All posts by Drew Jones

Activity Based Work

macquarie 2 Activity Based Work

Veldhoen + Company, the Dutch workplace consultancy that pioneered Activity Based Work, is one of the most important companies you’ve never heard of.  ABW is, essentially, mass scale corporate coworking. Everyone in the company, including the CEO and other top managers, gets a laptop and a locker for storage.  People choose workspaces that fit the work they are doing that day, not a fixed space that assumes that work everyday is the same.  Sounds radical, but really it is quite simple.

As the folks at Veldhoen say, ABW is about much more that redesigning physical spaces. A major knock-on effect of ABW is cultural transformation. Top management is accessible. No one is hidden behind oak desks and personal assistants.  Many time-consuming meetings are eliminated. Openness and transparency are nourished, and flatter and more egalitarian organizations evolve.

These are all good things, if you value these things. However, if you want to keep power and decision-making authority in the hands of the few, then ABW is probably not for you. In order to find out if ABW is right for your company, maybe you should just ask your employees!



Y Leadership

This fall my new book, The Fifth Age of Work, will be published by Night Owls Press.  The book tracks the parallel evolution of the independent, freelancer economy, on the one hand, and the rapid transformation of mainstream firms, on the other.  At the heart of the book is the idea that, in the relatively near future, Gen Y knowledge workers will no longer be content to work in Baby Boomer-age organizations that insist on traditional forms of structure, design, and management.  Rather, top talent in the near future will demand:

  • Maximum choice and flexibility
  • Involvement in meaningful work
  • Smart and challenging colleagues
  • Opportunities to innovate and grow
  • Authentic and believable leadership

We know this because it is already happening.  Traditionalist managers who doubt this will only be able to operate with their head in the sand for so long!

Theory Y

But how does a firm go about planning for and leading Gen Y talent?  The answer, ironically, was provided some 50 years ago.  Douglas McGregor’s book, The Human Side of Enterprise, outlined a fundamental difference in how managers view people and their potential.  One the one hand was Theory X, which suggested that people are inherently lazy, shiftless, don’t like to work, and need to be managed with punishments and rewards and carrots and sticks.  On the other hand was Theory Y, which suggested that, left to their own devices, people naturally like to work, and that if you give them trust and a long-leash, they will generate the outcomes that a company desires.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that, despite all of the rhetoric about decentralization and the flattening organization, most companies today remain locked within a Theory X managerial approach.  Lip service is often paid to flexibility and choice, but in practice such words evaporate into fear and control.  As I suggest above, though, Theory X management will be a non-starter in the near future.

But what comes next?

Y Leadership

Gen Y will demand a fundamentally new and generationally relevant leadership approach.  Respected and effective leaders in the near future won’t be tall, dark, and handsome white men who went to the top business schools.  Rather, they will be technologists, engineers, and designers who are technical experts, people who gain respect from peers because of their chops and their humility.  Leadership will be a team activity, where the alpha male model of yesterday will seem more and more abusive and out of place in a networked, collaborative economy.  As IBM’s Ginni Rometty says recently, “success will be measured not by what you know, but by what you share.”  One-way commands of yesterday’s organization are giving way to more of a Starfish model of leadership, where different people have influence in different situations depending on content and context.

sociocracy 300x210 Y Leadership

Of course, in practice it is never quite so simple.  However, the general movement towards ‘Y’ principles is undeniable.

Gen Y x Theory Y = Y Leadership

Among other things, this will likely mean that fewer of tomorrow’s leaders will be MBAs.  Rather, they will be engineers, designers, scientists, athletes, artists, and social scientists who figure out how to make something they are passionate about INTO a business.  Companies like GE are already doing this, from the inside-out.  Yesterday’s standard B-school model of leadership, bequeathed to us originally by Dale Carnegie himself, will eventually seem like a quaint relic from the 1950s.  “How to win friends and influence people” (Theory X) will be replaced by “How to create value collaboratively to enhance user experiences” (Theory Y).




At the Crossroads

Standing at the Crossroads!

