The Evolution of Work: Organizational Structure and a Culture of Creativity


Please note: I am re-sharing this 2011 post with updated links. What are your thoughts? Please weigh in.

There has always been pressure in workplaces to perform. However, the quality and measure of that pressure has evolved significantly. With greater emphasis on ideas and innovation, organizations find themselves wondering: How can we stay on the cutting edge? How can contributors apply their unique strengths to help organizations do so?

While many organizations have explored strategies to facilitate cultural changes that enhance creativity — in practice, they vary considerably in their ability to do so. Many organizations have the potential to increase creativity (mindset and motivation). But, this often requires an accompanying adjustment or redefinition of organizational structure.

Where creativity and innovation are concerned, an organization’s “form” may need to adjust to follow this desired function.

Without needed revisions in structure and supporting processes, positive changes are difficult to realize.

Work swarming and structure.
Organizations are beginning to make the connection between structure, creativity and innovation. One example, is uniquely represented in Valve’s Employee Handbook. Valve — a game developer located in upstate Washington, works with a flat organizational chart that allows talent to flow freely toward the work. One  basic tenet, is the belief that ideas have tremendous value — and deserve to be explored by those who have interest in their development. As such, employees are not completely limited by reporting structure and are free to gravitate toward the projects where they can make the greatest contribution. Projects are rarely assigned, as employees determine how they dedicate their time based upon skills and interest.

Work swarming, a process quite similar to talent utilization at Valve, is not unlike the spontaneous mechanisms borrowed from nature. Discussed previously by Gartner, swarming emphasizes an organic flow of energy toward specific, needed tasks. You’ll find examples of work swarming operating in other workplace cultures — for example, in hospital emergency rooms. Ultimately, elements of swarming allow resources to focus upon a task of real importance or potential value. A dynamic often not realized in traditional, mature organizations.

Work swarming has the potential to encourage both creativity and innovation. However, there is often a general hesitancy to move away from the prescribed roles within traditional hierarchies. As such, contributors remain in their designated lines of work. Common sense does tell us that Valve’s method won’t work perfectly for all organizations. However, we could adapt processes so it might be utilized.

Unlock the mindset
Within traditional organizations, job descriptions and reporting relationships prescribe specific activities and relationships. But to encourage creativity and innovation, it would be advantageous for employees to have the opportunity to function outside the realm of their “day-to-day” routine — a “hybrid” solution. Not unlike the 70-20-10 concept pioneered at Google, employees would feel free to explore new projects, ideas and trends. Employees could be allowed to “unhitch” from the organizational hierarchy and work flexibly for a percentage of their time. In this way, employees could contribute to worthy projects in which they have interest; new ideas are explored and employee engagement can be enhanced. Talent would flow toward projects which have the potential to support, or possibly transform an organization.

The implementation of swarming components would require a clearinghouse of information concerning trending ideas, initiatives and team opportunities — possibly through an internal crowd sourcing platform — and the available talent. In this way employees can make decisions concerning where to spend their time and team leaders could identify contributors who have both the interest and skill set to join.

There are certainly logistics that would need to be addressed to modify an organizational form or structure, in this manner. However, in the case of creativity and innovation — changes to enhance these processes may prove a worthy endeavor. Moreover, contributors could find the challenge and learning experiences they require to stay happy and engaged.

Note:  A form of this post has been previously published at Talent Zoo

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist. Connect with her on Twitter and Linkedin.

The Evolution of Work: Coworking

MP900433182The evolution of work has continued a fascinating process whereby the structure of work changes to meet the state of the external world. In a previous post, I have discussed the development of permalancers and slashers. These groups have grown significantly in recent years, partially in response to the ongoing challenges of economy and the job market. To work is to live — and the structure of that work has had to flex with the times. For many, working independently (or even remotely) has become the best and most viable option.

Freelancers have become a force in today’s world of work. (In the US alone, there are over 40 million independent workers.) Moreover, with less physical real estate an increasing number of employees work remotely while still affiliated with an organization than ever before. With the emergence of this larger “solo” presence, more and more of us are looking for innovative methods to stay productive while on our own. But, we are challenged to do so without the added social benefit of coworkers or colleagues by our side. The problems solo workers face can run deep — and the accompanying symptoms often fester undetected.

We are social beings after all, and loneliness can be a formidable challenge. As a psychologist, the thought of millions sitting alone in front of a computer monitor, challenges much of what I have learned about meaningful work. We are designed for interaction and collaboration — and to many freelancers this state of  “aloneness” can become untenable. Studies show that perceived loneliness can lead to multiple problems, including sleep disturbances and the inability to fight disease. People need people. Certainly as individuals, we may have a unique level of contact that works for us. However, most people benefit from some level of human interaction in their work life. We may not always require coworkers to help us become productive every day, but to have the option is often preferable.

For others the basic notion of working at home is the issue, where the myriad of distractions can break concentration, provide ample opportunities for procrastination and limit productivity. To make matters worse, these distractions are always present and available in a home setting. As a result, many find that a location specifically designated for work is the best option – increasing the opportunity for both focus and effectiveness.

