It’s been one year and a month since I posted my week-long blog about what I do at work, and I’m thinking, “Has it really been over a year?” One of the shortcomings of non-academic careers (mine, at least) is the absence of personal projects that have perceptible arcs. Since I started in workplace consulting over 13 years ago, I’ve been doing a series of overlapping 2 to 4 month projects, and if I step back too far my whole post-academic career starts to the look the same year to year.
Stepping closer, though, there have been some interesting developments since I last wrote. The biggest one has been that my workplace strategy group at CannonDesign has more than doubled in size. We added two new people in our Chicago office, which is serving as our hub for workplace strategy projects, and two new people in our St. Louis office. Although I’ve spent a good part of the past year getting the team up to speed, we’re now moving fast and generating a lot of creative ideas. I’ve also enjoyed getting back into a teaching role of sorts as I’ve helped train and mentor my new team members.
I’ve also started to see outcomes from new projects. While projects might just last a few months for me, implementation often takes another year and we usually don’t go back to measure results for another six month after that. Hence, since I started working at CannonDesign three years ago, we only started seeing the outcomes of our first projects this past year. It’s always great to see how an organization is working in a new environment and collect data and actually see what’s changed. This past year we’ve had several really good stories and happy clients as a result.
Another interesting development over the past year is that I’ve gotten back into academia, at least as a service provider. It turns out universities have workplaces, too! I knew that, of course, but while I’ve been focusing on corporate clients over the past decade, I had assumed that in academia traditions, tenure and departmental politics would have made workplace innovation too unlikely to bother with. Recently, though, I’ve become involved in a couple of design projects at universities and have learned that the academic world (particularly the public side) is under a lot of pressure to become more efficient and accountable, and that stakeholders are now willing to consider change, at least more than in the past. Generational shifts among faculty and administrators have helped, too. So my team and I have been talking to, surveying, and observing academic employees and seeing if we can come up with better work environments. I have to say, it’s been great – feels a little like home. And never before have my wonky ideas and data points been received with such sincere interest.
Client-wise, I’ve also been spending more time overseas than usual. It’s always great to get immersed not just in a new organization (like a university) but in an entirely new regional culture to see how it affects work. The contrast with what I usually see in the US highlights what a significant role regional culture plays. Most recently, I spent time in Seoul working with the CJ Corporation (CJ is a conglomerate that spun off from Samsung in the 1990s and now includes some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies, food businesses and film studios in Korea). One of the challenges they’re facing is how to reconcile the traditional Korean culture, which is based on respect of elders (and hence feels hierarchical), with a desire to be more agile and innovative. We know the answer isn’t necessarily one at the exclusion of the other, and we’re confident we can help them solve the challenge in part by creating a new work environment. Below is one such new workplace at CJ, designed by CannonDesign, that’s nearing completion in Seoul.
Around this time last year, I also traveled to India and to Karachi, Pakistan, to work for other organizations. Although in the latter case our immersion in the culture was restricted due to security concerns, I did get the opportunity (despite my best efforts to avoid it) to ride a camel on a Karachi beach.
The last thing that has been unique about the past year is that I’ve had a little time to work on building a stronger intellectual foundation for some of the work we do. When I started in workplace consulting, I got swept up in the processes and methods of consulting, and I’ve spent many years creating and fine-tuning them, mostly to better support a very specific decision-making process. This past year I’ve been able to step back just a little and spend more time thinking about bigger questions: why do we work, what role does community and engagement play, and how do organizational cultures operate and how can they (if at all) be actively shaped. I’ve discovered some great research in psychology and sociology, and some interesting workplace histories that speak to these issues, and while I don’t proclaim to be adding to the canon, I’ve been able to make some illuminating connections.
So not a bad year overall. If I squint it all looks the same, but having opened my eyes wider, as this exercise has motivated me to do, there have been many great moments. Hopefully the next twelve months will be as good.
Start from the beginning – Read David Craig’s “Week in the Life”