Back to top

How do we plant seeds for innovation in corporate culture, push for change, and learn to “fail forward”? It all starts with being uncomfortable. In a race to be the best, tech companies all over the world have employed numerous strategies to be a unique place to work–from open workspaces to free food galore, we’ll explore who probably gets it right. From the perspective of a tech newbie entering Corporate America for the first time (Nada Mahmoud), you’ll hear about the interesting history of how we got here, people’s experience with resisting change, and what can we do as individuals and leaders (using evidence-based research) to create a better workplace for everyone.

Want to see more talks from LabsCon 2019? Check out our YouTube Playlist.

In corporate America, things are changing constantly. And from what I’ve witnessed in my very, very, very short time, about five months, it doesn’t always go down easy. So I decided I wanted to explore some of the things that made me uncomfortable in my transition. And I wanted to know how the heck did we reach this point? What innovation happened to get us in the spaces that we’re in? So we’re in the middle of something that’s always evolving. And I wanted to figure out how did we end up in open spaces, how did we get cubicles, why do we have nine to five workdays? And how did we even get to where we are in terms of what we have to wear in different companies and what we have to do? And then the last thing that we’ll get into is how do we harness that discomfort and grow from it as individuals, and as a company?

All right, so a little bit about me. I grew up in LA and I gave this presentation to my husband a couple of times, and he rolled his eyes every time I had this. So I actually grew up in LA County in a place called Pomona but whatever the picture worked and it feels better to say I’m from LA. Later on I moved to San Francisco. That’s where I went to … or the Bay area. That’s where I went to college. I studied public health and education. I was going to go work at the CDC or be a teacher, I had a bunch of different ideas of what I wanted to do with my life. This was not one of them.

So I ended up working at a place called Kaiser Permanente and it’s been so long … I was doing research there, I can’t remember what the research was. I was there for a while. And then simultaneously I was working at a medical center where we were doing things of … lean improvement innovation and that was a lot of, “How do you reduce surgery wait times,” Or, “How do you help people in underprivileged communities that need prenatal access,” and things like that. That was very fun. Then I moved to Michigan, I didn’t have a job and then I got a job as a teacher. Oh, oops. That’s how I looked every single day, I was sick and tired all the time. Wonderful year. Kindergartners don’t like me. And then I ended up at something called the ABCD study so that was a brain development study that was happening at U of M and that’s how I fell into coding. I really wanted to get to know a little bit more about data analytics and things like that.

I ended up at Detroit Labs apprenticeship just by chance, and then now I’m a software developer at Ford. And I’m sharing my resume essentially with you all so that you know that I’m coming from a completely different space. I don’t really know what … I had no idea what I was getting into. So these are all of my misconceptions about the space I was going to get into. So my expectation, I’m from the Bay area, was Google. Software and tech companies are cool, there are slides and whatever, free food, and stuff. This is the reality where everyone is weirdly possessive about their chairs. I don’t know what it is but everyone loves their chairs. So I decided to take a little look in the history of how the heck did we end up here? How is it that these open spaces were meant to be something and we ended up with what we have now?

All right, so I’m going to force you all to hate me. Get up and go ahead and switch seats with wherever you want. Those chairs are uncomfortable so just do it. It’ll all make sense but it’s okay to hate me. That’s the process. I like that. I appreciate the support. Oh, that’s amazing. I was really sad no one was using those chairs so I’m happy now. This is perfect. All right. So you guys all probably hate me. That was a lot of work for no reason. And I have a little story to tell you before I get into the 10 reasons why you hated doing that. So when I first started working at Ford the whole organization started to do this thing where they were like, “Pair programming is the way to go. Teams need to start adopting it.” And I was like, “I’m going to jump on that. That sounds cool. It’s the only thing I know how to do.” I was like, “I’m good at it.”

So I decided to have this meeting with my team where I was like, “Okay everybody, we need to adopt it. That’s what we got to do.” And then I was just expecting everybody to be on board. I was like, “It’s this great idea. Everyone’s going to be on board.” And then I took Erica’s idea of having a user manual to figure out like, “Oh, I’m new to the team, I want to know how all of you guys work so I want everybody to do a user manual about themselves.” And the second I said that everyone was like, No.” And so in my head this is how I looked, I was like, “It’s brilliant. Why?” And then obviously I kept it professional. I was like, “I hear you.” But deep down inside I was like, “Come on, just take my ideas.” And they started saying like, “It’s too academic,” blah blah blah, “You’re making us do work.” So the same way I just made you guys all get up without an explanation, it was kind of the same way I went into that meeting. Like, “This is a great idea. I want you guys all to do it but I never involved you in the process.”

