The context: communication and sociality in the workplace
The working environment of our studio or office or study can have a big impact on us. Is the working environment used by you individually or do you share the space with colleagues, friends or others? Is there any supposed hierarchy between any of the people in the studio? Does the supposed hierarchy have any physical reflection in the layout and orientation of the space? If it does — is it desired or is it unintentional?
Hierarchies hurt the chances of the emergence of a culture. Be it a studio environment, a startup or a research group — the ability of a group of people to work collectively towards a common objective depends on the absence or presence of hierarchies. An absence of hierarchies does not mean that there are no reporting, accountability, supervisory or mentorship relationships. It just means that there is no non-contextual restriction of what kind of personal exchange can or cannot happen.
Inter-personal exchange should not be regulated. It can be designed or directed. And it can definitely be specified for optimal flow and efficiency.
But inter-personal exchange or interaction should not be regulated anymore than that.
For a person to feel comfortable and engaged in a space, the quality and pressure of their experience should be balanced. They should neither be subjected to over-communication nor should they under-communicate. What are the productive kinds of communication that a workplace can have and what role can each kind of communication play?
I will go on to list the main kinds of communication and the role that each of them plays in a collaborative work environment. This is a suggested list and not an exhaustive or prescriptive one.
Stage 1: Comfort:
Social Communication: This lays the basic foundation for every other kind of exchange to happen. The social space is the layer in which we familiarise ourselves with each other’s way of looking at the world. Each other’s way of relating to other people and receiving their ideas to collaborate and hold an exchange. I think the basic role of this kind of communication is building a comfort and ease to enable other kinds of exchange.
Stage 2: Reception:
Discursive Communication: This kind of communication helps colleagues discuss and negotiate their differences. There are a lot of differences of opinion in a teams that work together towards achieving a set of common objectives. Teams working together should have a way of holding discussions in a way that offence is not easily taken. Ideally, the fear of offence being taken should also not be hanging in the air. Without this fear, conversation can flow freely. With more time spent on free topical conversation in discursive mode, the chances of being empathetic to an unfamiliar point of view go up.
Synchronous Communication: The role of this type of communication is to keep team an organisation-wide colleagues updated. If everyone is not kept updated, there are many undesired actions and reactions within the organisation. There is unnecessary anxiety and a lack of a ability to plan into the future. A team or organisation that is not in sync will find it very difficult to be efficient. Decision makers will always be in the dark and will not be able to take informed decisions. Communities that are comfortable and receptive to each other, trust is the natural next step.
Prospective Communication: Team members are often in a position where they require the colleagues to support and accept their ideas. Pitching ideas to anyone requires all three value discussed here — comfort, reception and trust. Unless these three exist, articulating ideas is difficult. Working environments which allow a healthy level of prospective communication are able to grow much rapidly. The potential for growth is directly proportional to the number of iterations a community is able to queue and process over time.
Other bonds that are made in the workplace that build comradeship, support or friendship are also healthy of course and support the longevity of the relationship. But giving ourselves a reason to be friendly does not help. Friendships ideally do not exist for a specific reason. In this post I do not discuss friendships that take root and blossom in a workplace. Instead, I focus on the kind of conditions that can help us work productively and creatively with individuals who live in altered states of reality.
As a rule if you are trying to do something new, ambitious or risky, the members of your team (the people who have gotten attracted to the ambition and risk in the first place) might be placed outside the bracket of normalcy, as it is known.
Individuals who do not identify as fully normal do not like to communicate or report in normal ways either.
Individuals, behavioural issues and the role they play
Such individuals might be shy, require sufficient amount of privacy to work comfortably or might be disturbed by overly casual conversations or inflexible schedules. They might not be able to participate in the above mentioned routine of communication rituals (1).
This break happens and it takes some time before it becomes apparent. These personality traits are first categorised as disorders and are stigmatised. Work cultures typically do not make allowances for psychologically disturbed people.
And when they do, they tend to be more supportive and allowing for behavioural eccentricities of seniors. Young people actually need such flexibility and support more. Seniors are able to negotiate to get the flexibility that they desire by leveraging either their legacy or their capacity to do something with a certain amount of expertise.
As a result of this negotiation, the allowance is either made or it is not. In this negotiation, the value of the senior’s specific demand is compared to the value of the work that they will do or have done in the past. If the former is higher, the allowance does not happen. If the latter is higher, the allowance happens.
