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Employee Experience Design: Corporate Coworking, Part V

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Drew Jones

Head of Consulting at Conjunctured
Drew Jones, Ph.D is an organizational consultant, educator, and writer. He is a Lecturer of Management, Organizational Behavior, and Corporate Social Responsibility in the McCoy College of Business Administration at Texas State University, in San Marcos, TX. He has consulted with firms in the software, food and beverage, construction, advertising, sports management, coworking, and for profit education industries. He has published two books (The Innovation Acid Test: Growth Through Design and Differentiation, Triarchy Press 2008), including the first book about the coworking movement (I’m Outta: How coworking is making the office obsolete, with Todd Sundsted and Tony Bacigalupo, NotanMBA Press 2009), and has a third book (The Fifth Age of Work: Redesigning Work for a MobileSocial World, Night Owls Press), coming out Fall 2013. He has been involved in coworking since 2007, as a coworking space owner, partner, academic researcher, and consultant. He is a partner at Conjunctured Coworking.
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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!

Designing Culture? Corporate Coworking, Part II

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Drew Jones

Head of Consulting at Conjunctured
Drew Jones, Ph.D is an organizational consultant, educator, and writer. He is a Lecturer of Management, Organizational Behavior, and Corporate Social Responsibility in the McCoy College of Business Administration at Texas State University, in San Marcos, TX. He has consulted with firms in the software, food and beverage, construction, advertising, sports management, coworking, and for profit education industries. He has published two books (The Innovation Acid Test: Growth Through Design and Differentiation, Triarchy Press 2008), including the first book about the coworking movement (I’m Outta: How coworking is making the office obsolete, with Todd Sundsted and Tony Bacigalupo, NotanMBA Press 2009), and has a third book (The Fifth Age of Work: Redesigning Work for a MobileSocial World, Night Owls Press), coming out Fall 2013. He has been involved in coworking since 2007, as a coworking space owner, partner, academic researcher, and consultant. He is a partner at Conjunctured Coworking.
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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.