OCSI and the Democratic Workplace

Graham Lally 

Back in 1927, Elton Mayo conducted a five-year experiment looking at productivity of six workers assembling telephone equipment. Adjusting various factors such as tea breaks and working hours changed the group’s productivity – but not in a predictable way. Mayo concluded that recognition, being listened to, and belonging to a group were key to a happy – and productive – team.

Almost 90 years later, this realisation is still being re-discovered across the world on a daily basis, helped along by an ever-growing suite of tools for groups, networks, and supposedly-seamless collaboration.

So we were thrilled when Tom Nixon (@tomnixon), ambassador for WorldBlu and co-founder of NixonMcInnes, and Max St John (@maxwellstjohn), also of NixonMcInnes, turned up at the office to tell us about the “Democratic Workplace” and decision-making from the ground up. Over a long lunch, we heard about everything from the list of 10 principles of organisational democracy put together by Worldblu, to the story of a cardboard box factory that used openness, collaboration and voting to overhaul itself.

Being built on Open Data and a large amount of Open Source tools, we loved the idea of also having open, participative processes in the workplace. Feeling suitably inspired and enthusiastic, and looking for something suitable – challenging, but not too challenging – we settled on the long-overdue office re-organisation as something we could get our open teeth into.

Getting started

Charles F. Kettering noted that “If you want to kill any idea in the world today, get a committee working on it.” So naturally, the first thing we did was to form a committee – or a group on our internal Yammer, anyway.

Importantly, this wasn’t a “formal” group with any real power, but more a way to find out who was interested and had time to help, and then to swap ideas and updates as the process went on. We didn’t want to bog everyone down with every decision, but did want to make everything as open as possible. A Yammer group seemed to work as interested people could subscribe, and everyone else could look in on the discussion if needed.

To kick things off, we had an initial brainstorming session to find out what ideas people had, and what they really wanted to change. This gave us a list we could prioritise, and sift into a smaller list of things to focus on first – starting with the obvious: what should go where in the office (and more importantly, who should go where). But it was also helpful to have some smaller, more fun decisions to balance it out.

People Power

So far, so good. But we hadn’t actually done anything yet – just worked out what was needed. The next stage involved seeing who was interested in taking on responsibility for what – and assigning it randomly if nobody was.

As the process went on, we found the easiest way to get group feedback was actually to piggy-back off our normal, daily communication rituals, rather than set up new meeting times or mailing lists. A quick summary, and request for help, at the end of our daily meeting made it quicker to negotiate responsibilities, gather ideas, and see who else was free to assist.

Importantly, it also meant “the committee” wasn’t considered separate, and anyone knew who to throw an idea at if one came up later on. Once or twice we even just decided to go from the daily meeting into an activity that was easier once everyone had stopped working – like moving desks around, or hanging up massive maps.

Other smaller tasks seemed to happen spontaneously when people had some spare moments – measuring desks, clearing out old reports, and so on. We even ended up with a 3D model of the office (not the final layout) using MyDeco’s room planner:

Building Momentum

After a few weeks of sketches, meetings, lists and measuring tape, we had a new office. Or new desk neighbours, and less paperwork at least – it turns out that democracy is an ongoing process rather than a one-off exercise.

So with most of the hard work done, we’re looking for ways to keep the momentum going. There are still corners that need tidying, printers to recycle, pictures to hang on the wall.

Keeping the conversation alive is just as important as planning and doing the work – it means things don’t just get forgotten when “normal” work gets busy, and that people are open to coming up with fresh ideas, and putting them into practice, without organising another meeting. We’ve started a Suggestions box, and continue to use the Yammer group to feed discussion at the pub.

It may be coincidence, but a lot of the principles of openness seem to dovetail with the Manifesto for Agile Development – namely collaboration, transparency and empowerment of the team to make decisions, all as a way to get things done better. We’re looking forward to finding out how an open approach to shuffling the office around will feed into everyday, client-facing work. And to clearing out some printers.

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