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Speak to David Walker and Drew Jones of OpenWork Agency for a few minutes, and one thing becomes abundantly clear. Both David and Drew have a shared passion for helping propel the corporate business world into the modern era. How? Through adopting the people-focused mindset that coworking embodies.
“At the end of the day, who’s in a coworking space? People. And people are people anywhere and everywhere and that’s what coworking is ultimately about–creating an infrastructure that allows people to connect with one another.” — David Walker
Larger corporations have traditionally missed the mark on this point. For years, a company’s bottom line came ahead of the happiness of its people. As humans, we crave connection and collaboration. This dissonance between the corporate world and the needs of the individual was in many ways what serves as the basis for the style of work we now call “coworking.”
David and Drew–each with a unique background in both business and coworking–consult with real estate developers, civic planners, and companies in their day-to-day. Their goal is to infuse the culture of innovation and collaboration which exists at the core of the coworking movement into the corporate world. It’s a daunting task, but one for which they are particularly well-equipped.
David Walker founded Conjunctured, an Austin-based coworking space, in 2008. At the time, it was one of the first coworking spaces in the world. David and his cohort of fellow coworking space founders (people like Alex Hillman of Indy Hall and Tony Bacigalupo of New Work City) were each figuring it out as as they went. “We were all kind of playing it by ear,” recalls David. “We didn’t really know exactly how to develop work communities. We figured it out over time.” Drew Jones joined as a partner of Conjunctured a few years later, but his own journey with coworking started years before the partnership.
Drew fell in love with coworking after visiting the Hat Factory and Citizen Space (two of the earliest examples of the coworking movement) back in January of 2007. He then co-wrote the world’s first book on coworking, titled I’m Outta Here, with Tony Bacigalupo and Todd Sunsted in 2009. But Drew was ready to get involved with coworking in a more hands-on way.
“When I first experienced it, I realized that this was the future of work in a big sense. So when David and [his co-founders] started Conjunctured, I was a huge fan and it was exactly what I envisioned being a part of.” — Drew Jones
Drew and David ran Conjunctured together from 2010 until they closed the doors in 2014. It was a very formative experience for the duo. They built a tight-knit coworking community together while they discovered how to balance each other as business partners. After six and one-half years in the coworking world, they were ready to pivot. David and Drew wanted to find a way to bring the energy and vision of the coworking mentality into the corporate world.
“Really, our goal is to migrate the offering into large firms to help them redesign their spaces and use the flexibility and anytime, anywhere work style that predominates in coworking. We’re trying to plant that into as many companies as we can.” — Drew Jones
And with that philosophy, OpenWork was born.
Now, David and Drew run OpenWork Agency, a coworking strategy consultancy that’s helping introduce the coworking model into traditional corporations. OpenWork’s clients range from city planners (civic coworking) to public and private companies (corporate coworking) to property owners/developers (integrating coworking spaces into mixed-use communities).
To offer context, Drew shares an example of a recent OpenWork client: a mixed-use developer creating a community hub with residences, retail/commercial stores (such as Whole Foods), and a 30,000 sq ft for coworking. OpenWork begins a project like this by conducting a feasibility assessment of the market to help their client decide if they want to commit. If they do, OpenWork helps them find the space, choose the software, setup the operations/training, etc. If this sounds business minded and therefore rather antithetical to the spirit of coworking, the irony isn’t lost on Drew and David. Drew shares why working with real estate professionals, who are often very preoccupied with optimizing revenue per square foot, is such a unique challenge.
“How do you take something like the coworking model, so based upon authenticity, community, connectedness, and collaboration, and then boil it down into making the most profit per square foot? I feel we’ve found a balance, but we also have to recognize that they can’t invest into these large scale projects unless the numbers work out.”–Drew Jones
Drew went on to share that many of the original coworking mavens might not even consider what David and Drew help create to be defined as coworking spaces. Many early adopters view this new iteration of coworking (often referred to as “corporate coworking”) as something separate from coworking. But David, obviously an early adopter himself, likes to think building this bridge between the two extremes of the business world is the future of work.
“I think we’re able to help these new types of clients in ways that maintain the spirit of coworking. We’re not just helping them create cool work spaces. We’re helping create a mindset that coworking is more than just a fancy office space. I think the original pioneers of coworking would agree that it’s tricky but it’s the pathway to the evolution of coworking.” — David Walker
Drew, a professor of organizational behavior, lectures frequently about the topic of the evolution of companies over time. And according to much of the academic research, the exponentially evolving success of coworking often contradicts the corporate research. Because of this, Drew has become fascinated with learning what it is about coworking that allows it to thrive. To Drew, it’s about redefining leadership.
“[Early coworking spaces] are an amazing case of success, particularly leadership success. But they did it in a way that was so anti-alpha and so community centric that it really flips on its head all the academic literature on leadership.” — Drew Jones
David believes that the birth of coworking came out of a paradoxical desire to become a part of the traditional business world while rejecting its fundamental rules. A business school graduate and coworking enthusiast, David’s point of view is very much inspired by his own experiences.
