Arts spaces as workplaces – London’s Royal Festival Hall

Reading time: 4 minutes
View from the Royal Festival Hall
A pod from the London Eye (EyePod?) being towed donwstream, photographed from the Members' Area of The Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank.

Since I went freelance nearly four years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time working in – and a lot of time talking aboutThe Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank Centre.

Today is the last day I’ll cycle up here from home in London. Next week we’re moving to Bristol, and really looking forward to our new family adventures out west.

I’ve been reflecting on what it is about the Royal Festival Hall, the Members’ Area in particular, that makes it such a great place to work as a freelance.

As fewer people need to base themselves in traditional offices, is there anything you could abstract from this and blend in to other “public” spaces, I wonder?

(It’s not a complete list, but here are some of the things that I like, and few related things that trouble me slightly. It’s a bit cause and effect, and I don’t think I’d try to change it. I’m concentrating on the Members’ Area. There is seating all over the building that anybody can use, members and non-members, and you can access the wifi from most of them.)

Some things I like  (in no particular order):

  1. Once you’ve paid your annual membership you know that any additional costs are entirely up to you and will usually involve food and drink from the well stocked bar
  2. It’s a members’ area, but it’s in “public space” and you’re always reminded of that by being able to walk right in, and then the views back out over London’s landmarks through wide-angle windows.
  3. The soundtrack changes, recognisably, throughout the day.
  4. People. The staff are friendly and polite. And there are lots of fellow freelances. You’re never more than a few yards away from then next great television series in the making, a world-changing web project, a language teaching tutorial or a careers counselling session.
  5. You don’t have to book (see below).
  6. You can bring a guest. It’s a great place to meet clients. A great chance, often, for them to get out of their usual work habitat and get a different perspective on things. It’s hard not to be inspired by the place, and all its (hi-)stories.
  7. The river. Just knowing it’s there. Ever-changning, breathing, reflecting and refreshing.
  8. The free wifi. When it’s not being hogged (see below).
  9. You might bump in to someone you know here, friends, family (I once bumped in to my Mum here) and fellow freelances. You can freelance in “parallel” and watch each other’s stuff while you grab a coffee.
  10. The free lunchtime concerts in the Clore Ballroom, especially jazz on Fridays.
  11. It metamorphoses at 6:30 each evening as the day-shift is gradually replaced by besuited and bejewelled concert-goers enjoying a pre-performance aperitif.

A couple of things that trouble me (a little bit)

  1. Table-hogs. People who arrive at 10:00am, grab a table and then often leave it with their stuff on for hours at a time. This does seem to be improving as the membership staff have picked up on it, and so – unfortunately – have a few opportunist thieves, who have the audacity and front to stake out the place and remove unwatched valuable items.
  2. (Connected, but not quite the same) Not knowing if there’ll be a table available. The members’ area has become a victim of its own success, large queues form just before 10am outside the main doors. It’s a bit like Dalyan in South West Turkey, or Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula. It’s only a matter of time before best kept are on the cover of all the holiday brochures. And I must confess to contributing to this through my enthusiasm for the place. I understand there are plans afoot to increase seat numbers without damaging the unique atmosphere.
  3. Lunchtime latency. Video viewing and audio listening peak, not surprisingly. If you seriously need to use the internet for your work, get a wireless broadband dongle.

Do you freelance in the Royal Festival Hall, or another public / arts space? What do you like about it?

And if anyone’s got any recommendations for similar places in Bristol (The Watershed?), I’d love to hear from you – in comments or on Twitter.

[Information about South Bank Centre Membership]

Facebook as intranet – healthy hype

Reading time: 1 minute

Bill Ives at FastForward blog writes about how the software company Serena has adopted Facebook as its corporate intranet.

They’re using it to take their 800 global employees through a big change programme. They’ve created a few custom apps that staff can use in their private network on Facebook. Apparently it’s boosted staff morale.

This is good news. Not because Facebook is the answer, but because it’s getting people thinking about the possibilities of intranets and moving the conversation on.

Much research has been done and the number one thing people want their intranet to help them with is finding other people.

What better way to help people find each other and the answers to their questions than by focusing the intranet – or rather the digital workspace – around people.

This very much fits in with my model which I call the DNA of the digital workspace – more on this soon – which places people at the centre of getting our work done.

The intranet: my web at work

Reading time: 2 minutes

It’s time to drag the intranet in to the twenty-first century. We need to think of the intranet as the digital workspace, or “my web at work.” As a worker I need access to all the tools and information I need to do my job. It’s becoming increasingly likely that not all of that lives inside the company firewall. And I won’t always be at my desk.

Gone are the days of the intranet being a single destination, a “website”, an online publishing – or rather broadcasting – medium for the internal communication function. Sure, there’s a place for internal comms on an intranet, just as there’s a place for payroll giving, blogs and project support tools, but it’s much more. It’s my web at work.

This new definition helps to clarify the role of the central intranet team in any organisation however large or small.

As Matt Jones once put it when discussing bbc.co.uk, “We’re not building a website, we’re building part of the web” – or words to that effect.

The role is not to lock down but to open up. To make the digital workspace as navigable as possible, and to make everything within it as findable and usable as possible.

Intranet personalisation: good or bad?

Reading time: 2 minutes

If you have web apps like travel booking systems or services like discussion forums running on your intranet you already have personalisation. Whether it’s any good is down to how well it’s designed and presented and how it feels to use.

For company intranet homepages I don’t think there’s any question that personalisation will become increasingly common. The likes of Netvibes, iGoogle, MyYahoo and even Facebook have raised people’s expectations in this area.

The risk is that companies confuse personalisation with customisation and jump on the bandwagon, rushing to provide all the latest functionality before considering what people really need.

So here are three definitions that should help when thinking about this:

Top-down content
Content that’s there because you work for Company X. Examples include share price information and company-wide announcements.
Personalised content
Content that is there because you’re you. You are in a particular role, in a particular department, at a particular level. How? Either the system knows who you are, or you’ve told it about yourself or a combination of the two.
Customised content
Content (and sometimes positioning and formatting) that you’ve chosen based on a particular set of options. You have subscribed to the latest news about design and have chosen to have the headlines appear in a list on the right hand side of the page. You’ve chosen a particular look and feel for the page.

There is absolutely no reason why the three types of content can’t share the same space. Good interaction and visual design is essential to ensure people can clearly distinguish between them.

If the content is relevant and well presented, intranet personalisation can help make the digital workspace more joined up and navigable, and it can help employees have a better understanding of their overall work environment.

See also: Gerry McGovern’s recent article Intranet personalization: does it work?

Intranet content management remixed

Reading time: 1 minute

Ever since I saw them and started using them I could see that if we had Delicious, Technorati and Bloglines on our intranet it would change the way we work and our perception of what an intranet is.

It’s something I’ve been presenting on at events recently to fellow intranet professionals.

There are so many reasons why this is important and exciting. Here are three:

  • it takes the intranet to the next level and beyond the “firewall” – covering the web, the stuff you can see through your browser (whether it’s hosted internally or externally)
  • teams, projects, communities of interest, communities of practice have new ways to share information, including bookmarks
  • potentially fascinating (and useful) insight available from the tag-clouds that start to appear, an organic topology of interests and a real-time overview of what an organisation is thinking and maybe even which way it’s going

Thanks to Chris Tubb for sending me a link to this article by David Millen, Jonathan Feinberg, and Bernard Kerr of IBM about the excellent sounding stuff they’ve been up to in this field.