There is something about Austin, Texas, and there is something about Conjunctured, though I’m still not sure what that something is.  However, here we are, and both Austin and Conjunctured sit as crossroads for people in local, national, and global communities.  Not a week goes by here at Conjunctured when someone from out of town doesn’t come by for a visit and an opportunity to connect.  Then there is SXSW, during which the world comes to Austin (and to Conjunctured too).

Glocal Community

From our vantage point here at Conjunctured, we have seen the global coworking movement go from a handful of small spaces (in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland, and Austin) into a sure enough global phenomenon.  Some places fade out while others come online.  Given the movement’s growth, it now hosts a much broader cross section of people.  We are no longer just local outposts for freelancers seeking a place to work.  Thriving coworking spaces now have corporate telecommuters sitting next to freelancers and small businesses, and often have corporate sponsors of various sorts.  In short, at 2,500 spaces worldwide, coworking is going mainstream.  But what does this mean?

This will mean different things to different people, of course, but for us it means that we now find ourselves intersected with the broader world.  We have become a nexus, a crossroads, of a whole host of organizations and people.  We are not entirely sure where these relationships will go next, but we are eager to start making new things happen.

Our Crossroads

Thus, here we are at a crossroads.  Rather than just staying home in our cozy house in East Austin, we have committed to opening the design and cultural values of coworking into the broader world.  We are inviting other folks, folks who are not indigenous to coworking, into the space to share the experience with them. We are opening up to the outside, explicitly, and encouraging an exchange between people from different walks of life.  We want to spread the space and values of coworking to companies, government organizations, schools, and hotels, to wherever the velvet community of coworking can make the world a better place.

Freelancers. Corporates. Musicians. Governments.  Educators.  Our doors are open!  Hopefully yours are too?

Employee Experience Design: Corporate Coworking, Part V

Over the past two weeks we have been writing about our new foray into corporate coworking.  We’ve been chatting about leadership and community, which sit at the center of any organization or social movement.  When we move the conversation from coworking in its native environment to coworking in a corporate environment (or Activity Based Work), we are no longer talking about freelancers or small businesses, per se.  We are talking about employees.  Full time employees who work for a single company.

Large Open plan office area Employee Experience Design: Corporate Coworking, Part V

It might turn out that, whether we call it Activity Based Work or corporate coworking, the real beneficiaries  of integrating more human-centered approaches to work will turn out to be corporate employees who are required to show up daily to work in uninspiring, sterile officescapes.  If any category of modern knowledge workers needs a dose of coworking energy, it is people who are stuck in the corporate cage.

Employee Experience Design (EXD)?

These observations come from my background in anthropology.  Across the corporate landscape, there are anthropologists that work as consumer researchers, both as employees and consultants, for some of the largest consumer brands in the world.  Firms such as Ethnographic Research Inc., Ethnographic Solutions, Conifer Research, and Pacific Ethnography, conduct ethnographic research for companies seeking to better understand the customer experience.  Carried out under the umbrella of designing for customer experience, this research falls within the broad category of user experience design ( UXD).  UXD, while drawn from human-computer interactivity, is used more generally to talk about the way brands ‘dive deep’ into customer experiences.  The goal: to understand customer needs and unarticulated needs, so that the sponsoring firms can sell more products.  Nothing in the world wrong with this.

However, it is worth asking a basic question: If anthropologists are indeed helpful in uncovering hidden meanings and values in researching customer experience, why is this ethnographic inquiry rarely (if ever) applied to understanding the experiences of a company’s employees?  That is, if the methodology is effective, then surely such research can be used to better understand, and design for, the working experiences of one’s employees. After all, just about every company in the world writes shiny platitudes in their annual reports about how ‘important our employees are,’ or how ‘we are only as strong as our people,’ or how ‘we treat our people with respect and have a culture of integrity.’ blah blah blah.

The answer, sadly, is that most (though definitely not all) companies really don’t care.  Customers have money to spend and can potentially bring money into the business, while employees, despite all of the candyfloss language to the contrary, are (in the eyes of most companies) just a cost.  Why spend money worrying about something that, at the end of the day, is just costing us money?

