The Future of Work Perspective with Sam Spurlin Ep 7.2

Do We Want To Be There? (01:07):

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When I think about what is important for people, for colleagues and whether they’re able to connect and whether that is going to go well or not. There’s the very just cut and dry: Do we have spaces where we actually want to be when we come into the office? Do we have, we all have our cubicles or we have our space at the long table, but anytime we actually want to meet and work on something together, we have to go fight for one of the very limited conference rooms that are impossible to get. When I think back to when I was spending more time in actual offices, it blows my mind how much time was spent trying to reserve rooms where more than two people could actually have a conversation at normal volume and how much coordination had to go into figuring out who could be in those rooms.

We obviously needed a lot more of that. As these organizations are trying to incentivize people to come back into the office and they’re inviting them into spaces, where no human actually wants to spend any time, that’s the first thing, just from a,’ is it a place that I actually want to come and do and do work?’ standpoint. There’s the larger issue of commutes and what it actually means to come into an office. If I had a 5-minute walk to come into my place of employment, not a big deal at all, and I bet you a lot more of my colleagues would probably show up as well. If it means getting into a 45-minute car ride to come into an office, then that pull that incentive to come back suddenly needs to be so much more. And now we’re talking about policy and affordable housing and probably outside of the realm of this specific conversation.

Then the other things that I think about in terms of coming in and actually collaborating together is: Do we have work that we actually can collaborate on? Do we have shared work or are we a bunch of individual mercenaries pursuing our individual work all under the name, the banner of our organization? If you don’t have shared work, then it’s really hard to have reasons to come in and actually do things together because I can do my stuff alone from home just as easily as I can going into an office. But the nice thing about the operating system metaphor is that you can look at the, we have 12 different areas and ask that question through the lens of each one. So purpose, thinking about purpose, what is it about an organization’s purpose that would inspire someone to want to come into an office to work together? Probably come up with a lot of things there. Innovation. If it’s important for us to innovate as an organization, then do we have spaces where that is facilitated; where it is easier to innovate because we have the tools, we have the inspiration, we have everything we need.

The Vibe Is Real? (04:19):

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When I go into an organization’s office and I just look at the physical space, I look at whether everybody is in cubicles or in offices or open space or just what the general vibe of an organization is. Vibe is a very real thing when you’re talking about physical space filled with humans and getting the vibe of an organization is not something that is rocket science or takes too long. There are things that would immediately come to mind as I step into a client’s office, which is: Are there people actually kind of huddled together working on things? Are there spaces where there are groups of people actually easily able to come together and work on stuff? Is everybody wearing headphones and trying to block out the external world and basically trying to recreate the remote work experience while sitting next to everybody at a table?

Those are all little bits of clues about what it is like to work at any given organization. In general, if I was working with a client right now who’s trying to conceptualize their return to office or whatever they want to call it, and trying to really create a space that people want to come back to, I would be looking for things like I just mentioned such as easy spaces for people to collaborate. I would be thinking about just the core, the design of an organization when you step into a well-designed space, even if I can’t articulate it, I’m not a designer, I don’t know what principles are at play, but there are certainly principles at play for well-designed spaces versus not well-designed spaces. I like going into offices where that reward, kind of curiosity about the space. You can see interesting things that are happening and it kind of pulls you into the space a little bit more. You can tell it was thoughtfully crafted that there are little things here and there that are very contextually relevant for that organization and it makes you feel like you have come into a built space that is specifically for you and for your job and for your organization and not just generic office building that any sort of company could easily fill this space. Like any hermit crab can just kind of get into the shell of another one. I don’t want hermit crab organizations. I want to feel like this has been specifically designed for what we do and how we do it and how we are as an organization.

