What We Learned at WORKTECH 16 New York

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Chair of the Month

Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie is a Workplace Consultant at Herman Miller and the former Editor of Work Design Magazine. She’s currently based in Pittsburgh.

Purpose-driven culture, a law firm in disguise, and more from the annual conference.

Attendees sample some sponsor technology during a break. Photo by Robert Manella.
Attendees sample some sponsor technology during a break. Photo by Robert Manella.

WORKTECH 16 New York took place on May 26 at Convene’s Midtown location, attracting a sold out crowd of over 300 attendees to debate and discuss the future of work. The next day, a more intimate group gathered at Rise New York — a space that offers a range of coworking options and is also the home of the Barclay’s Accelerator. Both days seemed to me energizing and thought-provoking, and if you spend most of your workday thinking about the workplace — and we have a sneaking suspicion, reader, that you do! — we think you’d have felt the same way. So if you’ve never attended a WORKTECH event, we encourage you to do so. And for a taste of this most recent gathering, we compared notes with our friends at  PLASTARC to identify three themes that really stood out.

If you sense a workplace is getting something right, it’s probably because of the purpose-driven culture that enlivens it.

“Purpose-driven culture” came up a lot. During a panel titled “The Ebb and Flow of People + Work”, I jotted down the words of Sophie Wade, founder and workforce innovation specialist at Flexcel — “As long as the work gets done, it doesn’t it matter where and how you’re doing it… ” — I scribbled too, with a bunch of stars, People keep saying this.

And then I was like oh, wait, actually only Sophie has said this so far at WORKTECH; I was remembering a conversation I overheard on the train from D.C. earlier that morning. A girl and a guy hopped on in Philly; it was clear they were colleagues — new colleagues — and she was explaining to him the culture of wherever he’s now working. “I work from home a few days a week,” she said. “Most of us do. As long as you get your work done… ”

Anecdotal evidence, I know, I know. But those ideas are seeping out around us, on to Amtrak, from the mouths of corporate-types in clothes that betray that their employers aren’t even that enlightened.

Claire Rowell, a workplace anthropologist at PLASTARC, observed an overall sense of “disintegration of the boundaries of work and place”. So if you’re doing more work at different times and different places, there’s got to be a shift in just what your workplace should be. I’ve experienced it myself. Writing this recap requires focus: at the I’m in a coffee shop. Lately, if I go into the office, it’s not to get work done: it’s to connect with my team.

Indeed, more and more, it’s about “bringing partners, customers, and friends into your organization and making them feel included in your brand experience,” said Rowell. “Purpose-driven consumers and an innate human desire for sense of place and belonging means new demands and higher stakes for community experience in the workplace.”

Chris Kelly, founder of Convene — the host venue — speaks to the sold out crowd about the future of real estate as a service. Photo by Robert Manella.
Chris Kelly, founder of Convene — the host venue — speaks to the sold out crowd about the future of real estate as a service. Photo by Robert Manella.

Coworking is growing, morphing, changing — and we’ve all got a lot to learn from it.

Benjamin Dyett, co-founder of Grind, joined Melissa Marsh, founder of PLASTARC, on a day two panel to discuss the “Next Generation of Coworking”. And get this: presently, the coworking member-to-workstation ratio is 110 to 70. Let that sink in. “Even when people are paying for a desk,” said Marsh, “they’re comfortable sharing.”

What do you do with that information if you’re redesigning your office, you’re trying to tighten your employee-to-desk game, and your business isn’t coworking? “You make sure a customer [in your case: your employee] knows that when they need a desk, it will be available for them,” said Marsh.

To this end, Marsh pointed out that seamless technology and booking go a long way. Having access to not one, but many, locations is an advantage cited by members of coworking spaces. Maybe this means your employees may not have an assigned desk in your main office, but in exchange you’ve given them access to a coworking space nearby.

Rowell, Marsh’s colleague, said she thinks “the success of coworking is proof that next-gen corporate occupants will demand to be treated like consumers, voting with their feet, their wallets, and their social data.”

And you’re going to have to follow them — on Insta, and IRL.

Collaboration doesn’t actually happen across a desk. Because there’s a computer between you and the person you’re trying to talk to.

I mean, we all know that, right? But this is the first time I’ve actually thought about it (+1 for benching).

In my truly favourite presentation of the conference, Bill Dowzer, a principal who leads the New York office of BVN, a Sydney-based design firm, was joined by his client, Pam Jack, a partner and head of property at Minter Ellison, an Australia-based law firm, for “This Doesn’t Look Like a Law Firm: Why Graduates Decide to Work for Minter Ellison”.

The first part of that title is definitely true: the Sydney headquarters in question does not look like a law firm. The second part leaves out a critical tidbit: the new office isn’t just attracting employees; it’s helping the firm to attract and retain clients, too ($$$). And that line about collaboration not happening across desks, and that that’s what led the BVN team to find a benching solution for Minter Ellison, so sayonara, desks, is one of the regrettably few things I committed to memory slash my notes. The other was that the sprawling light-filled unassigned office space strikes once (or let’s be honest: always) skeptical attorneys as so spectacular that Jack found a young associate early one morning, enjoying his breakfast at a communal table with a view. “What are you doing here so early?” she asked him. And he was like, Are you kidding me? I always have my breakfast here. It’s like living in a fabulous apartment!

The notes stop there because I was so captivated by their presentation. Here’s a video that gets things across better than I would, anyway:

There was so much more good stuff that came out of this conference, so be sure to click over to the WORKTECH site for more details and videos from both days of presentations.

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