The See Through Workplace
Open source provides an inspirational new model for how we can work together, collaboratively and creatively. But it will not work in all settings. It depends on people feeling motivated. There are plenty of tasks – collecting the community’s rubbish – which most people will not willingly do out of a sense of curiosity. Some products cannot be broken down into modules. Many do not have the equivalent of a source code to be shared. Collaborative and cooperative forms of work have a long, romantic and often disastrous history. Collaborative, peer-based working will not completely supplant market incentives and firms. Yet collaborative working models like Evolt, Wikipedia and Linux cast a long shadow over traditional hierarchical organisations. The biggest impact of these open models may come from how they force established, traditional and top-down organisations to adapt by becoming more open and participative.
Large organisations will have to start learning from open communities of innovation. Employees increasingly need to be flexible, self-motivated problem solvers, not rigid rule followers. More jobs will involve the investment of imagination, creativity and empathy, factors of production that are difficult to measure. The more that people are expected to multi-task – to deliver and execute effectively, but also to innovate and learn – the more difficult it is to set clear incentives and reward them. A performance based pay system that rewards individual efforts and output will do little to encourage new ideas and collaboration. Traditional firms will have to become more democratic, open and egalitarian – if they are to match the innovation capacity of open source. Traditional, top-down companies – with power invested in an unelected executive – are an anachronism in a democratic age. It should be no surprise that young and entrepreneurial companies, founded by people who share these more democratic values, look and feel quite different from traditional organisations.
A fashionable example is the British drinks firm Innocent Drinks where the work culture is defined by informality. The company’s three young founders have slightly grating titles such as “Chief Squeezer” and “Top Banana.” The Innocent offices abound with the paraphernalia of trendy modern business: table football and photos of staff when they were babies. Everyone is on first name terms. New parents get a £2,000 baby bonus and newly weds an extra week’s holiday to have a decent honeymoon. A high proportion of profits are donated to development charities. Over one door of their offices in a non-descript industrial park in Hammersmith, West London a sign hangs: “Burglars’ Entrance.” The open, entrepreneurial work culture, which encourages people to speak their minds and link their work to their lives, has helped to propel Innocent to become one of the most exciting and widely emulated new entrants into the British food and drinks markets.
Approaches like this are not confined to companies that are small, young and trendy. WL Gore, the maker of Gore Tex and a range of other products has sales of close on $1.4bn – but claims to have no managers, secretaries or even employees. It has a global network of 6,000 associates, who jointly own the company. Salaries are decided collaboratively. Every new associate has three peer mentors who help to navigate their career. Bill Gore, the company’s founder, argues that in most companies, the work gets done through informal networks that bear little relation to formal organisation charts. He set out to design an organisation based on those informal networks. As one Gore employee put it: “Why go to someone with a title when you can go to someone with the answer.”
Large companies are attempting to cherry pick elements of choice and self-management they want to introduce. In 1998 BT, the British telecoms incumbent, created a Freedom to Choose scheme for field engineers, after an experiment with a particularly recalcitrant group of software engineers in Cardiff. Almost in desperation the managers gave them the right to self-schedule their work. The pay system for engineers had encouraged them to work at weekends and to clock overtime. As a result engineers failed to complete jobs so they would be able to earn overtime. The Freedom to Choose programme allowed small teams of engineers to choose which work should be done, in which order and by which team members. Many of these decisions were made in chat rooms on the Internet with the help of scheduling software. Engineers earn points by completing work, mentoring peers and leading groups. The points can be redeemed for pay. In March 2002, the original pilot was extended to 20,000 engineers who self-schedule their work. The BT scheme is a limited form of the self-distribution of labour that is a central feature of open source communities. After three years the average engineer was earning more money and working two hours less per week. Productivity was up by 5% and quality up by 8%. BT’s will never become a community. Yet it is adapting elements of the open approach to work because that is how best to motivate and coordinate staff who want to be self-motivated innovators.
