The stories you tell

You remember to talk about the future, what you haven’t done yet, because it’s still amazing/exciting to you. It’s easy and fun to dream, and share that dream with others.

But when the future doesn’t happen the way you imagined it, or the way you promised it, there’s disappointment. In others, but most of all in yourself. You lose momentum, and trust. With others, but most of all in yourself.

You forget to talk about the present or past because to you, it’s old news. It’s already happened. But for most people, it’s still new and exciting. And best of all, you can be sure it will happen because it already has.

Think about which stories you tell, and who you tell them for. Yourself, or for others?

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“Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell” and other similar nonsense you might read about trends in the workplace

Oh look, open floorplan offices are under scrutiny again, this time by the Harvard Business review.

Will Bennis from Locus Workspace in Prague shared a link to this article along with the following on the Coworking Google Group:

[I'm] putting this out there because I suspect what gets posted is generally filtered toward the “coworking positive”.

While cubicles are the worst, this article is about shortcomings of open-plan offices more generally.

Putting aside the obvious fact that even if open-plan offices aren’t for everyone, they’re certainly preferred by many of us, my existing bias has been that most independent workers would do better (in terms of psychological health as well as productivity and work quality) over the long run in a social work environment than in a private/enclosed office.

But articles like this make me wonder if that really is just my own bias.

Most of the findings suggested are contrary to what I would expect for independent workers, and I wonder how much the results here may be contingent on working in an organization (where being in an open plan office also corresponds to being lower in the work hierarchy and where many of the people you’re working alongside are implicit competitors).

Even though I wasn’t feeling well this morning, I penned a fairly lengthy response on my phone and think it would be worth sharing here on my own blog.

While most of my experience historically came from coworking and at Indy Hall, which is absolutely an open-floor-plan workspace, I’ve done a lot more consulting outside of the realm of coworking in the last couple of years and I’ve learned that the lessons from Indy Hall and coworking spread much further beyond the trends being forged by coworking.

Lesson 1 – There is no “better for everyone”

I’ll start with this: if you’re good for everyone, you’re great for no-one. This is a universal truth, has nothing to do with coworking or workspace.

Lesson 2 – Noise is definitely an issue. But not always how you think.

Earlier this year, noise levels came up as an opportunity for improving Indy Hall during one of our own internal research projects.

Curious for more details, I followed up with a subsequent line of questions: where so you believe the noise is coming from? Is it people on their phones, people talking to each other at their desks, people talking to each other in nearby common areas, or something else entirely?

The results of that question were evenly spread across the options (ha!) but the real answer emerged, and was far more interesting:

MANY more people than had mentioned noise issues spoke up and said, “Please don’t make Indy Hall more quiet. I come here for the noise. I love that buzz. I can’t get it anywhere else. If I wanted silence, I’d stay at home or go to the library.”

Noise isn’t for everyone. But no-noise isn’t for everyone, either. Again, refer to lesson 1.

Lesson 3 – Cultural evolution isn’t optional.

I’ve worked on several projects now with regard to open floor plan implementations in corporate settings. Every time it looks like this:

  • A company spends a boatload of money on design, consultants, architects, and furniture
  • everybody hates it, rebellion, etc (not unlike the article)
  • Alex’s phone rings with an inquisitive and frustrated, “why isn’t this working?”

My first question is, “well, what did you change?” 

The answer is ALWAYS environment.

The answer is NEVER anything related to evolving the culture, management or communication.

And that’s the problem with open floorplan offices. When the environment doesn’t match the culture, the management, and the communication, we shouldn’t be surprised that things break.

I have two concrete examples that I can share from recent conversations:

Example A – The manager who can’t keep track of her team

A manager cites that she actually likes the flexibility of choosing different areas to work, but…there’s a new problem.

“I never know where my team is. I spend half of my day hunting them down.”

From what I’ve learned, a rarely discovered issue, even though it’s a simple one.

When a new open floor plan office is designed and implemented, the teams and management need a new set of tools and techniques for communicating and leading. They need to learn how how to effectively check in and report to each other, without being a burden on each other.

Note that this is not the result of ”flatness” in an org chart, but the result of a “network” style of communication rather than a hub and spoke style.

Example B – The employee who doesn’t think they’re trusted

Several employees hate their company’s new open floor plan, citing many of the things in the Guardian article linked above.

But when I start to dig into the specifics, a common theme emerges: trust.

Or more specifically, a lack of trust.

People don’t like having people able to walk by and see what they’re doing…because they don’t know why that person is looking. So they guess. They make up reasons (and sometimes they’re right).

Often, an employee feels like their manager is hovering more…which she may or may not be.

The point is the feeling, which affects everything from productivity to retention.

Often, it’s competition among employees. “Someone’s always looking for a way to get a leg up, or take credit.” 

