Designing The Future Workplace

Last week’s blog was about reshaping the Future of Work. From both the feedback I have received, and the recent work I have been doing with Re-Imagi, what really comes across is the opportunity to move the dialogue of “work” from “employer and employee” (transactional) to “co-contributors” (relationship). In an ideal world, companies contribute resources (capital, structure, equipment, tools, opportunities, projects, compliance, risk management), and individuals contribute resources (hard and soft skills, experience, knowledge, contacts, ideas, time, relationships, networks, creativity, thinking). If this is this the new Social Contract, what is the best environment to foster this collaborative approach?

Image: “MDI Siemens Cube farm” (Photo sourced from Flickr)

Many recent articles on the Future of Work and the Future Workplace have identified key social, organisational and architectural issues to be addressed:

  1. On-boarding, engaging and “nurturing” new employees
  2. Trust in the workplace
  3. The workplace structure and layout
  4. The physical and built environment
  5. Design and sustainability

Underpinning these changes are technology (e.g., cloud, mobile and social tools which support BYOD, collaboration and remote working), and the gig economy (epitomised by the tribe of digital nomads). Together, these trends are redefining where we work, how we work, what work we do and for which organisations. (For an intriguing and lively discussion on collaborative technology, check out this thread on LinkedIn started by Annalie Killian.)

Having experienced a wide range of working environments (cube farm, open plan, serviced office, hot-desking, small business park, corporate HQ, home office, public libraries, shared offices, internet cafes, co-working spaces, WiFi hot spots, remote working and tele-commuting), I don’t believe there is a perfect solution nor an ideal workplace – we each need different space and facilities at different times – so flexibility and access as well as resources are probably the critical factors.

The fashion for hot-desking, combined with flexible working hours, is having some unforeseen or undesired outcomes, based on examples from clients and colleagues I work with:

First, where hot-desking is being used to deal with limited office space, some employees are being “forced” into working from home or telecommuting a certain number of days each month – which can be challenging to manage when teams may need to get together in person.

Second, employees are self-organising into “quiet” and “noisy” areas based on their individual preferences. While that sounds fine because it means employees are taking some responsibility for their own working environment, it can be counter-productive to fostering collaboration, building cross-functional co-operation and developing team diversity. (One company I worked for liked to change the office floor plan and seating arrangements as often as they changed the org chart – which was at least 3 or 4 times a year – it was something to do with not letting stagnation set in.)

Third, other bad practices are emerging: rather like spreading out coats to “save” seats at the cinema, or using your beach towel to “reserve” a recliner by the hotel pool while you go and have breakfast, some employees are making a land grab for their preferred desk with post-it notes and other claims to exclusive use. Worse, some teams are using dubious project activity as an excuse to commandeer meeting rooms and other common/shared spaces on a permanent basis.

Another trend is for co-working spaces, linked to both the gig economy and the start-up ecosystem, but also a choice for a growing number of small businesses, independent consultants and self-employed professionals. In Melbourne, for example, in just a few years the number of co-working spaces has grown from a handful, to around 70. Not all co-working spaces are equal, and some are serviced offices in disguise, and some are closely linked to startup accelerators and incubators. And some, like WeWork, aspire to be global brands, with a volume-based membership model.

But the co-working model is clearly providing a solution and can act as a catalyst for other types of collaboration (although some co-working spaces can be a bit like New York condos, where the other tenants may get to approve your application for membership).

Given the vast number of road and rail commuters who are on their mobile devices to and from work, I sometimes think that the largest co-working spaces in Melbourne are either Punt Road or the Frankston line in rush hour….

Next week: Personal data and digital identity – whose ID is it anyway?



More on #FinTech, #Bitcoin and #Blockchain in Melbourne

The Melbourne FinTech community brought together a bunch of interested parties recently to find out what’s happening locally in Bitcoin and Blockchain. Organised by the Melbourne Bitcoin, FinTech and Silicon Beach Meetups, and hosted by the Melbourne Bitcoin Technology Centre (MBTC), the evening was part open house, part info sharing, and part pitch night.

BitcoinThe MBTC is now a recognised hub for Bitcoin and Blockchain activities, and currently hosts around a dozen startups within its co-working space. Offering a “full service” facility (it even has a Bitcoin miner on site), complete with staffed reception, meeting rooms, event space, a pod cast studio and an outdoor barbecue area, it’s something of a hidden gem in Melbourne’s Southbank. Regulars also get to attend Bitcoin “swap meets”…..

Last week’s event also featured a number of micro-pitches from Bitcoin and Blockchain startups, a few of the MBTC staff and tenants, and a couple of student projects from RMIT.

