Riding the Cycles

Cycles are fundamental to life. Seasons mark out the year. Daily, monthly and annual rhythms rule the way we live. And larger patterns of feast and famine – the seven years of plenty followed by seven years of lean – have been recognised since biblical times.

This is the context in which career plans have to be made.

Business Cycles are normal
Almost every generation experiences major economic upheavals.  And these thirty-year generational cycles typically contain the peaks and troughs of three ten-year cycles as crisis gives way to phases of recovery, innovation and renewed growth.

The financial crash of 2008 has resonated round the West for nearly 10 years, creating economic and political strain, but now there are signs of an upturn all parts of the world.

Recovery
Whenever there is recession there will be recovery – although financial crises take longer to heal. Sustained expansion fuelled by debt creates confidence and gives us a boom while panic and sustained contraction give us a recession when credit ceases to be available .

Things never return to just the same place but the pendulum swings back.

Cycle rack
In the last 150 years, thinkers have identified several types of cycle – lasting from two or three years up to more than 50 years. The causes are different but they overlap and interact.

  • Capital investment – Juglar (1860s) developed the idea that business cycles of 7-11 years are driven by the intensity of capital investment. An expansionary phase of rising prices gives way to a bust when prices peak and fall.
  • Inventory – Kitchen (1920s) postulated that 5-7 year inventory cycles emerge when lack of timely information leads to overproduction of goods. In the downswing, production is reduced while stocks are cleared.
  • Infrastructure – Kuznets (1930s) in the USA suggested that investment in infrastructure, often built in response to immigration and demographic change, gives rise to cycles of 15-25 years.
  • Technology – Kondratiev (1920s) identified the longest cycles – 40-60 years – in which long-term waves of development are unleashed by ‘tectonic shifts’ – war and peace, the emergence of new technologies.

The technologies that have launched prolonged waves of development range from coal, steam, railways, clean water and sanitation to electricity, petroleum, chemicals, motor cars, telephones and radio, not to mention aeroplanes, pharmaceuticals, computers and the internet.

These each gave rise to whole new industries and new business models that often wiped out the old in a process that Joseph Schumpeter termed ‘creative destruction’.

Are these principles still valid?
These concepts have been validated by research. Historical data for the USA and Europe correlate with the theory providing practical indicators that can be used to interpret the state of an economy.

Super-cycles
And the models also seem to describe what has happened in developing economies in recent years. As China has urbanised and industrialised in the last 30 years, we have witnessed a ‘super cycle’ of growth driven by just the kinds of capital investment and infrastructure expenditure envisaged in the cycle models. This may have much further to go as development rolls on to other countries.

Limits to growth
However, in his book The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Professor Robert J. Gordon argues that the kind of productivity growth unleashed by new technologies between 1870 and 1970 – from coal to computers – is not repeatable.

‘Tech’ is a great hope for the future but its impact on the growth of the US economy over recent years has been puny compared with what went before in the West. He fears that Tech will not provide the well-paid jobs and prosperity we hope for.

Quality vs Quantity
The cycle models generally work with GDP – a flawed measure that is difficult to apply and compare across different countries. Indeed GDP does not fully capture what is going on in advanced economies. It may not reflect the positive improvement in the quality and efficiency of products – nor indeed negative impacts such as environmental damage.

Capital investment still matters and infrastructure is essential but advanced economies increasingly deal in services and intangibles rather than sheer quantities of ‘stuff’.  The abundance of data has transformed supply chains and the ability to manage inventory cycles far more effectively than Joseph Kitchen could have imagined.

Political tide
Recession, globalisation and changing technology have put many workers under pressure in the last 10 years while the monetary policies deployed to prevent another great depression have redistributed wealth. More people are back in work but so far the ‘gig’ economy has often produced insecure, low-paid part-time employment rather than good quality, well paid work.

The strains that have found political expression in rising populism and the Brexit vote may well feed into future economic cycles.

Riding your own cycle
Meanwhile, it is expected that big data, robots and artificial intelligence will infiltrate almost every type of business activity and disrupt the organisations and institutions that give shape to working life.  Where once decisions were taken for you – about education, skills, health, finances, etc. – you will have to be self-reliant.

