The conversation about social interaction and building community in the workplace has dominated the landscape recently. Is it why people are coming back to the workplace? Gensler design strategists Amin Mojtahedi and Oliatan Awomolo test that hypothesis and take a look at what people mean by social interaction in the workplace from a Social Network Analysis perspective. And are there more desirable networks of work that can evolve if employees are invited to help build them? This conversation is rich and relevant.
“If we think back to pre-pandemic life, a lot of our sense of community was really tied to space and to being at the same place with people. Having these amenities that promoted a sense of culture and community and helped what an organization is about. But like our team which is a distributed team, we saw that moving post-pandemic in the world of work, geography doesn't really matter as much as it maybe would have before. So, then what do culture and community and learning and all the things that make workplaces special, what does that mean in a post geographic world?”
CCB: [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast. This is your host CCB, and today we're going to have a conversation with one of our 2021 ONEder Grad award winning teams. And it's going to be a resonant conversation for many of us, given the fact that they're talking about hybrid teams. They're going to talk about the research that they did in explaining some enhancements that can be made to hybrid work. And while they're talking about hybrid teams, they're focused on networks of work. And it's going to be a very curious conversation and I think very informative to many of us. The team is from Gensler in San Jose, and I'd like to introduce them right now. So, Amin, tell us a little bit more about yourself.
Amin: [00:00:51] Okay. Got it. Thank you for inviting us CCB. Yeah, I'm Amin, I cut my teeth in design thinking and human centered design at Stanford d.School and IDEO U and currently I'm a senior strategist at Gentler San Jose office. My background is in architecture and design. I got my PhD in architecture about five years ago and my focus at the time was on workplaces, organizational change, and social learning.
CCB: [00:01:41] And OLAITAN, tell us about yourself.
OLAITAN: [00:01:27] Thanks CCB, My name OLAITAN. I am a strategist with Amin in the Seattle office of Gensler, and we are an example of a hybrid team. So, I think our interest in the topic kind of comes from there. As with Amin, I have a background in architecture and have done research in the past on teams working, how teams work and how design teams work and all the interesting things that go with that. So, this project has been an exciting blend of our interests and the things that work here is about. So, we're excited to share it.
CCB: Well, we can't wait to hear more about it. So, I'm going to just open it up and say, explain the title, if you would. Amin, I'm going to start with you and tell us why. Why this?
AMIN: [00:02:24] Yeah, absolutely. So the title, obviously, Networks of Work and that subtitle is Co-creating Hybrid Teams’ Social Dynamics, Collaborative Behavior and Work Culture. And the overall concern here for us was that, I mean, as you might know, the conversation about or the discourse about social interaction and building community in the workplace has dominated the entire landscape during the past couple of years. People are saying, oh, that's the main reason people are coming back to the workplace. We wanted to test that hypothesis and at the same time, take a look at what is it that is really, what is it that people mean by social interactions. And the co-creation side of it, so part of that has to do with networks of work. We started looking at people's social, social relationships and interactions in a workplace from a Social Network Analysis perspective, or organizational network analysis perspective, which kind of helps us to look at these interestingly beautiful networks of how people connect with one another. The part that has to do with co-creation, co-creating hybrid teams and that's in the title too, is looking at how to get to a desired network. So, let's say that we map the current network of how people are interacting. Is there a desired network that we can get to it? And the co-creation part of it has to do with inviting the employees, inviting the folks in the workplace to build that desired network.
OLAITAN: [00:04:13] I wanted to add to, because there's something I'm going to describe that I absolutely love and I think really drove this project, him talking about community. I think if we think back to post-pandemic life let's call it that, a lot of our sense of community was really tied to space and tied to being at the same place with people. Having these amenities that promoted a sense of culture and community and helped, you know, what an organization is about. But like our team as an example, which is a distributed team, we kind of saw moving, moving like post-pandemic, just the world of work, geography doesn't really matter as much as it maybe would have before. So then how do we, what does what does culture and community and learning and all the things that make workplaces special? What does that mean in a post geographic world?
CCB: [00:05:37] OK That has to be my favorite phrase in your work. And I know you might think that's silly when I read the whole the whole report, but it's about the post-geographic work landscape. I mean, it certainly it speaks to everything that you're saying Olaitan, and the nature of community is actually a through pull in all of the ONEder grants this year. I found it very, very curious. And, you know, are we feeling that loss of community or the change in community in such a way that we want to spend more time and understand more about it? Very, very interesting. Anyway, I cut you off, but I wanted to say there's, within the “why” and the goals. Who was the audience that you intended this for?
