Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Case for the Modern Workspace

To gain perspective, it is vital to separate our perception from reality. If we want to know what stinks about our job, we must leave it for a week, and come back and see what stands out as we return. If we want to know what Spanish color we should paint our home, we should visit Spain, or at least Mexico, and take pictures of all the yellows, muddy reds, and turquoise that we can muster our camera to capture each day. We must separate to evaluate. Even if our time is limited, even if a weekend is all we have, it can, and does work.

Rather than make a feeble attempt at defining the modern workspace, visit this Bloomberg Businessweek article for more information-

On a weekend trip to Ohio, I found inspiration in how people work. After a quaint breakfast, in the Midwest that usually involves sausage gravy and biscuits, and some general conversation, I started gabbing about a book idea that revolves around this concept of the modern workspace. How do we work when we have nowhere to go? How do we stay innovative when what got us here was automating nearly everything with the help of software, and brilliant coders? How do we stay inspired if we’re stuck at home all the time?

For those that have followed my erratic career, you know I was, and still am a proponent of coworking. Not only do I think it’s a great idea, I believe it’s an idea on the fast track to becoming the new normal. While my coworking space didn’t take off like I’d hoped it would, the idea for most areas in the U.S. is still gaining traction. My brother Clif rang in 2011 in a coworking facility in Manhattan. In Ohio a progressive group of people are advancing the idea of coworking in successful ways that involve bringing the playground inside, even my beloved South Carolina now has a tech corridor, with you guessed it, a coworking space. People are working different thanks to the connectivity the internet, and it’s millions of wonderful applications provide. Let’s take it a step further.

Any business owner can tell you the perils of operating an office. From the absurd amount of power that the building consumes, to the seemingly endless amount of supplies needed to keep staff ready to go, offices are a major expense in nearly every big business’s end-of-year accounting ledger. So even if you don’t work for yourself, you may soon be working by yourself. Large Fortune 100 companies have been sending employees to work from home for years now, and as the savings of such endeavors jives with the increased productivity of the home worker, you’ll only see more of it in the future. For better or worse our business ecosystem is subject to trends as much as fashion is to Hollywood stars. When Wired magazine writes a piece on Coca-Cola saving ten million dollars from sending their staff to work at home, you can bet many organizations will follow suit.

Nearly everyone that has approached me about modern workspaces in the past two years seems to love the idea of working in something that looks more like a lounge than an office. The word coffee shop no longer does the modern office justice; it’s now club office sans strobe lights. Working in creative environments, gasp, promotes creativity. Artists for as long as this country has kept track of them have been using creative settings to inspire their work. Writers take sea filled air and write classic American novels like Ernest Hemingway, or take modern day movie star Jason Segal moving to Hawaii to write his hit comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Simply put creatives are at their best when the workspace they inhabit frees their mind up enough to unlock the treasures buried deep inside it.

Just last evening President Obama during his State of the Union address underscored the future of work by explaining that with better wireless coverage people can do business anywhere there is an internet connection. President Obama championed his vision of an interconnected country that was able to compete worldwide with infrastructure that, at the core, fostered innovation. Innovation often comes from those that approach problems different, insert outside the box cliché here, and thus the importance of the creative workspace goes all the way up to the top of our governing body. In the information age that we live in, ideas are the trump cards that win the innovation game. Ideas are today what owning an oil field was in the 80’s. Ideas have immense value, and putting a focus on where and how we work is vital to nurturing them to life. Working anywhere there is an internet connection isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, somewhere that elicits emotion, calms the nerves, challenges the mind, and above all, fosters openness is where we should work moving forward if we truly want to win the innovation race globally.

So Emotional

For years I’ve loved listening to Sufjan Stephens, the eccentric artist famous for if nothing else long delicate songs that can include dozens of instruments throughout. I don’t know why, but each time I hear one of the man’s songs, or play one of his albums, I get emotional. Most of his songs aren’t sugar pop, they don’t offer easily decipherable melodies, often no chorus for the song exists, and sometimes the lyrics are tough to even make sense of. But something about the music touches me emotionally, I don’t need to know what, as long as I know it’s there, the job is done. The same goes for workspaces, you can elicit emotion through design as Mr. Stephens does through music.