How Do We Bring Humans Together? (07:02):

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People, not all people, but a lot of people are tired of scheduling video calls with the people they work closely with and having those relationships have this intermediary of the computer screen. The organizations that are thinking this through really well are not doing these blanket sort of mandates. Everybody come back or everybody come back Monday, Wednesday, Friday and stagger people that way. They’re being much more deliberate about how do we bring teams back together? You’ve defeated the purpose if you are requiring people to come back, but there’s no sort of coordination around full teams coming together to be in person at the same time. I have seen multiple organizations where there are various mandates about how many days you need to be in the office, but no coordination across teams. So people are coming to the office and then spending all day on video calls with their colleagues who are in other places and at that point, nobody is going to feel the benefit of actually being in space. You’ve just added difficulty to the thing they were already doing before. Being very conscious of how do we bring humans together who are already working together is the main thing.

I think the other thing organizations are that I see are doing better is that they’re giving their employees a voice in terms of how to do this. It’s kind of an ancillary point to the one I just made, but they’re not just these top-down blanket mandates of ‘hey, now we’re all coming back in.’ They’re actually working with the folks who they’re asking something of to craft the new proposal to craft the experiment that they’re going to do. There is a adult to adult conversation to be had around what are we going to do? Are we going to stay fully remote forever? Well, there are pros and cons to that. Are we going to bring everyone back into the building forever? There are pros and cons to that and let’s have a nuanced conversation about the trade-offs that are important to the various stakeholders in an organization and try to find a way forward together as opposed to this kind of just authoritarian, ‘Hey, now we’re going to do this thing because I said so.’

The Organizational Identity (09:24):

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When I think about experiences, I think about offices and environments that I have been part of or enjoyed coming to more than others. The Ready for a long time, we’re a small organization (we still are about 40, 45 people) but for a long time we had an office in New York City that I really loved coming to. There was the experience of getting to the office, which was, I mean in New York City and you living in the city is just kind of fun in itself sometimes if you’re not too far away. It’s not like I was coming from Jersey or upstate or anything. I had a 20-minute kind of subway, subway ride, but then the space that we were in was one of, it was hard for me to describe. Basically everybody else seemed to be in the fashion industry and then there was us, so it was filled with beautiful people and beautiful objects and they had some really nice food in there.

It felt special to come into that space and it was not that our office was particularly opulent or anything, I don’t think we were paying that much money. It just happened to be the space that we were in. It was a cool place to be because I didn’t know who would be there or what it was going to be like in any given day, and I really, really enjoyed that. When I think about maybe more regular sorts of experiences, I think about client offices that always seemed to have various things going on. Within this department they had their own little rituals that involved the space or the way that they set up their area and the people who were part of that department or that function, they were proud of the space they took up in the building and how they embodied that space.

I just think there’s such opportunity for customization and really making a space your own that you don’t get necessarily when everybody is working completely remotely. Obviously, yes, my individual space is my own, but we don’t have this shared organizational company-wide identity in terms of how we are taking up space in the world together, which I don’t know if everybody thinks about that, but I miss that. In terms of thinking about having an office for The Ready or spending more time with our clients.

The Time I Was In This Place . . . (11:49):

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Stories are so much connected to place and we have lost that or many organizations have lost that over the last couple of years. I don’t think that our brains think about Zoom or other videos, video conferencing, the same way that you think about the time I was in this place and we had this conversation in this place and every time I walk by this place, I kind of remember the echoes of that conversation or that decision that we made as an organization. That has completely left over the last couple of years as every conversation and every decision has happened in the same exact space, which is me sitting in my home office here looking at my video screen and it’s just all one kind of featureless expanse and it’s hard to latch stories onto a featureless expanse.

I’m not planning on April Fool’s pranking myself at my home office here, and I don’t think any of my colleagues are going to be able to do anything either. I’ll have to think about the digital version of that, which is never as fun as actually being in person with people.