AMIN: [00:06:13] We kind of were, we were thinking about it, and we thought about it with the amazing mentors that we had at One Workplace, and I got to say that they helped us a lot throughout this journey. We kind of started thinking about, there are four categories of audience that this research will be relevant, relevant to. The first group are folks that are involved in curating, designing spaces for employees. These are the real estate people, facilities department, space design teams. And this type of research helps us to kind of, for them, to go beyond achieving employee satisfaction by accommodating for team productivity and culture in, in different ways. And kind of look at how they create and assign a space as to best serve the needs of teams in addition to individuals. The second group are team leads. I'd say like this type of research helps them to kind of quantitatively and qualitatively and collaboratively frame team communication and connectivity, and kind of include a measurable KPI for evaluating their team success. HR, Chief Innovation Officers, Chief Technology Officers, this type of work help them to direct resources to previously hidden strategic connections in the organization, because this type of research kind of uncovers some of the relationships that are not necessarily vocal but they are there underneath the organization's skin, And eventually employees, this kind of helps employees to take charge and take control of their learning and engagement by understanding their place in the larger organization and also participating in co-creating their desired networks of communication and collaboration.
OLAITAN: [00:08:20] I think in our in our work and our day-to-day work, we engage a lot with employee experience departments in our work as design strategists. And we're I think we're seeing that a lot more in architecture firms. We tend to do a lot, have a lot of conversations with clients on not only how does space improve your employee experience, but how does culture improve your experience as well. or the experience of your employees? So, I think just a natural extension of that was to start maybe the way, the way we were thinking of it was that's our audience. Anyone who is involved or whose role it is to create a safe, inclusive, welcoming and productive environment for their employees would be a recipient of this work.
CCB: OK, so we kind of have the outside of the WHY and the WHO might be the recipients or the beneficiaries of this research. So now how might you start to tell us the how what was the methodology and the process? Which is fascinating. And I'm going to do a caveat here and say the full research report will be available on the One Workplace, ONEder grant website. So, you'll be able to look at this in more detail. And I know it's always tricky to explain process, in some ways, but I'd love you to try.
OLAITAN: I want to, I want to, I don't want to interrupt, and I want to hear Amin describe this. Because I've heard him say several times that this is like, this is like his life. Like, this is the thing he loves to do and loves to talk about. So, I'm excited for him to share it with the world.
CCB: You go, Amin!
AMIN: [00:10:16] You're very kind, Olaitan. I would probably, before specifically talking about the methodology for this approach, I'd like to tell a story about a research project that we did about like seven years ago, and the mindset was the same. We wanted to look at social interaction, social dynamics in a workplace, and we used sociometric badges. I don't know if you're familiar with them, but they look like your cell phone, the size of your cell phone. People wear them around their neck and records people's social interactions. But that research study was interesting in a sense that in addition to employees, we had an interesting participant. One of the employees had a dog. His name was Bear, and Bear also participated in the research voluntarily. So, he wore, we put one of those badges around his neck. And he kind of was walking around the office and greeting people, following people. And after the analysis and looking at everybody's social networks, it was it was interesting that I said, like majority of employees, socio spatial networks look like a dense string ball. However, Bear's network looked like a blossoming flower. And the densest string ball happens because you just go to the people that you know and you interact with those folks and you ask one person ten times different questions. You go to kind of, you have your own team after a while. But Bear, I mean, he didn't know any kind of organizational hierarchy, didn't limit his interactions inside his team, immediate team. He was like, highly mobile in the office. And most importantly, he kept his interactions very short and very sweet. And I got to say like that, that started a conversation about the “bear phenomenon” and what is what our desired networks in office should be.
AMIN: [00:12:25] So when it comes to this study, we started looking at, Hey, it's not enough. We ask ourselves it's not enough to map people's current interactions. Let's ask them, or map people's desired interactions and then have a conversation about how to get from current to desired. Well, obviously, and maybe unfortunately, we couldn't really map people's interactions using sociometric badges because nobody's physically in the office. So, we had to launch the survey for this first phase, and we asked a bunch of questions. Who do you frequently interact with? How often, what are the different roles? And then we ask the same questions and we put people in a mindset of the future and we ask them, hey, in an ideal scenario, how would your interactions change? And we kind of create visualizations from the current scenario, from the desired scenario, and we compared the two for four different teams. And I got to say that we did this for a global technology company and a global design company. We wanted to compare the cross, compare the two, the two at the same time. And again, this was the part one of our research, the part two that is inspired by Participatory Action Research, will be done in the next couple of months. Where people are going to come to, come and take a look at these networks. People who have participated in these studies will take a look at these networks and try to unpack it for us. And talk about it, that what is it that these numbers mean? And add a qualitative layer to all of this and add their own story to the quantitative networks.