So 10 reasons people just hate change in general. First thing you feel like you’re losing control. So I didn’t include any of you in that conversation and I was just like, “Move.” Nobody likes that. Same thing that happened with the meeting when I went for the pair programming. It was like, “We’re going to adopt this new thing whether you like it or not” and I didn’t include anybody in that conversation. Second thing is you feel like you have a lot of uncertainty. Some of you might have picked a seat because you were like, “This is the only place I can see well” or whatever. And then I was like, “Get up, move. I don’t care.” That’s not very fair. Third thing is nobody likes surprises. So when you surprise someone with something they automatically have this reaction where they just want to say, “No, I don’t want to do it.” They ended up not wanting to.

Fourth, everything seems different. A lot of times you can feel like you’re losing face. Number six is really important. So concerns about competence. When it comes to pair programming, a lot of people hadn’t been doing it before and when it comes to these kinds of things people are afraid that they’re not going to be as good at it as they think they should be. There can be ripple effects. So now it’s like, “Oh now I’m sitting next to someone I don’t like” or whatever it is. So you have to really involve people in these conversations.

And there’s been so many changes that happened in corporate America. And resistance really can manifest in different ways so … I’ve seen it, people can start just dragging their feet. They’re like, “I’m not convinced with this. Don’t make me sign on to that … ” People hate Macs apparently. So they’re like, “Don’t make me sign on to that Mac.” And they’ll take months to go ahead and do it. And other people will sometimes just ignore the change, they’re like, “I don’t buy it. I’m not going to do it.” So we really have to understand the sources of that resistance and then strategize around them. And you’ll come to realize that all of this resistance… all of these sources of discomfort have really led us to make huge changes in things like our office layout and how people … how we do our timing, how we dress, and all of that thing … all of that stuff. So I’m going to go into a brief history of each of them and you’ll come to realize I’m very opinionated about open spaces. I don’t know how many are you here but we’ll get into it.

All right. So open spaces, they actually date back to 1872. I was actually surprised like, “Oh it’s not a millennial idea.” So there was a lot of architects during that time, one notably. His name was Frank Lloyd Wright and he actually said that he saw walls and rooms as fascist so during that time it was a very political movement. And he said that the spaciousness and flexibility of an open plan would liberate homeowners, and office dwellers from the confines of their home so it’s bold assumptions. And I feel like this also resonated today, they also thought to break down the social walls that divide people you also had to break down the real walls too. And when you hear that it makes sense, in practice it doesn’t feel that way. So this is actually that architect I was telling you about Frank. He designed this Johnson and Johnson administration office back in 1930. Super cool, they had these [inaudible 00:08:50] form columns. Engineers were afraid that they were too thin but they allowed sunlight to come in. People had specifically designed desks and chairs to give them more space.

Problem is without the same careful design people started making worse and worst versions that came out. So you’re like, “Yo, open spaces are great but you’re just going to put a bunch of people in a place.” And so this was thoughtfully … This was thought out carefully for people before it became what it is. And then like a lot of things, people took it to the extreme. They became uncomfortable with it and they were like, “Let’s put those walls back up.” And that is how we ended up with cubicles. So cubicles were interior designers attempt to put some soul back into those open office spaces. So in the 1950s a German design group broke up the rows of desks and they wanted a more organic grouping, like you can see over here. And I feel so bad that I didn’t Google this but it was called Berlin [shaf 00:09:49], maybe, and that actually meant office landscape. So in 1964 the Americans come through and they’re like, “We want to do the same thing.” And they called it the action office system and that offered huge improvements.

So now you have larger surface area, you have desks that you can manipulate. People started thinking like, “Yo, this is a great idea. We can collaborate and we can also have our privacy at the same time.” He wanted to make money though. So in 1968 this guy, Herman Miller, decides to sell his system as modular components. And then companies again started making bad decisions. Taking little pieces out, cherry picking the space saving aspects, and we ended up with the boring old cubicle that we’re all used to. I was forced to watch Office Space so I’m like, “It’s relevant.” So that started becoming associated with mass layoffs and mergers, and unstable work, grayness, and just bleakness all around. And I think all of us think today in our culture that’s kind of what it is. Then tech companies, Silicon Valley, came along and they’re like, “Break down those walls again.” So we’re bouncing back and forth without really having that thought putting into it.