If many of the jobs of the future have not been invented yet, you need to be open minded and thinking creatively rather than imposing familiar patterns on new information. In career terms, you have to embrace the future and prepare for opportunities rather than clinging to the past.

Jo Ouston

Sales: what everyone should know

Sales are the lifeblood of any commercial organization – until products are sold, they are just costs.  Selling is the magic breath that gives life to every other business activity.

‘Sales’ is the starting point and a primary consideration in almost any business plan.  It is sales that generate the resources to hire people, purchase materials and pay the bills.  Whatever sector you are in, sales matter – even in not-for-profit organisations.

In the lexicon of business, selling seems to be one of the more emotive words.  In the UK we are often disparaging about sales.  We have negative perceptions of sales people. We are reluctant to be involved in selling and don’t want to be sold to.  Yet, in Germany, for example, sales people are held in high regard as professionals who can successfully bring suppliers together with customers.

Building Confidence

It is said that ‘people buy the salesman not the product’ –  a puzzling statement at first sight but the key to it is the question of confidence. We are more inclined to buy from people with integrity who understand what we want and that we feel we can trust – trust to give us reliable information or trust to make things happen and deliver on their promises.

Marketing Context

The genius of marketing is to structure demand and the buying process so that in many cases products sell themselves.

With branded consumer products – promoted and explained through advertising – people know more or less what they are getting.  They are happy to help themselves from the supermarket shelf or from the on-line seller.  With necessities, price, convenience and location – whether that’s your shop or your Google ranking – may be the main thing.

With non-essential or luxury items, the buyer will have a notion of what they want, desire or crave. Price may be a factor but the drivers are principally the features, style, aura and cachet of the product.  The retail experience itself may be a source of satisfaction.

Complexity

On the face of it, selling tangible goods should be straightforward.  You can compare prices, features and benefits – showing how the product stacks up against similar products.  But increasingly, the line between products and services is blurred.  Phones depend on networks, devices are bundled with software, functionality is tied to subscriptions.

The complexity of many products makes it hard to understand what is being offered.  This is particularly the case with technology, financial services and the wide variety of consultancy services. We need explanations in terms that we understand.

On-line articles, product reviews and comparison websites help in setting out the issues.  But often, there is no substitute for being face-to-face with a sales person who not only has the specific product knowledge but who also takes the time to enquire about our needs and to explain how things meet our specific requirements.

Selling services

Selling services often demands an extended and more active sales approach, especially in business-to-business situations. The service you are selling may not have a strong brand or any brand at all. The service may be highly tailored, rather than an off-the-shelf product, with delivery that differs from client to client.

In many cases you may be selling solutions to problems. A large part of the service may be defining the issues and designing means to overcome them or find ways around them, perhaps restructuring a whole supply relationship.

In order to formulate a proposition the salesperson has to be not only creative but also able to enter into the customer’s world seeing things from the customer’s point of view. This requires more than market, technical and product knowledge. It requires an ability to listen, engage, build trust and work collaboratively with the client – in a word, to empathise.

Building Relationships

Selling is a more comfortable proposition for salesperson and customer alike when the focus is on the customer’s needs rather than ‘the products that I’ve got to shift’. And this focus on the client rather than the transaction is far more likely to lead to a continuing customer relationship.

Jo Ouston

Creative Thinking

When do you get your most creative ideas? The chances are that it won’t be during office hours when you’re at your desk striving for an answer.  It is more likely to be when you are doing something mundane – routine chores, driving your car or going for a walk.

Creative thoughts and innovative ideas cannot be forced. Instead, they bubble forth when the mind is in a quiet, reflective state.  Frenetic activity, stress and the hubbub of the office are not conducive to creativity.

How we think
In his book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: Why Intelligence Increases When You Think Less, Professor Guy Claxton asserts that the default mode for modern-day thinking is fast and unreflective, what he classes as ‘hare brain’.  This contrasts with more reflective ways of thinking – ‘tortoise mind’ – that increase perception and create the conditions for fresh insight.

To make sense of the world we tend to distinguish patterns and give things labels.  But when we next encounter a similar pattern we often take a shortcut and leap to the label without looking too closely at the phenomenon itself.

