Kickstarting the (workspace) Evolution

Tushar Agarwal, Co-founder and CEO
Tushar Agarwal, Co-founder and CEO|

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Last week I went to hear EO Wilson talk. He’s the world’s leading evolutionary biologist,
biophilia and ant expert, which kind of means he’s to natural science what Attenborough is to animals. Having dedicated his life’s work to nothing less than The Meaning of Existence his very recent book drills down into what makes us happy:

“The origin of the human condition is best explained by the natural selection for social interaction – the inherited propensities to communicate, recognise, evaluate, bond, co-operate, compete, and from all these the deep warm pleasure of belonging to your own special group”

Through social interaction via things like debate, working together, competing, communicating and bonding we become part of a community. And it’s this community which holds the key to success. Yet, as start-ups and small businesses we don’t choose where we work based on the community. Why not?

It took ages for the traditional office style to change, we’re talking 3 centuries here. But over the last 7 years we’ve seen the decline of the private 4 walls of an office and the rise of open plan layouts inspired by university libraries and canteens. In the last 5 years co-working was born, gradually sweeping through the US and Europe and changing how we think about the necessity of those very expensive 4 walls. In the last 2 years The Cloud has largely obliterated the need for masses of space for storage. And in the last 18 months the popularity of the sharing economy ethos has diluted the sought-after prestige of ‘owning’.

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So, technology has allowed people to work from anywhere, to store everything on the cloud and connect from anywhere. It’s created whole new virtual places but it’s also broken down old physical communities. We don’t talk to our neighbour at work unless we know them already which can be really hard to do, especially if you’re suffering from a healthy dose of British conservatism.

We need to feel like we’re subscribed to a community of shared values and interests to relax and get on with things naturally. This instinct for belonging is presumably why private member’s clubs have been so popular since the arrival of tea & coffee. Just like ants have their system of shared recognition cues to automatically identify their peers, we have clubs with dress codes and membership cards.

After 4 years in the industry working I’ve watched the design of offices evolve towards open plan, shared spaces and what consistently leads to a successful space is filling it with like-minded members with shared values. Just like ants and their super-colonies, the insane growth they achieve is dependent on those innate shared cues which allow each ant to recognise a fellow member.

So we’ve knocked down walls, moved in long tables and booth working to encourage collaboration, but who are we collaborating with if we move there? The way we find spaces is monopolised by an archaic and anonymous listing system managed by brokers and agents; they help us hunt for space rather than search for community.

In my previous gig at The Office Group there were company boards in the receptions which had the logos of all the companies in the building. An analysis of this often took up most of the viewing as people recognised competitors, allies and heroes. And the first thing they’d want to do when they joined was get their logo up on the board. We want to know who else is in the building, who will we be spending 40% of our time with and who can help us solve problems, share frustrations and pretty much grow our businesses with. Price and location are key factors to finding a space for your business but finding the right community means your business will grow.

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Creatives and consultants have been working from places like Soho House for years but it’s only recently that a private-member model has been applied to a place designed for work rather than fun, such as newly opened Second Home. Then there are incubators and accelerators who focus not only on building a curated community of like-minded individuals but on education, mentoring and experience. What links all these communities is the belief that it’s the right social interaction which helps start-ups and businesses to grow. This means the value of community is greater than the value gained from the out-dated system of brokers and agents who only find you physical space. And they’re not alone in wanting to do this. Work hubs, large offices with flexible space to sub-let and even big serviced offices with co-working hubs all want to form a community. It’s good for business if your members are happy and great for members to be part of something inspiring.

Thinking about ants brings things back to the basic value of being part of a community and of leveraging a network to make things efficient. The ant colonies are sometimes described as super-organisms because the ants appear to operate as a unified entity, collectively working together. Maybe one day we’ll manage to evolve that far too.

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