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Co-Work & Collaboration

The Economist ran an interesting piece last month on the rise of co-working…

Nine hours of isolation or 30 minutes trapped by the office bore? The attentions of the boss or the distractions of daytime TV? The choice between slogging to the office and working from home can be pretty unappealing. For increasing numbers of people, the answer is “co-working”. The concept of co-working is elastic but at its broadest means working alongside, and often collaborating with, people you wouldn’t normally. Users book a space in a co-working office, plonk themselves down where they can and start beavering away.

While I’ve not worked at a formal co-working studio, I have been a partially remote worker for the last three years. I’ve wrestled with the “commute and office annoyances” vs. “isolation of home” choice on many occasions.

I still don’t have it all figured out, but here are some ideas…

The Isolation of Home

To me, the real danger of working at home isn’t the distractions (those exist in the office, too). It’s the isolation.

Creativity requires interaction. It requires the collision of ideas in unexpected ways. It requires serendipity. Technology minimizes the isolation, but only to an extent. A webcam chat is great, but it’s simply not the same as meeting face-to-face.

But cubes aren't any better

Cubicles suck. They’re just as isolating as being home, but with the annoyance of random distractions like noisy neighbors and people who just drop by. They offer none of the collaborative advantages of a wall-free environment, but all of the downsides.

If your options are work at home or work in a cube, you’ve got a tough choice.

The Bistro

The headquarters building at EMC has what we call “the Bistro.” It’s a little coffee shop run by the fine folks at Sodexo, with news playing on a flat screen TV, ample seating, and a cappuccino machine.

It’s also my favorite place to work.

It’s far more noisy than a cube, but the noise is ambient. It fills the background rather than standing out against it, so it’s actually less distracting. Think about someone talking on the phone in a silent room. Now imagine them doing that in a crowded restaurant.

But, the Bistro also allows for random interaction. You see someone you haven’t seen in a while, start talking about work, and suddenly, you’re brainstorming on a project together.

Pixar and forced collisions

In the Steve Jobs bio, there’s a section spent talking about Steve’s vision for the Pixar office he helped build.

There was a deliberate effort made to ensure that random collisions - of both people and ideas - would happen on a regular basis. Steve felt that these collisions are what drove creativity. I think he’s right.

(This is discussed briefly in this short behind-the-scenes look at Pixar studios.)

Team Collaboration

One of the big benefits of location-independent work for me has been that I can choose the environment that works best for my current needs and preferences. If I need a quiet environment to grind out a lot of work, I can work at home. If I need or want interaction as I’m planning out new ideas, I head to the Bistro.

But while this approach may increase cross-organizational collaboration, it actually makes team collaboration more difficult. I may only encounter the people in my direct work group in person once a week.

Random collisions are great, but ad-hoc meetings with specific people becomes more complicated in this type of setup.

So if I’m working on a project, and I think, “I’d love to pick Dave’s brain on this!” I can’t just ping Dave through our chat client and meet him at a table in the Bistro. He could be in another building. He could be at home. The days of popping into someone’s cube (for better or worse) are largely gone.

Is technology the solution?

I don’t believe technology will ever replace face-to-face interaction, but I do hope that someday technology minimizes some of these challenges.

Will video chat move to 3D, and will that actually help anything? If you want to get really scifi about it, will holograms or avatars make remote collaboration feel more real?

Ultimately, the shift to location-independent work is a wonderful thing. I’m excited to see how it evolves.