Are You Sitting Comfortably?

Are You Sitting Comfortably?


One aspect of effective knowledge work – such as software development, for example – that I rarely get to discuss is the meme related to “what is knowledge work like?

In “First, Break All The Rules” by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman, the Gallup organisation suggests there is a set of just twelve questions we might use to gauge employee engagement (and, by association, the organisation’s effectiveness and thus its prevailing mindset).

The second of these twelve questions is:

“Have I the materials and equipment I need to do my job right?”

In ad-hoc organisations, and some early-stage analytic-minded organisations too, folks tend to regard knowledge-work as synonymous with office work. In this meme, work is by definition rote and repetitive, and has little need for invention or innovative thinking, little need for collaboration.

In the majority of analytic-minded organisations, the meme is different. Here, folks regard knowledge work as something akin to the “software factory”, where a set of rules, or processes, when followed, results in predictable outcomes and required levels of quality and functionality. Work is regulated and constrained and factory-like.

In synergistic organisations, the meme is different again. Here, the idea of knowledge work as some kind of Design Studio holds sway. Folks see the work as needing collaboration, inventiveness, discussions, and so on.

And finally, in some late-synergistic and chaordic organisations, the Design Studio meme gives way to the idea of work as a set of value streams. Although the physical environment may look much the same as with the Design Studio meme, at least to the untutored eye.



So where do the chairs come in?

I’ve seen it enough times to be able to intuit the kind of prevailing meme, and thus some indication of the prevailing collective mindset, through a simple observation of the physical workspace in which folks are working on a daily basis. Yes. I’m talking about the furniture.

Developers and other knowledge workers spend a lot of their time thinking, discussing and, yes, typing (amongst other things). Do these folks have the materials and equipment they need to do their job right? Is the workplace expressly optimised to enable folks to think well, discuss well, and type well?

The office-work meme lends itself to typing well. Not much else. And not for the long periods typical of developers. Where’s the care for folks’ health and well-being in many such workspaces?

The software factory fails to support any of these things, as far as I can see. Although maybe the managers believe it’s supporting their needs (hint: it’s not – at least not effectively).

The design studio kind of workspace serves to enabling thinking and discussing (at a marginal detriment to typing). Of course, its bohemian overtones are often offensive to the more widespread Analytic mindset.

And the value stream viewpoint, maybe supports all three. Note: I’ll not get into the relatively fine distinction between the value-stream perspective and the design studio perspective, here.

More generally, the organisation’s prevailing attitude towards effectiveness is reflected in the selection of furniture, the layout of the workspace, and other aspects of the materials and equipment available to support the workforce in their work.

Chairs – seating, in the broader sense – being the most instantly identifiable of these shibboleths.

Cheap office-style chairs indicate the office-work mentality, where either through ignorance or lack of concern, the workers’ productivity and welfare are of little import.

More expensive chairs – Aerons or some such – speak to some nascent awareness of the nature of knowledge-work, and concern for folks’ well-being.

An eclectic mix of “seating” – top-end desk chairs, bean bags, couches, standing- and walking-desks, and so on – can betray the Design Studio meme. (Although keep an eye out for tokenism, such as whacky kinds of seating – like balls and cushions – which may look funky but are ill-suited to actually sitting on for more than a few seconds.)

And the value stream meme can suggest seating carefully selected, and located – by the workers – and closely tied to the nature of the work at hand, at any given moment.

How’s your seating? What does it tell you about the prevailing attitudes to work, where you work?

– Bob

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