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Cosmic Conference 2021 - Session 4: The Impact of Workspaces on Collaboration

The Future of Teams conference, which was held on July 6, 7, and 8, 2021, was our second annual edition of the Cosmic Conference. Hosted by Marilyn Zakhour, CEO & Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, the conference had all-star guests share their insights, opinions, and perspectives about the future of teams.

Last year, during the ‘Future of Work Conference’, we hosted a panel titled, ‘Is the office dead?’ We were curious if it was time for the office to be reborn. This year, we wanted to continue this conversation and explored whether COVID-19, unlike the Internet, was able to drastically change the layout of our workspaces. Marilyn Zakhour, CEO and Founder of Cosmic Centaurs, was joined by 2 guests who shared their insights on the workspaces of the future, particularly those in what we refer to at Cosmic Centaurs as omnichannel organizations.

Watch the full episode here

About the speakers

  • Dr. Agustin (Gus) Chevez has been an Honorary Fellow of Management and Marketing at the University of Melbourne since 2019. He is an Architect and an Academic who dedicated his career to discover the notion of work and uncovering environments that best support our working lives. His work has been presented at various international forums and published in both academic and industry publications.

  • Shayne Smart is a highly versatile change consultant, with over 5000 hours experience in workshop design, facilitation and delivery. With over ten years of experience in designing effective co-creation workshops, and the facilitation of engaging audiences internally and externally, he has proven multi-national capability to engage teams, establish alignment to vision and get to their goals faster. Shayne also co-designed a workshop with Cosmic Centaurs around team rituals.

Is the office dead?

Kicking off with a thought provoking question, Marilyn asked, “Is the office dead?”

Starting with Gus, he said, “I like this question but I think it's a bit loaded. Rightly so, because work and where we work is very emotional and it's something that affects us quite directly. One thing that I like to remind people of is that the office is an invention. Now, this sounds silly, but if we think about work as a phenomenon and then we do a timeline, the office has hosted the workforce for such a small fraction of time. This question about whether the office is dead or not talks more about our assumptions of how we should be working rather than this continuum. Fun fact, before there were offices as we know them now, we used to work at home for many reasons. Businesses grew too big and people needed to work outside from home and the family and start working in other places. The behaviors that were enacted at home were no longer enacted at that other place, which later became the office. That is why it's now difficult to put the cat back in the bag, as they say, because this culture and behaviors have evolved so differently that it's hard to bring it back. Now, it's very hard to reconcile these two domains between work and life.

I don't think the office is going to die. I think it's evolving. The workplace where we work evolves continuously and hopefully the office, as we know it, starts to give way to new environments that are very equipped to host the work in the future.”

Shayne explained, “Out of all that knowledge that I just picked up, the one thing that I really felt is that it sounds like we just started doing it and we didn't sit down and design the experience. I think that's usually what results in the worst experiences over the long term. When we used to work in factories or in offices, which are built like factories, nobody thought that we don't do that same work anymore. Why don't we redesign the experience? So, thank you coworker COVID-19 for sorting it out.”

Back to the question, Is the office dead?, he replied, “I think some offices are dead. The best sign of if your office is dead is you see a lot of people who look like zombies walking around. Then it has probably died and you should get out there and run.”

Evolution of Work vs. Change of Office Design

Shayne flipped the mic on Gus and asked him, “I'm interested to hear what you think about the evolution of work against the change in office design.”

“We're starting to realize that work is much more than the output. It also nurtures a sense of purpose, belonging and identity. The notion of work you described is a production line that focuses predominantly on the output, what is being produced. When we move more into a knowledge worker, where output is not a thing that can be quantified and yet we still use the same terms of ‘productivity’ that is our legacy of the conveyor belt, that's when the environment needs to change because a lot of what we see right now is work that has been deconstructed in its tasks. The tasks have been very successfully automated and that's why tasks are very portable. I can write an email, I can do a spreadsheet or PowerPoint or Microsoft word. I can do those tasks anywhere and everywhere. But work requires specific cues and an environment that nurtures those very important aspects that we need to differentiate between work and tasks. That's why I agree with Shayne as well. He was saying, sometimes you can't tell if the office is dying by the look on the employees, also not on how poorly the office was designed, but how bad work is designed. Always say let's design work first, then the workplace. Because if you don't have purposeful and meaningful work, no workers will survive.”

