It’s been 56 years since Roald Dahl took our minds inside Willy Wonkas chocolate factory; the book sold over 20 million copies and Tim Burton’s remake in 2005 grossed over $500m worldwide. It’s safe to say; it’s a bit of classic.
According to the internet, the story was originally inspired by Roald Dahl’s experience of chocolate companies during his schooldays. Cadbury would send test packages to the school children in exchange for their opinions on the new products. At that time, Cadbury and Rowntree’s were England’s two largest chocolate makers and they each often tried to steal trade secrets by sending spies, posing as employees, into the other’s factory.
A few weeks ago I watched a Channel 5 documentary claiming to reveal the Cadbury chocolate factory’s secrets. I was left feeling a little disappointed; I obviously didn’t expect oompa loompas or chocolate rivers but I certainly didn’t find out any secrets.
Maybe I set false expectations; maybe my mind just went somewhere that simply expected more…
I was on a call yesterday when somebody said to me they we’re glad to escape school because of all the idiots there but when arriving into the world of work soon realised they had all joined him. We laughed but seriously, how many times have you tried to ‘escape’ something and it’s bitten you on the ass later down the line?
The first office building was built in 1726 in London, the British Empire was expanding and trading with other parts of the world and they felt a central space was required to bring people together and complete a task. From 1729 onward new offices appeared throughout London. The UK government commented:
“…for the intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted; but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room under proper superintendence, is the proper mode of meeting it’
Then came the joys of the open plan; apparently emphasizing on efficiency, workers sat in rows and managers circled like prey ready to pounce. I’d love to say it didn’t take long for people to realise it was lacking in the ‘human touch’…!
Whilst the UK was doing this, USA were building skyscrapers thanks to new technology: lighting, air conditioning, the telegraph, lifts and steel construction. There was more space and here came the mix of private offices and open plan. By 1939, The Johnson Wax company, albeit still focusing on productivity, introduced bright lighting (you know, the type that results in needing eye drops) and acoustic panels.
Organisations began to reflect on their spaces; they wanted the office to reflect their corporate image, here came the corner offices, maghony, power and masculinity. WWII soon halted the evolution and it took until the 60’s to see any major changes.
Finally, in the 60’s came the concept that the workplace was more about human interaction and engagement; desks were grouped together and here came the plants!
Then came the element of choice (check it out) with an option of different work spaces including the rise of the meeting room. Desks got bigger and the partitions went up.
Whoo, then came the women…and modesty boards! Yes people, this was only 50 years ago.
And because people were in boxes with little human contact they started to personalise the dull and lifeless space. People continued to be cogs in the machine, profit over people, with modular walls flying up and probably the most depressing situation yet… the cubicles.
Technology (thankfully) pulled us out of this with increased mobility and agility, less dependence on having an assigned desk. Efficiency remained key and hotdesking and neighbourhood working became the new answer. Then we evolved again; with less people heading to ‘the office’ but people clearly missing ‘the place’ (i.e the community…aka beer taps) co-working skipped in. Those people still in offices wanted fun too and out came the beanbags and table tennis.
It’s worth noting that this wasn’t a linear process and every organisation is at different stage of their evolution. The pandemic threw many curve balls at us, many of those organisations who said their workforce could never work remotely, are probably now realising (hopefully) that it was more ‘I can’t trust my workforce to work remotely’.
Exactly how many times have you tried to ‘escape’ something and it’s bitten you on the ass later down the line?
So, what now? Well, we can:
- A) Do nothing. Create a ‘covid secure’ office and demand the return of the ‘normal’.
- B) Look at every workplace gone before and see what fits.
- C) Be brave. Enter the world of pure re-imagination.
What does it mean to be human? What do we want from work? What are the business needs and desires? Will the business survive? What does the business expect from it’s people? How do we enable? Are our leaders and management styles fit for the ‘new world’? What are the assumptions and unconscious bias? How do we do our work? At what time do we do our best work? Do we need an office? Why? What is the quality of data we have? How can we ensure we constantly evolve?
In Chinese, the word for crisis 危机, also bears the meaning of opportunity.
It’s certainly time to reflect and for many, also likely to be the time to press reset.