Procuring an emotional workspace is not as hard as it might sound, photographs for one are an easy way to set the emotional tone. Artwork, affirmations, and even furniture can, and should elicit emotion. We are humans currently working in the doldrums of colorless cubes that are as inhuman as robots, setting the emotional tone in the workspace, even if for a group of people working for different companies in different capacities will have a collective benefit.

No Alarms No Surprises

Creatives are an anxious bunch. The stereotype of the laidback surfer making music fireside after a day at the beach paints an exceptionally poor picture of those that create for a living. Creatives are often so dedicated to their work that they are at it all day and night, all the time. This inevitably creates anxieties that range from feelings of separation from their home or families, to worries of making enough money to pay the bills. Sound familiar? These are the same things many of us worry about each day, and thus offering a space that quells anxiousness can be a group benefit.

One day not too long ago while volunteering at a local pet shelter I couldn’t help but notice the new age music coming from speakers seemingly mounted all over the facility. What’s with the music I asked my boss for the day? It calms the animals, and sometimes the people too the staff member responded with a smile. Brining in music to the workplace might not work for those companies that require a lot of phone usage, or have regular meetings with team members, but for many it is a great way to quell anxiety. Other ideas include allowing pets to come to work, as they too have been shown to calm owners and boost moral. Even utilizing scent, by having candles or a dedicated cookie baker each day can, and does help people get more done.

Brain Pump

As a long-suffering University of South Carolina football fan, it’s fair to say, on occasion, our team plays down to the level of our opponents. If we the fans know it, surely the players and coaches know it as well, so why then does it keep happening? Without getting too much into expectations, and all that comes with them, it seems that we are as humans adaptable in both directions. We can become great if we surround ourselves with greatness. We can just as easily become mediocre when we surround ourselves with such. And thus, challenging the mind, and challenging each other is a major selling point of the modern workspace. Who works there? I use their website, buy their product, etc., I want to work there too! By allowing ourselves to care about, embrace, and ultimately emulate successful people and companies, our workspaces can gain far more than whatever competitive information that gets divulged will hurt them.

Challenging the mind, and each other, is what made Facebook so powerful today. The hackathons as they called it, that delivered lightening fast user-requested features were if nothing else, a competitive growth strategy that has paid off more than 50 billion dollars as of the latest valuation. Competition doesn’t need to be uncivil or ugly, it can be positive, nurturing, and bottom line driven deliberate in the modern workspace.

Open Book

The best modern workspaces have only four walls outside, and none inside. Openness is what makes good workspaces great. Having an open workspace eliminates office politics in a large part, because everyone can see, hear, and observe what everyone else is doing, which should eliminate most of the gossip that occurs each day at work. Having an open office with multiple companies represented allows for deep sharing, and collaboration on levels that benefit all involved. The fears of openness are hardly ever realized, because it is in the best interest of all involved to play fair, and if the other three tenets of the modern office are in effect, then these people working will be at their best, providing the ultimate scenario for productivity, ideas, and yes, innovation.

Back to Ohio, to middle America, where the values that people carry there are often the very values we as a nation tout as American. Hard work, family, faith, you can find it all in the Midwest. In case you haven’t been to Ohio, Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana or Michigan lately, let me fill you in, it’s freezing. There is snow everywhere, the roads are often iced over, and the dark clouds cast shadows on the endless miles of once-plowed fields like a massive blanket perpetually floating above. Being a weather-spoiled southerner now, led me to realize just how badly people in the Midwest could use somewhere indoors to go. Work from home in the wintery dark cold? Spend my days at a computer starring out to the cloud-drenched abyss? I think not. I need a fireplace, good people, something leather to sit on, and of course copious amounts of freshly roasted coffee. Luck would have it I often feel the same way when I’m home, even if the sun makes it a little easier to sit by the pool for the day, or ride around in my truck with the windows down. I still feel the burn to be around others, to collaborate, and to do more for the better. Something tells me I’m not the only one yearning for such these days.


