The Anthropology of Work

From the blog

Corporate Coworking


High performing firms today have several things in common.  First, they often operate in markets that are exciting, in industries where innovation is happening and work is challenging.  Secondly, they are led by inspiring leaders who not only are honest and trustworthy, but who are also able to articulate why the work of the firm is meaningful beyond the simple calculus of profitability.  Thirdly, such companies function internally with high levels of flexibility and independence with respect to when, where, and how work gets done.  Fourth, and related to point number three, employees in these firms are expected to be creative and to come up with new, value-adding solutions for customers and for the company’s bottom line.  And finally, the driver that makes all of the above possible is top talent that is capable of delivering market winning results in an unstructured, non-hierarchical environment.

For firms that aspire to become high performers, the key questions are:  How do we go from the ‘here and now’ to that desired state in the near future?  What sort of changes and commitments does our company need to make to attract the best and brightest of Gen Y?  What does our ‘employee value proposition’ need to look like in order to draw in and leverage a rising digital workforce that cares about the implications of its work and wants to be involved in meaningful work from the ‘get go?’

“How Baby Boomers live, how they work, and what their expectations are in terms of their work life and personal life are extremely different from the Millennials…If you continue to build the kind of environments you have now, it won’t be attractive to Millennials because they just don’t work the same way Baby Boomers do.”

(Stephen Davis- Boeing)


Activity Based Work

Firms in Europe, Australia, and the U.S. have recently taken huge steps in making the transition to becoming such high performing firms.  But how are they doing this?

Inspired by the Dutch design firm Veldhoen + Company, companies such as Macquarie Bank and the Port of Portland have embraced the workspace/workforce management concept of Activity Based Work (ABW).  ABW is an architectural and human resource commitment that firms make, wherein all employees (including the CEO and other officers) forgo their offices in favor of a laptop and a locker for storage.


“Often there is a command/control type of leadership system, which the conventional workplace reinforces.’ Henry says. ‘Management is in a corner watching a group of people in a fixed cluster.’  A shift in work style required a shift in behavior, with an increase in transparency that goes both ways.  Employees are just as likely to observe their managers at work as the other way around.  ‘Soon we weren’t just creating a great workplace,’ Henry says.  ‘It quickly became a business-transformation project. “

(Anthony Henry- Macquarie Bank)


All employees work in one of a variety of neighborhoods, some of which are open and group-work oriented while others are private, quiet work areas.  There are two core principles at the heart of ABW.  The first is the idea that ABW democratizes a workplace, creating an environment where everyone is situated equally and all employees have access to everyone else.  No one (including the CEO), hides behind a wall of personal assistants.  The second idea is that different work should take place in different spaces, depending on the specific activity one is engaged in at the time.  Some of that work might need to be done on campus in a café-like space, some might take place at a fixed work station or conference room, while other work might be completed at home or the local coffee shop.

Why does this matter, and what does it have to do with high performing firms?

As indicated at the outset here, the key driver of high performing firms today is people.  We also know what today’s rising generation wants in their work.

  1. Compelling company strategy and purpose
  2. Credible & accessible leadership
  3. Smart and capable colleagues
  4. Workspace & workflow flexibility
  5. Experimentation & Growth

Sadly, most legacy firms are lacking in most of these.  Established companies often ‘stick to their knitting’ and assume that Millennials are eventually going to ‘come around’ and accept yesterday’s employee value proposition.  Memo just in… That is not going to happen!  A massive shift in both cultural values and technological connectedness has forever changed the way Millennials view work and their careers.  In order for today’s firms to attract top knowledge workers, they have to accept this reality and change in their direction.

 “Scattered across four offices, the agency’s administrative employees had been sequestered into bureaucratic fiefdoms that, to [CEO Bill] Wyatt’s thinking, had become too inefficient, slow, and cautious.  Bringing them under one roof would certainly help, but the new building also needed to become a tool for reorganizing the agency’s culture.  Wyatt’s biggest move was getting rid of private offices, starting with his own.  He recalls how his inbox filled with staff members’ lengthy memos, each arguing for an exception. ‘I’d tell them: You need to add a section explaining why it’s more important for you to have an office than me,’ Wyatt chuckles.  ‘I wanted fewer meetings, more quick interactions and decisions.  This was an effort to address the structural challenges that enclosed offices can often impede.”

(Randy Gregg, Metropolis Magazine)


Enter Coworking (and Corporate Coworking)

One powerful symbol of this new reality is the global coworking movement.   Beginning in 2006, small communities of freelance designers, programmers, social media strategists, and software developers have banned together in shared, cooperative office spaces to work on their individual projects in the shared spaces.  What started as a single ‘coworking space’ in San Francisco has grown into a global movement of over 3,000 coworking spaces on six continents.  United by the desire for autonomy, community, transparency, collaboration, and innovation, coworking spaces are growing rapidly and capturing the shared energy of a generation that wants to work in environments defined by choice, flexibility, respect, friendship, mobility, and work-life integration.

Now that coworking is cresting as movement, with between 150,000 and 200,000 ‘coworkers’ worldwide working in over 3,000 spaces in the US, Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa, the opportunity for coworking to cross over into the corporate environment presents itself.   In coworking spaces around the world, workers only go ‘into the office’ if they choose to.  No one is required to show up.  How many corporate offices can say this?  What would it be like for a firm to design a coworking space on its campus, that is run and managed ‘like a coworking space,’ and where employees wanted to go to work even if they had the option to work from home?

This would entail maximum flexibility and choice, and would intentionally, like ABW, push companies to be more egalitarian and less hierarchical.  Firms such as W.L. Gore, 3M, Google, LinkedIn, and Semco have demonstrated for years that, when a company becomes egalitarian, it not only becomes a highly desirable place to work, but it also becomes a highly innovative and competitive company at the same time.

In the same way that ABW has been responsible for helping transform corporate cultures in organizations where it has been embraced, corporate coworking has similar potential.  Indeed, going forward, companies that are looking to become employers of choice and companies that are thriving on the dynamic energy of independent-minded knowledge workers, coworking in the corporate environment is a natural evolutionary step.

What starts as a commitment to redesigning the physical workspace so that it looks, feels, and flows like a coworking space, can evolve, as ABW has demonstrated, into a cultural transformation project.  Like ABW, the corporate coworking model is novel.  However, if the rate at which coworking spaces and the coworking movement are growing is any indication of the attraction they hold for today’s creative and independent knowledge workers, firms would be wise to look, listen, and learn.




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