OLAITAN: [00:14:13] I think if we, if we take just a tiny step back, the link between or the reason maybe we really hyper focused on interactions and really came from a place of culture organizational culture. Whereas before you could define it as like I don't know, how many Ping-Pong tables you have in an office, you couldn't really do that anymore. Right? Culture isn't dependent on ping pong tables. It's dependent on people. And so, we looked at a bunch of prior research that incredibly smart people have done, not us, and there was a clear link. I think we kind of saw a clear link between the culture of innovative teams or innovative teams having a culture of learning, of learning without hierarchy, learning without politics, just interaction, free flowing interaction and engagement. So, from there, I think our way to measure, for lack of a better word, measure culture came from then ok understanding interactions, but not just hierarchical interactions like Bear. We want to be Bear. We think having that the Bear Phenomenon is what drives innovative teams. So then can we look not just at organizations hierarchies, but also informal and formal modes of engagement and patterns of engagement that sort of emerge?
AMIN: [00:15:55] Yeah. And I got to add to what just Olaitan said in terms of one of the interesting findings from this research, and I know that we're going to get to it later, but I couldn't resist because Olaitan is basically talking about this signature of highly innovative teams versus other. And I would say like the technology company, for example, in this study, their network had a higher range. And range means meaning that they reach out to more people, their teams reach out to more people and higher centrality, which means they do more cross-pollination. And these are both indicative of a work process that relies on outside inspiration as key predictors of innovation. Alternatively, the design company’s network had higher density and interconnectivity among immediate team members, and these are key predictors of efficiency and focus on task delivery. So, so again to, to Olaitan’s point, these different behaviors from a Social Network Analysis, they have different signatures and as soon as you see the network, you can tell that, oh, this company is geared towards more innovation, this one is more efficiency, this one is more about productivity and task delivery, and you can start telling those differences.
CCB: [00:17:15] Well, one of the curious thoughts I had during this, because it is talking about work culture, the research intends to talk about work culture, but it feels like it's a different definition of culture than what we might normally think. Could you speak to that for just a tiny bit?
OLAITAN: [00:17:49} It’s a narrower definition of culture and that I think was intentional for the sake of for measurement’s sake. There's so many intangibles that go into culture. And I think the phase two of this work will get into that, where that's less like, we're not measuring as much, but then we're understanding experience a little bit more. We're hoping to have conversations to then unpack some of these signatures. Amin, you are so poetic the way you describe things, these signatures that sort of came up. It's not our intention to say, like, one is good, and one is bad. That's not at all our intention, but rather to say, hey, here's what's happening. Is this what you think is happening? Is this what you want to be happening? Is there another way you want to be doing things? And yes, so back to the definition of culture. Right now, we've kept it narrow just so it's measurable, but then it'll get more into the experiential parts of culture.
CCB: [00:18:56] And I think you actually, I mean, the report does reference that the nuances from the next phase fill out that picture, all the way across the breadth of the research. So, then if you don't want to talk about any other part of process and I mean, you've defined you've described the survey and the characters that you spoke with or interacted with, and the two dominant organizational, what's the word I want, structures, if you will, from the technology organization and the design organization. So how about if you start to share some of the findings? Because there's the richness of the findings and I'm also going to say, again, there are from a process standpoint, in the report, there are diagrams that really inform some of the definitions that they've been giving us. Amin and Olaitan, so move into findings.
AMIN : [00:19:47] I'll probably just, before focusing on the finding, I'm just going to add a quick another quick historic anecdote and then have Olaitan expand on it. I remember like, previously prior to pandemic, whenever we did similar research and we kind of looked at current network, desired network and across the board, the desired employees desired network is usually denser and it's more interconnected. So, people are asking for more, more social interactions, more cross-pollination. And I remember that when we were analyzing this data, Olaitan called me in the middle of the week and said, hey, I found something really interesting when we were running the numbers and this is not similar to what we've done this before. So, I'm just going, I'm just going to pause here and let Olaitan expand on it. What, what was different? So, building the anticipation.
CCB: [00:20:48] I know this is like a cliffhanger. Come on, Olaitan.
