West Coast work shift: four questions we asked in San Francisco

The Bay Area is renowned for early adoption of new workplace thinking. But WORKTECH San Francisco’s 2018 conference suggested that first movers are still questioning the fundamentals    

‘We’re changing from know-it-alls to learn-it-alls,’ said Natalie McCullough of Microsoft at WORKTECH San Francisco 2018, held at the Mission Bay Conference Centre on 30 October. It was a statement that resonated with a West Coast conference crowd hungry for new knowledge. But to learn it all, it is important to ask the right questions. Here are four big questions that speakers addressed in San Francisco.

How do we make leadership less hierarchical?

Stuart Mangrum, education director of the Burning Man Project, told the conference that he read literally hundreds of management books in a bid to solve this conundrum, but found all their models and strategies ‘were embedded with some notion of hierarchy’.

Burning Man is today a cultural phenomenon and a US $45 million business that runs an annual new-age arts festival in the Black Rock Desert, Nevada, as well as 85 regional events. The feat of constructing a mini-city each year for an alternative gathering attended by more than 50,000 participants has required the development of new cooperative structures that upturn conventional organisational thinking. Mangrum describes the process as ‘radical inclusion’: storytelling, intrinsic motivation, autonomy, delegation and emotional intelligence all help to make Burning Man happen.

Mangrum likens his organisation to ‘a family – there is plenty of conflict but they also have your back’.  There’s no big theoretical leadership model, he explained, but the implications for learning and development in the workplace are clear. It is ground up, not top-down.

How do we make people more emotionally resilient?

This is a question that has preoccupied Christine Comerford, a leadership coach and author with the Smart Tribes Institute. Comerford told the conference that three-quarters of all careers are derailed at some point by emotional competency issues, such as being unable to deal with conflict, handle interpersonal relations, create trust or adapt to change.

Comerford introduced a series of personal techniques to reframe workplace challenges and give people consent to acknowledge the stress of change rather than resisting it, so that they can move on from the ‘critter state’ of fight, flight or freeze. When all else fails, hugs are helpful.

Moving on from the ‘critter state’ of fight, flight or freeze…

If self-help sounds too soft and cuddly, then consider another option raised at WORKTECH San Francisco by Dr Leah Weiss of Stanford Graduate School of Business. Weiss advocates compassionate leadership as a way to improve emotional reliance in the workforce. She wants corporate leaders to ‘recognise suffering in others and be willing to alleviate it’ and quoted LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s comment that ‘compassion is a more objective form of empathy’.

How do we make experiences less incongruous?

It is one thing to put a focus on workplace experience at the top of the corporate agenda, but quite another to make those experiences really mean something to the people they are aimed at. Too many experiences are out of kilter with the work environment around employees, especially in open plan, argued soundscape expert Beau Wilder of Plantronics. Wilder’s solution is to augment the restorative qualities of biophilic design with natural sounds, to avoid an incongruous experience.

Other speakers at WORKTECH San Francisco similarly explored ways to bring company culture to life through experience, most notably Emily Webster of ESI Design who shared a case study on eBay’s new 20,000 sq ft welcome centre in San Jose. ESI’s approach was to bring eBay’s digital interactions to life in a physical setting, using a new, screen-based media architecture for immersive storytelling on a grand scale. Gabor Nagy of Haworth meanwhile presented new research data showing how the need to improve experience is one of the big drivers of corporate involvement in coworking,

Bradley Samuels of SITU Studio detailed how workplace experience could be transformed by closer attention to public plazas and thoroughfares, the spaces between buildings. Referencing Jan Gehl’s seminal 1971 book Life Between Buildings, Samuels shared several projects including Google’s Mountain View scheme to demonstrate how the ‘commons’ experience could be reconfigured. A panel on designing with work experience in mind, led by Aramark’s Chris Lindberg, echoed these ideas with a call to upgrade public infrastructure around new office towers in a bid to build stronger work communities.

How can we use data to design better workplaces?

According to Arjun Kaicker of Zaha Hadid Architects, environmental and occupancy data collected from sensors will play a growing role in reshaping workplace design. In a session on ‘the self-learning workplace’, he talked about ‘the greedy algorithm’ modelling complex dynamic networks within the office, achieving different spatial configurations in seconds that would once have taken an architectural studio thousands of man hours.

Jeremy Doyle of Humanyze followed this up with a glimpse into a data-driven future in which companies can see exactly what percentage of employees are disengaged – ‘how creaky the wheels are’ – so they can take remedial action. Even for San Francisco’s out-there audience, was this perhaps a learning too far? Everybody agreed that, whatever the solutions, it was important to keep asking the pertinent questions.

More on WORKTECH San Francisco 2018 here.
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