The Work Revolution Summit: Creating a Cure for Doing Work You Hate

9/23/13Follow @jpruth

Brilliant ideas may help entrepreneurs launch startups and grow companies, but at the end of the day the tedium and toils of the job can wear on most anyone. The culture within a business, tiny or huge, can influence the performance potential of its team. So last Friday and Saturday, entrepreneurs, experts in technology, investors in startups, futurists, and others came together in New York to talk about ways to revamp some of the underpinnings of the work environment.

The Work Revolution Summit was co-organized by Julie Clow, head of organization and people development at Two Sigma Investments in New York; Jessica Lawrence, executive director of the New York Tech Meetup; and, coming from Los Angeles, Josh Allan Dykstra, author of “Igniting the Invisible Tribe: Designing An Organization That Doesn’t Suck.”

The structure of work life in the innovation community does not always match the fresh thinking behind the technology, said Lawrence, who has a background in organizational development and change (including at the Girl Scouts prior to joining NYTM). She was a bit surprised when she initially got introduced to the New York startup scene. “I expected to find all of the tech startups were going to build very innovative companies in addition to building innovative products,” she said.

What she found, though, were companies so focused on products that they often held culture in a secondary place. While Ping-Pong tables and kegerator beer dispensers are common symbols of the startup community, Lawrence believes founders can bring more meaningful elements to their company culture.

“Part of the reason we held the summit was to start tackling that issue,” she said. “We focused on startups because they have the most opportunity to do it differently from the beginning.” That could lead to a new generation of companies, she said, that approach work differently. A potential follow-up to the summit, Lawrence said, might be a hands-on workshop with startups to walk them through the process of thinking about the culture within their organizations.

The decision to host the two-day conference in New York, Clow said, was based partly on the city’s growing startup community and also drew upon connections the organizers have in the area. “We have so many people in this particular regional location that we’ve been collaborating with and talking to,” she said.

Co-organizer Julie Clow says the summit evolved from a desire to change company cultures.

Co-organizer Julie Clow says the summit evolved from a desire to change company cultures.

A prime objective for the 48-hour brainstorming event, held at the Centre For Social Innovation on West 26th Street, was to get entrepreneurs and others to share ideas and rethink the foundation of culture they lay for their companies since startups, in particular, have clean slates to adopt new approaches to work.

Between listening to guest speakers, participants at the summit formed teams to address such matters as employee performance appraisals, ways to increase productivity, and coping with working alone.

The group that dealt with performance appraisals, for example, found the usual method for annual reviews was not very timely. “It’s not a good reflection of what you accomplished,” said team member Shawn Murphy, managing director of organizational development at KAI Partners in Sacramento, CA. Getting the process more aligned with an organization’s purpose, he said, can help change that.

His group suggested companies look at the “story,” or objectives, of their organizations with staff members viewed as the cast of characters. This approach may include starting each day with employees talking about their “wins” and goals from the prior day, goals for the current day, and potential obstacles in order to maintain constant communication amongst the staff.

Many of the participants at the summit included people who think about company culture, the future of work, and creating spaces for more meaningful work, said Dykstra. He hopes the conference will help drive change, which may have been a challenge for the organizers to do individually. “To completely reinvent the fabric of work, that’s a fairly large endeavor,” he said.

Going forward, Clow hopes she and her co-organizers can maintain the momentum of new ideas triggered by the summit, though specifics for potential follow-ups have yet to take shape. “We didn’t have a plan coming into this in terms of what we would replicate,” she said. The organizers intend to consider feedback from attendees to sort out any next steps.

The genesis of the summit, Clow said, evolved from the organizers’ shared interest to see change in organizational environments. “All of us are passionate about this,” she said. “We’re lone voices but together we can do something that is a lot more productive.”

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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