OLAITAN:[00:21:07] So, like, Amin was saying, like previously when this sort of work has been done, just consistently a desired network is always great. People want to be more like Bear right? You want to have more engagement. It's more like free flowing, everyone talking to everyone. And this time it was different. It was, that was not the case. That was not the case at all. It seemed like what we were seeing was that the current networks have expanded it a bit, even though like in the design case, they are a little bit more constrained. But then in both, in both contexts, the desired network was smaller. It wasn't as expansive, wasn't as, everyone, everyone doesn't really want to be talking to everyone right now. And I think that that was, a couple of things make that just completely fascinating. One, I mean, we think of the time and the way we spend working right now, and I think that's where the nuance will add, will kind of give a lot more color to that,,, It's just we've been working in just like hyper engaged, hyper just always on for two years. And I think people are starting to get tired of that. That's at least like our, we're speculating on that, I think it will be, I’m just completely, completely fascinated, completely. I can't imagine what the reasons for that would be. Or I guess I am imagining, but it'll be great to hear what people are saying, the reasons for that will be. But the other thing is a second point that I've now forgotten, just blanked.
CCB: [00:23:03] You can come back to it. It probably will come back to you because you're talking about, you’re talking, this was observations around the around the process. However, you're in the findings. So, you're synthesizing, you're looking at and making your observations along with the data.
OLAITAN: [00:23:21] Right. And we're not seeing, we're seeing something completely right, we're seeing something completely different from what we sort of confidently were expecting to see. And I think it points to maybe, I think as a researcher you always want to critique your own work. It points to maybe a slightly narrower definition of culture and interactions that we were then measuring because, you know, then maybe, maybe interactions aren't the only, aren't the strongest measure or the only measure, or maybe there's a different way people are thinking about culture now that we're working in this new, we're in this new experimental world where everything is completely different.
CCB: [00:24:11] Yeah, I was going to say I would make an observation that I have heard on numerous occasions, that this interaction in the distant world of Zoom and… is broader because of the amount of people. But it's not deeper. It's more shallow, it appears it has the appearance of, the façade of ” I know your house and I know your dog, but I don't know.” It's not the same kind of … and I've heard that more than five times anyway.
OLAITAN: [00:24:46] Right. So yeah, we're, that's, that's something we're definitely excited to look into more and to just get, get some rich, rich information around that. A lot of our other findings sort of were organized as like comparisons. So, we thought this technology team, we saw this in the design team and there I think for four other kinds of broad categories, shifting things around. Cross-pollination, cohesion, decision making. Amin, do you want to dive into some of those?
AMIN: [00:25:06] Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And I’ve got to, I wanted to add first to what you said CCB, in terms of the depth of the network versus the depth of the relationship versus the group, its growth horizontally, perhaps. And I have to say that that’s what makes the second part of this research really important. Because we sometimes look at these networks and you see what we describe in the vocabulary that we use, this this stronger tie. So, you see this really thick link between two actors or between two, two nodes, but that doesn't mean anything. This means just the frequency of interactions. It doesn't talk about the depth or the meaning behind the interaction, how meaningful,
CCB: [00:25:50] Quality, right?
AMIN: [00:25:53] Yeah, exactly. The quality of the interaction. So that's what makes the second part of this research really, really important, to really dig deeper into what looks like a weak tie versus what looks like a strong tie to get it. So maybe the weak tie is making more impact than the than the stronger tie. The second thing that comes to my mind is, again, we wanted to emphasize that this is relatively a small sample. It's like 50 people across two organizations and four teams. And we can't really pass, we're not passing judgment on any of this. I mean, it's a perspective or it's a shift in perspective and a start, perhaps challenging the dominant narrative of everybody missing social interactions. Everybody is missing like the workplace, because it was all about community building, community building, social interactions. And the thing that, and so the research is more about a proof of concept for a methodology or a kind of way of looking at these social interactions as opposed to kind of just launching surveys and asking folks, what is it that you miss about the workplace? The third thing that I wanted to add was that we kind of, the terminology that we started using for these for the desired network is more lean, is leaner network as opposed to like a smaller. Because when you look at people's interactions in the desired network, the way that they describe it, it seems like they're not necessarily want to reduce their ties or the weight of their ties.
AMIN: [00:27:35] And weight is like the strength of their tie, but they prefer to redistribute them. So, not increase them but redistribute them. They want to form new ties. They want to do, certain ties in in the desired networks have disappeared, that have been in the current network has disappeared and reappeared in a design where they want to shift the weight of certain ties from one actor or one peer to another peer in a desired scenario. So those are some of the changes, in addition to the innovation versus efficiency signature that we assign a technology company versus the design company. And I guess like another interesting thing that came up was who the decision makers are in each of these teams. Again, in the technology company, the networks really relied on a few key actors with a higher degree. And a degree is like how many people they reach out. And these key actors connect and coordinate with each other frequently and then reach out to other. In the design company however, decision making happened in larger meetings where most actors were present. And it was, I would say, in a in a way it was more consensual and more democratic, which could be the nature of design work.