It might seem like a generalisation (and it might well be) but the following statements have been put together from personal experience, observation and analysis. So please consider them for a moment.
Individuals with behavioural conditions like the one outlined above in (1) can contribute positively to certain work processes. We will look at some of these processes here as well as look at how they are supported by what are considered behavioural problems otherwise.
Kinds of workflows and how they are supported by uncommon behavioural patterns (2):
a) Research + Research and Development: The effort to seek and develop answers to new questions is called research. In the industrial or design context, this is often practiced as research and development. This process involves long periods of individual and solitary study and practice and does not involve a lot of nitty-gritty communication (outside the immediate team) on an everyday basis.
b) Writing: Writing — be it in the context of print or digital — can be an introspective and fulfilling activity. Of course writing needs to be of a quality that demands personal psychological investment. Only then writing takes on creative dimensions. All creative activities perform some kind of healing for our weathered spirits. They do this by letting us express, by making us reflect, by interpreting our own situation dispassionately and by helping us figure what to do next.
The last role of creative activity is embedded within the act of being self-critical. Being self-critical involves an assessment of what has been done so far and how to go another step forward.
c) Design: Design is thought to be an arm of market-driven effort to apply creative insight. It is thought to be a more known eco-system than it actually is. There are fundamental questions everyday but these are dismissed either by using theory or data.
The non-optimal age-bias & inflexibility in workplaces and creative environments
Invariably, theory and data are kinds of information that grows deeper with experience. This limits the role that young people can play at the decisive and leadership level of a design effort (3).
The pre-existing capacity and the legacy that a mid-career practitioner might have actually gives them a lot of leverage in negotiating the nature and the conditions of their work. In addition, the point (3) above, ensures that the experienced can solve a greater degree of the work requirements as they are currently framed.
A loop exists in the content of this negotiation and the definition of the processes of actual “high value” work. The kinds of work listed above (research, writing or design) is defined by people either more or similarly experienced as the profile of the person who will be eventually engaged to fulfil it. This does not allow the established methods of work to be disrupted.
In the business of creativity and innovation, to solve a problem, the method being utilised to solve the problem must be altered first. Altering the work method to arrive at a solution can radically increase the chances of generating a new perspective of looking at the original problem.
A new perspective is a sign that a new solution is not far.
The situation I am trying to define here demands a desire to overhaul processes and systems for greater overall gains. Most leaders and entrepreneurs just need to get things done.
The benefits that arise from work method innovation are more long-term and more substantial. They also require more time and a higher degree of comfort with uncertainty.
This brings us to an interesting point.
Is disruption in the business space largely driven by young people with very less to lose? Is that an obvious question that we already know the answer to? Is this also the reason why risk capital or venture capital largely available to young graduates of premier institutions who have low liabilities?
To extrapolate from this point:
We will look at theory and experience as a liability. The mid-career practitioner is in a space where they have a lot to lose if things change too much, if experiments do not work or basically if they fail.
For the performance of the function of research, or design and for truly engaging writing to happen, the above conflict is not a supportive factor.
What The Idea of Youth Could Mean and a Reality Check
The word youth here does correspond to a number or a developmental stage. It corresponds to a thought process — a way of thinking. And so “youth” is a complex idea and is not easily understood. In popular culture we frequently encounter those who are a certain age claiming to represent youth and those have crossed a certain age desperately trying to claim that they are still young. “Youth” seems to be a contested space, and it is.
The format for this contestation is not an irreversible number representing the number of times we might have gone around the sun. It is the degree to which we have managed to treat this number with disbelief.
A firm belief in our age limits how we imagine our own potential. An open-ended and unformed self-image is beneficial to the fulfilment of the roles outlined. There is a Taoist concept which has been described by Benjamin Hoff in “The Tao of Pooh” as The Uncarved Block.
The concept says that if an individual does not commit to personal identification with a given set of values, the potential to display a value that a given context might demand is retained. If an individual commits to a set of values (the process that is called individuation in psychology) it becomes difficult to commit to another value that does not fit the existing value system.
The rationale of the supposed efficiency of the experienced mid-career creative professional is overstated. As such individuals already position and place themselves as “knowing,” they generally seek answers that validate their existing knowledge. They do not challenge themselves but produce continuities.