Claxton suggests these ‘shortcuts’ or channels in the brain stand in the way of original thought. If we consciously stop our ‘thinking drills’ and induce a state of relaxation, we can allow our brain activity to flow across the landscape rather than along these pre-existing channels and thus allow truly fresh thought patterns to emerge.

Light bulb moments
However, it’s not just a case of putting your feet up and waiting for inspiration.  Creativity involves hard work too. Thomas Edison is a case in point.  He would think long and hard about the details of a problem to understand what it was all about – often until he was ‘stuck’ – and then allow himself to relax completely to the stage where he was beginning to drop off to sleep. It was in this passive, hypnagogic state that some of his best ideas surfaced.

Creating the conditions
That is all very well you might say, but how does this work on a daily basis? The demands of working life get in the way.  Noise, interruptions, meetings, the omnipresence of social media, all mean that people are in a constant state of reacting.  Open plan working means you are often hard pressed to find a quiet spot for reflection.

Often the frustrations of daily life provide the very stimulus required.  If like Edison you take time to focus on particular problems of concern, you prime yourselves to come up with answers and these may come to you when you’re not necessarily expecting them.

Putting it into action
Coming up with ideas is usually the easy part. The challenge is often to transform creative ideas into viable, workable solutions.  For example, the development of new products or services may require the collaboration of different specialists and many iterations of specifying the brief, analysing problems, coming up with approaches, testing propositions and devising solutions.  This requires organisation, collaboration and teamwork.

However, many of us are engaged in creative thinking on a daily basis.  Most problem solving is creative problem solving.  We are always devising ways to work around difficulties, overcome shortages and get back on track when things don’t work out as planned.

Faced with challenges, the key is to look at things as they are in context rather than leaping to conclusions and then reflect on what we see. It is this that allows us to see new possibilities and new directions.

 

Jo Ouston

Dumbphone vs Smartphone

Sales of vinyl records are said to be growing faster at present than sales of music in any other format (if from a small base). And recent months have seen articles in many newspapers about people wanting to dump their smartphones in favour of ‘dumbphones’ – those mobiles we used to have that just handle voice calls and texts.

Are these signs of some fogeyish retro fad … or is there something more to it?

Why would people turn away from the smartphone technology? What is not to like about having access on demand – whether to news, information, music, sports, maps, travel bookings or almost anything else you can think of? And of course these devices also allow you to operate and connect across the world in ways that just would not have been possible years ago.

Who’s in charge?
I think it is to do with who is in charge. As long as you are using the phone on your own terms to inform, serve or amuse yourself that is fine. But when it begins to intrude and make demands on you – with a constant feed of messages and updates that steal your attention – then the merits are less clear cut.

Mad Hatters
There is a frequent refrain that life is getting ever faster and that nobody has any time any more. Responding to all this stuff is very time consuming – not least if you are typing with one finger.

People crave the ability to concentrate – to be able to get things done. This means being able to shut out the noise and distraction of open plan offices … but also the more insidious silent interruptions from the smartphone feed.

Making Time
Back in the pre-smartphone era it was reported that John Caldwell – then boss of Phones4U – had banned the use of e-mail internally, telling employees to meet face to face or talk on the phone. He reckoned it could take ten times longer to send an e-mail than to speak the words. Abandoning the keyboard would leave the typical employee with up to three hours extra per day to concentrate on sales and customer service.

In a similar vein, our designer chum George Foster lamented recently that some art directors in agencies seem to have lost the art of drawing. They reach for the computer or iPad and then spend ages looking for stuff to download and mock up in order to show what they are talking about. This is a huge waste of time. A few strokes of a pencil could get the idea over fast so that you quickly know if you are on the right track with an idea worth developing rather than spending ages going down a route that may turn out a dead end. A rapid visualisation frees time to focus on the ideas.

Getting results
Technology is seductive and rewarding. It lets you feel that you are connected, multi-tasking, busy and productive. But this divided attention is not conducive to good work. We need to focus on the right things and give them time and our best attention to achieve significant results.

