Research Library

Space: The Organizational Frontier

My major research project at the Leading Edge Forum for 2019 is all about our working environments: the physical spaces we operate in and the mental worlds we construct in which to get work done. 

I think we can all agree that a thriving marketplace of digital tools now exists in response to the need for better ways to capture, retain, and share information.  These tools are also shaping us as much as we shape them:  as the ability to work more flexibly grows, new norms, habits and practices are emerging not only for information workers but also for workers whose roles are directly contingent upon their environment like production line workers, infrastructure technicians, healthcare providers, and logistics delivery couriers – what Microsoft terms ‘firstline workers’.  These emerging habits and norms are so new, in fact, that there is typically no clear guide or practice about how to use the tools effectively.  People are operating from very different assumptions, often without realizing that there is – or could be – a different way of doing things.  Speaking as an anthropologist, this is where the really exciting stuff happens.

Here are a few questions that come up in my interviews over and over:

  • Ping...ping...ping...How do I keep track of all the channels?  Multiple people are having overlapping conversations across five different channels in three separate tools and I have no idea who actually knows what any more.  I used to have meeting overload; now I have message overload!
  • The creeping clock:  despite all our efforts to remove dependencies and encourage people to ‘switch off’ out of hours in their local time, my multi-time zone team is starting to work crazy hours to keep each project moving.  How do we break the cycle?
  • We’re all over the place:  we’ve got co-located people in a few different locations plus some remote workers or people who are on the road a lot.  What structures do we need to put in place to make sure everybody has the same level of involvement?  How do we build enough trust to work together effectively?  What do we do when things go wrong?
  • We’re rolling out new collaboration software:  what’s the right balance between an organization’s responsibility to digitally upskill and an individual’s?  Who’s actually responsible for doing the training?  Is it IT?  Learning & Development?  A mix of both?

There is still so much more to learn – we’ve still got months of data collection ahead of us – but I am already starting to see some early themes emerging in my interviews and in writings about the subject.  I can usually tell when a topic is important when I hear my research participants’ brains shift gear as we move through the conversation:  they become passionate in their advocacy for or against a particular way of thinking or behaviour they’ve observed, or noticeably curious and thoughtful about a concept as they start to perceive it in a different way. 

Here are a few things I’ve learned so far:

  • Suit the space to the action, the action to the space.  Open plan offices are receiving some much-needed scepticism just now, with companies increasingly accepting an ‘activity-based working’ approach to their office design.  This can even work for #remotefirst and remote-friendly teams who believe that getting your working environment right is critical to their success, provide budgets for workers to optimize their home working stations – and even provide coffee shop or co-working stipends for those days when you want to be around people.
  • Space > place.  Wherever you are physically, work takes place in the mind.  Specifically, a sort of shared mental context or collaboration zone – it is not just your own mental workspace that matters, but how you invite others into that space with you.  Over and over I hear people describing the behaviours and habits that reflect this in interviews, but they don’t have a conceptual wrapper that describes what they mean.  Increasingly I return to Nonaka’s concept of ba – a shared space to build relationships that allows knowledge creation to happen.  The great thing about ba is that it covers physical and metaphorical ideas of space – it's particularly well-suited for conceptualizing what kinds of digital platforms or physical environments you might need to support your mental ba with teammates. 
  • Collaboration:  the great dilemma.  Workers perceive their alone and single-focused time as their ‘productive’ time, with collaborative work like meetings, answering emails, and responding to workplace chat generally perceived as distractions.  Companies often say they want to encourage a culture of collaboration … but they also don’t reward their top collaborators.  A rather depressing HBR study showed top collaborators, those who add most value above and beyond the individual tasks of their role, are not typically considered to be top performers – because top performance metrics are not usually geared around understanding assistive behaviour.  It’s easier than ever to track collaborative behaviour and network effects through digital communication tools.  Equally, organizations and individuals need to think carefully about the reward balance between focused individual time and open communicative time.
  • Global teams, global needs.  For distributed workforces, a blend of establishing trust and learning to form boundaries is critical.  Remote first does not mean remote all the time:  face-to-face time is still critical for working together.  And everyone needs to learn when to switch off. 

Do any of these resonate with you?  Am I missing the critical points?  Please let me know caitlin.mcdonald@leadingedgeforum.com or learn more about the project and ways to participate by reviewing the attached scope document. 

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