‘Where do I belong?’ An open-plan office conundrum.

A recent study concluded that open-plan offices do the opposite of their intended aim. Instead of fostering creativity, they stifle creativity. Instead of facilitating face-to-face communication, they inspire emails and gossip. And perhaps worst, in the case of the hot-desk open office, rather than foster collaboration, the cool kids get the seats by the window and the outcasts get stuck between the tea point and the toilets.

At the heart of all this is the simple need to feel as though you belong somewhere. I mean this both physically and socially.

In the physical case, there’s a comfort in knowing this is your spot in the room. Maybe there’s a slightly better spot over by Bob’s window seat, but this’ll do and it’s a place to call your own.

Certainty facilitates efficiency; hot-desking and open-plan offices reduce certainty. Will I get a good desk today? Can I make a private call? Who’s looking over my shoulder? These are unnecessary stresses that affect employees’ productivity and sense of value.

In the social case, consider how the person who doesn’t get to sit with the cool kids feels — and let’s face it, like every high school lunch room, there are always cool kids. Those left out of the popular group might feel as though they don’t belong. This is a physical metaphor of how they start to feel about their role in an organisation, and this creates a need for leaders to take interventive measures — a burden that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Even if the motivation of an open-plan office setup was to demonstrate a trust in people to sort themselves, the effect has been to make people feel leaderless. Rather than empowered, they feel helpless; rather than led, they feel ignored. These feelings are the enemies of belonging, and they are to be avoided.

Similar to how university students crave the certainty of a marking rubric, employees crave a certain identity within an organisation, and the certainty that leaders recognise who they are as individuals. One way to achieve this is to communicate clearly both where employees belong in the physical office, and how they fit into the organisation’s overall operations. Unsurprisingly, the physical layout of an office space is no substitute for good communication and strong leadership.

Once you work that out, everything else sorts itself.

Why “Root Beer in New Zealand”?

Maybe because it tastes a bit like liniment, root beer isn’t easy to find in New Zealand. But to me, it tastes like old times and good memories, so once in a while I fancy a sip.

Could be I could have convinced  a distributor to import an old favourite, but I reckon better yet, why not brew my own. The trouble is the main ingredient that gives root beer its traditional liniment taste — sassafras — doesn’t grow in New Zealand. So I had to improvise.

Crush up a kawakawa leaf, breathe into your hand, and you’ll activate the flavour and scent of sassafras’s peppery alternative. I made up an extract and mixed it with other local flavours: manuka and makomako to name two. Long story short, all added up, New Zealand root beer is now a flavour all its own — and it goes as fine with vanilla ice cream as any root beer should.

Why Root Beer in New Zealand? Because when I wanted to produce a tasty beverage, I put in the hours and adapted as necessary to get things right. That’s how I work as a researcher, writer, and editor, too.

Writing is a taste-driven vocation. A writer sensitive to readers’ wants and needs can fashion prose with plenty of zing — the same way a careful brewer can cook up a good old fashioned root beer, distinct in its flavour, yet not tasting of liniment. I bring this sensitivity to my writing — the kind of sensitivity I learned brewing Root Beer in New Zealand.

How to write better emails

“Make the paragraph the unit of composition.”

So said Strunk in The Elements of Style, and Strunk’s suggestion is really about planning.

Today, many tend to type and think at the same time, considering little of what “units” are best for composition.

How do you plan your emails? Do you tap your fingers across a keyboard and fill a screen with words? Do you jot down a few bullet points? Do you dictate your thoughts on a topic and copy and paste them into sensible order later? Any of these can be good techniques when used thoughtfully.

Here, then, is a suggestion for how to improve the structure of your writing in general:

Paragraphs are elaborations of simple ideas. When you start writing, start with simple, un-elaborated ideas. Often, these ideas will suggest actions. Consider how you might write about starting a business:

  • Create a business plan.
  • Contact possible partners
  • Follow up with contacts

This outline suggests at least three paragraphs, where each paragraph gives the reader a good reason to think the simple action should be taken, and gives the reader a sense of how to take that action. In this way, the paragraph is our “unit of composition”.

Paragraph 1:

When starting a business, one should begin by formulating a business plan. The plan should include a clear description of what the business will offer, plus how the business will deliver that offering. A comprehensive plan will include analysis of opportunities in the market and possible threats to the business’s viability.

Paragraph 2:

With a good plan established, you should contact potential partners. If you are brewing beer, for example, you should contact ingredient suppliers and begin developing relationships. Also, contact distributors to determine how and to where you can deliver your product most efficiently.

In this we see how the brief bullet pointed outline is really a way to plan paragraphs. This is a useful tool that can improve your writing significantly. Focus on the paragraphs, and be sure that each paragraph develops one point. Don’t wander and ramble; keep it tight.

It might take a few minutes at the start to establish the plan, but by the end, your readers will notice that you’ve taken the time. They’ll appreciate the clarity of your communications.

In short: you should plan your writing by considering the importance of paragraphs. Don’t simply start by typing into a blank screen. Rather, start with a simple outline of a few key points you want to convey. Then fill in the details to make your case clearly and concisely.

How to tighten up your writing

Start with simple, declarative statements.

From business writing to academic writing, poor subject and verb choices spoil the presentation of good ideas and tax a reader’s attention span. Writers call it the “active voice”, but it’s simply this: pick the right subjects and verbs and your readers will will keep reading.

(You’re still reading, right?)

Consider this:

The building was sold by Mitchell Froom before it was refitted for occupancy by Perfect Curve.

How about this instead:

Mitchell Froom sold the building to Perfect Curve prior to its refitting.

A subtle difference, perhaps, but an important one. In the first case, the building is the subject of the sentence; is this really the subject? In the second case, Mitchell Froom is the subject; this is appropriate because, let’s imagine, we’re pitching for Froom. (The case will be similar if we’re pitching for the refit, or for Perfect Curve.)

Furthermore, in the first sentence, refitted “for occupancy” is probably unnecessary, unless Perfect Curve did something unexpected. Surely when you refit something, you intend to use it, and the use of the building is simply part of Perfect Curve’s identity. (Let’s assume that we know Perfect Curve to be an advertising agency. Not likely they’ll be refitting with surgical theatres or warehouse space.)

Also, the first sentence is 16 words; the second sentence is 12 words. We’ve reduced the length by a quarter, and this is good. Economy and efficiency in your communication is just as important as economy and efficiency in your supply chain.

Finally, notice in the first sentence that the action is “was sold”. That kind of verb construction often signals that you’ve chosen the wrong subject. This isn’t always true, but it’s a good guide to help you identify spots where you might be more efficient — and more precise — in your communications.

In short, tight writing saves time and money. Keep it tight.