The issue is perhaps that this technology is still all relatively new. The possibilities are infinite but we are still learning – as individuals and in organisations – how to use it most appropriately. Dumping the smartphone may be one way to make it work for us … instead us working for it.

Jo Ouston

Working in China

China and the West have profoundly different ways of looking at the world. When American and Chinese Presidents meet, according to a US official quoted in the Financial Times, ‘They are like computers running on different operating systems’.

Doing business in China is different too.  It has an ancient culture rooted in relationships and social cohesion that persists behind the major upheavals of the last century and the prodigious economic and political changes of recent years.  To be successful westerners need to be attuned to the culture and to learn to think and operate differently.

Lessons from the front line

Andrew Sharratt, an experienced interim manager and one of Jo Ouston’s earliest clients, met recently with Gillian Hughes, another of Jo’s early clients, to talk about the experience of working in China.  Over the last five years Andrew has run three projects in China, as the “man on the ground” working for three European companies developing Chinese business initiatives: in Hong Kong, in remote Gansu province and in Shanghai.

The first important point, he says, is to recognize that there is no uniform Chinese business culture; the reality is far more nuanced.

Finding common ground by focusing on solving the issue

Andrew’s first interim role was to recover a complex logistics project that had gone badly wrong.  Based in Hong Kong, it was being run by a Danish company for a global leader in post and parcel handling systems.  The project team, reflecting Hong Kong’s history as a trading centre, was made up primarily of Chinese, Hong Kong Chinese together with around 15 nationalities of expats.

As Programme Director, Andrew was expected to face the client group at regular progress meetings and in particular his local Chinese counterpart. She was not interested in fixing the project’s problems or any adjustments to the contracted solution, even for an improved outcome.   She wanted delivery of exactly what was defined in the contract (which was proving very difficult to deliver). Andrew recognized that he needed to find a way around this.

It was apparent that the meetings had ceased to aid progress.  Progress meant finding another way that might not match the contract as written. Andrew concluded that despite the potential consequences it was more important to focus with the project team on solving the critical issues on the equipment installation, commissioning and trials rather than attending yet another meeting.  Focus had to be intense, absence had to demonstrate progress.

On one occasion, for example, a complex problem was resolved working with a Chinese technician who spoke no English and with no interpreter available.  They worked through in turn the mathematical equations driving the issue, puzzling it out with pencil and paper, and using sign language. Together they identified a glitch in the flow line set up which, once understood, was easily fixed.

One Sunday, Andrew was on the shop floor, working through issues when he spoke with some visitors.  They asked questions on the project and how the considerable time and performance issues were being progressed and then left.  Early the next week, he had a call from his inflexible Chinese counterpart, asking what resources or help he needed.

It was only much later, that Andrew learned that these visitors had been a senior management team from the regional headquarters.  He observed they had concluded that cooperation was needed to recover the project.  Once that management decision had been given, the local Chinese management worked ceaselessly to deliver it. The project would not have been recovered without this change.

Be honest, clear and consistent in your intentions and in pursuing the task you need to get done: this helps build trust and momentum for change.

The second project, based in the remote Gansu province in northwest China, involved working alongside a German design authority.  Andrew’s role was to set up a new wind turbine assembly facility within a government stock company (essentially an independent business owned by but arm’s length from the State).   This was a traditional heavy industrial environment, with dormitories and housing provided in the local town for the workers along with schools and a hospital; a complete support infrastructure.  People were not used to introducing new products or modifications to existing designs and had a different take on safety procedures.

Meetings with the MD would involve a minimum of ten people but with very little discussion.  Alongside the MD, there sat a senior Party official director. In some ways this worked well (in the local environment) but this overall combination made introducing change difficult.  Andrew said, “I knew what needed to be done and just had to get on with it”.

After a number of difficult conversations (through translators) involving the Chinese MD, Andrew and the German chief engineer, it was agreed that the German company would take over managing one wing of the factory and set up the new facility as an implant with different rules of operation.

Once the decision was made, it was adhered to. The MD left Andrew to get on with it but responded rapidly when specific resources were needed.  Andrew worked directly with the shop floor to introduce new team structures, processes and methods appropriate to quickly evolving new products, operational procedures and a new focus on safety.  This plant within the plant became a powerful demonstrator of a different way of working.