Commenting on what Gus shared, Shayne said, “There's also nothing like a two hour commute to come in and check your email, chat with your colleagues a few desks across and then enter some data into a computer system.” He also shared that we mustn’t forget that the level of portability now is much bigger than that 20 years ago. “Steve Jobs wasn't sliding laptops out of inter-office envelopes 20 years ago. That's 10 years now.”

Virtual Workplace Design

Keeping the conversation going, Marilyn addressed Shayne, an expert in designing virtual collaboration spaces., “Tell us about your process for how you think about designing the experience, designing the outcome first and then designing those virtual spaces that lead to that outcome for teams that use the Murals and Miros that you create.”

He said, “It's always first about what is the work that needs to be achieved and then who needs to achieve it. The rest is about building environments which help them understand how to interact or collaborate.” Shayne explained that the users choose which environment they work in. “So, if you take the objective to maintain and share ideas, for example, the users chose the metaphor to be a garden. Part of the enjoyment of the challenge is to find out what it is they want and then try and take all these things that just don't fit together, but make it work within the work process.

After looking at what it is they need to achieve and what is the process, it's about designing the methods that are going to work for them. We're all familiar with hundreds and hundreds of different workshop exercises and patterns. It's about how to take those together and overlay them within the metaphor. “

Tacit and implicit knowledge in workspace design

Shifting gears Marilyn asked Gus, “How do you think about tacit knowledge and implicit knowledge in workspace design?”

He said, “One of the biggest arguments of having people colocated is to use the space as a knowledge transfer tool. That was one of the questions we posed a few years ago. We were Googling knowledge management systems and everything was like an IT tool. The question we had is can we use the space as a knowledge transfer tool? Especially for tacit knowledge because you cannot codify that. That's where all the different devices and platforms are very successful. But how do you transfer culture and all the information of how things are done that are so difficult to write or to put somewhere? For that, the workplace has a very important role.”

“There's this concept in Japanese architecture called ‘Ba’, which of using space as a knowledge transfer. What we found there is a key for transferring knowledge was trust. You will not communicate or share knowledge with someone that you don't trust. Knowledge is a commodity that its value resides in the competition not knowing what I know. If you don't trust, you won't share.

One of the most successful spaces that we found to transfer knowledge and to develop trust was, back then, the stairwells of our offices where people would go out and smoke. Because what happens there flattens the organization; in the stairwell, the CEO and the junior have a smoke and get to know each other, talk about things not related to work or develop that level of trust. They will share more knowledge.”

He also mentioned that we might need to think of how to find a space “with a more positive connotation and open to people that might not smoke. You can create that very strong bond by using space.”

From video games to virtual workspaces

During the second session of this conference titled, “What we can learn from (e)sports teams”, we learned that we can gather insights from sports teams as well as video gamers that can help our teams thrive. In this sense, Marilyn also asked our guests, “What do you think we can learn from gaming environments that we need to bring back in virtual and physical collaboration spaces or workspaces?”

Shayne started and said, “I think the question is more like what can't we bring back from gaming environments. Because gaming environments, or at least the games that I've played, are what you call hardcore gaming, which means more than 12 hours a day for several years. In such games, it is really about how do you get a group of 150 or a thousand people to collaborate 24 hours a day on a project for which they're not paid, yet find it particularly interesting and are willing to dedicate and get up strange hours of the day for. Almost all of that is about having a shared purpose, but it's also about working for interest rather than priority.”

He continued, “If you take it in a company context, I took the management style that I developed there and I've applied it at least two times with large teams to see if it will work. When you take people based on what their core interest is, or the particular competence they want to develop and organize around that, then you immediately have an opportunity to engage with your workers. I'd say take all the aspects of gamification.”

