Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Social Worktable

My girlfriend and I had dinner last night at a great local eatery called The Nook. The restaurant has a "community table" in the center of the floor, and our experience there got me thinking about how agencies have been trying to adopt and foster more collaborative environments, particularly between various creative, media and technology groups. 

Several years ago, a creative director friend of mine told me about how the agency Mother, London had set up literal workbenches in its offices. Apparently, no one, not even senior management, had their own space, and the concept did help establish a more "free-flowing" exchange of ideas. The intriguing thing is how this might have evolved.

When we initially sat down at the community table, not one person would exchange glances or make the slightest hint of eye contact. Clearly this was an infringement of personal space. But as we started eating, people at the table started to ease up a bit, and then a few comments were traded about dishes that were served to various folks around the table. Over the course of the meal, we didn't exactly befriend each other, but we did acknowledge that we were all sharing a culinary and cultural experience that was, at the very least, fun and interesting.

As a consultant, I'm starting to see a more progressive social dynamic in my experiences with brands and agencies. One agency in particular I'm working with has benefitted from its size (about 120 employees), and so, by default, client and internal development meetings seem very productive, and there is a mutual respect in the room - even for "outsiders" like myself. As important, what I've also noticed is that the leadership in the company make a concerted effort to "blend in"; group creative directors on up to the CEO establish a healthy presence amongst the various camps and are very active in keeping communication lines open. These folks are literally "on the floor", constantly there for support and a part of the conversation. The CEO even sits in his own cubicle area, opting for this instead of a glass house for an office, which sits directly across from him. He actually likes it, and you have to think that this can only send a positive message to agency employees and clients alike.

On the brand side, the challenges with sheer organizational size are understandable, although not insurmountable. I've noticed a shift here as well. The exchange of ideas have, in some cases, inspired certain groups within an organization to physically change places in order to pursue the development of concepts further, and ultimately, create greater chances for success. These moves are not often mandated by upper management (at least from what I can tell), and are supported by fellow employees. In one scenario, a mid-level manager opted to sit directly across from his direct report (a senior-level person) in order to be more "productive" and "in the know". The move has actually - much to his surprise and everyone else's - decreased his work hours and increased his workflow efficiency. Given our economic times and an accelerated need to generate sales, perhaps these are the little things we need to do in order to succeed...and succeed with some degree of "life balance".

So what does a "social worktable" look like? 

It can be any size really, but obviously big enough to accommodate every participant in the conversation. It should be warm, friendly and comfortable. It should have a fairly large and open surface. It should reside in a "strategic" location within the organization that channels and focuses the collective energy of the group (you might need to consult a spiritualist on this - I'm not kidding). There should be ample light and accessibility to a nearby restroom (had to throw that in ;). Perhaps it is made of wood for "human absorption". Most importantly, it is a place you look forward to visiting, and respect leaving. In other words, it is something that you take with you when you go back to your personal space, and something you make valuable contributions to when you return. It is, in effect, a living, breathing thing.

Bogged down in rhetoric and the sometimes unrealistic pressures to succeed, we tend to forget the purpose of why we work, or the altruistic drivers to succeed at what we do. We need to be reminded of this, and we need each other to do so. Much in the same way the Algonquin Round Table became a focal point for ideation, we are all knights of the social worktable. 

Time to innovate!

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