Cynical, perhaps.  Wrong, no.

coworking space 2 Employee Experience Design: Corporate Coworking, Part V

However, if new and more human-centered workplace solutions, such as corporate coworking, were integrated into the larger grid of corporate work, there is no question that the experiences of workers would be improved.  This also must include flexibility options so that workers who, for example, have children, can spend time with them when needed.  Also, reducing the cost and waste of commuting will improve the quality of the work experience for employees in companies that have the &*#@ to adopt new, human-centered solutions.

We don’t assume that firms will start spending money lavishly on employees or on ethnographers to study employees.  Rather, in ABW and corporate coworking, improved employee experiences (EXD) do not have to be costly.  They are, actually, quite simple.  The challenge is to commit, get started, and see what happens.  Your employees will thank you!

Co-mmunity: Corporate Coworking Part, IV

Earlier in the week I wrote here about the concept of co-leadership as part of the social dynamic that has made coworking a successful movement over the past seven years.  Even more fundamental to the movement, though, is community.  While perhaps the notion of community has been so overused by so many people in the past decade that it has started to lose some of its meaning, there can be no question that it is the foundation of the coworking movement.

Marissa Mayer was probably right

Not too long ago Marissa Mayer made headlines when she demanded that those Yahoo! employees who had been untethered from the office were being required to come back to the hive and work at the office.  The reaction to her decision was quite strong, with some accusing her of being out of step with the vibe of the industry and the times.  Her reasoning, though, seems to make a lot of sense.  Communication, collaboration, and innovation very often happen within and between people who are co-present in the same space.  This is the stuff of whiteboards, Post-it-Notes, prototypes and mock-ups, and the myriad iterative steps on the long road of innovation.  Despite all of the promises to the contrary, online collaboration platforms (Asana, Mavenlink, and Base Camp) simply don’t stack up to the experience of people sharing and working in the same physical space.

shift workspace 1024x601 Co mmunity: Corporate Coworking Part, IV

Working ‘home alone,’ as many advocates of coworking have argued for years, can be quite a drag.  Zappos’ Tony Hsieh weighed in on Mayer’s policy change, suggesting that it’s not working from home that is the problem, but rather that working at home alone is the problem.  This is not to suggest, and I am not suggesting, that all work needs to be collaborative, group work.  In her brilliant book (Quiet) and TED talk, Susan Cain argues very persuasively for the the value of introverts and the importance of quiet, heads down work.  The original kernel of an insight that can become an actionable innovation often has its origin in the mind of an individual.  From there, though, to get that idea out into the world, usually requires a team effort.

So, to suggest that all work needs to be done remotely, as advocates of ROWE might suggest, or that all work should be done at the office, as others might suggest, probably oversimplifies the issue.  What is really needed is balance, because some days it is nice to work from home in your pajamas. Especially if you are not feeling well.

But at the heart of thriving, innovative companies (W.L. Gore, Semco, Google, 3M) lie communities of people interacting in physical spaces.  This is nothing new to the coworking world.  We are all about co-presence.  Heck, even when we don’t know much about what the person next to us is working on, we somehow thrive off of their energy.  Parallel collaboration, or something.

What we see in the corporate coworking model we are designing is a venue and platform for injecting more opportunities for communities to develop and flourish inside large firms.  This might mean us encouraging some firms to incorporate more flex-work policies that extend greater choice to their people.  But for sure this will also include our suggestion that, while on campus, as many workers as possible spend time in the on-site coworking space, jamming alongside colleagues.

For this process to be truly helpful for companies, there will need to be accommodation for private, quiet, solo- work as much as there is for open, collaborative work.  This is one of the key lessons we are learning about coworking in its native habitat- variety and flexibility are essential for creating a balanced work environment.

Maybe Yahoo! will revisit this one day soon, and begin to incorporate more flexibility and variety, and perhaps even corporate coworking, into its larger workforce/workspace management process.