CCB: [00:28:56] The nature of the business, I was going to say, and the output because when you think about it, and something else that I was, that made me stop and think. We don't think of design practices as not being, as being not innovative. You know, there is a lot of these things taking place. But it is it does feel like the whole design process is much more collaborative as compared to the technology. And again, not a weighted good/bad. It just that feels more focused more. Yeah. Anyway
OLAITAN [00:29:47] I think one there's so many, there's so many you keep going down and down, and there's so many granular nuggets of information that come out from it. But I think one of the, the big headlight things for me would be that like when we talk about culture and collaboration, we talk about like, we have to be more collaborative. I can hear that; much more collaborative we have to interact more and things like that. And it's, it's such a such a small shift. But it's what comes to me is like, oh, it's, it's not about that. It's not about that. It's about we're missing the quality of interactions. We're missing the impact of our collaboration. And, and if there's ways we can hone in on that and like oh.
CCB [00:30:43] Yeah, the word intention comes to mind to me and nd what's the intentionality behind any of these activities anyway? Wow, wow. I mean, literally, this conversation could go on forever. And you have, you know, you've already referenced kind of next steps and what's going on. I'm curious what what's your vision for the use of this or the life of this particular study and information.
OLAITAN: [00:31:18]All you Amin, I mean, this is this is where you get to shine. Come on, take us home.
AMIN: [00:31:11] Not really. Can you maybe rephrase that question or like say it differently?
CCB: [00:31:18] Sure. It's here's a body of research and this is phase one and then there'll be phase two. But you're generating information and you're generating knowledge and you're generating data. What do you hope comes out of this?
OLAITAN [00:31:45 In the short term, I think we want to really build an awareness of this approach, of like creating these diagrams of Social Network Analysis, of Participatory Action Research. We want people who whose work involves creating worlds for other people, for everyone else to. just be aware that, hey, there's this tool that's not too technical and can be pretty visual, And you can use it to sort of not only understand how things are working, but also this idea of co-creation to together with the people you are working with, the people you are working for, you can build a better future or a better experience. I think that's a short-term goal. And in the long term, I think we'd want to, this is like a big dream we'd want to maybe see, it would be great if this work and the work that comes after it, we start to really dial in on what we mean by organizational culture. What do you mean by culture? What is the culture we're trying to create in a hybrid world where there's no more no more boundaries? What is culture and how do we create it?
AMIN: [00:33:14] Yeah, yeah. I love that. And I would say yes, revisiting some of some of these words that we use all the time, like culture, social interaction, collaboration.
OLAITAN: [00:33:40] Collaboration.
AMIN: [00:33:43] Yeah. I mean, what is what do they mean exactly? What do they really mean? And is there a way to kind of look at it quantitatively is one way of obviously looking at it. But definitely, I mean, this approach brings stories, brings kind of, unpacks it in in more nuanced ways. And I got to add, that part of it is just generating this data, this type of work that is like qualitative, quantitative. But at the end of the day, the artifacts that are being generated are these networks, thry are just excuses for engaging the employees and for them to take control of their, of their social work life. To kind of bring them to show them what this is, and we've done it multiple times, the moment that they start looking at like beyond numbers, because when you take a survey, your user, sociometric badges and all of that, they're just like giving your numbers, hey, I want to talk to this person like four times a day. But when they start looking at the network, they'll see all those dead ends in there. And in the graphs, they start seeing the stars and the constellations and all of that. And constellations traditionally, I mean, they come with the stories, right? So, they start looking at these constellations, start telling us stories, and they gradually they take control of the of the narrative. And they in a way, they become the owners of their social work life and think about how to build new rituals, how to build new ways of connecting, so that they can get to their, to the desired, desired scenario. So, it's more, I would say, like for Olaitan and I, it's a Trojan horse of giving more power to employees and giving more power to folks that are kind of are the greatest assets for these organizations.
CCB: [00:35:41] That's pretty well said. And that's very broad in your desire. Well, I mean, it's like world changing. And the thing that keeps sitting in my head is change, and that it will continue. And so, I think you both have long, rich careers ahead of you thinking about the change that's consistent, that is just natural. And this external factor of the pandemic created this kind of, and who knows what the next factor is that shifts the way that we all come together. So, I think, wow, good for you. Thank you so much for sharing. We're right at the end of our time. So, I am just going to say, Amin and Olaitan, thank you so very much for sharing your research on Networks of Work and all of this information. As I said earlier, it willl be available on the ONEder Grant website and thanks to all of our listeners. All of our streaming services will capture the ONEder podcast and we will look forward to talking to you again soon. Thank you very much. Bye bye.
Amin: [00:36:53] All right, thank you and bye.