Coworking and the Open Organization

Coworking and the Open Organization

Coworking is not that big a deal

In some ways many of us make too big a deal about coworking. One could argue, as some do, that it is just a (different) place to work. Like just desks and chairs, punctuated by locally roasted coffee and craft beer. And, frankly, there is something to this point of view.

The question, though, is in what type of context does the physical work environment sit? That is, what else is going on in the organization? Is there fixity and hierarchy, or is there fluidity and democracy? Big questions, for sure, but in order for (corporate) coworking to ever be more than just a new and cool and cheaper place to work (embraced in order to shrink real estate costs), the company itself needs to be open to more than just ‘new ways of working.’

The Openness Imperative

In his 2015 book, The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst has quietly provided us one of the most important management books of the past 20 years. Extending the business philosophy of ‘open source,’ from which Red Hat finds its history and purpose, the book suggests that when a company’s default operating system, with respect to how people communicate, disagree, experiment, fail, learn, and innovate, is “open,” good things happen.

According to the Open Organization Field Guide, there are five principles behind open organizations:

  1. Transparency
  2. Inclusivity
  3. Adaptability
  4. Collaboration
  5. Community

(Compare these with the founding values of the coworking movement, articulated many years ago by Alex HillmanTony Bacigalupo et. al:

  1. Openness
  2. Collaboration
  3. Sustainability
  4. Accessibility

…and you can see the like-mindedness…)

In the field guide, the authors point out that common outcomes in firms that embrace the Open Organization framework are:

  • Greater Agility
  • Faster Innovation
  • Increased Engagement

I’m not sure there is a company in the world that would say ‘no’ to these sorts of outcomes. Research from the past three decades underscores the basic fact that companies with an ‘open cultural operating system’ are reliably more innovative and industry-leading than their ‘closed’ counterparts. Part of this is having some version of 20% time (the way Google used to do it), which many companies have instituted in bits and pieces, and part of this, quite simply, is making senior leadership accessible and allowing junior staff to weigh in on important decisions. Giving employees a real sense of ownership in the actual outcomes of projects is sometimes a non-starter in more traditional firms.

Some firms that get it right:

  • Red Hat
  • W.L. Gore
  • Morning Star
  • Patagonia
  • SAS
  • 3M
  • Automattic (Word Press)
  • Rackspace
  • Valve
  • Zappos

The Open Work Connection

Another part of the ‘open operating system’ of these firms is the choice and autonomy they give employees with respect to where, when, and how they work. Not only are they encouraged to generate new ideas for product development or process improvement, they are empowered to do their work in rather fluid ways. The coworking-like approach to working is just one part of a larger commitment to openness. This needs to either start with or be strongly supported by senior leadership. Even the most visionary HR or CRE leader will be forever stuck in a support role unless the company views workspace in the context of its broader approach to innovation, agility, and cultural evolution.

Looking back, I should have made these connections years ago. When we ran Austin’s first coworking space- Conjunctured– we had people from both Red Hat and Automattic (as well as Lyft and Airbnb) working in the space. One of Red Hat’s design teams, whose HQ is in North Carolina, worked daily at Conjunctured. In this simple and subtle example, coworking and the open organization came together quite naturally.

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.

Company Culture in the Age of Coworking

In my current book project (tentatively called “After Corporate Culture”), I am trying to understand the long-term impact that fluid and mobile working is having on company culture. For quite some time, of course, many firms have allowed, either officially or unofficially, employees to work from home or off-site at least some of the time. However, as more and more firms embrace fully-alternative workplace solutions such as coworking, something new is happening.

The project starts with a couple of simple questions:

  1. What happens to a sense of company community, shared identity, and common practices among employees of companies who no longer work at the company (i.e. on the company campus)? Disconnected from the day to day interactions, informal communications and routines, to what extent does a connection to a common culture begin to dissipate?
  2. The corollary and equally important questions is: How do the interactions and experiences of corporate coworkers (defined as employees of firms who actually work on a daily basis at a coworking space such as WeWork rather than at the ‘company’ office) reflect back on and impact the mother-ship culture back at HQ?

Only long-term research and observation will be able to answer these questions, but I think the questions are worth asking. But why?

Earnings & Omelettes

The first and quick answer is that, at last count, ~15% of the S&P 500 companies now have some number of employees who work out of coworking spaces. That is, coworking is no longer just a cool thing for kids and startups. It is for grown-ups too, and it is happening in real numbers.

