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.
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.
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!