There is thus a time and place to focus on employee engagement, and a time and place to focus on culture evolution. Let’s not conflate the two, or we may end up solving the wrong problem.
(“Improving Company Culture is not About Providing Free Snacks,” Alice Zhou, Strategy+Business, July 31, 2017)
I’m not so sure about that. When guarding against the conflation of the content of organizational culture and employee engagement, could it be the wrong move to separate times and places? Maybe the right move is to design a place with the content to nurture the continuity and durability of culture yet adaptable to times of changing focus and engagement.
I appreciate the idea that a heightened quality of experience that is characterized by the spirit that we call engagement may be episodic or periodic. Indeed, the concept of “flow” (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) or of scenius (Brian Eno) that might imply high levels of engagement seem in their nature to be transitory, unstable or short-lived.
Yet, it seems that achieving these states of high engagement and performance may be more easily achieved in well-developed cultures if, by culture, we mean a set of behaviors reflecting the values and unique identity of an organization. We expect these behaviors to be constant and culture to be durable and stable.
As a company confronts increasingly complex matters in highly dynamic conditions, however, the pace of its work cannot be a constant. Different conditions in changing contexts require an agility in organizational response, an ability to respond to conditions or develop products or services in modes that are simultaneously or sequentially fast, and slow, and spiky.
This responsiveness will then require ongoing changes in the organization of the organization. A small team of people may meet to generate an idea and, with proof-of-concept and support, grow over time into an organization of hundreds. An organization of hundreds may, at times, need to shape a war room for a small swat team to quickly confront a problem and find a solution. An organization may, in confronting the digital imperative, shift its culture a bit to accommodate the talents and work modes of a new class of employees.
For people to engage, however, for employees to assemble the energy to meet the mission of the organization, for staff to commit and appreciate the experience of that commitment, they’ll look for assurances of the authenticity of the culture that seeks their engagement as well as the proof that they’ll be supported.
The place of work, the design of the work space, is a powerful signal of this authenticity and support. Overlooking its relevance can erode credibility and trust. How can I believe in a team culture when you isolate me in my high-walled cubicle? How can I believe in a culture of collaboration when the only space where I can engage with others is in a scheduled conference room? How do look forward to a culture of innovation when nothing in the workplace displays the products of my contribution? How do I embrace the values of the organization and behave in accordance with them when my leadership is invisible?
In the best of cases, and organization’s purpose and its culture align exquisitely. That alignment may be the key factor that nurtures great employee experience, that enables agility, and that nurtures engagement through the variable paces of business activity.
That may also be why we think that the conflation of culture and engagement in the place of work as an appropriate goal for design. In that regard, we see the design of the workspace not as independent of culture as Strategy+Business claims, but critical to its strength and viability.
In the course of events in society and business, different times and different contexts breed different conditions for response and action. Employee engagement is critical to success. We consider the activity of organizations and their components as variable, at times fast, slow or spiky, and design the workspace with the agility to respond at pace.
Culture, of course, is durable. We hear the description of culture in many ways but seek consistently to read, or support, the behaviors that are the true signal of organizational DNA. We design to make those behaviors visible in the workspace so that others may read their authenticity and imitate them.
As we’ve consistently said, the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “get” the experience of work. Getting that experience is simultaneously about culture and engagement in the same place.
"...if autonomy ends accidents, removes parking and transforms what congestion looks like, then we should try to imagine changes to cities on the same scale as those that came with cars themselves. How do cities change if some or all of their parking space is now available for new needs, or dumped on the market, or moved to completely different places? Where are you willing to live if 'access to public transport' is 'anywhere' and there are no traffic jams on your commute? How willing are people to go from their home in a suburb to dinner or a bar in a city centre on a dark cold wet night if they don't have to park and an on-demand ride is the cost of a coffee? And how does law enforcement change when every passing car is watching everything?" [link]
It seems that almost every technology changes our relationship with space.
Perhaps most of those to date have been small scale relationships, but now, autonomous mobility is influencing ideas about the physical place, placement and dimensions of urban and regional space in new, or inverted ways. It is fascinating to think about how cities became shaped around automobiles and how many or most of those urban forms and functions might become reshaped with autonomous mobility.
And while it's fascinating to think about what happens to streets (thinner?) and parking lots (parks?), it's also interesting to think about pedestrians when the on-demand ride takes you to your precise destination instead of arriving at the station or the parking deck. Are transit-oriented-developments, incentives to localization of density, a short-term wave? What, indeed will be the future drivers (pardon the pun) of density?
