A tiny 100 sq. ft workplace, situated in one of Europe’s most beautiful buildings, has caught my attention for many reasons. It is the office of Lynda Gratton and her cutting-edge research company, the Hot Spots Movement, located in Somerset House, a landmark property on London’s historic Strand avenue.
Gratton is a management academic and a writer, and her company, the Hot Spots Movement, offers an unusual blend of research and consulting. She is the CEO of what I call a “global micro-enterprise”—a small company (Hot Spots has less than 10 employees) which is indisputably global in the scope of its operations. I am keen to understand whether the CEO of such a company employs entirely different work practices from her counterparts in larger organizations.
Common ground: Lynda Gratton prefers to have discussions with colleagues at the centrally placed table in her office .Photographs by Bhaskar Dasgupta
Perhaps even more importantly, I am visiting the compact workplace because it holds the key to a subject that affects all of us—the future of work.
This is the subject of Gratton’s latest book, The Shift: The Future of Work Is Already Here, and the current research endeavour of the Hot Spots Movement. The Shift examines ways in which knowledge-based work will change in the coming decade, and offers individuals advice on future-proofing themselves and their careers. The author’s personal work style, and her office space, bring some of her ideas to life.
Historic building, futuristic enterprise
Somerset House is the “world’s first civil services office block”, says Mark Hislop, commercial director of the property. It was built in 1780 to house several departments of the British government, which continued to occupy it for nearly 200 years. Over the last decade, a prescient government decided to leverage its central London location and impressive architecture, and transformed it into a cultural and creative hub. This change of purpose resulted in leasing some existing office space to small companies with sizeable intellectual capital.
Grandiose: Over the last decade, Somerset House has been transformed into a cultural and creative hub
The Hot Spots office is basic in form, yet efficient in function. Six chairs and desks are placed against its white walls. A rectangular, centrally placed table with hinged flaps doubles as a meeting table. Large Mac desktops dominate the desks, and enable recurring Skype conversations between team members (one of whom is based in Singapore). An old-fashioned blackboard records names and travel dates.
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Gratton herself has an assigned desk, which is the same as everyone else’s, although she says she “never works off it”, and prefers having discussions over the meeting table, or reviewing work with colleagues on their computers, whenever she’s in the office.
Where the office differs from most other corporate offices is the heritage facility’s many shared spaces. Gratton can brainstorm with colleagues and visitors in a collegiate common room at the end of the corridor (where we have our conversation), or at the riverside terrace or the benches in the sprawling, statue-filled courtyard. The spaces are beautiful and inspiring, far removed from most corporate settings, a deliberate choice by Gratton. “We chose them...offices can take the life out of you,” she states, “but the physical environment is really conducive to the quality of work.”
The choice of location is also strategic. Somerset House’s other tenants are all highly innovative micro-enterprises, straddling public policy think tanks, media and design companies. Common spaces and an open-door policy encourage idea osmosis between companies, essential for any intellectually driven enterprise. “We’re beginning to understand that people learn from each other because they bump into each other in physical space,” explains Gratton. The small, cellular nature of the offices in Somerset House works “brilliantly” for such specialized micro-enterprises such as Hot Spots, explains Hislop. Gratton agrees that the work atmosphere would have been entirely different in “some horrible serviced office, somewhere else”.
Location and setting are clearly critical to the success of Gratton’s global micro-enterprise. In India, such settings exist for large technology companies (software parks), as well as some small and medium enterprises (many converted industrial units, for example). However, a government-backed “creative quarter”, designed specifically to ignite innovation, an essential element of economic competitiveness, is missing.
The future of work
A few traits define Gratton’s work style, and are reflected in her workplaces. Foremost among these is the emphasis on flexibility. Gratton is an archetype “portfolio careerist”; she is a writer and researcher, a full-time professor at the London Business School, a highly sought-after motivational speaker and a small-business owner.
Her multiple workplaces reflect her many avatars. Apart from the Somerset House lease, she has a dedicated office at the business school in Regent’s Park. She writes from her home, in nearby Primrose Hill, as well as her weekend home in Sitges, a seaside resort an hour away from Barcelona. “I need complete silence when I write”, she declares.
Although her work hours and setting are extremely flexible, her work day “is very, very structured. My diary is done till the end of the year”, she says. This means that she is free to organize her schedule and allocate time between teaching, writing, researching, speaking and advising. Even though she is not bound to a regimented routine of turning up at the same workplace every day, her calendar is extremely organized, so that she can productively combine all her pursuits.
Meeting place: Gratton can interact with clients in the common room at Somerset House.
In any given week, she may conduct a workshop with a client, speak at a conference, be on a jury and work on her books. Combining flexibility and discipline is not always easy for most knowledge workers, but research shows that flexibility significantly enhances individual productivity, she explains.
Second, she operates both virtually and globally. Her virtual footprint surpasses her physical footprint—she has assembled a global research consortium of 27 organizations from around the world, such as British Telecom, the Singaporean government, and closer to home, Mahindra and Mahindra and Tata Consultancy Services. Unlike other consulting firms, Hot Spots collaborates virtually with its clients via a specially developed Web portal for its research. Fieldwork takes place online via conversations, as well as through face-to-face events and workshops.
Third, she is “completely wired”, yet extremely focused in her reliance on technology. She carries an iPhone and a Mac Air, has a large Macintosh at home, and has wireless Internet connectivity in all office locations. But she refrains from incessantly checking email during the day. “I do most of my emails on my iPhone when I wake up in the morning. I don’t spend any of my time during the day doing emails at all. That’s actually a very good discipline,” she argues.
Finally, her area of interest is highly specialized and she is considered a global authority in the areas of human resources and organizational behaviour.
While organizations profess to offer these characteristics—flexibility, virtual collaboration, appropriate use of technology, global reach, razor-like focus, deep specialization and an inspiring work setting—the reality is that most knowledge workers are still bound to their desks in bland offices, answering emails or attending long meetings, with inadequate technology and tools for cross-functional collaboration. Most CEOs still occupy a corner suite, tucked away from the trenches, and like to jump on to aircraft for meetings.
Yet Gratton argues that her work style is possibly replicable. “It is an organizational challenge more than an individual challenge. Organizations must stop confusing hours worked with output, and must understand that people must not be chained to a desk to be productive”. Certainly a rallying cry for the future.
Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.
Write to Aparna at firstname.lastname@example.org