great exercise of thinking differently, sharing other ways to reconsider a space that's used constantly.
00:25:34 Karen Plum
Thinking differently, it's just so important, isn't it? And I know you've been doing some of that Andrew, and that you've written to the two candidates that are vying for becoming the next Prime Minister in the UK, inviting them to consider how to make 10 Downing Street and indeed Parliament more effective.
00:25:53 Andrew Mawson
It seemed to me this was a particularly pertinent moment to make these views known to the incoming leader of the Conservative Party, who ultimately ends up as Prime Minister.
And the first was about Downing Street and rethinking the way in which Downing Street is used. Probably using it for ceremonial purposes rather than day-to-day business operations and redesigning a more modern workplace not too far away with activity-based working and it's heart really. And thinking through all the different things we’ve talked about today.
The second really was about, you know, using technology to enable MPs to spend more time in their constituencies working with members of their local communities in order to bring their weight to bear, whilst at the same time being able to participate in debates and so on, using technology in the way we did during the pandemic, it seemed to me rather than every MP having a second home near London and all the expense that goes with that and the trauma that they're leaving families, particularly young families and stuff alone and spending lots of time in London, so that was a second.
The third was really about Parliament itself. Those close to the subject will know that there are some incredible numbers being bandied around for the overhaul of Parliament to turn it into something close to a modern environment and those estimates range from anything up to £13 billion up to £22 and for me as a as a taxpayer, I think that's obscene. And we could do a lot better with that money than putting it into an old building that doesn't really reflect the modern UK that we're sort of heading towards.
So my suggestion was start again and do something around the leveling up agenda in Birmingham or Manchester or somewhere that is not Westminster and we redistribute some of the wealth around the country and the power as well. So it was a, you know, an attempt to bring a few ideas to the incoming Premier so we shall see whether that lands.
00:28:01 Karen Plum
I'm guessing you haven't heard from either of them yet?
00:28:04 Andrew Mawson
Not as yet, no!
00:28:06 Karen Plum
Oh well, we'll wait to see and if you do get a response, or if we get to hear of either of them being influenced by your thoughts, obviously we'll invite you back onto the podcast and you can tell us how it's moving forward.
00:28:19 Andrew Mawson
I'll be delighted to do that, Karen.
00:28:21 Karen Plum
Other than that, you may be in the Tower, yeah?
00:28:24 Andrew Mawson
Could easily be!
00:28:25 Karen Plum
OK, well really good to hear your thoughts, both of you. Thank you very much for joining me on the podcast today.
00:28:30 Lisa Whited
00:28:32 Andrew Mawson
00:28:33 Karen Plum
And that's it for this episode. As Lisa and Andrew mentioned, the approach they would take with 10 Downing Street or the West Wing is just the one that they would use with clients. If you'd like to know more, please do get in touch - our contact details are in our show notes.
And if you're interested in learning to disagree better, I recommend the Economist’s podcast which we referred to – again there's a link in our show notes.
00:24:58 CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.