Sunday, May 10, 2009

interview with Todd Sundsted, beyond coworking

A few weeks ago I published notes from an interesting conversation I had with Todd Sundsted about CoWorking. Todd is one of the trio of authors of "I'm Outta Here! How coworking is making the office obsolete", which is about how the growth of independent workers is changing the workplace. Our talk led down many other paths so to follow up Todd agreed to an informal interview via email which we will present here as a serial. So click through for the first installment, and keep watching workalicious for more.

Greg: Our readers would be familiar with your thinking about CoWorking from out past posts on your book, and the notes from our talk. So I'd like to cover other topics with you in our interview. You've expressed an interest in design issues surrounding the workplace. What are the questions you are asking about workplace design and what experiences have brought you to ask them?

Todd: I want to point out that when I think of workplace design, I'm only partly thinking of design in the sense of interior design, layout, lighting. I think as much about the design of the organization and the work and workflows that go on there, as well as the design of the business as a whole, from the perspective of management and leadership.

Consider this (true) story. I worked for a company that invested a tremendous amount of money in a very nice cafeteria for the employees -- the physical/concrete part of the work environment. And it was very nice. And I'm sure it was intended to excite and motivate the employees. A short time after it opened, management circulated a memo telling us we could no longer eat at our desks; we had to eat in the nice new cafeteria. Okay... whatever. They'd spend money on the nice cafeteria and they wanted us using it. But there was a problem. We couldn't eat at our desks, so we stopped buying food and drinks from the vending machines down the hall; I personally just stopped snacking, rather then head down to the cafeteria. There must have been a financial lever in there somewhere, because a short time later another memo came out telling us that we couldn't eat at our desks *unless* we bought the food from the vending machines.

The point of this story is that the company, when they thought about the employees at all, thought only about the physical attributes of the workplace. The wonderful investment in the creation of the cafeteria was completely undermined by awful design decisions at the management level; specifically in the design of programs that motivate employees.

They made this kind of mistake many times. Ask me about the QUISP chips sometime.

What I love about coworking is that it illustrates how little the physical attributes may in fact matter, if the people are engaged. I would say that most/many coworking spaces are terribly designed in comparison to an office, as far as ergonomics are concerned. One or two big tables, cheap chairs, no thought to lighting. Of course not all spaces are like this. And almost everyone would enjoy a comfortable chair and good air conditioning. But right now I'm writing this in a cafe, the air conditioning isn't working, and I'm sitting on a tall bar stool kind of chair. And it's much noisier than any office I've been in recently. But I'm totally into writing my thoughts down for you, so I don't give it much thought.

G: You've painted a picture of a workforce that is increasingly decentralized, and increasingly networked; composed more and more of independents, and companies relying on independent oriented organization. In trying to project what this would mean for workplace design it suggests to me a shift from employer provided facilities and managed assets (like furnitrue and equipment) to an outsourced, or rather an independent oriented facility and asset model (like coworking, home working, coffeshop working, etc). Does this mean a rethinking of these facilities and assets, or is it the same old stuff in a new location, owned by a new entity? If they are rethought then what are the new behaviors driving the new designs?

T: I don't think we know the answer to this yet. But it's an incredibly good question, because if there is a type of office furniture that appeals to this growing crowd of people working outside of an organization and a common office, then this might be a great blue ocean opportunity for someone or some existing firm.

On the business side, however, I don't really expect organizations to give up the savings they plan to achieve by letting employees work outside of the office by fully funding an employee's personal office. So any solution that is equivalent at the price point level (office to home/3rd place) isn't going to fly with consumers, nor will it fly with the cost conscious operators of alternative work spaces.

If I were making the bet, however, I wouldn't be thinking about desks and chairs, because people have already demonstrated that they'll sit and work almost anywhere. I'd be thinking about the rooms and spaces themselves, and the tools they're outfitted with. Space for quiet heads-down work, space and tools for noisy collaboration, space for learning... these are all things that you can't do in a coffeeshop, or a park, or in many coworking spaces.

to be continued,

catch Todd on Twitter


  1. Very interesting. As an architect, I've asked myself some of this questions, and it's great to read your opinion.
    There doesn't seem to be a direct link between built/designed environment and the actual relationships/activities that grow in there.
    Sadly (as it would help us architects/designers a lot) and luckily (as it does demonstrate that humans can live happily their way in less-than-perfect conditions).
    Environmental psychology is an open and wonderful research subject.

  2. Here is the thing - even if the built environment is not optimal for the work, the work still goes on. In Micheal Brill's book that I'm slowly reviewing here he states that the design of the office can do three things for you: 1 Increase productivity, 2 Express company values, 3 help retain employees.
    So its not that design does not matter, but more a question: does the workplace choose to leverage it or not.
    In the case of CoWorking, the first two are still relevant. But its too late to retain independents, at least until CoWorking sites are so common that this characteristic becomes an issue again.


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