I like to think that I’m acutely aware of my personal productivity at work, and this puts me in a great position to tune my working environment to maximise both the benefit to my employer, and my own happiness. The two key factors are my hours and location. The hours I work is an entire blog post all by itself, suffice to say that I hate being stressed by a rush hour commute, and the early bird may catch the worms, but I’m no bird, my needs go far beyond basic feeding. The other is where, or more specifically with whom.
Despite having an engineering degree I like to think of myself as a creative. I create software and I put my heart and soul into it because I love what I do. This may seem slightly at odds to the traditional view of a tech based employee, some kind of man-machine hybrid that mechanically churns out software on demand, but if you’ve ever met me I’m sure you will agree that I’m far from the norm in this industry. To keep creative juices flowing you need inspiration and in my case I’m looking for those key conversations where you just met someone and end up having a heated agreement.
Coworking spaces all around the world attract exactly the kinds of people I’m passionate about meeting. I think those of us who get coworking have a shared passion for exactly these types of experiences, and we seek them out whenever possible. They have the uncanny ability to turn your otherwise average day into one that you will remember for a lifetime. You simply can’t find these experiences on a regular basis in traditional office environments, but in coworking spaces they are de rigueur.
And this isn’t just hyperbole, just yesterday I was working out of New Work City in New York, plodding away on some Perl code when I struck up a conversation with Campbell of Loose Cubes (a coworking space finder) and was so inspired and energised by our conversation that I went on to do 5 hours of work on top of my usual working day.
It’s been clearly shown that money is not the key incentive to happy productive employees but that freedom, flexibility and creative ownership are. So sure, as an employer, you could have people like me sitting in their cube, punching in at 10 and out at 6, doing what is required of us, but nothing more, or you could let your employees have that little bit of freedom to work how and where we are most productive, and watch our productivity go through the roof.
My favourite sessions at barcamps tend to be those which are (directed) discussions on topics ranging from sex and gender to rural broadband. I love to engage with other participants during these moments, often playing devils advocate so that ideas and concepts are deeply justified and thought through. Oh, and I love to get my opinion across too! I always walk away from these sessions with a feeling of satisfaction, even if no conclusions have been reached and often feel both inspired by what other people have said, and hopeful that I have had some impact on others too. It really doesn’t matter if you are leading the discussion or not, everyone should have a chance to speak their mind.
On the flip side what seriously frustrates me about panels is that I have to watch a discussion take place, and despite the ability to ask questions I do not have a chance to engage in actual conversation with either panelists, or more importantly other attendees. I only attended one panel at SXSWi this year “What Guys Are Doing To Get More Girls Into Tech” (#moregirlsintech) and the frustration experienced by many attendees was evident through the hash tag stream on the giant screen. Many of us wanted to engage in discussion but had to resort to venting our frustration and disagreement through twitter.
Perhaps it’s the physical layout of the room. In the core conversation I attended “How Geeks Grabbed Philly By The Balls” (#geeksgrabbedphilly) the two core conversationalists were on the same level as the attendees, physically much closer, and encouraged to disrupt the process, whereas in the panel the panelists were on a raised platform at the front. That physical separation makes it much harder for the audience to become participants and engage with the panelists.
I’m fairly certain that this is not an issue of the conversationalists of panalists themselves. My amazing friend Alex Hillman was key to the Philly conversation and the panelists were also incredibly fascinating people, as was the modertor who did a very good job of fielding twitter queries where she could.
The panel I was on “Don’t Stop Believin’: How karaoke is going to change the world” (#dontstopbelievin) (slides) was not a conversation panel, but rather a set of 7 short and sweet presentations followed by questions and karaoke – and I think they key difference here is the presentation aspect. Let conversations be conversations and presentations be presentations, even if they have 7 people presenting. Panels muddy the water. They give you a taste of a conversation you can not be part of, and that frustrates me.
So my request to SXSWi 2011 is that they significantly ramp up the number core conversations they have by switching out some of the panels. There is no reason conversations can’t be guided and focused by a group of key conversationalists, nor is there any reasons presentations can’t be presented by several presenters. This is an interactive conference after all, so let’s get interactive where we can. Turn panelists into conversationalists by bringing them down to floor level and into the discussion. Minimise the gap (physical and virtual) between them and the attendees, and overall increase engagement. Everyone will benefit from this. And you might actually encourage me out of bed and into a session or two…