As i sat writing this morning, an elderly gentleman came to the table and asked me if he could lay out the International papers without disturbing me. I’m in the Icebreaker cafe, by the Amstel, one of my favourite writing spots, and the routine is the same each morning. Many Dutch cafes have a reading table: a large table, maybe seating twenty people, with magazines and papers laid out, as well as the usual small tables surrounding it. I like to sit at the reading table, surrounded by architecture magazines, French and German newspapers, American economics journals and glossy fashion mags.
Around me sit other solitary readers and writers, many hunched over MacBooks, whilst around us at the smaller tables, clusters of conversation, some social, some work related. Often, couples are sharing a laptop, using information there to support or enhance their conversation. Often they are connected to other, external, participants through email or messaging tools.
The content on the tables is curated: the magazines chosen carefully and each covered with an official sticker, showing that they belong to the cafe. The conversations on the tables though are random, owned by the people. Then, of course, there are the conversations that go beyond our physical space here, the online conversations, such as me chatting on LinkedIn to Elizabeth in Australia, Robin in Birmingham and Sam in Bournemouth.
Sometimes we use social technology to connect us to the external communities: Facebook maybe to check in, whilst other technologies are formal, such as Yammer or Lync. many of the conversations spill over from this fully social space into external formal ones.
Here at the table though, it’s more about reflection: there are very few conversations here and few groups, just solitary people reading, writing and thinking.
So there is differentiation by physical location (groups co-creating meaning at the tables, individuals reflecting at the centre, surrounded by magazines, external communities linked only through social or formal technology) and there is differentiation by activity (solitary reflection, writing, reading, group conversations in person, group conversations facilitated by social or formal technology).
There is an unmistakable air of productivity, despite the informal surroundings and aroma of warm coffee. This is a collaborative and reflective space, impacting on both formal and informal elements of our collective lives. But it’s not accidental: just as the papers on this table are curated every morning by the elderly gentleman, so too is the decor of the cafe, the menu, the free WiFi. It’s an artificially constructed environment intended to put me at my ease and to facilitate all of these activities.
Environment is important, as is culture: we need infrastructure (tables, chairs, power sockets and WiFi) as well as social conventions or rules (it’s ok to sit alone here, to type, to read, but it’s frowned on to use your phone: some external connections are just too blatant and spoil the illusion).
As organisations adopt more social ways of working, environment and infrastructure become more important, often in small ways. It’s not about buying new chairs and a coffee machine, but it may be about ensuring people can hook their devices up to the WiFi and ensuring that they have access to a range of collaborative tools and software. One size does not fit all.
Curated or accidental: this cafe is a perfect example of a Social Age working environment, and i have worked with many global organisations that have failed to get it this right.
Within our working lives, we should have spaces for reflection, spaces for collaboration, spaces for community (both formal and social) and clear access to spaces where we can narrate our learning. The entire experience needs to be supported: it’s more than giving people a laptop and a desk. In the Social Age, we work in social ways: have you thought about what these are and how your organisation can best support them?
Here are some ideas:
1. What semi formal spaces surround your offices? Have you used these for community events e.g. running team events in the cafe, or arranging a discount for groups who want to use that space for collaboration?
2. Have you thought about doing a deal with the cafe to ensure everyone has great WiFi? Why not, it’s the lifeblood of social working!
3. What infrastructure do you have to support social working? Are you prescriptive or open? Why not ask people where they collaborate and see if it matches the organisational view