Enter coworking

Coworking is a brilliant option. Personally, I find the founding principles of the movement inspiring. The tenets, which include openness, collaboration and a sense of community, are workplace attributes which individuals working on their own are  challenged to replicate within a home office. Of  key note, is that coworking is the product of evolution, and not a momentary blip. As described by Anna Thomas, former Chief Happiness Officer at Loosecubes, “People talk about coworking as a hot trend, which inherently implies that it’s not sustainable. In fact, shared workspaces provide the opportunity for one to create a more sustainable (and potentially fulfilling) work lifestyle.”

Indeed, this movement has fulfilled real needs within the work life realm. As explained by Jenifer Ross, owner of W@tercooler, a coworking space located in Tarrytown, New York, “The coworking environment offers a sense of community and camaraderie, shared beyond industry specific backgrounds.” Moreover, to some the experience can be described as a “Cheers” of office spaces – a place to call their own, connect and combat that feeling of “office homelessness”.

What you gain

Coworking spaces provide the basics, as well as some of the social-emotional benefits of an office community. Office essentials such as access to conference rooms, copy/fax capabilities and locked storage are often provided. But, other perks such as sponsored events like hackathons, pop-up shops for entrepreneurs and networking events really seem to make these spaces feel like home.

A developing segment of co-working spaces, such as Chicago’s  Enerspace, have cleverly combined other components that support or enhance work life. The brain child of University of Chicago’s Booth School alum Jamie Russo, Enerspace addresses key heath and wellness initiatives that might affect work life. With scheduled classes in meditation, an on-site fitness studio and a full-service kitchen – heath, wellness and work, combine in one unique space.

Old problems could still emerge

Of course, some of the problems you experienced when working at home, could still occur in another workspace. (Who could forget the classic TedX talk about offices?) As with any work environment, distractions do exist and problems such as interruptions, could still befall your time in a coworking space. Specific personal productivity issues, not impacted by a work space, must be addressed as well. For example, if you had a tendency to procrastinate at home, you may see the same issue reemerge. Be sure to utilize the tactics and routines that help you remain focused and on track.

I encourage you to visit the Coworking Wiki page for more information about coworking. Also consult sites such as LiquidSpace and OpenDesks, to help you book that space.

One last note: If you find that perfect place — be sure to share your good fortune with others.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist located in East Lansing, Michigan. Find her on Twitter and Linkedin.

The Evolution of Work: Permalancers, Slashers & the Career Pivot

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Change is inevitable, and when a strained job market has to flex with the increasing pressure of a sluggish economy, something has got to give. Not necessarily to the betterment of organizations. Not necessarily to the advantage of employees. What occurs is simply Darwinian theory applied to work. Jobs evolve – and mutate.

The structure of work and its evolutionary past
Often the impetus for the change comes from the external environment, and over the course of time jobs have changed to meet the state of the world. From the inception of the role of apprentice to effectively transfer needed skills through the generations – to the needed presence of women in the workforce during World War II – the world of work has changed to adapt to the state of the world.

In our current economy, organizations can be fragile and funds are often tight – limiting the number of full-time employees that can be supported. In response, changes have occurred to the structure of work to deal with these imposed constraints. Whether these changes are transitory in nature, or here to stay remains unclear.

Trends to note & observe:

  • Permalancing – The notion of permalancers, those freelancers who spend long periods of time at an organization without actually being considered a full-time employee, raises all sorts of legal and ethical questions. Of particular concern is the obvious lack of job security and its eventual impact upon job satisfaction and performance. In a nutshell, these employees do not enjoy the same benefits or security as other employees within the organization. Some have viewed the positives of the arrangement, as flexible and realistic.  However, are these employees able to fully commit to organizational goals? Are freelancers distracted by their search for a permanent home?
  • Slashing – When full-time jobs are few in number, employees might have to take on more than one role to meet their financial obligations and fill a 40+ hour work week. Slashing, a type of career “multi-tasking”, has provided some workers the opportunity to pay the bills and stay afloat. Many may actually enjoy the variety of their roles – others may prefer a less dissociative career path. Sometimes, slashing can allow an individual to pursue an entrepreneurial dream, while still working at another role. But, how many of these individuals will choose to stick with this option when the economy stabilizes? What are the long-term ramifications for careers and pay?
  • Career Pivoting – Pivoting often entails a change in work setting or industry, where components of the current skill set are applied to a new role. These more “controlled” career path revisions seem to be occurring more and more often. Often the pivot emerges out of the need to follow the work, in other cases to pursue an improved career fit. How pivoting is actually accomplished will be a research focus, as vehicles such as mid-career internships become more popular. How many career changers are choosing a pivot instead of a more drastic career change? Are there opportunities for career pivoting within organizations? Will internships be available for those who require a mid-career revision?

The evolution of our world of work will continue in the coming years.  Learning how these changes impact employees and organizations is certainly the next step.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist. You can find her on Twitter and Linkedin.