Before I delve into Chicago Ideas Week, allow me to digress into a brief anecdote: I’ve been feeling under the weather the past few days. It’s nothing the chicken-noodle-soup treatment can’t handle. But being sick doesn’t stop the rest of the world from turning, so I had to find a way to tell my employees to work from home instead of coming into the office.
Fortunately, I have about a million separate mechanisms I can use to inform my employees about the schedule change: email, text, Facebook messages, tweets… and if I want to be old school, I can even call them. Heck, it wasn’t long ago that working from home was impossible, and computers were magical, clunky boxes of luxury.
Which brings me to Chicago Ideas Week. CIW is all about the sharing of ideas that could potentially change the world: some on levels so subliminal that they’re completely unexpected, and others broad enough to impact dozens of facets of everyday life. Its speakers aren’t just looking towards next year, but to a thousand different futures that could result from the success of a product. Today’s businesses complain about how hard it is to plan for the next step when the future seems so fluid and abstract, but like nature, companies have always had to adapt to their environment to stay alive and relevant. This is nowhere truer than CIW, where adaptability is king, and stubbornness to change leads to stagnation. From attending CIW, I discovered two reemerging themes: the adaptability of workplaces, and companies’ adaptability to societal needs.
The work world of today is a stark contrast from the world of 1989: just ask Microsoft chief people officer Lisa Brummell. In her CIW presentation, Brummell noted that the idea of “work” was different in 1989, when people were tethered to bulky phones and computers they couldn’t take home. Now, 50,000 of Microsoft's 90,000 employees spend some time working at home. And as working opportunities have opened up, so have the working environments themselves: Microsoft’s campus doesn’t have many walls to quarantine coworkers from each other these days, and the company uses social media to connect and talk with its employees.
Microsoft may have torn down a few walls, but if you want an example of really remolding a workplace, look no further than Jason Fried’s 37signals. 37signals no longer has an office: It has a “library environment,” where employees work in peace and quiet. According to Fried, traditional offices are “interruption factories” where employees are too easily sidetracked. To that end, Fried has implemented a four-day workweek so employees are motivated to get their work done faster. Even better, Fried reports that his employees are happier with the three-day break, resulting in both increased efficiency and employee satisfaction for 37signals.
However, Fried admits that 37signals’ strategy doesn’t apply to every company, and if 37signals is a library, my workplace is a club. We regularly play Top 40 music around the office to boost morale and keep things casual. But before you cringe at the thought of hearing the latest radio earworm at work every day, just know that we’re democratic about the music selection process: Employees vote on what songs will be played next, thanks to the Spotify app Soundrop. The idea behind this is that conversations about music preferences will lead to other topics and spur creativity. For the most part, the idea is proven true, even if it means weathering the occasional heated argument about the edible merits of Lady Gaga’s meat dress over Katy Perry’s whipped-cream cannons. But my business knows that as that technologies change and companies become more casual through social media, it only makes sense for a digital marketing company to adapt its workspace to a broader casual context.
It’s not just the work environments that are changing, either: It’s also the employees themselves. Companies are adapting to new ways that can utilize previously unused segments of the workforce. Randy Lewis, Walgreens’ senior vice president of supply chain and logistics, has spearheaded a program to hire more people with mental disabilities. Not only have these new employees changed the company’s ethics for the better, but the new recruits have better job retention and work just as hard as their counterparts. Now, more than 1,000 people with disabilities work in Walgreens’ warehouses, with a goal to bring that number up to 2,000. “It was hard just to decide to do it, rather than doing it,” Lewis said, “We were clinging to status quo.”
Ah, yes, the evil “status quo,” the boogeyman that lurks under the bed of so many businesses and inhibits their decisions. Far too many companies are afraid to adapt to new circumstances out of a devotion to the old status quo, and even fewer are willing to fund new ideas. The businesses that do start new projects often pull the plug before they can fully develop, like a baseball skipper demoting a promising rookie to the bench just as he’s starting to find his swing. As former America Online CEO and Chairman Steve Case pointed out in his presentation, “an overnight success can take 20 years.”
Lewis's plan shows a company willing to adapt to societal circumstances, rather than just economic ones. Indeed, what better way for a company to acknowledge its success than to contribute back to a larger human endeavor? Such is the case with Luis Von Ahn, who cofounded reCAPTCHA. If you’ve ever translated that weird, distorted text to prove that you are, in fact, a human being, then you’ve experienced CAPTCHA firsthand. What you probably don’t know is that you also helped digitize a book in the process. Ahn found a way to incorporate the digitization of past New York Times issues and Google Books into the CAPTCHA process. Now, one of the two words in the CAPTCHA process is a word the user translates for digitization, although the user never knows which one (sorry, trolls). Ahn’s efforts are a perfect example of using your company to contribute to a greater societal need, with little impact to your service or your bottom line.
On the whole, CIW reminds us that change is inevitable, and companies that fail to heed the call of adaptation are asking to be rendered irrelevant. So whether it’s using pre-existing technology to create a digital library, or using technology to quickly spread the word about a sick day, make sure your company is doing what it can to change with the times.
[Image: Flickr user Bill G. ]