Co-Leadership: Corporate Coworking, Part III

Co-Leadership is the third installment in our series on ‘corporate coworking.’  In Part I we introduce the notion of corporate coworking to a broader audience.  We have been kicking this around for a while, and apparently so have others in the world of HR (see John Sullivan’s parallel but rather different take on corporate coworking here).  In Part II, we talk about the cultural dimension of working (and coworking) in corporate organizations.  Today, in Part III, we explore the leadership dimension of the changing world of work as it is informed by coworking.

Across the coworking world, numerous innovative leaders have been busy pioneering, quite literally, an entirely new approach to leadership.  David Walker here at Conjunctured, Tony Bacigalupo at New Work City (NYC), Alex Hillman at Indy Hall (Philly), Jacob Sayles and Susan Evans at Office Nomads, Roman Gelfer at Sandbox Suites, among others, have successfully created and nurtured this new organizational form for many years now.  It is sometimes easy to forget that as recently as 2006 coworking (as we all know it today) didn’t even exist.  Talk about making shit up as we go along!

Defining (C0) Leadership

While the intricacies of a person’s leadership style are quite personal and unique, what each of these pioneers has in common is an ability to build thriving, organic communities without overly taking center stage.  The leadership success that they’ve had stems from an egalitarianism that is for the most part alien to the corporate world.  As David Berreby put it most eloquently over a decade ago in his Strategy & Business article, “The Hunter-Gatherers of the Knowledge Economy,” gone are the days of the alpha male lording over the tribe.  Counterdominant behavior is now the norm, and consensus and sharing have replaced hierarchical notions of leadership.  Even Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, gets it. In a recent speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, she suggests that in today’s organizations a “person’s value lies not in what she/he knows, but in what he/she shares.”  Such a mantra has also been at the center of the success of coworking over the past seven years.  Which leads to the question: How do we define such a leadership style?

Arguably, by putting words to it we might in fact be spoiling it, so apologies in advance.  However, I strongly believe that, in the same way that the ‘organizational form’ of coworking is a model that the corporate world desperately needs if it is to ever be fully humanized, the style of leadership that has driven the success of coworking is equally important.

burning man Co Leadership: Corporate Coworking, Part III

For this, I refer to what is happening in coworking as co-leadership.  One would think that this is already a highly developed notion, but not so.  David Heenan and Warren Bennis’ book, Co-Leaders: The Power of Great Partnerships, is a nod in the right direction, but doesn’t go near far enough.  What I am talking about here isn’t about two or more people leading an organization together, but rather ‘leadership being an emergent social dynamic that is merely the result of the context co-created by a group of people.’  Perhaps at the center of the context are visionaries like David, Jacob, Tony, Susan, and Alex, but their visions are advanced not through traditionally defined leadership, but rather through the sharing that Ginni Rometty talks about.  This isn’t “servant leadership,” either, which usually has as its goal the purely financial success of a firm or organization, even if that is achieved in a more humble manner.

Co-leadership, as it seems to be evolving in the coworking world today, is different.  It reflects the counterdominant values of today’s Gen Flux, where Silent Gen and Baby Boomer assumptions of power and authority no longer hold.  That said, this is, even if it is a totally different animal, a form of leadership nonetheless.  Perhaps un-leadership is better than co-leadership.  Either way, it is clear that, in light of the cultural values that are rising to the surface in a highly networked global culture, such an approach is effective.  Yet another of many lessons that the rest of the world can (and should) learn from the world of coworking.

Designing Culture? Corporate Coworking, Part II

Within the past week we have begun sharing our vision for how we want to extend the coworking experience ‘beyond coworking.’  What we are calling corporate coworking is elsewhere referred to as Activity Based Work (ABW), but it is really more than that.  At the heart of this is culture.  Our growing passion is to transform, and evolve, the cultures of as many organizations as we possibly can.  How do we propose to do this?