I’ve had the unique opportunity to see businesses both succeed, and fail in creative-friendly workspaces, and my perspective hasn’t changed on why it is best to work together in places that stimulate the mind. Nobody wants to work in a prison, so why do so many offices resemble one? The idea of the modern workspace is no longer conceptual, it’s real, and a visit to nearly any big city in America will shine a light on such. Coworking spaces are already economically viable in larger information economies. While they might not yet be a profitable proposition in the smaller towns and cities that are still transitioning from the agricultural and manufacturing hubs that they once were, it is only a matter of time before they do. For the benefit of this great nation, my hope is that one-day soon the modern workspace will be the accepted place to work all around the country, like say you’d see a McDonalds nearly everywhere, one day you’d see modern workspaces. If not opened by entrepreneurs, then by large forward-thinking companies that can see the benefit in, ironically, collaborating on a project that benefits all involved.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Chocolate Surprise

I’m no stranger to chocolate bars. I’ve always been a guy that craves the salty stuff like pretzels and tortilla chips as my junk food du jour, but may a person step forward that’s ever heard me speak one nasty word about chocolate. Chocolate bars, chocolate ice cream, chocolate filled croissants, I’ve enjoyed them all probably more than I should have over the past 31 years. I’m no chocolate expert, but it’s not my first time at the chocolate dance either. So then, imagine my surprise when a little short stubby chocolate bar with a big price tag caught my attention while waiting in line at the grocery store the other day.

$2.80, for what? Two dollars and eighty cents, I must be seeing this wrong, for what? It’s a little chocolate bar, like someone cut off a third of a Snickers, packed it up in fancy gold wrapping, and priced it for three times as much as a whole bar. Now I’m no penny pincher, or price checker for that matter, but it seemed like an awfully large sum of money for a tiny little stubby piece of chocolate. I have to admit, I was intrigued, enough so to pick up the little nugget, and learn more about it, as the person in front of me took their time writing a check (who does that anymore) for a few bags of some sort of produce.

The ultimate chocolate bar crafted by hand the package read, as if to dare me to find out if it really was the ultimate. Filled with hazelnuts, and rich milk chocolate the package almost begging me now to drop 3 bills on this bar no bigger than my thumb. Ok, their marketing worked, let me test drive one of these so-called five star chocolate bars. I’ll be the judge of this impulse aisle indulgence, somebody has to do it, why not me?

Fast forward two nights, and here I am, just a few minutes ago, chewing in utter ecstasy at what has to be the best chocolate bar that’s ever graced my gums in my entire life. This bar wasn’t worth $3 it was worth $30! It was light, but rich, with just enough consistency to make it chewy, without being too soft. This bar was full of exotic ingredients found in no Hershey’s bar that I’ve ever had, was that cumin I tasted? Maybe some hints of oak? Am I drinking wine or eating chocolate, why do I feel so good after eating it? This really was an incredible mocha-filled journey, that surprisingly was satisfying after the two bites it took to finish this piece of heaven.

So how did I, and judging by the half empty box sitting in the grocery aisle, many others get here. How did we as savvy recession-crunched consumers splurge on a chocolate bar of such miniature proportions to begin with? Differentiation. By offering something that on the surface looks absurd, a tiny piece of chocolate for triple the price of a much larger piece, the product stands out. It gets people talking, and has them wondering, what gives them the right to charge that much?

It’s not just chocolate, Kona coffee, one of my personal favorites, sells for more than five times as much as Columbian per pound, another one of my favorites. Why does Kona get put into the conversation of most exotic and refined brews time and time again, when it is a relatively boutique line of coffee that is packaged and distributed much less than my Columbian brethren’s beans? Because of differentiation. The exorbitant price prompts curious consumers to ask why, which brings up romanticized stories of Hawaiian countryside estates growing coffee beans out of volcanic ash. The narrative is there, because the price prompts the inquisitiveness of the consumer.

A client that has twice commissioned my services to sell their highbrow product to a U.S. market of beauty salons kept bringing this point up over and over again in their emails to me regarding their positioning of their product. It will differentiate the salons from the competition they’d tell me, and then we’d look at the pricing of their product, the narrative, and all the rest to see how this could be done. It was harder for me to explain the formula for successfully translating their wishes into retail results then, but after my chocolate experience tonight, it’ll surely be easier next time around.