In the right conditions these open and participative forms of work can provide better answers to the basic questions that all large organisations face: how to motivate staff to come up with new ideas, and coordinate what they do with as little hierarchy as possible. One can see more elements of this open thinking in the way some large corporations are changing their physical surroundings: their offices.
Organisations revolve around offices. Usually they are designed to help managers coordinate work but as a result they also usually fail to motivate people and can stand in the way of innovation. Offices, in my experience, are good for power politics, flirting and gossip. They are dreadful places for intellectual curiosity. Creativity comes from being immersed in ideas, getting lost in your thoughts. Yet offices provide a constant round of distractions and trivia, the urgent chasing out the interesting. Creativity comes from diversity: exposure to different points of view and experiences. Office cultures tend to make everyone conform to the corporate code, making them seem alike even when they are not. In most offices people rarely move outside their own departments, let alone outside the organisation as a whole. Innovation often comes from creative interaction with customers, yet offices are a good place to hide from the outside world and from consumers in particular. Offices encourage territorialism – different departments on different floors – so it is difficult for people to cross boundaries to borrow and share ideas. Office bureaucracies make people dysfunctional and irrational: most of the conversations I overhear in the lifts of large organisations are either about internal turf wars people are fighting or what they did when they escaped from work. Lateral and sideways thinking is virtually impossible in the standard office environment. People often have their best ideas in idle, marginal moments: after exercise, while walking, on the way from taking the children to school, in the shower. Long work schedules drive out those marginal moments. Innovation thrives on conversation. Days that are scheduled down to the last minute drive out conversation, managers frown on conversation as no more than idle chatter. Yet as we will see conversation is at the root of innovation.
The most open and creative office I have worked in belongs to Ideo, the design and innovation firm. For several months I squatted at a desk in Ideo’s London office, joining project meetings and discussions, while my own home office was being built. There was a constant flow of people, especially customers, into the building. They came straight into the workspace. Everyone could see them. Ideas, materials and images were constantly posted on the walls so that people could see work in progress. People felt at home. The décor was unflashy. There was nothing self-conscious about it. It was designed to feel comfortable and efficient. Unlike many advertising companies and large corporations Ideo did not have to display modern art to show everyone it was creative. People moved around the whole time, bumping into one another, colliding and conversing. There were simple spaces where people could congregate: a large table around which people ate lunch. In some areas the atmosphere was as studious as a library. But it was also highly gregarious and at times raucous and playful. People were allowed to be idle: someone taking a nap on a sofa was assumed to be resting, not skiving off. The underlying ethos was of self-organisation and self-discipline. Idea’s office encourages people to generate ideas by mixing and melding. Ideo is much vaunted in academic studies of innovation and design but it too has its problems: a culture that can become inward looking; people who have become tired and conservative; ways of thinking that have turned into routines. But at its core Ideo’s places of work allow people to be creative together, in a highly self-disciplined environment.
Of course it is ridiculous to imagine most places of work will be like this in future, even in the developed world. Call centres and retail outlets will be experience and service factories: highly regimented, delivering a commodity service, fast and to high standards of quality. Yet as more organisations come to recognise they need to innovate and motivate staff, as well as coordinate their work, so more of the will have to explore recipes like those of Ideo and Linux. Not all these experiments will be an outstanding success. Big companies tend to think that if they bring in modern art, paint walls bright colours, put out some bean bags and most crucial of all – put in a table football table – they will become buzzy, creative places to work.
But even these clumsy attempts at reform confirm the general drift: offices will have to become spaces for creative conversation. The task of the modern office, as Malcolm Gladwell put it in a New Yorker article, is to invite social interaction that makes it easy for strangers to talk to one another. Offices need a social milieu like that in a bustling city neighbourhood, where much of the life takes place on sidewalks and in cafes. Those spaces need to be at the heart of modern offices not in the margins. Do not design the office around the executive offices but around places where people congregate, mingle and talk: cafes, open workspaces, libraries. Workspaces should be designed to promote collaboration, self-organisation and interaction: think barefoot and beach.