Spaces today. So a psychologist said that more than 100 studies of office environments, they did foster a sense of organizational mission and they made employees feel like they’re a part of a laid back, innovative enterprise. But it all came at a cost of people’s satisfaction, people’s job performance and you no longer feel like you have that element of control. And for me walking into open office spaces, it’s incredibly distracting and I … Kareem sits right behind me and I can just hear him all the time. So it’s really … these spaces are really difficult to actually sit down and get your work done. And then a lot of studies showed that they reduce face to face interactions by about 70% and they reduced … and then they increased communication over … online, like IM and things like that.

There was a study also that came out of London where there was 100 government workers that were moving from an enclosed space into an open office space. And one of the things that they found, and they weren’t looking for, was a subtle kind of sexism. So women just felt like they were more conscious about how they dressed and where they went, and that … they felt like eyes were constantly on them, so that was pretty interesting. And lastly, your high blood pressure goes up, there’s more conflict and there is increased staff turnover when you have open office spaces. So I complained about it a lot that there’s a fix.

What we have to do with our innovation spaces is to have an intentional design. So the first thing is you want to provide spaces that offer … you want to offer a place where you can focus. So you want places that have maybe furniture that is sound-absorbing or have maybe just wall panels, or room dividers that promote privacy, and focus. Everyone will be a lot happier if they have access to those spaces. Second, collaboration. You don’t really need big fancy conference rooms and things like that but you need to allow your teams to have spaces where they can move the furniture around or have impromptu meetings, things like that, that can just foster collaboration. Third thing, learning, which I thought was really cool. You want to be able to promote self-study and have people have these spaces where they can just sit, and learn for themselves or even learn for your company. One of the ideas was to have a media learning lab so you could provide headphones or tech tables, or even computers with treadmills so people feel like they have a space that they can learn something.
And then the last thing is socializing. You really don’t want your place to just be all about work and … because burnout sucks. So keep your office atmosphere fresh, encourage people to take regular breaks, converse, meet new people outside of the department and whatnot. And for this part we have … some of you might’ve seen it if you’ve come to Ford, we have a foosball table just in the middle of the hallway and my team is generally going there when we want to take breaks. But when people are passing by, this is how it feels … like everyone’s judging you for … I’ll be okay, I’ll sacrifice and I’ll keep playing foosball to create that culture.

All right. And then so for yourself. On an individual level, there are some survival tips to make it a better place for yourself. One of the things is you want to feel empowered so if you’re not feeling comfortable in the space you’re in, you want to have another space that you can go to. Two, turn up the green. Plants have been shown to prevent sick days, they lessen stress, they produce better air quality. And if you strategically put them they can be dividers between you and whoever’s working next to you or whatever it is, but generally, they just reduce stress.

The third thing is to develop a positive place identity. So when I first was at Ford we were getting new developers to come on the team and I was like, “You know what? We don’t really need to be attached to our desk space. We can go ahead and just be nomads and go around when we’re pairing and stuff like that.” Turns out that I was completely wrong, you should not do that. Everybody should really feel like … that they have a place identity. And the more that you have that space that you feel like is your home you have more engagement in work, more communication and stronger connection to the company at large. So get territorial. I saw this cool picture … I’m probably going to do this around Christmas time, I’m going to just make a fort. And then the last thing is you want to have a do-not-disturb policy. So you as a team can decide or as a company … company-wide, you can decide from one to five that’s going to be a time where there’s absolutely no distractions. Keep those meetings and keep that collaboration outside of that time. All right, so that covers spaces.

And then the next thing that bothered me is having to wake up every single day, go to work at nine, come back at five and go through that same exact boring life cycle. So Everybody hates Mondays, Wednesday Hump Day, Thank God it’s Friday, those are all things that are embedded in our language and we see it stamped on tee shirts, and whatever … TV shows. It’s something that we’ve accepted to be a part of our culture. And I was just thinking like, “Why is this what it is the way it is today?” So I went through a little bit of history. Quick timeline of how we ended up here. So before 1866 people were actually working for 100 hours a week and so in 1866 they’re like, “We’re done, we can’t do this anymore.” So they formed the National Labor Union and asked for eight hour work days. Protests happened in between. The government decides like, “We’ll give this to government employees.” A bunch of people start coming onto it and then in 1926 Ford finally institutes the eight to five. And then in 1938 it gets into our constitution but it was actually a 44 hour a week and then they amended it in 1952 a 40 hour week which is what we have today. But if you think of it, it’s insane that since 1950 we haven’t had any changes in the structure that we have our work weeks like.