Never forget the social contract in China between the State and the individual: the underlying belief that if you obey the rules, written and unwritten, you will prosper.

The third project was to get a new factory design approved near Shanghai for a British company.  Shanghai, like Hong Kong is a very international environment.  Working with a Chinese law firm was very similar to working with a global law firm in London.

Lawyers had predicted a delay of months to achieve the business licence for the new factory.  However, working with a local partner and the state authorities this was achieved in a matter of weeks. This required understanding and adaptation to the established processes whilst still sticking to aggressive targets and deadlines. The complex “chop” process for getting business documents authorised had to be followed to the letter.  It became clear that the bureaucrats wanted to make the process work, as long as process compliance was in place.  With some brinkmanship the final approvals were done in time for formal completion celebrations to happen with local dignitaries.

Final Thoughts

How would Andrew sum up the lessons he takes from all these experiences?

  • You need to respect the culture and recognize it is there. Sometimes I had to change the way I was trying to do something, but as long as we reached the same end point that was fine. Stick to your goal but realize that there might be another (or better) way of achieving it.
  • Keeping face is important, but confrontation can work, as in the case of the MD in Gansu.
  • There are big generational differences. The younger generation are very ambitious, they did not live through the era where disagreeing or expressing a different opinion could result in imprisonment, even death.  However, reluctance to express an opinion or agreeing unconditionally persists in all generations (albeit inconsistently)  and can be very frustrating.
  • Given direction and management, good Chinese workers can be incredibly hard working. Once approvals are given or decisions are taken, they will work tirelessly to deliver.

 

Our thanks to Gillian Hughes for preparing this article based on her recent discussion with Andrew Sharratt.

Andrew Sharratt, Raynor-Sharratt Interim Management – www.raynor-sharratt.com
Gillian Hughes, FAABC Consulting – www.faabc.com

Developing Perspective

If you want to inform, influence or lead others, you have to recognise that they don’t necessarily see the world the same way that you do.  If you can bridge the gaps you can develop a richer understanding, make better more durable decisions and increase your effectiveness.

Ways of seeing
Everyone develops their own personal ‘constructs’  about of how the world works based on individual observations and experiences within the culture they grow up in.  These constructs are different for every person and embody personal assumptions about motivation, values and choices.  As long as there is no disparity between what you experience and your internal picture of the world, you may be scarcely aware of the constructs you live with.

Personal constructs are in effect working hypotheses of how the world works. They enable you to predict outcomes and anticipate events but they also affect how you see the world. If your beliefs are challenged it can be uncomfortable.  But to reject the alternative viewpoint and stick to your own patterns of thought can be less than helpful if that limits your ability to think objectively. Other points of view contain new information.

Multiple perspectives
Some recent research at the University of Chicago suggests that children that grow up in multilingual environments tend to be better communicators. Those hearing more than one language spoken at home are better at interpreting a speaker’s meaning than children exposed only to their mother tongue. And children do not have to be bilingual themselves – simply being exposed to another language makes a difference.

A lot of this has to do with the ability to identify different perspectives.  The researchers suggest that extensive social practice in monitoring who speaks what to whom increases awareness of the social patterns related to language use.

Those who learn other languages later in life also become aware that there are different ways of expressing the same idea. Indeed, sometimes the other language has a more precise and satisfying way of expressing an idea succinctly – you find exactly the right phrase in mot juste or revel in the misfortune of others with Schadenfreude.

No one right way
But we can develop the ability to recognise different perspectives from the different ways that ideas are expressed in our own language.  This prepares us for the idea that there is seldom one right way of thinking about or approaching an issue and that we are wise to appreciate other points of view in order to get a more rounded view.

This is a process of discovery that enables you to be more empathetic and that increases your range of options. The key is to explore other ways of looking at things but without rejecting your own perspective.

Jo Ouston

What are you on about?

If you want to influence others, get your point across or give instructions that people can follow, you have to address them in a way that they can understand.

My uncle, when stone deaf in his later years, would often begin a sentence with “You are probably wondering about …”. He was usually wide of the mark but he was at least thinking of what his audience might be thinking before launching into what was on his mind.