Given this was almost “speed pitching“, it’s probably not appropriate to go into too much detail:

  • Toodles – a dating app on a decentralized network, using a Blockchain solution for additional security and privacy
  • Blockfreight – the Blockchain for global freight, enabling cargo containers to be shipped around the world with minimal legacy documentation, based on smart contracts, RFID and Blockfreight tokens
  • blockTRAIN – a training provider and consultancy on Blockchain, smart contracts and digital currencies
  • Bitcoin Buskers v2 – sort of MySpace/Bandcamp/SoundCloud for Buskers, to promote their merchandise and to secure international festival bookings, all powered by Bitcoin
  • ACX – Australian Crypto Exchange, offering the largest single Bitcoin order book in Australia
  • Bitcoin Group – explaining that most Bitcoin mining is currently done in China due to cheaper electricity
  • Antstand – portable laptop stand (which you can buy with Bitcoin!)
  • Think Bitcoin – providing consulting and education services, particularly in schools
  • Lyra – an app to track and reduce your personal environmental impact, sort of Fitbit and Smart Meter combined
  • ImagineNation – innovation consultancy, backed by training and coaching, and featuring a 2-day startup game to help organisations transform cultural mindsets around agile, lean, design thinking, UX and incubator/accelerator concepts
  • Brave New Coin – the “Bloomberg for Bitcoin”, providing market data (prices, rates, indices, news) for Bitcoin and other digital currencies*

With the next Bitcoin halving due soon, and a significant uptick in FinTech, Blockchain and Digital Asset investments announced during Q2, this sector is going to look very interesting for some time to come, and it’s good to know that Melbourne, whose fortunes were founded on gold, is staking a claim in these new asset classes.

* Declaration of Interest: I have recently joined the team at Brave New Coin as Head of Business Development – more news to follow….

Next week: University Challenge – Startup Victoria’s Student Pitch Night

A Tale of Two #FinTech Cities – Melbourne vs. Sydney….

Inter-city rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney is nothing new. The fact that neither city is the national capital only adds to the frisson. The usual debates as to which is the better for sport, culture, beaches, food, weather, property prices, live music, public transport and coffee normally mean Melbourne edges out Sydney in most categories. (But then, I’m probably biased – however, having lived and worked in both, I think I am reasonably objective.)*

When it comes to startups, and FinTech in particular, the debate is beginning to hot up. At a recent FinTech Melbourne Meetup the topic was “is there room for both?”. The speakers, Toby Heap for Sydney, and Stuart Richardson for Melbourne, remained tactful and diplomatic, as it’s not really appropriate to talk about which is better – more a case of choosing “which is the right location for your own particular FinTech”. So, the debate avoided mere point-scoring, and tried to establish some commonalities, as well as provide some considered views on the benefits inherent within the key differences.

Both cities have a growing reputation for startup success, built on some core foundations: groups of angel investors and VC funds with an increasing FinTech focus; several accelerator programs, incubators and co-working spaces; and a community of founders and aspiring tech entrepreneurs.

From an industry perspective, two of the four Pillar Banks are headquartered in Sydney, and two in Melbourne. More insurers have their HQ’s in Sydney compared to Melbourne (apart from health insurance, where Melbourne hosts the largest market providers), while Tier 2 and regional banks (by their very nature) are more likely to be located outside either city (not including wholly owned brands of the Big 4).

As for pension funds and asset management, particularly in relation to Australia’s superannuation sector, Melbourne is clearly the bigger player, particularly for the largest industry funds (based on their historical links to the trade union movement). In addition, Melbourne is home to some substantial family offices, as well as specialist asset managers, including overseas firms. After all, Melbourne’s establishment wealth comes from the nineteenth century gold boom.

When it comes to markets, Sydney wins out by virtue of housing the main equities exchange, as well as being a hub for futures, fixed income and forex. Sydney also hosts more investment banks, including local branches of foreign players.

In some respects, the differences can be likened to the market roles and dynamics of London vs Edinburgh, New York vs Boston, Frankfurt vs Munich, or even Hong Kong vs Singapore, for example.

For me, however, the key distinction between Sydney and Melbourne can be summarised as: “Sydney trades, Melbourne invests”.

* Note: Content in Context is taking a well-deserved break. Starting this week, the next few posts will feature some brief blogs on different aspects of FinTech. Normal service will be resumed in early November

Next week: do we need a #FinTech safe harbour?

Who needs banks? My experience of “We R One World”

This past weekend, I participated in the “We R One World” game hosted by Carolyn Tate on behalf of the Slow School of Business, and facilitated by Ron Laurie from MetaIntegral. The game is an immersive learning experience in the form of a simulated global strategy workshop, based on the work of Buckminster Fuller. I joined a team whose role was to represent the interests of the commercial banks. It was a rather sobering experience, because as the workshop unfolded, it soon became clear that in the context of the game the banks were almost redundant – which partly reflects what is going on in the real world, as banks face increased disintermediation and disruption by FinTech, crowdfunding and the shared economy.

