Two years spent putting my own advice into action.

It has been a long time since I have had the time to write about shaping places where we work, live and learn. Why the long silence? The very simple answer is that I accepted a job as principal of a P-12 school and this school was in need of a significant amount of “placeshaping”. The brief was to refresh, refurbish, replace, revitalise and thereby stimulate growth.

Now that I am three years into the job, a reasonable amount of that task has been completed and I return to this blog armed with new insights and experiences. I have strived to put my own advice into action – making the school a place for community, a place for work, a place for learning and most importantly, a place where people want to return to every day.

The first tip I can share about being an effective leader faced with a big challenge is simply “get started on something” and that something should have immediate positive impact on as many people as possible. This something should focus on the core purpose of a school – that is, providing all students with quality opportunities to learn. The results of your first significant action will give you keen insight into the existing culture of change and how enthusiastically new ideas are embraced.

How did I select that first, significant action? Firstly, before the staff and students returned for the new year, I spent two weeks completing a series of audits and inventories. I looked at the main processes, procedures and policies already in place for managing the organisation. I inspected every inch of the property. I made lists, took photographs, made notes and talked to people. I was actually conducting field research in my own school. (A Mind the Gap note: This was also particularly important for me since I knew the school well, having been the deputy for many years. I needed to see the school with fresh eyes and from a different angle as principal.)

I then looked at the school from multiple perspectives – what was the experience of a student each day? What was the experience of a teacher? What was the experience of the parent? What does each of them need to make their specific role in the learning process successful? Did we currently provide them with resources to meet those needs?

When you do this type of research, trends begin to emerge. You notice positives, strengths, resources that will support change, things that are urgent and things that will be challenges. A SWOT analysis is a good way to process this new information. The amount of information that you can generate this way needs to be managed, otherwise the enormity of the tasks before you will discourage the selection of that first significant, high impact action (or series of related actions, depending on the organisation’s capacity).

Next post, I will explore my choice of the first significant action.

A “mind the gap” moment

Don’t be deceived that all teachers are already skilled collaborators and co-workers. Much of our work looks like we do but have we fully grasped it as a way thinking as employees?

Most education as a work environment is still under the influence of the corporate-business administration model. My own masters degree is in educational leadership AND administration, which emphasised many of the approaches that shaped and succeeded in the corporate world. Some aspects of the courses challenged the relevance and appropriateness of these tools and strategies but genuine alternatives were thin on the ground. There is still a disconnect between leadership training to lead the business and the training to lead the learning. The first still belongs to commercial values and organisational structures and the later to the new pedagogies of collaboration, design thinking and collective construction of knowledge. Administration seeks order through systems and processes and the emerging educational paradigm seeks to create by disrupting and exploring new paths. I am yet to be convinced that teacher preparation courses are addressing this divide between the work of administration and teaching, let alone preparing teachers to be collaborative co-workers. If they do, it is still not enough and needs to go beyond the collaborative exercises of preparing a unit of work or the professional experience. What teachers need to know is how to work with other adults in a sustained, complex way.

In the past two weeks, I have spoken to many people not from the world of education but from businesses that either have a social impact focus or an enterprise focus (or both). Many are working independently or in small companies. As they move into more collaborative and activity-based ways of working, they are learning the skills and ways of working with other colleagues because they can see an immediate benefit to their work goals. I guess a key difference is that they are not having to work collaboratively within a huge range of externally imposed structures and constraints.

Different models and different spaces for co-working

Week 2 and I continued visiting a range of co-working spaces in Central London. However, before coming back from my seaside weekend in Brighton (gale force winds, squadrons of seagulls, huge seas, drenching rain and more cakes than I have ever seen in the one postcode – apparently a full dose of the English weather & holiday fun) I paid a visit to the new co-working space in Eastbourne. Take up amongst the self-employed, established tech community has been excellent, thus ensuring a solid financial base for the space to survive and grow – according to the owner a particular success since co-working is new to the area and the town does not have a huge freelance community at the moment. The space is well appointed with a brand new fit out – meeting room, large central desk area with both casual and permanent desk occupancy, loads of natural light, an outdoor terrace, open plan kitchen area and secure building. It is located next to the railway station and central shopping area. At the moment the space is not hosted but there are plans to grow this aspect of the co-working approach, and establishing some long-term members will encourage greater “buy in” from the community.

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Back in London, I visited another Impact Hub – this time at Islington. This Hub is similar and different to other ones in the network. It was busy and fitted out like other communities focusing on freelancers/self employed individuals who want to make an impact in some way. The Hub provides a place (that is not home) to work and opportunities to connect with other like-minded businesses. Key to the space is the hosting team – the team that does everything from property management to office manager to spotting opportunities for connections and innovation. The faciities are on the top floor of an old commercial area – plenty of natural light from skylights, a range of working tables (in a variety of configurations) and sitting areas and a separate meeting room that can be booked. Membership is diverse and reflects the context in which the Hub exists (both in terms of demographics, profiles of local business, levels of support and funding available).

