Friday, August 05, 2011

Spatial Serendipity - The Key to A Social Workplace

Image credit Christopher Schoenbohm

First things first, I'm sorry I couldn't post anything on the blog in the last few days. I've been in China and the great firewall is simply impregnable. I've somehow broken into Blogger and can now post. Thanks for your patience. So, let's come to what I want to write about today. Serendipity - it's a beautiful thing. Imagine walking down a street and seeing an interesting restaurant that you'd never heard of. You walk in, and order a great meal and have a great story to tell at the end of it all. I'm guessing I'm not the only person this has happened to. It's a wonderful way to learn about things around you and I argue that the human race would have learnt very little had it not been for the serendipity we've been privilege to, ever since our existence. Serendipity, or accidental discovery is also at the center of most social business strategy. Technology aside though, I believe this phenomenon has a big place in the physical design of workplaces. After all we didn't invent serendipity after social media. In today's blogpost, I want to share some thoughts about the design of workplaces and how they may affect the social fabric of your organisation.

Being Social begins in the Real World

For social media to make an impact to your workplace, the physical orientation of the workplace should ideally mirror all the behaviours you're trying to mirror online. Think of these of the top of your head, you'll perhaps come up with sharing, openness, visibility, connectedness, storytelling and the like. Why then, are workplaces designed for the exact opposite? Corner offices, cubicles, closed doors - all of these are counterintuitive to the idea of serendipity. Now, I'm not saying that we don't need closed doors conversations. Businesses are sensitive and certain conversations need a closed environment. That being said, designing your workplace around that as the default is perhaps a bad idea. This leads to the concept that I'm calling spatial serendipity. Here are a few questions to ask yourself.

How connected is your team?

My team at work is starting to get bigger. Dinesh heads our knowledge strategy and enterprise 2.0 offering, Nikhil owns our social business platform, Sahana community manages, Kavita is our instructional designer, Siddharth handles industry research and Rajiv takes care of branding and events. Add to this the several people at ThoughtWorks University and we've got a fairly diverse team. It may seem like a good idea for each person to have their cubicle and work by themselves. In fact the commute in Bangalore is so bad that I sometimes feel like working in my silo at home. All this said, some of the most productive days for me are when I can work onsite with my entire team in one place. Merely listening in to my team-mates' work life creates a huge difference and each day I learn something new. If you notice from the picture above from our Xian office - teams in my company sit across one big table with no barriers. This is really cool because people can listen into conversations happening across the table and problems get instant solutions from the chatter around the team. Cubicles may be the way to go for predictable transactional work, but for knowledge work, a barrier free team environment is the way to go.

How visible is your work?

Agile promotes the notion of big visible charts to depict your work. This is how you'll see creative companies like IDEO or Duarte work as well. There's something magical about making mental models explicit on a big, visible chart and to depict the state of work on a visible information radiator. Now my company also sells Mingle which is quite an awesome collaborative project tracking and collaboration platform. That being said, visualising your work only on a software system such as Mingle turns it into what my colleague Mark Needham calls an information refrigerator. There's a lot of value in having a representation of your work status that not just your team members but everyone in the office can see. Often, people walking by will notice something unusual and give you an interesting tip. Often people will learn from your representations. For example, I learnt an interesting way to represent a customer journey by looking at the above design wall for one of our teams in China.

How connected is your workplace?

It's not just the team that needs connection and serendipity, but potentially your entire office. We talk of silo-busting in the virtual world, but what about the physical silos? Why do different teams need to have different rooms and work areas? Why can't we have large contiguous spaces where each team is visible to the other? Take a look at the design of our Xian office above. The entire office is one single space and the head of the office sits in the same place as the rest, as do people in HR, recruiting, admin, finance and the like. Everyone knows everyone - most people are aware of each other's work and that level of connectedness leads to solutions to common problems from the collective. It's not that tough, we just need to get over the default mindsets behind office design.
In my view workplace design needs to be an integral part of any social business consulting that you seek out. Serendipity just happens, but the fact is that you can prepare yourself for serendipity by creating an environment that encourages it. Workplace design can't just be the realm of architects and interior designers - it's a social engineering activity. By now there's a lot of examples out there, including Google, ThoughtWorks itself, Stanford. Inspiration's out there - it's time for us to learn from it.

27 comments:

Howard Johnson said...

Interesting and timely post Sumeet. I've recently been reading up on coworking. Usually associated with people who work on their own, but I can't see a reason why the open source and flexible aspects would not benefit employees as well. A co-mingling of companies.
Here's where my thoughts are coming from. Much of our thought, including serendipity, depends on unconscious back office type mental processes. While our work and our online activity is mostly conscious, the unconscious (maybe) depends a lot on our cultural moment to moment meat space activity. To be successful we want to expand our resources, including the resources of which we are not even conscious. To expand your resources, brake down boundaries include organizational boundaries. Create spaces to help us open up to other thinkers, entrepereneurs, artist, intellectuals, writers and the like.
What do you think, I'm trying to think this through and would enjoy any help.

Tuo said...

Hi,Summeet,are u in Xi'an Office now? Welcome

Sumeet Moghe said...

@Howard: Interesting thoughts. I think you're quite right. The funny thing with serendipity is that it by definition is accidental. We can however prepare for that accident. I think of it as akin to walking on the street in a way that you do get hit by a bus. Not a very pleasant analogy but works for me in the case of learning. Organisational walls and barriers are a big problem when it comes to fostering serendipity. We close ourselves down completely to the possibility of being able to accidentally learn from the environment around us.


@Tuo: Yes, indeed in the Xian office. I was hoping to meet you but I learned that you're traveling. Maybe the next time?

Deity Exmachina said...

Yes that is right Sumeet! Working on an open space and yes an office is the key to social life that everyone is looking for. Yes working online has a good effect at first, however your social relationship will suffer. That is why we are promoting to work and play in an office like Crown @ Robinson Anyway, thanks for sharing a very good post! Keep it up.

trilive said...

this approach is pretty much effective specially for pioneering group in a new business. this will get you to a clear direction of the business and employees as well.

Helen Hohc said...

Yeah, I am also looking forward to have a spatial serendipity in my jurong industrial  space for sale. I do hope that this way, we can attract more buyers.

High Park said...

transparency, less politics, openness, setting proper expectations are the real key!

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