The Fuller Projection or Dymaxion Map

The Fuller Projection or Dymaxion Map

The Premise – Earth as Spaceship

Without going into too much detail, “We R One World” mimics elements of the board games “Risk” and “Monopoly”, and takes the form of a narrative-based hackathon, combined with a meetup and an unconference. Played out on a floor-size version of the dymaxion map, the game also draws on Fuller’s concept that the Earth is a spaceship, of which the players are the crew, and the “fuel” is the inventory of global resources at the crew’s disposal, including people, technology, capital, food, energy, munitions, water, etc. The participants form teams to represent various geo-political regions, supranational NGOs, multinational corporations and banks. The goal is to achieve (through trade negotiations), the best socio-economic outcomes for everyone, with a few surprises along the way!

There is a lot of information to absorb, as well as the structure of the game. One challenge for the players is to not get hung up on the presented “data” (which is more representative, rather than precisely factual). Even though we live with access to real-time, on-line statistics and research, and despite the Internet and search engines, in real life we still experience considerable information asymmetry.

The Prelude – We Are Star Dust

As a prelude, we were shown the documentary “The Overview Effect”, which includes the comment by former Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell that we are made of star dust (a now common concept echoed in various songs such as Moby’s “We Are All Made of Stars” or Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, depending on your musical taste/cultural perspective).

It was also a timely connection, given the increased media coverage of space exploration, and Hollywood’s renewed interest in space travel. The recurring theme (in reality as much as in fiction) is that human survival will depend on relocating to, or harnessing other planets.

As examples, in the real world, we have the latest discovery of an Earth-like planet, tweets from Philae on a frozen comet, and the remarkable images from Pluto. While the entertainment world is enjoying critical and popular success with films such as “Moon”, “Gravity”, “Elysium” and “Interstellar” (plus the forthcoming “The Martian”). Even veteran Sci-Fi writer Brain Aldiss has bowed out with his final space novel, “The Finches of Mars”.

The Banks – Increasingly dispensable

But back to the game, and what we might conclude from the outcomes.

From the start, in the role of the banks we had a strategy for encouraging “good” behaviour, and punishing the “bad”. We had a catalogue of regional problems, and a set of possible solutions. “Good” behaviour was predicated on regions finding creating solutions to their problems, based on partnering, prioritization, planning and promotion. “Bad” behaviour might include late or failed interest repayments, misuse of funds (e.g., deploying more military hardware ahead of feeding their population), or actions that led to worsening conditions (increased poverty, hunger and illiteracy, or depleted natural resources).

At the outset, the banks’ role was to manage existing loans (by collecting interest due), and to originate new loans for development and commercial projects. In the initial stages, despite Japan’s attempt to renegotiate its existing repayment terms on the fly, the commercial banks managed to collect all interest due, on time and in full (with a small surplus, thanks to some regions’ lax monetary management). One region paid up without much prompting, cheerfully (or ironically?) commenting that “we must keep the banks happy!”.

However, as the game progressed, the banks were basically ignored, as regions switched their focus to responding to new circumstances, such that the consequences of not servicing their debts seemed irrelevant. Even the risk/threat of bankruptcy did not carry much persuasion, as regions were more willing to find new ways to trade with each other, less reliant on bank capital, and more focussed on alternative value exchanges (part of the game’s secret sauce).

For example, we received only two loan applications throughout the game: one was for a worthy but ambitious development project, but when asked to resubmit the request with some further information, the loan did not materialise; and the other was more in the way of a short-term deposit with the bank, to generate interest income to buy food. Given that deposit rates are low, our response was to suggest using the capital (with additional bank funding) to increase food production, but our offer was declined, maybe because of the need to trade out of a short-term food shortage rather than investing in long-term supply.

Towards the end, the banks were almost mere spectators in the game, and were reduced to protecting their self-interests: namely their capital, and their stalled/stagnant loan assets. If borrowers don’t want the banks’ money, where and what will the banks invest in order to generate depositor, investor and shareholder returns? As one regional participant commented, “we are all bank shareholders”. Just as in real life, we deposit money with the banks, we invest in their financial products (especially through our superannuation and pension funds), and we may even buy their shares and bonds. And of course, following the GFC, many taxpayers found themselves indirect shareholders of banks that were bailed out by their respective governments.

The Conclusion – An alternative approach?

I’m not going to give the game away (you can experience it for yourself in September) but the conclusion and outcome reinforce the view that in order to tackle the world’s problems, we all have to take a different perspective – whether that is challenging existing structures, subverting traditional business models, or questioning our personal motives and objectives. For myself, I recognise that this means an increased awareness of “living lean” (mostly around personal preferences and lifestyle choices), and (multi-)lateral thinking.

For institutions like banks (as well as governments, corporations and NGOs) this alternative approach means re-assessing their roles and contribution (which can also be framed as re-connecting with their “purpose”), remodelling their processes and systems, and redefining the measures of their success. As my team member concluded, “the other players only see the banks as a source of capital, rather than a resource for knowledge, expertise and networks”.


Declaration of interest: I participated in the game at the kind invitation of the Slow School of Business.

Next week: “I’m old, not obsolete”