The OpenWork Agency was founded by David Walker and Drew Jones about a year ago. David graduated from business school at UT Austin and has been a serial entrepreneur his whole career. Along with Dusty Reagan, Cesar Torres, and John Eric Metcalf, David founded Austin coworking space, Conjunctured in 2008. Drew joined the team in 2011, and has an academic and consultancy background, in addition to experience teaching Organizational Behavior in business schools and consulting businesses in the areas of corporate culture and leadership for 15 years.
Today, OpenWork has collaborated with various partners on specific projects, most recently Liz Elam of Link Coworking and GCUC. The platform aims to promote an open work philosophy and offers tools to large enterprises that will enable them to learn how to manage their cultural resources.
Hi, Drew. How did you make the transition from starting off as the first coworking space in Austin to being a global platform? And why did you feel that transition was necessary?
OpenWork is the vision David and I developed for bringing the design and ethos of coworking to big companies who were re-thinking their workplace strategies. Our recent work with real-estate developers has kind of been by accident, though it is keeping us busy. Our goal in the long term is to work with large firms as they incorporate more of an open work philosophy for managing their cultural resources.
From the beginning, being a part of the flow of two coworking spaces (SHIFT and Conjunctured) it became clear to us that this (i.e. coworking) is the most organic work arrangement that humans have yet devised in a post-technological society. Freedom of choice, autonomy, and the opportunity to form communities of one’s own choosing, transforms work from being all about other people’s imperatives to being about authenticity and dignity.
While a bit idealistic, at OpenWork we would like to bring this to as many organizations as possible, especially those firms where the flow of work currently is defined by needless hierarchy and toxicity.
What’s your definition of the social workplace, and how is it representative of the future of work?
I think of the social workplace as the intersection of spaces with policies that empower people to work according to their own rhythms. In that humans are a social species, we seek out sociality as a central, though not sole, context in which to get work done. This is why Activity Based Work (ABW) is, I believe, so important.
Companies such as Veldhoen + Company have pioneered a model of working wherein all members of a firm- beginning with the CEO and other senior leadership- forego a private office, and thus work among ‘everyone else.’ This removes the physical hierarchy inscribed in office design.
Also, and quite importantly, in ABW office, employees don’t have to come into the office every day, but most still choose to come in. Given that they are not coming in to nest in a fixed space with pictures of their family, what they seem to be turning up for is the social atmosphere. That is, they are attracted to the community more so than the physical status of a posh ‘office as perk’. This is why, despite all of the innovation that happens in the US, ABW is so slow in coming here. Our deep-rooted individualism is hard for folks to abandon.
The Open Work agency introduced a series of “work/ social” concepts, can you please elaborate on what these concepts are, and how you developed them.
Our work/social vision is a workplace software platform- Nomatik– that has so far not taken off at all. We lack the capital and skills to develop it in house, so it is just sitting on the shelf at this time. However, we would like to be able to offer clients a tool that enables a mix of full-time employees, and freelancers/contractors, to find each other and meetup to work and share resources wherever they are- whether that is at a coffee shop near their homes or at the office. Ideally, in the long run, we’d like to help create a platform where freelancers can plug into this too, as a pipeline of projects and career support as well.
Please describe the design of OpenWork Agency, and why the look and feel of a space is so important.
Since we closed Conjunctured, OpenWork is a virtual company. We work out of several different coworking spaces here in Austin- Link Coworking, Orange Coworking, and Patchwork Austin. As for the importance of design, it is critical to making sociality and collaboration possible, hopefully probable. We work with an architecture firm in our client work so that we have professionalism in how we advise in the planning and designing process.
I would add that designing policies is as important as designing spaces. A business can have the most awesome spaces in the world, but if employees are locked into Theory X policies then the space is just pretty furniture.
How did you realize what type design thinking nurtured productivity?
For us, Design Thinking is a kind of systems thinking. In my book- The Fifth Age of Work– I start with that question: If a designer were put in charge of HR and facilities management, what would she/he do? This starts with taking much of the ‘stupid’ out of work, such as unnecessary commutes, cubicles, 40 hour work weeks, 50 week work years, mindless reporting and controlling processes, etc. From there, the challenge is to physically design the spaces in a way that supports how humans naturally interact with one another. Of course, this is no one way. Philosophically, our point of view is inspired by the work of architect Christopher Alexander and his books- The Timeless Way of Building, and A Pattern Language.
How has the development of open work spaces influenced work culture?
So far it is really hard to tell. There is a big difference between those legacy companies who redesigned their spaces to be “cool”, but don’t actually change any of their policies regarding employee choice and flexibility.
On the other hand, when you look at the offices of companies such as Yelp, LinkedIn, Airbnb, Facebook, Google, Rackspace, etc., open and flexible cultures precede and define the spaces in the first instance. One of our biggest goals, and challenges, is to see how the open design (of coworking) can transform the culture of a large, conventional, legacy company, over the long term. We are in conversation with a few companies that show a small appetite for this, but we’ve yet to really dig in and have a go with this type of client.
What does a social work environment offer that a traditional one does not? Do you think that more corporate entities respond better to a social/work environment? Why?
An open/social work environment offers choice, flexibility, and autonomy. Sadly, the operating system of most American public companies is all about control, centralized decision making, and shareholder value. The idea that young knowledge workers can (and should) come and go as they choose and work when and where they choose, is sadly just an annoyance (and possibly a new cost) for people locked into the culture of shareholder value returns. I am convinced that, if firms actually implement open policies in conjunction with open spaces, then their people will be more engaged, energetic, and productive. People just need to be set free to get to this point.
How are the expectations of the modern workforce different from previous models? What are the current expectations, and how do you address these modern needs?
A combination of technology and the rising generation of Millennials is transforming just about everything about work. So much of what happens in offices, still, happens because that’s the way it’s always been done. Given that firms and employees no longer have much of a mutual commitment to one another, the whole calculus of work is changing.
Workers know that they are likely just passing through, doing some work here and there on their way to the next one. For their part, companies need to acknowledge this, and respond by allowing workers (full-time and freelancer) to work in ways that work for them.
The good news, for both sides of the equation, is that if firms allow young knowledge workers to drive this process, it not only works for the workers but is also, via the cloud, mobility, and a much-reduced real estate footprint, it can also be good for firms as well.