Gus then shared, “My interest in especially second life was to understand the skeuomorphism of work. That's a mouthful, but skeuomorphism is to try to understand the cues for the characteristics that one object has and how you can transplant those in another object, that is not the original one, to communicate the same cues. In 2008, I went all the way to Manchester where there was a very interesting organization that designed their office in second life. I wanted to see what are the cues that they perceived they needed to represent the future environment, especially because their office was amazing. It was this fantastic sphere made out of glass floating in the middle of the sea with complete disregard for physics. Who wants to be bored by the laws of physics when you can create something like that. But this skeuomorphism of work was literal. We are more willing to create a world in which a crystal sphere can float in the middle of the sea and have all these employees, but not realize that if our avatars are not looking to each other, we're not collaborating. These avatars are phenomenal creatures, but when they're talking to each other, they're talking eye to eye. Now, if you are a mythological creature talking to another person over the internet in our floating crystal ball and see, why do they need to look at each other to convey that sense? That is what I am interested in. What types of cues do we need to put in virtual environments, but then as a feedback process, what do we need to retain in the real world?”

Virtual equivalent to trust zones

Marilyn picked an audience question that asked about the virtual equivalent to trust zones.

“It's difficult for me to answer how do you create inclusive spaces because often, people think about how you include people who are in minority or in diverse groups, of which I sit in one. In my mind it's how do you create an environment which flourishes and works for everybody in a way that everybody succeeds. For me, the answer for that is always transparency. I may be wrong, but I've not yet observed any group that was opaque, where you couldn't see into what was happening, where things weren't reported, where there were locked rooms, hidden agendas. Any way that you can bring transparency, usually makes a safe place with the exception that if you bring transparency, then people are biased towards you. I can be transparent, but perhaps I still want to be a dragon,” Shayne replied.

Marilyn added “I think Esther Perel, puts it very beautifully on this topic of transparency versus trust. She says that trust is actually the opposite in that sense of transparency. And I think it's cultural really. Because if you trust me, then you don't need me to be transparent with you because you trust that I will always have the correct intent and try to take the right action. You don't need me to give you full transparency for example, into my agenda, for you to trust me. “

Redesigning workspaces

Marilyn picked another question from the comment section, “In the new hybrid reality, what would the redesigned workspace which can maintain and boost collaboration look like? If you were to redesign the workspace, what is something you would change in it?”

Gus answered this question and said, “Go back to the first principle and redesign work first. One of the things we have is this obsession with collaboration and why do we need to collaborate? We collaborate because people have those standalone effects that we went through, yes, let's collaborate as much as we can. Now we start with the rating that collaboration has a cost and can create problems in the culture. There's this term that some researchers coined that is called corporate citizenship. It's a bureaucratic board that creates this notion that everybody needs to contribute or collaborate or put their 5 cents into it. That really slows things down. There's another book, more mainstream, called ‘quiet’ that says 50% of the population are introverts and much of the work as how we design it favors the extrovert, the one that can better articulate his or her idea and communicate it at the expense of the person that is quiet in the corner.

So, should all the decisions be based on who is more vocal in a meeting room, or should we create a style pop environment? To answer the question, we can go through whether open plan promotes collaboration or not, or whether, it's a fascinating insight that actually the more recent thinking, and even though this thing is go back from the eighties, but has been now, is that the psychological safety in enclosed environments allow you to interact more. There's some studies that suggest that people in enclosed offices actually collaborate more than those in open offices. It's a very complex question, but the best answer will be how do you want to work and then we design the workplace.

On loneliness and redesigning workspaces

As mentioned earlier in the first session titled “Unpacking the Challenges of Hybrid Work”the workforce is passing through a loneliness epidemic. To learn more about the designs of workspaces that help combat this epidemic, Marilyn asked Shane to share his thoughts on “how we deal with loneliness in virtual space?”

