UK: Handy's View - Boring workplace, boring worker.

UK: Handy's View - Boring workplace, boring worker. - While it may not be viable to begin painting frescoes on the office walls, Charles Handy argues that an inspired workplace will result in inspired workers.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

While it may not be viable to begin painting frescoes on the office walls, Charles Handy argues that an inspired workplace will result in inspired workers.

One of the great advantages of art in Italy is that most of the paintings are still in the very places for which they were commissioned. They are frescoes, painted into the plaster as it dries, and frescoes are hard, if not completely impossible, to move, particularly if they are large. So when you walk into the old Council Chamber of Siena's town hall, the Palazzo Publico, you will see, on the end wall, the great image of the Madonna and her court of angels which the counsellors of the 14th century would have looked at as they conferred. The fact that it was painted by Simone Martini, their very own artist, would have been a cause of some justifiable pride, but the real point was that the Madonna also happened to be the patron of their city and, as she is painted, her gaze forever looked down on them and their doings. Her gaze is benign, but at the same time demanding.

Good and bad government

Go next door to the room of The Nine, where what one might call the executive committee of the city met, and you confront the elaborate frescoes done for them by Ambrogio Lorenzetti 100 years later. On the left Lorenzetti depicted all the signs of bad government: thievery, skulduggery, wantonness and widespread despair. On the right was good government: a well-ordered city surrounded by peaceful, productive countryside. I have to admit that the good government people don't seem to be having much fun. It looks pretty much like all work and no play, but that, maybe, is what all governments would like to see - no trouble and lots of useful enterprise. The point, however, is that you cannot sit in that room and be unaware of these powerful works of art and of their message. If one picture is worth a thousand words, then these amazing frescoes, some 600 years old, give out a far stronger message than any corporate mission statement could ever wish to convey. Mission statements can all too easily be shoved in a drawer and forgotten, but if you sit in their midst, there's no forgetting or ignoring Lorenzetti's frescoes. The charm of Siena today is largely a tribute to the men who sat in those rooms all those centuries ago.

I wondered, as I looked at those frescoes the other day, what equivalents there are nowadays in our boardrooms and executive meeting rooms, what visual reminders of their task and their mission. I cast my mind back over boardrooms I have visited. Some were hung with heavy portraits of sober-looking predecessors. Are the current board members supposed to emulate them? If so, it is small wonder that many of those boardrooms no longer have companies to accommodate. Other boardrooms, perhaps appropriately, are hung with modern abstract works, works which each board member must interpret for themselves, just as they also make their own interpretations of the company's proclaimed reasons for existence. Then there are those where the company results are charted, reminders more of the past than the future, I often feel.

Remember what it is you do

I like more those traditions in which the directors start each day by feeling the stuff they make, or sampling their wares in one way or another.

Those boardrooms are often decorated with their products, visual reminders of what they do. My publishers' offices are lined with their latest books - it's easy to see what they are about, books first, and then money to make more books happen. What, I wonder, is it like to work in an office where there are no visual reminders of what it's all for? It must seem rather soulless and anonymous. Work then becomes merely a means to an end, a way of simply obtaining a pay cheque.

We can't all devise or afford stylish murals to emphasise our corporate purposes, but we can infuse our workplaces with our values in one way or another. Atmosphere makes more difference than any number of logos.

Boring places breed boring thoughts and boring people, of that I am sure, and then the one feeds on the other to produce yet more boring spaces.

Quality and style however, encourage quality and style in their inhabitants.

It is hard to produce shoddy work in a beautiful place, where even the functional necessities are elegant. Buildings and offices often wear their hearts on their sleeves. You can tell what life is like within them just by taking a look at them.

Quality costs money of course, and I bet that Lorenzetti and Martini didn't come cheap, nor can the results be easily quantified. But there is a difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Cost-efficient places are not always effective. Efficiency in a building tends to emphasise conformity, regulations and rules - boxes linked by systems, with the individuals as a necessary nuisance. Such places are seldom seedbeds for creativity and change, nor do they encourage sensitivity to the world they serve, no matter how much the corporate mission statement may emphasise such things. It is encouraging that at long last corporations and their architects are waking up to the opportunities to create imaginative working environments and to the dangers of sick buildings.

The personal touch pays off

In one advertising agency that I visited, everyone above a certain level was given a budget with which to furnish and equip their own room, with items from the company warehouse available for free. The result was a fascinating variety, reflecting the different tastes and needs of each individual. It was never going to be cost-efficient, but it was a fun place to work in, a place with an idiosyncratic atmosphere, one which challenged the individual who worked there to be creative and original.

I can't help but believe that the famed creativity of the agency had some of its origins in the nature of the workplace. Where you work can't help but influence what you do.

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