Transcending the Standard Corporate Culture Model

There is no shortage of consultancies out there that claim to understand and measure corporate culture.  Several of them, such as Denison Consulting, Chandler Macleod, Human Synergistics, and Walking the Talk, have developed highly “scientific” formulas for measuring a company’s culture.  The results of their surveys inform companies that their culture is ‘people oriented,’ or ‘customer focused,’ or ‘aggressive,’ or some other combination of words used to describe what is going on in that company.  Visually, the results of these surveys are most often color-coded, so that a company is more or less red, blue, or possibly even green.

denison Designing Culture? Corporate Coworking, Part II

But what really, at the end of the day, do these sorts of assessments tell us, or more importantly, what do they actually do for an organization?  After the results of a survey are presented, the client company is then faced with the challenge of changing values, behaviors, and a whole host of other rather personal things.  Implicit in this approach is an accusatory tone that says to many people within the firm that they have the wrong values and beliefs, and that in order for the organization to change in a desired way those people need to change (who they are).

This is rubbish.  What starts out as a bunch of words ends up with just a bunch of other words.  All firms aspire to be innovative, fair, customer oriented, grounded in integrity, focused on all stakeholders, etc.  What company doesn’t want these things?  What is presented by the A-List culture consultancies is merely candy floss masquerading as science.  Managers know that they need to attend to culture, yet they are so wedded to and blinded by the magic of science that they lie down and eat the candy floss.

Coworking as Change-Management Methodology

As the various experiments in ABW are showing, a company doesn’t need words about values, beliefs, and feelings in order to embark on meaningful cultural change.  Rather, what is needed are commitments.  The physical design, and the socio-physical-psychological interaction of people in well-designed spaces, creates patterns of community interaction on its own.  Of course it’s not all in the space alone.  It also includes giving employees choice, flexibility, and autonomy in how they do their work.  Companies can say that they aspire to be all sorts of things, but what high-performing knowledge workers really want is not that mysterious.  They want:

1. Trustworthy leaders

2. A business strategy that has a purpose beyond $

3. Involvement in meaningful work

4. Colleagues that don’t suck

5.  Maximum flexibility in how they organize their lives

6. The opportunity to innovate and grow professionally and personally

These things only become accessible and real to a group of employees if a company commits to them.  This entails designing spaces and policies that flow in accordance to the organic flows of human nature.

A culture change process that starts with the materiality of design has the potential to actually build culture, through design, without using an excess of words and colors.  The challenge, it seems, lies, first, in building the spaces and policies that align with human nature, then second, just getting out of the way.

Howdy Corporate Coworking- Part I

A Bit About the Journey to Corporate Coworking

This is the first in a five part series on corporate coworking here at Conjunctured,  We have been in the kitchen now for quite some time, and are starting to take some goodies out of the oven.

Over the past couple of years we have been exploring various ways to grow our business.  On several occasions we came frighteningly close to signing leases on BIG and very costly spaces.  It makes sense, it seems, that if a coworking space aims to grow it would want to open a second or perhaps bigger location.  For quite some time we were driven to have multiple spaces here in Austin.  Not so much any more.

Thing is, there are such awesome coworking spaces (Vuka, Link, Posh, Plug and Play, Soma Vida, Capital Factory, Center 61, Golab, Tech Ranch, to name just a few) already spread throughout Austin, that that need is already being met.  Overall, we have one of the most balanced and vibrant coworking ecosystems in the world.  Just another of many reasons to love Austin!

As we explored various options and directions, it became clear that the coworking world, both here and around the world, is healthy and thriving.  However, there are other parts of the world, particularly many of the world’s large companies, that are in desperate need of cultural renewal.  Recent research by Right Management Consultants shows that 86% of corporate employees surveyed indicated that they are looking to move jobs in the coming year.  This is horrible (and costly news) for human resource managers across the corporate landscape.

Meanwhile, other firms, such as Macquarie Bank in Sydney, are embracing Activity Based Work, a workforce/workspace management solution that is eerily similar to traditional coworking. In ABW workplaces, all employees (including the CEO and other officers) forgo offices and are instead armed with a laptop and a locker.  People come and go and work in one of 8 Neighborhoods or Cafes, and move around from space to space on a daily basis.

one shelly street Howdy Corporate Coworking  Part I

What Macquarie discovered was that the design of the space actually became a lever, or mechanism, for initiating significant change in the company.  Participants cite the accessibility of the CEO (who works out in the open space with everyone else), and the elimination of meetings (because everyone is accessible all the time anyway) as drivers of what they refer to as the democratization of their workplace.  What starts as a design project becomes a cultural change project.

