Creating safe and engaging workplaces and workspaces

woman maintains cool near a bright wall


A few years ago I was working at a company who had started a digital incubator as a  protected and contained special project,  outside of the large corporate. It was peopled with a team of the brightest and best from within the organisation and I was part of the coaching cohort supporting their incubator with skills and facilitation. It was a privilege to be part of this early experiment for the company; incubators weren’t so common back then. 


The incubator teams were given absolute license to solve customer problems of their choosing and development, to innovate and create new products, utilising diverse ideas and Human Centred Design approaches, it was a vibrant and inspiring place to be. It had an atmosphere of passion, drive and ownership.  There was a push and pull of people un-learning and re-learning new techniques, determined to bring the best of their unique selves to the party. It was at times, giddying to be a part of, but it wasn’t always fun and easy - there was conflict and stress, but despite, or maybe because of that, a positive culture was incubated very quickly. These are the kinds of teams that people enjoy working in.


Having seen another company utilise a ‘learning wall’ in the past,  myself and a few of the coaches decided to set one up for the teams. Our intention was to have a big visible chart of all the new techniques and tools we were helping them get comfortable with, and to track progress with coloured stickers. As coaches we were trying to support them and their ideas and help them move at a frantic pace. I remember kicking off a stand up with “so this is what we call a stand up, and this is what they are for, everyone let's stand up now” there seemed to be no time to stop and learn, it was all do do do, and coaching on the fly.  If I’m totally honest part of my objective was to slow the teams down and get them to learn techniques ‘properly’. 


Our learning wall could not have missed the mark more. The individuals were the brightest and best, young and ambitious, some were close to executive roles, it was all they could stomach to remove their hierarchy and be part of a flat and cross functional incubator, our well intentioned learning wall essentially asked them to expose their level of ignorance to us and each other with a bunch of brightly coloured stickers on a wall. 


One team member told us that every time she looked at the wall she wanted to rip it down. So we told them: "It’s your incubator" and that they could rip it down. 


It was pretty confronting to have your nifty idea (and your trip to office works to purchase multiple packs of coloured stickers) knocked back. As coaches we definitely moped a little bit about our idea being turfed out, and I was embarrassed the afternoon it was taken down, I felt as if I had failed. But it was also such a good demonstration of what it takes to create a physical space that is reflective of the problems and the people in it that are trying to solve them. That is; you can’t construct that on behalf of someone else, it has to come from within. 


The artifacts that worked the best were those that we created together as a result of workshops that we did together. The ones that failed tended to be the ‘good ideas’ plonked down on them from others, things that were considered ‘good medicine’ to take.


When I think about the many workspaces redesigns and fit outs I’ve been around, the majority have been driven by high level executives that hold the budgets. At best there may be a consultation, but usually it’s incumbent upon the worker population to ‘take’ the good medicine of well intentioned management and consultants. We had replicated that exact top down attitude with our enforced learning wall. 


As a coach I learned a valuable lesson about co-designing with teams, and talking options OVER solutions for visualising work and workspaces. 

Envy enducing workspaces


Just like our learning wall had becoming a source of annoyance rather than support, well intentioned workspaces for supporting the pace of teams can miss a target.  A workspace will achieve the best chance of engagement and support if it’s co-designed with bravery, for the workers by the workers. 


Get in touch with Reboot Co. if you want to hear more about creating highly engaged teams!