Again, a culture issue.In all of these cases, compared to the amount of work that went into the open floor plan, proportionally zero work has been done by management or staff to build or reinforce trust in the workplace. In some cases they do things that actively chip away at trust.

Without trust, “open” isn’t possible. And  that goes far beyond floor plans.

That’s just a sampling of my own research and experiences.I acknowledge my personal biases, which have been challenged a lot during this work. But I continue to discover that the root problems are consistent – and have VERY LITTLE to do with space design (there are a few exceptions, I could talk about those another time).

My challenge to to find issues with open plan workspaces that aren’t rooted in pre-existing cultural problems, or a limited (or non-existant) effort to put things like trust and communication in place long before a penny is spent on furniture or design.

Got one? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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Serendipity Stories – A Wet Cigarette

Indy Hall and the global coworking community has provided me with literally THOUSANDS of stories. I’ve realized, looking back, how many of them are packed with serendipity. This is my attempt to share just one of them. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to share more.


  I went to the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas for the first time in 2007. It was a last minute trip, largely spurred by the generosity of my friends Rob Sandie and Colin Devroe (founder and early team members of, respectively). 
  In many ways, SXSWi 2007 was a turning point in my career and a catalyst for creating Indy Hall. But it also set the stage for a personal, and mostly untold story. One evening near the end of the festival, I was at one of the countless nerd-packed parties. This one in particular – being hosted by Google – was at a partly indoor/outdoor venue. And it was raining. It was raining a lot. 

  This pushed most of the party attendees inside, making it extra crowded. I had just elbowed my way to the edge of a room to step outside under a narrow corregated aluminum roof to get some “fresh air”. As I reached for my lighter to spark a cigarette, I realized that I’d lost it at some point in the night. Another guy, who’d clearly just stepped out of the rain, with long shaggy hair held out of his face by a pair of sunglasses, leaned in to offer a light. “I’m Matthew.” 

  For the length of time it took to smoke a slightly soggy cigarette (and maybe a second one), Matthew and I spoke about the fact that it was my first time to SXSW. He was a veteran, though moreso of the music festival. He was from nearby(ish…Texas is huge) Houston and also a radio DJ back at Rice Univeristy where he was working on his PhD. 
  For a bit of context about where my head was at the time, attending SXSWi was a bit like going to “mecca” for the first time as a web developer. I’d met dozens of people, including a handful of heroes. But coming from Philadelphia – a place where I was actively working on growing the tech community that I hadn’t been able to find previously – I was growing distraught that I wasn’t finding many other Philadelphians who were also attending SXSW. 

  I later found out that they were around…but the clear lack of “Philadelphia community” presence at SXSW struck me like a stone. I was remarking about this observation to Matthew, and explaining a bit about my efforts to create “Independents Hall”, a community & coworking space in and for Philadelphia. He took a bit of special interest because he’d lived in Philly for a while, and had an affinity for the town. I told him about how I wanted to change how people in Philadelphia saw Philly, and how others outside of Philly, and he nodded with understanding. 

  I told him that I was dreaming of coming back to SXSW the following year with other Independents Hall members – a posse of sorts. He smiled an affirming smile that I’ve come to know as “the way Matthew smiles”.

  We parted ways with words of encouragement, and both disappeared back into the crowds of the party. If you were to fast forward 12 months, you’d skip over the continued growth of the Independents Hall community, the launch of our first coworking space, the shortening of our name to a more colloquial “Indy Hall”…and as the tape wound closer to SXSWi 2008, you’d see a contingency of a dozen and a half Indy Hall members forming a plan to attend the conference together. 

  On the closing night of SXSWi 2008, I was at the big closing party hosted by Media Temple. As I was elbowing my way through the bar, I had an unexpeced experience. I bumped into Matthew, the guy who I’d shared a cigarette with the year before. The guy who had listened as I spilled my dreams of making Philadelphia better, and attending the conference with other Philadelphians – the very thing that I’d just succeeded at achieving. Matthew and I hugged, and shouted over the music as we asked each other how we had been. And then the unexpected turned even more unexpected. 

  Matthew told me, “I thought about what you told me when we met last year. I thought about it a lot when I I got back to Houston. And it made a ton of sense. So while I’m finishing up my PhD, I’m also opening a coworking space. I want to do my part to make Houston better. It’s a little insane. But I’m glad I ran into you so I could tell you.” 

  I was floored. What the fuck could I have said to this guy during the cigarette break at that party (even if it was two cigarettes) to end up with THIS as the result. We swapped contact info this time, and I left Austin to return to Philadelphia the next day. About 3 months later, I flew to Houston for the opening of Caroline Collective, the coworking space that Matthew was opening with partner Ned. 

  I was welcomed by their community as if I was family. The evening of the Caroline Collective opening party I was surrounded by friends new and old, many of whom I still am in touch with, and experienced the proud glow of Matthew for his community. 

  I’m glad it rained that night in Austin.

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