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.