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Feeling engaged? Why we all need a blue piano

Feeling engaged? Why we all need a blue piano

by Moyra Mackie on March 29, 2014

What’s it like where you work?

I don’t just mean how you relate to your boss and the people you work with.

I mean the space.  What’s it like?

Is it a space where you feel your needs can be met?  The need for connectedness and collaboration and a space that allows you to do that in comfort and ease.   The need for confidential conversations and focussed work, without having to book a windowless meeting room six months in advance.

Have you ever thought the way you relate to people at work is connected to the space you do it in?


If you’re fighting for a “hot desk” or a meeting room or working in a small office separated from teams you need to work with, how does this affect the way you feel and communicate and the way you relate?  There is a wonderful TED talk from Don Norman that explores how buildings trigger emotions.

Collaboration technology is not the answer to everything

I’m a huge supporter of social technology platforms for large organisations to share information, to make connections and to work out loud.  If you’re working in a large company and you don’t have a platform that allows you to do this, you need to get one.

Technology cannot compensate for spiritual and emotional connections

There’s a lot of research on mirror neurons, which are parts of our brain that light up when we process intention and emotion.  This is the part of the brain that relates to empathy.

Just seeing someone else experience pleasure or pain, lights up parts of our brain that are activated when we personally experience those sensations.  Reading about it or being told about it, does nothing for our mirror neurons.

Which points to the limitations of technology in supporting deep, trustful, human interaction.

When I am brought in to work with teams who want to be more effective and high-performing, the first thing I consider is their physical environment. How many real walls and doors separate leaders from their teams? How much space and light do teams have?

The best spaces are full of unnecessary but important things

The best public and work spaces should meet both practical and emotional needs. The need for:

  • emotional contact
  • creativity
  • experimentation
  • and freedom of expression

Great workplaces and great public spaces always have a blue piano

Obviously it doesn’t have to be blue and it doesn’t have to be a piano, but it needs to be something unnecessary AND important.

I was reminded of this last week when I saw a real blue piano being played in the concourse of St Pancras station in London.

Half a dozen people stood listening as a man played with much enthusiasm and focus and only a touch of self-consciousness.  He was no concert pianist, but the audience were supportive and appreciative.  I noticed passers-by slow their dash for the next train and most of them smiled – at the piano player, but also at those watching.

In that moment, I saw multiple brief connections being made.  For just a minute, strangers were more familiar, less harried, more appreciative and aware of their surroundings.

And all because of a blue piano

It shouldn’t be a surprise to find a blue piano and a human space at St Pancras Station because it’s built in Victorian Gothic style.  Supporters of Gothic Revival were reacting to the large scale industrialisation of the 18th and 19th century and believed buildings should be useful and practical, but also appeal to the spiritual and emotional life of those that worked or lived within those spaces.

Human spaces don’t survive without a fight  

St Pancras is no exception. It was saved from demolition in the sixties by the poet Sir John Betjeman and a small group of campaigners who could see beauty in the handcrafted fussiness of Victorian craftsmen at a time when planners and business were in thrall to concrete simplicity and straight lines.

Sir John Betjeman, poet, architect, campaigner

Sir John Betjeman, poet, architect, campaigner

But survival was not revival

When I passed regularly through the station in the 80’s it was sad and neglected, with broken glass, graffiti and peeling paint.

There was not a piano in sight

It took another forty years of decline and neglect, before St Pancras received £800m pounds of attention, reviving a space that was functional and human.

And I think the fortunes of St Pancras mirror the way the workplace has been treated, with the current trend moving towards humane and sustainable places to work.

A company that cares about people engagement should start with the bricks and mortar

It seems to me that if people feel they don’t “own their space” and can’t make it theirs, there must be a psychological price to pay in terms of reduced loyalty and increased stress.

It’s too easy to “cut costs” by introducing hot-desking and charging for the coffee.  In my view, facilities management should have some kind of metric linked to sick days, absenteeism and the amount of email traffic, which are all symptoms of a workplace that’s not working.

What do you think?  Does your workplace have a blue piano?

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie helps leaders and teams to work with courage, compassion and creativity. She is an executive coach and consultant and the founder of Mackie Consulting.

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