So often people baffle and mystify because they give vent to what is going on inside their own head without considering how it might be received by you. This seems to be a frequent dramatic device in soap operas, where characters talk past each other and create misunderstandings that then have to be resolved. But it is all too common in the real world – from people “talking at” you to incomprehensible sets of instructions with unexplained jargon, incomplete logic or missing details.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls this the “curse of knowledge” that leads people to assume that their audience knows everything that they know or has the same picture in their head. They have difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone not to know something that they know. As a result they don’t explain the context or they skate over details.

Silo Mentality

This is a problem within organisations too when people become organised within silos. They develop their own concepts, language and imperatives. They understand each other but may have difficulty being understood by others outside their own circle. And with their parochial preoccupations they may be less sensitive to important things going on around them.

Pinker makes the point that we do not notice the “curse” because the curse prevents us from noticing it. It takes a degree of effort and imagination to begin to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

In conversation you have a good chance to put this right, picking up on nods of agreement or frowns of puzzlement and asking for clarification if necessary. But writing requires a particular effort to anticipate the difficulties that others may have in understanding what we think we are saying.

If you want to influence, inspire and carry others with you, it helps to go to where they are and see their point of view. If you can address issues in a way that they can understand you have a much better chance of carrying them with you to where you want to go.

Jo Ouston
September 2015

Jo Ouston on Share Radio

Journalist and former Radio 4 presenter Linda Lewis visited Jo Ouston & Co recently to record a ‘Company Casebook’ profile for Share Radio, which went out in February 2015.  The podcast includes discussions with Jo Ouston and with trainers and staff.

“We are not teaching in the sense of imposing something on people. We are drawing out what they already have.”

Jo Ouston talks about her interest in developing talent, about the origins and operations of the company and about the approaches to individual development that have been evolved within the practice.

 

 

Share Radio is a digital and internet station set up in 2014 to help individuals better understand personal finance.

Environment and Relationships

Working relationships and the human factor seldom follow the straight lines drawn on the office layout plans

It seems to have become widely accepted in recent years that open plan offices are the best bet when it comes to building strong team relationships. It is assumed that when everyone in the organisation is seated together in an open environment relationships will naturally improve through greater interaction and the removal of hierarchies.

Recently the British Council of Offices (BCO) reported that a growing number of London based businesses were opting for open plan offices to encourage ‘staff interaction and knowledge sharing’. According to Matt Oakley, chair of the BCO research committee, this trend “is a reflection that the whole point of the office and the workplace is about sharing ideas and trying to create new products and new ideas and ways of doing things … and you don’t get that by shutting people away”.

In my opinion, you don’t get that by shoe-horning sixty people in to one big room either.

Lost in Space

While I wouldn’t advocate any employee being ‘shut away’, organisations need to understand that simply placing people together physically doesn’t make them a team – one big happy family, united in a common goal, with creativity flowing seamlessly around the organisation as working relationships flourish and productivity goes through the roof.

I find when working with clients that the challenges around working relationships are often linked to the physical environment within which they work. Increasingly, the open plan office seems to be the culprit. Employees may be ‘in the buzz‘ but despair at being constantly interrupted by colleagues and so struggling to get anything done.

Being constantly ‘on-show’ puts a premium on looking busy. People arrive early or stay late to get the space to concentrate and for self-protection many use headphones and other physical barriers to shut themselves off. Glass meeting rooms – a dominant feature of the open plan office – create added challenges. Flip charts and PowerPoint presentations with sensitive ideas or confidential information are on view to anyone passing while employee confidentiality may be compromised when private meetings, such as those with managers or HR, take place for all to see. Equally, without any malice intended, certain individuals may want to meet without another colleague present. This becomes virtually impossible without causing unintended offence and creates an unnecessary feeling of exclusion rather than inclusion.

Fit for purpose

All these factors create stress and of course go completely against the open plan’s promise of delivering strong team relationships and a more productive workforce.

