MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

Google and Teach for America

My daughter, home for the Easter break, visited friends in Ann Arbor last night. One of her friends works with Google there and invited my daughter, "M," to visit her offices. Talking about the experience this morning over breakfast, M, who is part of Teach for America and teaches in the South Bronx, expressed a longing for that kind of workplace.

There was an immediate diversion in our conversation. M's mom immediately challenged the legitimacy of a workplace that provided games and food. Recalling her own work in the advertising/media business, she spoke of the love of the work she was doing and the dedication and commitment that kept everybody working long hours and experiencing frequent overnighters, without the perks of place that have come to characterize Google and its imitators.

In some sense, this type of workplace largesse M's mom equated roughly with Wall Street. One of her sisters, working with a Google-ish company, complained recently about the loss of free bottled water in her workplace. This sense of entitlement, even at this superficial level, smacked of the complaints from the financial community now whining of restrictions and loss of income after having destroyed the global economic system.

That sense of spareness that was the badge of an earlier generation's workplace was immediately countered by M's response. "I'd like to have a workplace where I could get a bowl of cereal in the morning," she said, "and have a place to have lunch with my co-workers." No sense of entitlement, privilege or perk in her simple expression of desire for a workplace that works.

In my own work I have counseled my clients on the benefits of workplace transformations by also uncovering the importance of generating and sustaining a corporate culture. The socialization that takes place in the "white spaces" of the workplace--the hallways, lounges, coffee bars, etc.--is an essential component of discovering common or shared values. This, in turn, enables the gradual build-up the trust that yields an openness between and among members of the organization. That trust and openness, I've discovered, is an essential ingredient in commitment, innovation and differential achievement.

This conversation and this context made me a bit sad, and certainly concerned. M, in her work for Teach for America, apparently does not have a workplace with the characteristics that might provide the context for greater accomplishments with and through her team to make the very important work that they do more effective in the places that they do it. Of course, there a several barriers. One may simply be the notion of the nobility of sacrifice, the idea that more than the minimally essential corrupts or, at least, distracts from purpose. Another may be that in cash-strapped conexts, like urban school districts in poor neighborhoods, the provision of anything other than the essential may look suspicious, a diversion of resources from their direct application for the benefit of the students. Yet another may be the impression that the style of the Google-ish workplace, even it its spareness, is the mark of the achievement of great wealth rather than the means to it, or some other measure of achievement.

This takes me to one of the concerns I've had for a very long time about "programming"--the process of identifying the requirements to be met in the design of a facility. The tendency to use a lexicon of space--"office" and "classroom" and "cafe"--immediately implies a solution to an expressed need but, in fact, diverts the designer from the appropriate level of care, exploration and attention that allows the real need to become expressed and the best solution to be found. Rather than programming for capacity--seven classrooms, two offices, etc.--we need to program for processes, values and achievements--innovating, engagement, growth, etc.

In the case of the school in the South Bronx, and many other contexts like it, I think it is crucial to change the lexicon of need. When the core values of the mission of the organization are not able to be uncovered and find expression, when what has been learned as a core practice in the most successful of organizations cannot be applied to the most needy of organizations, then we are losing so very much. What is "essential" in a school in the South Bronx is an environment that allows a group of professionals and volunteers to build a bond among themselves, and find the energy and personal resources to sustain commitment and achieve great things together.

The Googling of the educational workplace might be a good place to start.

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