Corporations need to be careful when jumping on the Coworking bandwagon

In a recent CNBC interview with a billionaire real estate mogul, Sam Zell, he insisted “I wouldn’t let those guys near my business with a 10-foot pole”. He was referring to recent news of corporates, such as IBM, having WeWork (the multi-billion dollar-valued Coworking company) design and manage a large office of IBM staff.

At first, you could conclude that Mr Zell was anti-Coworking because it could be a potential disruptor to his business. As an elderly gentleman, who you could assume he might be out of touch with the latest innovative trends. He could also feel burnt having previously unsuccessfully invested in a similar business. But, in reading beyond the headline, it was clear he’d thought carefully and astutely about this:

“The last thing I want to do is introduce somebody else’s culture and have them influence the way my company is run.”

Mr Zell is obviously familiar with Peter Drucker’s much quoted saying: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”, as anyone who has transitioned employees from a boring ‘traditional’ office to a funky activity-based workplace, such as WeWork’s, with large café area, games, open collaborative areas and shared bench desks, will agree – it’s REALLY HARD!

People don’t like change, even if it’s good for them. The desk is commonly seen as the only personal territory in the otherwise impersonal office. Many don’t see work as anything other than heads-down desk work or sitting through 1hr weekly meetings. It’s not their fault, it’s the nature of way offices have been reduced to commoditised and politicised environments where you feel the need to defend the last bastions of what you can control. When you put these multitude of colourful furniture items in front of them and tell them to “go forth and collaborate” don’t be surprised if innovation and happiness are not born.

People need to be told what these new spaces are for and given permission to use them. When you ask staff why they are not using the pool table, or using the sofa to chat, it’s mainly because they think their boss would tell them off for not working. They don’t necessarily know that their boss would be happy for them to stop stressing about it because there often isn’t the culture for that type of dialogue.

There are many steps to getting a large organisation to work productively in a new type of environment. Aligning the businesses’ strategic vision is one first important step, then ensuring the rest of the business follows in a meaningful, honest way where they are given the right tools to mentally prepare themselves and their behaviours for this new culture; this can take years for some organisations.

Having successfully delivered projects of this kind to many large corporations, I can safely say that Mr Zell is very wise in his reservations. In fact, any organisation seeking to dabble in Coworking must understand the importance of engaging their staff and identifying cultural norms and productivity needs before carefully managing the change.

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