The future of community

The Future of Attraction, Motivation, and Retention (aka, the Future Forum) at conference turned out quite well. I, needless to say, felt horribly uncomfortable getting up to present — but as the session wore on (i.e., when I finished my spiel and got to just participate as a panelist), it actually became rather fun.

Charlie and Jim (the actual futurists on the panel) have a pretty specific perspective on the future — one that includes the heavy use of telework. Recognizing that people will still want community, they imagine hubs in communities — buildings where people with different employers will share space to work. Basically, the culture of the office (where one’s employer is the common bond) will shift to a culture of the community — where one’s town might be the common thread.

I’m not a futurist, but as an indiscriminate reader, aficionado of new ideas, and compulsive web-user, I was willing to stump for a slightly different perspective: namely, that people will form their communities digitally — that the physical proximity piece (which 99% of the panel and audience assumed was essential) is not really that big of a deal.

Perhaps I feel this way because I am an introvert? I tested this theory a bit during an evening reception, when I grilled Charlie and Jim about their respective tendencies toward intro-/extro- version. Turns out Charlie is a huge extrovert. Jim, an introvert.

Charlie is the louder proponent of the community-in-physical-proximity model. Essentially, this simply means people stop going to the office for community and, instead, establish spaces in their towns for physically colocated community.

Jim is an introvert. We discussed this in the midst of a very loud, very crowded reception, which amused me no end. I can easily relate to anyone who, crushed among a huge crowd, drink in hand, says, “If I had my druthers, I’d stay in my hotel room this evening.”

Word.

So why is Jim advocating for physically colocated community spaces? I suspect it’s because he hasn’t really hooked into a virtual community yet.

During the conference session, the majority of the audience was interested in the idea of distributed work — but almost all of them worried about preserving the corporate culture, and especially about inculcating that culture in new workers.

My take is this: spend time exposing people to whatever your organizational culture is — if they like it, they’ll partake. Beyond that, though, just make sure people are clear about how their contributions align with the organization’s goals, ensure that managers and workers are very clear about specific deliverables, and then offer a variety of supporting environments: this may include an actual office space to work in, satellite spaces, virtual community, or some combination thereof.

The younger people in the audience (a distinct minority) seemed to just shrug in a “sure, that’ll work” way when the mention of virtual community came up. The older participants were inclined to dismiss it as unacceptable. I suspect, though, that rather than “unacceptable” (which would imply they’ve really examined the option), what they were really indicating is that they find the notion unfathomable.

I encouraged people to get out on the web and see what’s going on. Once you experience community online, you can get a little imaginative and see how it can be used to support organizational culture. The only barrier, really, is that the people who get to make these decisions (“Our corporate culture is going online!”) are busy and perhaps not technically savvy. Oh, and they don’t like feeling dumb.

In the end, this might be the biggest barrier to organizational change: people at the top of the totem pole value their sense of mastery of the corporate environment. Once someone has put years of effort into feeling established and sure of herself, the last thing she’s going to want is to go back to “beginner’s mind.” But in the end, that’s the only way it can possibly work. Otherwise, organizational culture turns into a petrified forest.

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