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I then attended a pop-up co-working event @ WorkHubs. It is a newish space that aims to support freelance, small businesses or companies that do not require permanent daily accommodation. It provides a complete business  environment – physical resources, opportunities to interact with other members and attend events that extend skills or make new contacts. The pop-up was organised by KindredHQ – look them up – an organisation that focuses on co-working and networking for freelancers and people working on their own enterprises. The conversations around the table were fantastic.

islington hub

A P.S. Comment: the art of hosting and the use of humour are evident and have a powerful influence on the interaction between the spaces and those who use them. Avoid the passive aggressive signage that springs from exhaustion on part of the “volunteer” employee who has had enough or someone who cannot face unpredictable situations. Set up the space with clear prompts, expect variable standards of tidiness/attention to detail, deal directly with specific difficulties and use some wit (not sarcasm) to encourage the preferred way of doing things.

Features of coworking are popping up everywhere

As soon as you start focusing on something, you begin to notice that object/idea/group of people/way of doing things everywhere. Obviously, it has been there in the same quantity and distribution but now these details mean something more.

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The ultimate “pop-up” – in Trafalgar Square

Since looking exclusively at adult workspaces, I have noticed the ideas present in coworking spaces popping up all over the place. Even the idea of “pop-up”s have exploded on to the scene – the year before last this phrase was new and edgy, now it seems to just signal temporary. Unfortunately, such is the fate of new ideas becoming mainstream and less than what might have been originally intended. In the old waiting room in Brighton railway station, there is a new combination of cafe, workspace and waiting room.  The styling is the pleasing blend of industrial vintage and tech – the coffee is barrista brewed, the food a bit gastro-pub and the sitting area provides variety for people waiting and wanting to either relax or work. Of particular note, is the amount of floor space given over to just standing and circulation room. It would be easy to pack in more tables and chairs, but that would lock the space into one type of use over others. 

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HUBbing, Pop-up CoWorking and Jellies

One aim of this project is to experience for myself all the different types of co-working styles and new adult workspaces on offer. Before leaving for London, I visited three different types of adult workspaces in Sydney. One was a HUB, one was a small co-working area and the other was a new office building. Each place had a specific purpose and therefore, design.

HUBs are collaborative workspaces where people buy access memberships (somewhat like a gym). The ImpactHubs have a clear goal at present. This may change over time as the global movement expands through six continents – it currently has over 40 Hubs in the network with many more preparing to open during the next year, and each hosting city tends to put a different spin on their Hub. According to the HUB network, their goals are to inspire, connect and enable independent workers and creatives. A Hub is part innovation lab, part business incubator and part community centre. They offer “ecosystems of resources, inspiration and collaboration opportunities” by supply spaces (that inspire), community through co-working (connection) and events (that engage and enable members).

In my view, opportunities is the key factor. It is all about linking people with like-minded people, who have similar or complementary skills and knowledge, in a physical space in real time. All other types of working can be done from a home office or coffee shop but co-working spaces allow for both the ad hoc collaborative moment and organised opportunity.

The Sydney Hub opened this year and is growing rapidly. It is planning to expand to a second floor of the current building. One great opportunity in the Hub movement, is the chance to involve the membership in activities of designing the space and processes. The membership attracts the tech-heads, the designers and the creatives, so when things need to be planned and designed there is a vast supply of talent onsite. These activities also build business connections and professional opportunities between members volunteering to be involved. In May, I volunteered to help paint the mural in the “play” area. One Saturday was exchanged for the opportunity of meeting some members, local artists and the Hub founders – and the mural has not been painted out yet … which was a relief to see.

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The next place I visited was an organisation’s new accommodation in an old warehouse. The design was sensitive to the historical fabric of the building, as well as the needs of clients visiting the organisation and those who worked daily within the building. The architects had solved the problem of needing privacy for confidential worktasks, whilst fostering connection between the employees. The offices were placed side by side, back to back along a central spine. The rear connecting walls of each office were glass. The corridors ran around the outside of this central block – allowing for enjoyment of natural light and a view for everyone. Catering facilities were distributed throughout the building but there was also one large kitchen/lounge area that ensured everyone could meet and eat and work together in one space.

The small co-working space I visited was modest in design and size but still captured the essence of co-working. It was placed in the central shopping street and had all of the necessary facilities of internet connectivity, toilets, kitchenette and variety of table configurations. It was also aware of the drawcard of membership. By this I mean, these spaces are different to hot-desking and casual desk rental because of the type of person who choses to work in these environments. They want a creative environment and the opportunity to spin off other people’s ideas, skills and energy, without missing out on the all the practical services of an office space. If you do not attract the right mix of members, the space will be affected. Corner Table is currently thinking through the sectors it wants for members. Some co-working spaces specialise in tech start-ups, others attract designers and digital/web companies and others are targetting social enterprises. The ideal is probably a combination of all of these, with some creatives and freelancers thrown in. At the heart of the mix, is creating opportunities amongst like-minded and like-skilled people, who want to focus on work and their businesses but not spend the entire week alone or isolated.

