The Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre was once a sleepy rural village. By the late 19th century, however, it had been absorbed by the city growing around it. Where farmers once tended vineyards and orchards, a population of musicians, writers and artists flocked to its old buildings and narrow streets. Painters such as Edgar Degas, Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who all lived and worked on "the hill," generated creative energy that was a beacon for the rest of Europe.
Closer to our own time, the Dutch hamlet of Groenwijck in New Amsterdam transformed itself, by the mid-twentieth century, into a buzzing hive of artistic and social innovation called Greenwich Village. Waves of dreamers and strivers moved to this bohemian utopia in lower Manhattan, attracted by the ferment of so many creative minds in a concentrated space.
Artists, of course, are not the only ones to seek inspiration from their peers in close quarters. Mervin Kelly, physicist and director of the legendary Bell Labs, believed that an optimal exchange of ideas could be generated by co-mingling researchers, developers and theorists under one roof. Inventions such as the transistor, laser, solar cells and radio astronomy that emerged from the creative community of Bell Labs proved him right. Steve Jobs, during his time as CEO of Pixar, purposely designed its headquarters with the bathrooms in a central atrium so that employees of every discipline would be compelled to see one another and interact throughout the day as they walked from office to common area and back again.
Can you engineer creative serendipity into the workforce and workplace? It's something that more and more companies are trying to do.
Recently, I spoke with directors and several members of WeWork Labs (a subset of WeWork that defines itself as "The Home for Early Stage Startups") and the General Manager and users of Microsoft Teams, to understand how creative working environments and virtual collaboration tools are facilitating the next generation of idea exchange. Four recurring themes revealed why these new paradigms are so popular and powerful:
1) Meaningful connections happen easier and faster
Roee Adler, Global Head of WeWork Labs, believes that clustering early startups together within the larger environment of WeWork facilitates the creative networking that a young company needs to succeed.
"We think about WeWork Labs as being a catalyst. And I mean that in the literal sense. In biology, a catalyst is a substance that takes an action that would have happened anyway but makes it happen much faster. I believe the talent exists within our members to achieve everything. What we're trying to do is unleash the potential that can come out much faster due to all those connections."
What does this look like?
"A lot of our Labs managers come from the startup ecosystem, so they're already well-connected," said Susan Deng, Senior Manager for WeWork Labs, New York. "They have a natural ability to bring people together. If they know there's a startup at our West 57th Street location that would benefit from connecting with a startup at 205 Hudson, they're going to say, 'I'm making the intro now. Let's get drinks, let's get lunch.' They're our super-connectors."
For Aparna Srinivasan, founder and CEO of SpotOn, a pet-centric ride-hailing company, these valuable connections might never happen if she were working from home or a Starbucks. "One of my fellow WeWork Labs mates has a company that offers insurance for ride-hailing drivers. We're also in the ride-hailing business, so it's a great complement to my business. And I am for his. I wouldn't have found that anywhere else."
Lori Wright, General Manager, Microsoft 365 Teamwork, believes that social tools in the digital sphere, like Microsoft Teams, have a similar catalyzing influence in the workplace. They address one of email's most frustrating limitations — impeding the flow of information within a group. "We all still use email, but you have to pick the person that you want to send it to, and you have to remember all the people who might have an interest in that topic. Invariably, you forget one person who then has to be copied and forwarded on everything."
John Edwards, CIO of Red Lion Hotels, transitioned their entire organization to Microsoft Teams last year. One of the most immediate benefits he noticed was the ease with which new members of working groups could join an ongoing project and be up-to-speed right away. "You'll add somebody into a conversation in Teams, and they immediately see the history of what's going on. With email, you can lose context or perspective. Things don't always line up correctly."
2) Barriers to cooperation are reduced or eliminated
A significant trend now in creative collaboration is the flattening of hierarchies, both inside and across organizations. Giving power back to the curious individual to self-select and "opt-in" often leads to unexpected contributions that would never happen otherwise.
"With Teams, you pick topics, not people," explained Lori Wright. "Of course, there are private teams. But generally speaking, a lot of the teams and channels are open. You can say, 'I am interested in this, and I want to be part of this.' It's a democratizing force. So when I'm communicating on a topic, the person sitting in London is just as engaged as the person in the office next to me. Physical location makes no difference. It's all about our shared workspace."
WeWork Labs started in New York in 2011. It now has a presence around the world. While each location (in six countries at present) has its own spirit and ethos, what excites those who manage Labs is the possibility of synergy and exchange between startups, no matter where they are based.
"We don't want to look at WeWork Labs as just one market. We want to look at it as a global market within a global community," said Susan Deng. "We have a member in Shanghai who's visiting New York for two weeks, and so we're working on, 'What are we going to do for this member? How are we going to make this experience valuable? Who are we connecting him with?' If he wasn't in WeWork Labs, he wouldn't have a team that can say, 'Welcome! We've already created neat things for you. We have members we want you to meet here.'"
3) Honesty, openness, and vulnerability leads to better outcomes
While all of WeWork promotes dialogue between its members, WeWork Labs provides a managed environment where the founders of early startups are encouraged to open up about their recent successes and challenges. According to Roee Adler, this vulnerability — not common in the competitive startup world — enables them to learn from the collective experience and wisdom of their colleagues.
"Once a week every startup can come on stage and share where they are and how they've evolved, and hear feedback and insight from a group of people in a safe and trusting environment. This is the idea behind the [Labs] community."
With more and more conversations happening in the digital realm, can that kind of vulnerability, which leads to real growth and learning, remain a part of our creative collaboration? People tend to represent only a part of themselves online, yet the results have been very counterintuitive.
"The biggest surprise for me has been the bonding that it creates," shared Lori Wright about her experience using Teams in its first year. "Even within my own team, I feel like I have gotten to know so many of the members more closely. It's a more personal way to communicate and to build camaraderie and trust."
4) Success comes from a generous exchange of information
The Fresno, California, Unified School District is a leader in helping students and teachers use technology to connect across disciplines and distances. "It's less likely for teachers to collaborate when they're on opposite sides of the city," said Matthew Schwartz, Teacher on Special Assignment in Education Technology. But using social tools like Microsoft Teams opens up new possibilities. "How can we develop learning communities of instructors and give them opportunities to share? And if administrators are supporting classroom teachers using these tools, in what ways can the ability to collaborate online now benefit them?"
Schwartz's district serves nearly 74,000 students with just over 100 school sites. He attributes their success to the way the community has come together around new collaboration technologies, with teachers and students sharing knowledge to bring all of them up to speed, even those with little background in using computers.
As Jordan Scott, founder of idk tonight, an online date-planning guide for couples in New York City and a member of WeWork Labs, reminded me, being on both sides of the teaching/learning dynamic in a collaborative relationship has benefits that go far beyond the value of the information exchanged.
"I am getting a ton of help here. That's huge because I'm young as a startup. But when I'm having a bad day business-wise, and I'm still able to contribute content or have a conversation with a fellow Labs member about their marketing, that totally re-sparks me. I know that I've helped someone, so now I can go back to what I was doing and feel like, all right, let's just keep pushing through this."
What will creative collaboration look like over the next few decades? Will it be unplanned like the neighborhoods of Montmartre and Greenwich Village? Or will it follow the guided example of Bell Labs and the new models of our own time — coworking environments like WeWork Labs and social tools like Microsoft Teams? The success of both points to a bright future for our generation of thinkers and doers.
Published here on Forbes.com
August 14, 2018