The second, and more complicated answer is that by scrambling people who work for different firms into work omelettes, there is fresh potential to perhaps alter the DNA of the companies whose employees are participating in the mashup. To the extent that, sadly, so many public companies have their people locked into the executioners’ cycle of quarterly earnings management, it is hard to see what conventional tweak or tool can possibly intervene in any meaningful way.

At OpenWork, we believe that the long-term potential of coworking goes far beyond workplace strategy and revenue per square foot. While the real estate industry has been the most enthusiastic of the late adopters, we anticipate that large firms (and their HR functions) will make up the late majority of participants over the long haul.

Emergent Culture Inventory

Going forward, we are looking at ways to understand and map emergent cultures in companies and coworking spaces where the omelettes are being made. We would be foolish to assume that the cultural experiences of such knowledge workers will remain the same as their more sedentary and domesticated counterparts. Sending employees out ‘into the wild’ is scary for some firms, but the knock-on effect of that is now a thing.

The Emergent Culture Inventory (ECI) tool is a simple, real-time diagnostic platform that captures key words and phrases that employees use to describe their experiences, levels of motivation, engagement, and productivity. Rather than asking questions that presume that companies fall within a certain “type” of culture, the ECI works from the bottom up and lets the employees tell us what is going on and what it means to them. Monitoring and mapping these experiences over time will eventually tell us what coworking really means for companies that embrace it.

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.

Are You Ready for Coworking?

Are You Ready?

For the past four years we have been closely watching as more and more mainstream users have embraced coworking as a new way of working. What at first seemed like a fringe phenomenon that was suited primarily for freelancers and startups has grown to be much more than this.

coworking readiness assessment

Recently, while walking through a WeWork, we noticed areas where employees of Dell,, and Samsung were all (co)working on the same couple of floors. Employees of different (large) firms sharing a workspace is something that no one would have predicted ten years ago. Yet here it is, happening everyday. In fact, 10% of the S&P 500 companies now have employees who cowork. A recent survey of companies included the following firms:

  • Dell
  • GE
  • HSBC
  • Merck
  • Microsoft
  • Silicon Valley Bank
  • Unilver
  • Marriott
  • KPMG

What does it mean for companies whose employees cowork around employees of other firms? Have you ever thought about how coworking might be relevant to you personally or your company organizationally? Do you think you are ready for coworking?

Find out at:

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.

Boomerangs & Slingshots – After Corporate Culture: Managing Culture in the Sharing Economy

Culture Past and Future

In his 2015 Wall Street Journal article, “Data is our New Middle Manager,” Christopher Mims chronicles the emerging management practices of lean startups. The article suggests that, in an era of radical transparency where ALL employees have access to ALL the relevant data that impacts a company (small or large), there is less and less need for managers to translate information to the ‘little people.’ Peter Drucker’s much-loved professional manager, it would seem, is no match for data. But I am not here to write the obituary for middle managers, that has been (prematurely) done already.


Rather, as I am exploring in a new book, After Corporate Culture: Managing Culture in the Sharing Economy (out in Spring 2018 hopefully), what Mims is really getting at is a fundamental culture clash across the generations. Millennials and others who share in the psychographic of the sharing economy, engage with the world of business according to a different core set of cultural values than their Baby Boomer predecessors. Traditional, Baby Boomer (and Gray Gen) managers, who make up the Boomerang generation and still comprise the vast majority of corporate managers, operate within the basic assumption that the past, predictability, hierarchy and social order are the goals of business strategy and growth. Particularly in our current shareholder driven business environment, what matters is that the net result of business activity, as Clayton Christensen and Derek van Bever argue in their HBR article, “The Capitalist’s Dilemma,” is that capital begets capital and that dividend yields and share buy backs move ever-upward. Indeed, between 2010 and 2015 “spending on buybacks and dividends exceeded not just investments in research and development but also total capital spending.” That is, if executed properly, the system feeds itself and reproduces itself over time, and what suffers is future-oriented strategy and capital allocation. This is the boomerang culture and economy in a nutshell.