We know that Weinberger was speaking of a metaphorical room, yet the developments in space-based sensors are progressing in such interesting ways.
MIT researchers put together a sensing board that can track motion, sound, pressure, humidity, temperature, light intensity, electromagnetic interference, and more.
It could be used to do things like figure out how many paper towels you’ve got left, detect when someone enters or leaves a building, or keep an eye on an elderly family member.
Or more. (Link)
Over the past decade or more, "workplace strategy" has been about financial metrics (as measured in square feet per person and people per seat) and very little about purpose and meaning. However, as automation and AI applications begin to perform jobs better than or at lower cost than people, a significant social and cultural challenge will begin to arise.
It seems appropriate that a new generation of workplace strategists begins to move toward the ethical side of companies and governments and shape the "workplace" of the post-work future.
I don't want to exploit the displeasure of others, but I am hopeful that the recent chaos in the air travel space will lead to some beneficial self-examination by airline execs and better experiences for all of us.
Somewhere in time, almost every space where people collect to work, to find entertainment, to live, to travel, an argument about cost savings has driven every consideration of purpose and pleasure out. People used to go to work to achieve good things but were housed in high-walled cubicles and made to feel that interaction with others is counter-productive. Now, they're working from Starbucks. People sit on the couch at home rather than experience the mess, distractions, and discomfort of theaters. Social behaviors erode. People are crammed into tiny seats, with no legroom and in competition for an arm rest on always-delayed and overbooked flights. Now they're rioting at airports.
Perhaps we've come to a turning point. Perhaps the accumulation of stories of bad experiences, and perhaps the "disruption" of higher quality experiences are the front edge of a return to civility and socialization. Perhaps we'll find that it really is much better to be in places where others are, to interact in places other than a screen, to feel good, to enjoy places, spaces and people in the wider world.
It's a matter of design, of quality, of human dimension, of civic space.
Every organizational change program inevitably requires a workspace transformation project. Every workplace design project inevitably requires an organizational design project.
This linkage between space and organizational culture is really rather fascinating. Almost every organization feels it, yet few have the courage to fully exploit it.
When companies begin to feel the need for change – when productivity declines, when attracting essential talent is unsuccessful, when staff begins to move elsewhere, when competitive innovation is a struggle to achieve – they begin to look around. The leading companies in their industries have deployed a workspace designed to support and enhance the experience of work, to foster the creativity and innovation that makes them leaders. In their own workspace, however, the lagging companies see the remnants of an older management philosophy built for control, a workspace built to reduce interactions, to reinforce hierarchy and process order, to take attendance.
The next move for many companies is to say, "Design us something like Google," assuming that replicating the style of a creative and innovative workspace will bring them the performance that they envy in others.
But, as Tom Goodwin observes, "We’ve come to celebrate the theatre of innovation not the workshop of it. Innovation is sweaty, risky, terrifying and takes balls...It's not a session, it can't be shipped in, or outsourced for a sunny Friday. It's a culture."
The workspace you've been in has shaped your culture. The next one may do that as well, but the right one will be the design the reflects who you truly are. For your next move, make sure you get it the right way around.
I feel a great sense of loss over the absence of community-based retail. Amazon, a key agent in killing it, is now trying to replicate it. And it threatens remaining local employment with its "frictionless commerce" technology. Link
Uber, crashing, crashes. Link
Uber and Amazon, platforms, "are, in a sense, capitalism distilled to its essence." Link
2. Build your strategy around platforms. Link
Autonomous shuttles are the net right thing, anyway. Link
Nice: In a perverse kind of way, I think of slow food as “agile” and fast food as “waterfall”. Link
Although the dominant narrative is about relentless urbanization, America continues to experience relentless suburbanization. (And a resultant segregation around levels of education.) Link
Why people leave your company and about 7 rules to use to keep them. Link
A taxonomy of remote work organizational types. Link
But are those geography-based types or communications-based types...or management types? Link
The US and UK governments imposed a ban today against carrying electronic devices larger than a cell phone on flights originating in a number of specified countries. Most of the reporting and commentary seems to be about the underlying issue, apparently a fear of terrorism, and the uncomfortable implications of arriving with a carryon and being unable to carry it on.
But the idea is rather delicious isn't it? Imagine an entire plane full of people who are unable to open up a laptop to use it as an antisocial cue to a seatmate and an extraordinarily inefficient way, anyway, of getting business done. Even on the very first of those flights, passengers will turn to each other to grumble and moan about the ban. One will ask "How am I to get my work done?" The other might ask, "What kind of work do you do?"