“I think there’s been a sort of distaste with the business world. Coworking is a resistance towards the standard, rigid model of the business world. That’s one of the reasons that there’s so much passionate leadership behind it. Oftentimes these coworking leaders want to be in this economic, participatory game that is the business world. But we don’t want to play by the same rules that our parents and grandparents and CEO’s before us told us that we had to adhere to. We start to realize that innovation comes through these new forms of collaborations and creativity. And coworking has really embraced those in a way that the rest of the business world has not.” — David Walker
In many ways, the differences between corporations and coworking are surprisingly nuanced. It all comes down to a shift in leadership, where the motivation must come from an egoless place and therefore considering your community’s needs over your own. To this point, Drew agrees.
“It’s an amazing case of a new model of leadership. It’s almost the antithesis of this kind of narcissistic leadership that’s typically valued in the corporate world.” — Drew Jones
So how do you rid the corporate world of its inherent narcissism? The answer lies in making physical adjustments to the space itself. Both David and Drew believe that altering the design and organizational structure within a space will naturally create an evolution in company culture. In turn, this will foster a spirit of collaboration.
Drew loves the “democratization effect” that occurs when entry level employees get the chance to sit next to senior managers. In decades past, senior executives were protected on the top floors of businesses, cloistered away in their corner offices and guarded by a personal secretary. This style of seating was counter-productive to collaboration, driven more by ego than by a will to succeed as a team. What’s interesting to Drew is that giving up the proverbial “corner office” seems to be a major factor of resistance to organizational restructuring within the US, specifically.
“It works fabulously in other countries who have adopted more activity-based work styles. The cultural impact there is profound. It gets rid of the way that hierarchy is built into the environment and has a flattening effect on the way people interact. In that way, coworking is worlds ahead.” — Drew Jones
For David, this is at the core of why he loves what he does. He’s deeply passionate about showing companies how changing their physical space can completely transform their organization.
“It becomes about autonomy, and choice, and collaboration, open communication, and mobility…I think what it’s going to do is break down barriers that have existed in the standard, rigid corporate mentality for so long.” — David Walker
Part of what works so well about the dynamic between Drew and David is their different mindsets. In David’s words, Drew is a very pragmatic Gen X whereas David himself embodies the millennial ‘change the world!’ philosophy.
“I don’t think we’ll ever get to a point where all companies [embrace coworking]. Corporate is conservative by nature. They do things tomorrow the way they did things before…I think the first step will be companies spending piles of money on cool physical spaces, without any real policy changes, such as mobility and autonomy that are really the main qualities of coworking.” — Drew Jones
It may seem harsh and counterproductive to consider this a step in the right direction towards corporations embracing coworking. Yet this is the most logical first step for publicly-owned companies to bridge the gap that currently exists between traditional corporations and coworking. For these types of companies, many things about the coworking mentality run counterintuitive to the way they’ve always operated. One such example Drew cites is corporation’s approach to who they promote and who they fire.
“People aren’t promoted for collaborative influence. They’re promoted for how they rank on the “yank and rank” curve of an old-fashioned evaluation system.” — Drew Jones
It’s a simple fact that many publicly-owned companies are still ruled by numbers. They measure employee success on a somewhat arbitrary quantitative system. Abstract qualitative systems by nature can’t provide them with the data they’ll need to show to their shareholders and investors. This is why it’s not easy to make institutional changes to a large organization.
“Most of the companies willing to embrace coworking models today are private. They don’t answer to shareholders or quarterly earnings reports. It’s difficult for these large public firms, who essentially work not for the CEO but for the institutional investors, to justify it. Most of them don’t care about employee engagement. They just care about share price two weeks from now when they’re on the phone with Wall Street. It’s going to have to be proven in terms of earnings and share price and things like that before there’s any sort of widespread adoption.” — Drew Jones
So how do you get the pragmatic, old school veterans of the corporate world excited about an intangible, risky pivot to a coworking mentality? Is it even possible? It’s a question that both David and Drew come up against every day on the job.
When considering if a corporate pivot towards collaboration over competition is even possible, Drew cites historian Thomas Kuhn. Kuhn believed that it often takes a full generation for new scientific paradigms to be adopted; Drew believes this philosophy applies to corporations adopting coworking as well. Piggybacking on Drew’s generational insights, David expands. It seems likely that the key to a revolution in the workplace might not come down to changing the mindset of those currently leading organizations but rather waiting for corporations to outgrow their leaders, literally.
“I’m not necessarily waiting for the large legacy firms to become convinced of coworking. I’m realizing that in due time, when younger generations are in those leadership roles, they will want to run one of the top companies to work for in their city. They’ll want to be an amazing place to work, where employees feel a sense of family and community.” — David Walker
While the exponential growth of coworking in recent years is encouraging, it still exists within the business world as a whole. It’s a daunting task to create big change within a system that is traditionally quite rigid in its operations. With time, more corporations will slowly shift focus and create environments focused on collaboration over competition. It will take some outliers willing to experiment and a new generation of leaders willing to make some changes to corporate leadership which focuses more on engagement and innovation over competition and ego. But change will come. With patience, the future of work–and the world of business–will certainly evolve.
Note: All images shown are ShareDesk partner venues, which have no association with OpenWork.