Meanwhile, in other parts of the economy, an entirely different and future-oriented set of cultural values has taken root and is disrupting numerous industries-transportation, labor, hospitality, workplace, etc. Unmoored from “tradition” and predictability, sharing economy business models are firing shots into an unknown future. This is more than just efficient platform technologies (Airbnb, Uber, Lyft, UpWork, etc), it is a cultural form premised on experimentation, innovation, and the belief that business can be an instrument of social good as much as it can be a generator of wealth. As I outline in the book, slingshot cultural forces, which have their roots in the communitarian and egalitarian cultural movements of the late 1960’s, are gradually finding their place alongside the supposedly coherent and meaningful ‘corporate cultures’ which boomerangers have written about over the past forty years. A brief glance here…

Boomerang /Slingshot

  • Companies /Networks
  • Individuals/ Communities
  • Proprietary /Open-Source
  • Scarcity /Abundance
  • Predictability/ Emergence
  • Hierarchy /Autonomy
  • Control/ Transparency
  • Corner Office/ Coworking
  • Tenure/ Results

Beyond Binary

Of course this list is a simplification, but it is a helpful heuristic nonetheless. The point, at this stage in the process, is to insist that culture is a driver of what happens in our economy in ways that often goes unnoticed. It doesn’t help that for economists cultureis merely an annoying ‘externality’ that is difficult to stuff into their models. Behavioral economics helps, though. Hopefully cultural economics is next.

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn by OpenWork Agency Partner, Drew Jones, PhD.

Coworking and Company Culture

Marc Andreessen once famously said that ‘software is eating the world,’ and that if your business can’t be boiled down to a simple (software) solution it probably doesn’t have much of a chance. Or at least, in his world of venture investing, if your startup isn’t predicated on an elegant piece of software, then your business will be challenged. While some people took offense to Andreessen’s sweeping comment, I think it is even more profound than people might think.

Take, for example, the corporate culture consulting industry. Since the early 1980’s management consultants have made small fortunes helping large firms ‘engineer’ their cultures to be “stronger.” By stronger, we all understand that what is actually meant here is greater profitability and higher share prices. Enron had a strong culture, but that didn’t turn out so well. However, in light of the fact that some 70% of all corporate change programs actually fail, it is worth questioning what the actual value of culture consulting is and why so many existing efforts fail? And, to what extent will culture itself be boiled down to a piece of software?

However, in light of the fact that some 70% of all corporate change programs actually fail, it is worth questioning what the actual value of culture consulting is and why so many existing efforts fail?

For us at OpenWork Agency, this is where design and design thinking are so important. Typically, culture consultancies use typologies to classify companies within one type of company or another, and then help them transition to a new ‘type’ of culture. The whole process remains in the realm of values, beliefs, and behaviors, which tend not to ever change because very little else in the company changes. That is, words are cheap and easy.

Coworking as Design Intervention

In our estimation, what is needed are tangible, material interventions in the flow of peoples’s day-to-day work. By shifting people to the open and fluid mode of work that is coworking, the day to day interactions of employees themselves are changed. Without talking about culture, per se, the elements of coworking- communication, learning, etc- and thus culture itself is changed over time. But only slowly and organically. This is a critical difference.

By shifting people to the open and fluid mode of work that is coworking, the day to day interactions of employees themselves are changed. Without talking about culture, per se, the elements of coworking- communication, learning, etc- and thus culture itself is changed over time.

Thus, we have recently launched a new culture change initiative premised on coworking. We might be fifteen minutes early, but we know what impact coworking has on people, how they work, and on the social interactions between people who cowork together. Of course the proof will be in the pudding, but we are quite confident that as more companies embrace coworking (as many, such as Microsoft, IBM, HSBC, Dell, Samsung, Amazon, Merck, GE, just to name a few, have already done), those companies will in fact change, culturally, over time.

There are no magic bullets, we understand that. Company policies will have to shift accordingly, and will have to allow for the choice and flexibility that is at the heart of coworking. Without this accompanying level of change, coworking will be as ineffective an approach as previous generations of change programs. And finally, to return to Andreessen’s earlier point, the coworking-as-change-management-platform is grounded in a technology platform that allows employees to collaborate effectively and managers to monitor and understand what is going on in real time.

However, software won’t ever replace the value of human interaction and the importance of that for building community and culture. Thus, in the end, with respect to the workplace, Andreessen’s maxim was only partially true.

However, software won’t ever replace the value of human interaction and the importance of that for building community and culture.

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