Coworking spaces are not encumbered by all of the toxic politics that define so many companies.  Rather, we all work in spaces where we choose to go.  If companies could possibly tap into the energy and vitality that thrive each day in coworking spaces around the world, there is no question that this would make the world a better place.  The values that the coworking community stands for ( autonomy, community, transparency, accessibility, fairness, collaboration, innovation, authenticity), as has been pioneered and exemplified over many years now by New Work City, Indy Hall, Office Nomads, Citizen Space, etc., are in short supply in much of the (corporate) world.  Our vision for launching corporate coworking (our version of Activity Based Work) stems from this recognition- working in a large firm does not have to suck!

Hopefully this is just the beginning of a long journey that has many passengers.

Efficient, Cheap, and Soulless: The Global Afterlife of Capitalism

Donating to the problem


afterlife of clothes Efficient, Cheap, and Soulless: The Global Afterlife of CapitalismIn an NPR story this morning, The Global Afterlife of Your Donated Clothes, we learn yet more about the dark side of our cultural addiction to cheapness.  Some 80% of donated clothes ends up in the hands of the textile recycling industry, which simply puts those materials back into the wicked cycle.  Twice in the past half-year manufacturing facilities in Bangladesh have collapsed/caught on fire, killing scores of innocent people in the process.  In what can only be described as slave-labor conditions, workers in this Bangladesh facility were required to return to work even when employees at the bank in the same building were told to stay home because of safety concerns with the building.

Cheap costs dear

Sadly this is nothing new.  This is the stuff of Wal Mart’s “everyday low prices,” or of its more recent promise- Save Money, Live Better.  In her book, Cheap, Ellen Ruppel Shell documented the interconnections between bangladesh collapse afp670 Efficient, Cheap, and Soulless: The Global Afterlife of Capitalismour addiction to cheap and the global labor conditions that make cheapness possible.  Her book is informative, depressing, and important.

At Foxconn’s manufacturing facility in Shenzhen Province, where yours and my iPhones were made, 17 people committed suicide in 2010-2011.  With little to no social mobility, and unable to ever buy the products they make, workers there are caught, like their peers in Bangladesh, in the crossfires of our love of cheapness. And efficiency.

What’s Wrong with Efficiency?

So why is this a problem?  From a managerial perspective, of course, this is not a problem at all.  Rather, it is a reality, the realization and application of principles of efficiency carefully taught and learned in business schools around the world.  Even more to the point, it is the realization of a management agenda dictated, in large part, by the triumph Wall Street and their Economist lovers (see the Chicago School here).

Ronald Coase, 1991 Nobel Laureate in Economics, has recently been worrying about this too.  In his 2012 Harvard Business Review article, Saving Economics from the Economists, Coase challenges the hegemony of economistic thinking, suggesting that what he calls Blackboard Economics has replaced our understanding of how people and culture, not numbers and statistics, actually sit at the center of any economy.  “Coase argues that in the early 20th century, economists began to focus on relationships among statistical measures, rather than problems that firms have with production or people have with decisions.”  “It is suicidal for the field to slide into a hard science of choice,” Coase writes in HBR, “ignoring the influences of society, history, culture, and politics on the working of the economy.”

Humanistic Economics

As a remedy, Coase and a few colleagues have proposed a new economics journal, one that focuses on the human side of global business, in addition to (and not necessarily opposed to) the more narrowly defined principles of efficiency that tend to predominate today.  At the end of the day, the challenge of humanizing economic transactions won’t occur in the classroom or in a new academic journal, it will happen only through the behavior of American (and other Western) consumers.  If we were to care enough to break our addiction to Cheap, and in doing so stop rewarding the scientists of efficiency, fewer real-life tragedies like those in Bangladesh and Shenzhen would occur.