Shayne explained, “From the workshop perspective, of course you've seen the rise of check-ins and check-outs and that I think has helped in the ritual of the moment. But for virtual spaces, perhaps I'm exceptional because I think spatially. When I want to arrive at the virtual office, I want to be virtually in a location where I have a presence, I can see others and I can interact with them spontaneously. If you can turn off your slack notifications and your phone notifications, you can get into deep work. The joy of deep work is, if you're more productive, then why not spend those times connecting with other people through shared experience. Of course the best shared experience is a game, but, whether or not you're playing simple games with your colleagues, there are also many different ways to explore together in play. Play is a moment in which you are both experimenting and when you achieve things together with your colleagues, it creates a bond together.”

Referring to architecture again, Marilyn explained that she listened to a podcast where one of the speakers was talking about hostile architecture that is used to keep people away. She then asked Gus, “Are there any beautiful examples of physical places that bring people together and that creates space for community and connection?”

Gus shared, “Loneliness can be experienced by being alone or in a group. This is very important because we tend to think that just putting together people in a group will take care of that. The fact of being alone can be manifested in solitude, which is the creative one that we want to explore, and can be manifested in loneliness, which is the negative one. We want to make sure that when we're alone by ourselves, we experience solitude and not loneliness. But, we can experience solitude in a crowd. This is very important, especially for office design, because if you create, again, a very bossing environment in which that person does not belong to that cohort or is not really identifiable with them, they will feel loneliness in a sea of people. It's a very interesting construct that needs to be moderated. Also to understand that when we talk about socialization or putting people together, it's not only about increasing collaboration. I think in Norway or one of those Scandinavian countries, it’s illegal to have a Guinea pig. You need to have two because they're very social creatures and they die. We recognized that for other animals or species, why not with humans. They need to be together. It's not like these Guinea pigs are collaborating for the next unicorn or whatever business they're putting together. No, they need to be together. Some of the research that I have done in co-working highlights the importance of being together alone, I just want to be among other people working on my own thing.”

Triggering the transparency conversation

Marilyn picked up another audience question to Shayne that said, “How can we start the conversation around transparency via workspace set up and behavior without standing out as a troublemaker. What advice do you have around having a conversation about transparency?”

He said, “That conversation is different the world over. It's often very good to make that metaphor, particularly in remote work, between real life and say Hey, every time I come into your office the door's shut or, why is it that you sneak in through the back door of the office so nobody can see you? Where did you all come from? 20 of you just walked out through that door, but we didn't see you go in. You could almost role play and imagine the craziness of seeing it. I think that the main opportunity is to open the conversation of what is the goal that you want to achieve. If the goal you want to achieve is to see who's being included and excluded, then what mechanisms are we willing to do that? How are we willing to open our diaries up? Are we willing to create a visualization? Do we show ourselves on a simple digital light bulb where we are during the day so that we can see who's meeting with who?”

To dig deeper into this conversation, Marilyn said, “There's this whole wave of virtual HQs that are being designed. They’re a bit 2D environments like Mario in the nineties. Everything's a bit pixelated, but people actually have desks and you can see where they are and who they're talking to at the moment. I always say it's like the marauders map in Harry Potter. What are your thoughts around these kinds of virtual HQ concepts?”

“Again, you have to think about the objective of the visualization,” he said. “If the objective is to understand who is available to quickly tap, for example, tacit knowledge, then they're great. I think they will evolve into places that are visually attractive. We use the affordances of the office today because that's the most recent thing. When the affordance is the home, perhaps, then the virtual office design could be totally different,” Shayne shared.

🔥Rapid fire questions

At the end of every session, a series of rapid fire questions was asked to all our conference speakers:

Q: What's the skill that every leader needs to have today that maybe wasn't as important before?

A: Shayne: Designing experiences

Gus: Leadership in hybrid modes

A: Shayne: The Cycles

Gus: Think Again

A: Shayne: Yotto-Hyperfall

Gus: Jazz

Q: What is the perfect team size?

A: Shayne: A pod of 3 for performance and 4 for a bit resilience

Gus: It depends what it is that you really want to do

Q: The future of teams is?

A: Shayne: Autonomous achievement

Gus: Exciting


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