Solving Organizational Tension (13:01):

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The opportunities are everywhere and they start with whatever the pain is that an organization is feeling right now. A lot of our work, we talk about starting with the organizational tensions that are present within the system, so not interpersonal tension, it’s not tensions between people, but tensions that exist within the operating system. Basically, Where does it feel like we are getting in our own way? What is making it difficult to do the best work of our lives and all of the conversation that starts to come out and coalesce around some of those ideas. When you bring a team together to answer that question, that’s your starting point for a lot of opportunity is removing that tension or seeing where we could be a little bit better and then actually trying things to evolve our operating system. We really believe that the only way you can change a complex system, which all organizations are, is through experimentation. It’s through iteration. We can’t know exactly how to fix any given tension, but we have ideas about what have worked before, what we think might work, and if we create, we craft an experiment to actually try that, then we’ll know for sure. The stuff that works, we can scale further, we can level up, we can ramp it up and the stuff that doesn’t work, we can take what we learn from that and try something else. That process happening from the top of an organization to the bottom of an organization and just baked into the everyday process of doing work, the expectation that ‘yeah, we’re always working on some organizational tension. We always have some experiment going that we’re trying to run on ourselves.’ When you’re able to get that into the DNA of an organization, that’s how you now have an organization that can constantly change itself; that can read and respond to what’s happening in its environment and always be morphing itself to best be suited for that environment.

The Risk Of Not Changing (15:01):

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Risk is one of those things that we talk about all the time with our clients, with the organizations that we work with because risk is a very nuanced type of thing if you’re willing to sit with it a little bit more. What I mean by that is that a lot of organizations wave this risk hammer around and they hit things with it and say, ‘that’s too risky. We can’t do it. We have risk capital R risk, we can’t do it.’ And that is a very simplistic way of viewing risk. There are very small risks that yeah, if something goes poorly, we can adjust and learn along the way. There are risks where if we make the wrong decision, we won’t be able to turn around and pivot and do something different and there are some risks that are truly existential and we need to treat all of these different types of risks a little bit differently.

Then maybe the most important type of risk that most organizations don’t talk about is the risk of not doing something. The opportunity cost in the various decisions that we have at hand here, it’s very easy to point to a thing that we could do and say, ‘no, it’s too risky, we’re not going to do that.’ But I think it takes, it’s much more difficult to talk about, well, what’s the risk if we don’t change? What is the risk if we don’t actually evolve our way of working? What is the opportunity that we’re leaving on the table by not being a little bit more open to the idea of navigating our risk landscape in a more nuanced way? And I guess I have a personal vendetta against folks within organizations who use the threat of risk as a way of shooting down the idea of being able to do anything differently. I’m actually also quite risk averse, but I want to be very, very clear about the risks that we need to navigate so that we can be smart about each one. I don’t want to do experiments that are too risky. In fact, we talk about always trying to do things that are safe to try and you only know if something is safe to try is if you actually understand the risks at play. And if you just wheel the risk hammer, then you don’t get a chance to have a nuance to take on that.

What’s Next? (17:26):

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As I look into the future, organizations are navigating so much when it comes to their physical spaces, their digital spaces, how they actually continue to show up in the world. When I think about particularly for this conversation and the idea of physical space and navigating this moment of hybrid, remote, in person, I see a lot, I don’t see a clear view I guess of where I think most organizations are going. I think there is going to continue to be this little bit of muddling through and figuring out: What can we do that is the best of both worlds? What can we do so that when we are working distributed, when we are working remotely, it is optimized for the work that we do and we’re getting everything we need from that? And what can we get from our physical time together, whether we have an office space that we’re inviting people back to or whether we’re fully distributed, but we do full company retreats a couple of times a year.

There is such an opportunity for organizations that are being very thoughtful about how to use that time, about how to set up their space to optimize for the things that you can only do when you’re in person. And I’m really excited to continue helping our clients figure that out and I’m very curious what new things might be just off into the future in terms of thinking about space, in terms of thinking about digital space. I’m very curious about: What is possible when you’re not bringing employees back to a full-time office space? Well, are there opportunities where actually three organizations or X number of organizations can share the same building? Maybe they’re in completely different industries and actually there is a mingling of employees across various organizations within the space. There are things like that maybe weren’t possible when one organization had to own or lease or whatever their one space and when you have a more fractional approach to in-person time, what cool new things might we be able to create.

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