Soon, in this back and forth, civility might gradually return to flight and to the world. People will get to know each other. New connections will be made. Anger at the reclining person in front of out will subside because it just won't matter anymore. People will disembark still taking with each other, writing down phone numbers, making promises to connect later in the week. Friendships will form across boundaries. The pleasures of peace will be the ongoing subject, not suspicion and the threat war.
Eventually, the airlines might even realize that providing the best social experience is to their benefit. Rows will be spaced better, seats will become wider, real food will be served. Why did't the government think of regulation earlier?
The latest M-Shaped Weekly is out and can be found here.
It's a periodic compilation of articles from other places that you might find interesting, along with some of my own thoughts, like this –
Designing avatars and designing for them Buildings are frequently shaped by a client's "program." This, in the weakest but the most typical practice, is a list of spaces, sizes and functional relationships between them. Absent are the descriptors of the purpose of the building in supporting the work of people within. To get past this unremarkable thinking, we tend to build personas, or avatars – representative characterizations of the people who work in the building and their activities and relationships. We build them through interviews, observations and workshops. These representations allow us to test our designs for their effectiveness in the real work of the place. We avoid the typical labels of "office" or "lab" or "conference room" by using a lexicon of activities, behaviors, purpose and culture.
Check it out.
The ongoing chatter about the open office
The quality and character of the workplace remains a huge subject decades after walls began to come down and as the office eventually became more social and interactive.
A recent article in the Washington Post blasted out one more frustrated perspective on the open office. The more than 750 comments that followed illustrated that the workplace is not, or ought not to be, one thing. Nor is a single person’s perspective on the work of the organization and personal workspace something that can be considered complete.
When we start a project to design a new workspace, we immerse ourselves as much as is practical into the people and work of the organization. We make observations, analyze space, sometimes conduct surveys, and always do as many interviews as we can.
Interviews are always illuminating, bringing to the surface opinions we expect to hear (everybody assumes we are there to take away their offices) as well as some surprising insights into culture, work, operations, flows, productivity and other organizational performance matters that people tie strongly to the planning and design of the workplace.
That is, we find that the workplace many times matters more than the organizational structures that manage the workforce.
Here’s a good example of what we uncover. In a recent round of interviews with a client’s staff, we spoke to one of the company’s key engineers. He leads their most advanced and competitively differentiating work. It was important to the company that he should be able to concentrate on the subjects that made him so valuable. He made a very good case for being placed out of the mainstream and shrouded with walls.
His statement about his value was not merely ego. His colleagues agreed that he was, indeed, a very important part of the company. What was illuminating in our interviews with those others who affirmed his value was their testament to how valuable he was to them. He had experience, expertise, and creative insights that, when he was engaged with them, increased the value of their work. When he was not available, their productivity and their value to the company declined. His colleagues’ interest in interactions with him was important to them but those essential interactions became classical workplace “distractions” to him.
So now, what do we do? Walled off, and with a moat around him, he is individually productive. Without a bridge, however, everybody else’s productivity, engagement, and satisfaction drops, and the cost of their work goes up.
This, of course, is a management issue, and a cultural issue, but is also a workspace design issue.
The author of the Washington Post piece, beyond shopping for a bright blue noise-cancelling headset to signal focus and reduce distraction, began to scratch the surface of better workplace design with some of her observations.
She notes the importance of protocols in the open portions of the office. (We think visible leadership modeling is more effective.) She notes the expansion of relationships that emerge from the interactions of the open office. (As we found when the CEO of a client organization asked to sit in the open office, placing high value on exposure to those interactions.) She notes the value of meeting rooms for focused work. (We think it would be even better if they were designed for their real use, as retreats for individuals at those times when they need to concentrate.)
She now might come to the insight Google did not “get it wrong” and that the open office is not “destroying the workplace.” She will find that the matter is not closed or open, is not office or cube, is not bullpen or conference room. What we call “the office” needs a new language of form, one that allows us to creatively design the right spaces for the many different activities and work styles we engage in.
Organizations with a new workspace design project might start with thoughtful consideration of the purpose of the company and how it builds its value. They might make careful observation of the interactions people have, to understand what brought them into the open office to work together instead of working alone at home or in Starbucks. And they might begin with some interviews to understand how the variety of people and the range of work styles may need a more nuanced response, one that offers more than a binary choice.
The spaces and settings of the workplace that emerge from that critical thinking will support the culture of the organization, assure the effective flow of information, and influence the performance and satisfaction of its people.
On the science and practice in the trend to vertical farming in urban contexts.