Thursday, November 12, 2020

How the Best Place of Work Became A State of Mind

Guest post from Jonas Altman:

Matt Mullenweg’s company had a plush office at Pier 38 in San Francisco’s Embarcadero. It was only a five-minute walk from his apartment, but his preference, like many in the company, was to work from home.

More than three years ago they shut their office and the company continues to flourish. If ever there was living that giving workers flexibility and control over their life works - it’s Wordpress. Mullenweg the founder of Automattic (the parent company) explains, ‘In the future, [companies] will either be distributed or be taken over by companies that are - because the smartest people in the world are going to want to work this way.’    

Indeed, one of the biggest obstacles to getting great work done may still be the physical office. Many of these dire places rob inhabitants of their focus (and soul for that matter), through a constant stream of distractions. In some ways, COVID waved a magic wand, enabling many employees to change their work environments overnight.

A Far-Out Vision

When it comes to engagement, creativity, and productivity - there’s an intricate tango to strike between people and place. A far-out vision for achieving this harmony in work is that of architecture professor David Dewane. His Eudaimonia Machine has the lofty goal of helping workers reach their full potential.

Featuring a series of five distinct rooms, each is dedicated to a specific mode of work: the gallery for inspiration, the salon for conversation, the library for research, the office for light work, and my personal favorite, the chamber for deep work. There are no hallways so you move through each room, sequentially edging towards your most concentrated work. All that’s missing, it seems, is a dedicated space to recharge, which may just entail decamping from the office altogether for some fresh air.

Some companies hire architects, interior designers, workplace strategists, psychologists, and even mathematicians to design the perfect office for their particular needs. But for many, work is something you feel empowered to do, not necessarily somewhere you need to be.

The precise destination of work tomorrow, whether geographic or virtual, will be an arbitrary concern. Because great work can, and will, continue to happen anywhere. It happens in those temporal places that cater best to the technological, creative, and intellectual needs of the individual and team.

The Magic Number

One reason why midsize family businesses have flourished throughout history is because they’re nimble, with typically less than 150 employees. There are strong bonds and good communication between workers. It’s these businesses that account for a whopping 60% of global employment. Military units are often capped at this magic number of 150 because when lives are on the line, it’s helpful if everyone knows each other’s name.

That’s not to say that you can’t grow bigger and still maintain a great culture. Squarespace, a technology company with nearly 1,000 employees, has been voted New York’s best place to work countless times.

While their Manhattan office may be static, how they work is anything but. They live their values by respecting, inspiring, and challenging workers and encouraging them to be their most creative–wherever that may happen to be. Many workers make the journey to the office because they say it’s a place where they love to work and ‘hang out.’

A State of Mind

That special something businesses are looking for–fostering the right energy–comes from people. And since humans, like businesses, evolve over time, the healthiest work environments change in concert with their occupants and the general state of the world.

‘There are companies that are finding new ways to work, that allow people to set their own hours, have more flexibility, live wherever they want in the world and they’re going to attract the best people,’ declares Mullenweg. He should know, the unassuming billionaire’s company has less than1,200 employees yet astonishingly powers 37% of all sites on the web.          

For way too many, there’s a disconnect between the company culture that managers first set then strive to realize, and the culture they experience every day when they come into work. Creating a great place to work means truly understanding the ongoing interplay of worker bees within a complex system. When there isn’t a clear goal or a shared language, it’s near impossible for a culture to gel. And when workers don’t have the tools and support they need, eventually they’ll up and leave.

We can view work for what it’s becoming; an experimental practice to evolve. It now occupies a psychological space as much as a physical one. Turns out, the best place to work isn’t a place after all; it’s a state of mind.

JONAS ALTMAN is the author SHAPERS: Reinvent the Way You Work and Change the Future (Wiley, Sept 2020). He is a speaker, writer, and entrepreneur on a mission to make the world of work more human. As the founder of award-winning design practice Social Fabric, he creates learning experiences to elevate and grow leaders at the world’s boldest organizations.

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