I have also paid for a one-day Hot Desk experience. The space had many more permanent members, so there was a distinct difference between the casual desk user and the permanent residents. The permanent residents had been allowed to move in lots of personal equipment and resources and had desks against the wall. Their spaces changed the ambience of the coworking environment. There was also a lot more socialising and chat going on between the regulars, which made concentrating difficult. Hot desks were also the worst ones in the room – limited power, in the walkways, worst chairs and no privacy (in comparison to permanents’ areas) – but these coworking offices need permanent membership to remain viable. I was reminded on the importance of space management to ensure fair and equitable access for everyone.

enspiral transport

Now to some London co-working locations …

KingsCross Hub

The space at Kings Cross is well planned and incredibly flexible, even though it is not that big. It is a complete building, and when the Hub moved in, the space was just a shell. This enabled them to design everything from scratch and with a fantastic fabric of old industrial architecture. Membership is large and managed by a full time team of staff. Events are opportunities of drawing in new members, skilling up existing members and giving members opportunities to network and share their expertise. The ambience of the space creates a feeling of working in the presence of people but not at the frenetic pace of a high-powered office. The demographics were diverse in age, gender and background training, and the hosting team is constantly monitoring the balance of tech/digital, social enterprise, designer and freelance balance.

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The Busworks and KindredHQ Pop-up and going to a Jelly in Hackney

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Basically, there is little difference between a pop-up and a Jelly. Strictly speaking, a Jelly is a free event hosted informally just about anywhere the host can guarantee a basic level of facilities will be provided, but even that is changing with Jellies being hosted in parks. A Jelly is a get-together of people working – a nomadic workers flash mob. A pop-up usually comes with the expectation that it you are getting one-off access to a fully equiped working space, but like with Jellies, this definition is constantly being challenged by new ideas and new ways of doing things. The important thing to remember is that they are informal, irregular but always aim at creating working opportunities. They are not the most reliable way of making regular contacts nor finding a spare desk. However, with all types of co-working spaces, how well attended will depend on the type of people attracted to the opportunity and perception on the “cool scale”. But for a nomad researcher from Sydney, they are a blessing in terms of shelter/seating/table/wifi and an interesting way of seeing the city and meeting different people.

A P.S. Comment: As I just typed that subheading, I was struck by the new language of the co-working movement. Must remember not to drown the concept with jargon, acronyms and “in the know” phrases – works counter to the goal of collaborating.

Here is a link to the two sites –

http://www.busworks.co.uk

http://www.spacestudios.org.uk/whats-on/events/jelly

Mind the Gap – form driving function and the cool factor

Days 1 and 2 of this London trip were spent doing a long-haul flight, however, the time was not wasted. For the sake of this project, I watched “The Internship” – a story where a pair of out-of-work salesmen, who become summer interns at Google HQ in San Francisco. I chose the film for a look inside the Google workplace – and there it was, the ultimate creative work environment with vivid colours, gadgets, interesting workspaces, funky flexible furniture, fun places to think and play, nap pods and populated with the brightest IT crowd. However, the 24/7 work playground comes with strings attached – Google is watching for the next innovation, the next product, the next genius. The purpose of this environment is to generate future business opportunities and accelerate product design. No guessing the end of the story – human relationships and genuine collaboration are the elements that make all the difference.

So, which gap do we need to mind? The subtext behind the environment and a reliance on form driving function. An environment that will support the work of the organisation is a vital precondition for success. Google embodies the notion of innovation combined with driving focus. They have thoughtfully branded technology as being witty, accessible and desirable through their physical environments and online presence (think about the changing graphics on their search page). However, behind the environment is a carefully focused business with clear strategies for staying on top of their business. The employees may look like they inhabit a utopian workplace but what the company brings to the workplace will not be enough. The working relationships between the employees are vital to the success of the company.

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A P.S. Comment:
After spending time at Campus London, I can see the “cool” factor has great pull. If it is the place to be seen and be noticed, then the co-working place will be packed. I had to start out on pieces of furniture that had style over function (note to self – desklettes with wheels and crazy shaped seats may look great but make sure they have a predictable/stable footprint when you lean forward) and then”upgrade” my position as people left. By the end I was a success in a very cool crowd – two lounge chairs and a coffee table in the cafe zone, but it did take an hour of space hopping and upgrading 🙂 There is an awkwardness that comes with working in this type of coworking environment – there are no hotdesk or permanent desk arrangements in the cafe (you can buy a resident membership, which gives you a guaranteed space on one of the other 7 floors). When the cafe is as full as it was today, it would be difficult to focus on your work and people looked uncomfortable when hunting for a spare seat or powerpoint – the rules of negotiation were not clear and there were certainly some dominant personalities in the room today.

KingsCross Hub, just across the road from megalopolis station, most definitely has the cool factor. The space is urban, ecco-chic with a reminder that its focus membership is social enterprise. With a membership of 300+ and a daily attendance capacity of 120, it is working well.

By contrast I attended a pop-up coworking event in Islington. The people were more friendly, the space was cleaner and far better maintained, the space was quiet but it just wasn’t popular. The Jelly event at Hackney was more popular – it had the feeling of a well equipped community college and people came during the day to work on projects but with little interaction.

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