Interestingly, attitudes towards best practice when it comes to office design and the associated challenges seem to have come full circle. In the early 20th century the influence of ‘Taylorism’ saw the emergence of large office spaces with serried ranks of employees doing repetitive work – think Fred McMurray in the 1940s film noir ‘Double Indemnity’ – a pattern that persisted in many a typing pool. This morphed into ‘Burolandschaft’ and into the ‘action office’ concept of renowned designer Robert Propst that favoured a modular layout with people seated in functional clusters and paving the way for the ‘80s style cubicle offices, made famous by the Dilbert cartoon strip. It seems that with the current emphasis on open plan working we have completed the loop and returned to the ‘Taylorism’ days, although the technology deployed and the nature of work itself has changed significantly.

A 2005 study by CABE (the former Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment) explored the notion of a mismatch between an organisation’s purpose and its office environment. The research found that most office moves or refurbishments emphasised design in terms of appearance rather than functionality, with the consequences that the business and its requirements had to be made to fit. The report concluded that instead the design process should start with the business drivers and priorities and evolve from that.

Ain’t nobody here but us chickens

Clearly the cost of office space is a significant issue but to be ‘fit for purpose’ we must not lose sight of the kind of strong working relationships that we need to build. If we treat people like battery hens, they may peck at each other rather than laying the golden eggs.

Fretting about office design might seem like small beer in the day-to-day activities of most companies. However, in a 2003 study by Management Today, 97% of respondents said they regarded their place of work as a symbol of whether or not they were valued by their employer, but only 37% felt their office had been designed ‘with people in mind’. While home working with its reduced noise and disruption is attractive for some, a YouGov poll of 1000 office workers for BCO published in November found that some 79% of employees still greatly valued the social benefits of working in a communal space – being able to meet colleagues face to face and interact with other employees.

However, the research also found that two-thirds voted their personal workspace as a vital element of workplace design, one which had a positive impact on their ability to work efficiently. This comes as organisations increasingly opt to erode desk ownership through open plan office models. It is ‘business basics’ to most organisations that when people feel valued they are more productive. And the link between productivity and profitability is certainly not an area to be ignored.

Jo Ouston

photo: www.officemuseum.com

Networking Knowhow

Many are uncomfortable with the idea of networking but if you think of others rather than yourself it can be altogether more enjoyable

Mention the word ‘networking’ and for many people it is an immediate turn off. It conjures up visions of flash, fast-talking individuals working the room in a predatory fashion. When so-called ‘networking opportunities’ arise, many of us just feel uncomfortable or out of place.

The truth is that many people don’t really know why they should network or indeed how they should go about it. They may think, misguidedly, that they have to present themselves in a manner that is not natural to them and strive to get a ‘result’ from every conversation they have.

Why bother?

If people approach networking with the idea of just ‘selling’ or of taking but not giving then the negative perceptions are inevitable. In his inaugural address President John F. Kennedy famously said: ‘ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country’. A similar spirit applies to networking.

It is far more effective to view networking as a process of discovery, a mutual exchange – a chance to engage with others in an open and honest way, to give and receive information, to find and explore shared interests.

The Rewards

Networking is not an end in itself but a means to an end. It provides the opportunity gather intelligence, to understand different contexts, to test ideas and opinions, to find out about new developments or ask questions about things you want to know. You may be introduced to people that you can help, or who can help you, whilst in return contributing your own knowledge and thoughts where relevant.

Something or nothing may come from this. You may have little in common with some people you meet or even dislike them. Yet you may have learned something useful … even if you move swiftly on! If there is common ground, the initial conversation may be a first step in building trust and perhaps, further down the line, a continuing connection or working relationship.

Generosity of spirit

So how do you become more comfortable with networking? Firstly, set out to enjoy yourself. Recognise that you can contribute as well as receiving. Be generous – a honey bee, taking ideas from place to place and cross pollinating, while gathering gold dust yourself.

Be nosy – not in an intrusive way but in the sense of having a curious, inquiring mind and taking an interest in other people. Ask questions about the things that interest you. Pass on the ideas that will be of interest to others.

Some make connections more easily than others. They intuitively put themselves in other people’s shoes and are more readily able see the world from different perspectives. But don’t force it. If the person you are speaking to feels you are ‘putting it on’ or trying too hard, they will soon drift away.

Above all, be your warm, natural and engaging self.

Jo Ouston