Our argument here is not some unnecessary reverse agist approach. I am not generalising here that only “the young” (whether defined by age or by state of mind) are capable of being truly creative or innovative as researchers, writers or designers.
I am suggesting that both the personality types, the old (4) (those who build their legacy) and the young (5) (those who build themselves) might have slightly different roles to play in any creative process.
The old (4) and the young (5) have to collaborate and learn to listen to each other to be able to respond to the times we live in.
To do this, they have to acknowledge and identify the roles that each can uniquely play. This is not a very neat process and usually does not lead to very neat outcomes. It is intrinsically messy — because instead of relying on assumptions and generalisations, it relies on conversation and exchange.
Conversation and exchange can easily drift into a synthetic or theatrical area. Participants in a conversation can be led to believe that at a given point, the best choice to make is tentatively agreeing to the other participant’s claims. Doing this gives the other participant a false sense of concurrence.
A good rule to follow is this case is to reserve and delay affirmations and confirmations for as long as possible. In the case of confusion and a lack of clarity, requesting time to talk about the matter at hand further is generally a good practice.
Through regular conversation and exchange, an awareness of each other’s strengths and weaknesses is possible. Then a collaborative process in which every participant is playing on his or her strengths can be conceptualised.
In the research, writing or design fields such a collaboration can potentially be radical and disruptive.
Concluding: more diversity in the formulation of creative workspaces
I would like to generally claim and state that as a society, humans have explored a very narrow range of their creative potential.
As a species, we can work more on the structures, methods and social arrangement to generate a more diverse set of creative outcomes.
This process can be very enriching for practitioners who are placed at various ends of “the youth” and “the old” spectrum.
We have had many critiques of the equity and fairness in our society, be it from the perspective of feminism or race or nationality. I believe a critique that is mounted from the perspective of the young/old divide is also possible. Of course the divide would need to be framed not in terms of age as a number but in terms of “the uncarved block” concept referenced above.
Creative organisations should be more inclusive of different personality types in the future. Once this happens, there can be a more thorough analysis of the cultures of work that are collectively being built. We can then identify practices which are more supportive to the objective of raising the bar of our creative output.
Keeping the “cultural dimension” of our creative workspaces fluid and not being fully satisfied with the status quo is important.
From the notion of work that emerged during the industrial revolution, not very long back to now, we have come a long way as far as the basic format and nature of work is concerned. But it might not be far enough. We have to keep pushing to try and bring our collective understanding of work, creativity and acceptable formats of workplace behaviours in sync with our overall liberal cultural discourse.
As humans, our range of output is highly variable. I do not believe in any theory that places the genus of human creative ability in some mythical notion of talent or genius. All formats of human creativity are just cultural responses.
Through this approach, we can gain insights to move further in the way we are dealing with the ecological crises, the global poverty puzzle, the population development/education gap and other dilemmas.
I can suggest some easy and quick ways to start working with some of these ideas:
a) A More Flexible and Porous Notion of Age: One of the takeaways from this text can be how the idea of numerically-defined age is a complex and layered idea. It is more complex and layered if we want to draw meanings and insights from this numerically-defined age. If we want to make claims that such and such aged people behave in a such and such way, we will have to deepen the basis of our claims.
Of course for as widely and commonly accepted notion as age to change even a little bit, a big public debate will need to happen.
For this debate to take place, this issue will have to become more urgent and relevant. In the manner that it is framed here, the issue might seem to consist of a series of subtle points that are not of a high enough priority to be tackled systemically.
Does such a perspective remind you of the early days of feminism or the racial equality movement and how the concerns that were raised were dismissed?
b) More Diversity In The Formulation of Creative Teams: This is a general measure which should be adopted without agreeing with all the arguments put forward by this text. The benefits of diversity are well known. Already while formulating a creative team, organisations try to make them more representative of different age-groups. But this takes into account only a very narrow notion of numerically-defined age. By taking point a) into consideration above, this can become a more robust and actual process.
3) A More Hybrid and Open Conception of Design Pedagogy and its Outcomes: A lot of these ideas come down to how our university education system is organised.
Education is almost forced upon people at a certain numerical age. We don’t make it easy or productive for learners at a different numerical-age to be part of an educational experience.
This leads to a general assumption about who a “student” is and what s/he is capable of.
Please feel free to write to me at email@example.com to discuss any of the threads in this text.