So I looked into the research because I’m all about research and 30 is the new 40. Laura Vanderkam, she actually conducted a study to try to determine how the number of hours you work affects the time you think you have. So those who felt like they had all the time in the world worked 7.6 hours and those who felt like, “I have no life worked 8.6 hours.” So there was just an hour difference in you feeling like you have all the power versus like, “Work has me doing so much.”

And there was a happiness expert who took it even a step further and he looked at 20 million people across the world, and he also looked at the happiest countries around the world. And he said, “When it comes to your work, try to work part-time. 30 to 35 hours a week. That’s the most ideal.” I don’t know if you guys can make that happen but … I wouldn’t even work at [Services 00:18:09]. And then there’s also a productivity myth that if you put in more hours that you’ll actually get more work done. There’s graphs that always show it’s this steep decline. The second you start putting more hours in, your output is way less.

All right. And then that brings us to close. I was like, “Why? Why is it the way … people dress the way they do it?” IT companies take it a different way and there’s a really, really interesting history about it. If I had the choice I would be in yoga pants and a tee shirt all day but that’s not possible. So in the ’60s the Hawaiian fashion industry started distributing shirts to the government in hopes that they would wear them during the summer months in support of local businesses. The concept actually became so popular that organizations lobbied for Aloha Fridays and then eventually other states started picking up on that idea, but without the necessity of having Hawaiian tee shirts. And that’s how we got into Casual Fridays. Problem is when that happened it turned out guys didn’t know what to wear so they took it to the extreme of coming in in shorts and sandals, and no one wants to see toes or whatever it is.

So Levi’s decided to take up this business opportunity. There was this growing assumption that dress code would lead to happier and more productive employees. And Levi’s decided to come up with this guy to casual business wear and they ended up sending 25,000 pamphlets to HR all over, and that’s pretty much how we have the business casual look that we have today. It’s all about money, this is what I’ve been figuring out this whole time. It’s just all about business.

And then does it matter? There was this article that was going around that Goldman Sachs actually just released this new flexible dress code and it was all the rage. And they said that instead of putting … now that they’re putting a trust-your-own-judgment approach to how you dress and apparently that sends a strong signal to your modern work environment that you are a stakeholder in this instead of being just a drone that’s working for the company now you’re somebody who has a say. So it’s a sense of empowerment. And that goes back to the very beginning when we’re talking about change and things like that. You want to make sure you’re including your people. Why does some people still have it though? It reflects on your company. Obviously if you’re meeting clients, you want to look good. It levels the playing field so if everyone’s wearing similar clothing it makes it easier for managers to focus on just you and your ideas, and not essentially what you’re wearing.

And then the third thing … or the fourth thing is guidelines. Make it clear for everyone so just provide guidance and you won’t have any issues. All right. But the whole purpose of this is it’s okay to be uncomfortable. So we go through all of these different changes and I talk about how corporate America went through all these changes but I want to talk on an individual level, how do you have that change within yourself? And why does feeling uncomfortable in these spaces … how can it help you grow? So I want you all to think of a time where you’re driving to work and you just get to work, and you forget literally how you got there. Everything in between is just a blur. If you don’t get out of your comfort zone you’re just tuning out a lot of your life on a daily basis. And if you don’t get out of your way to experience new things or let new things happen to you, your body can actually create brand new neural pathways that fuel your creative spark and they enhance your memory.

So putting yourself in new and unfamiliar situations, it actually triggers this unique part of your brain that only lights up and it’s only used when you see new, and experience new things. So you have to try to constantly push yourself out of that comfort zone. And few people actually enjoy the feeling of being uncomfortable. And the challenge is to get past that initial feeling of wanting it to return to the norm and you want to be able to grow, and benefit from that discomfort.

So how do we harness it? First thing is share those new ideas and skills, even if you’re not ready for it. So the CEO of LinkedIn actually said, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched it too late.” So get those ideas out there regardless. Get a buddy who’s going to help you out with this and just share things that make you uncomfortable. Second thing is give honest, useful feedback. I’ve heard this in all of the talks, basically. So crucial conversations matter. Get yourself to get those uncomfortable conversations with people so you know how to grow. Third thing is provide leadership when you sense discomfort in others. Go ahead and pull people out of those shells. And fourth, make fast decisions. Don’t sit there and dwell on it. Just if you want to do something, go for it. All right, so get up and switch … No, this was a joke. But if you’re feeling uncomfortable, those seats are very uncomfortable, go ahead and change seats if you want.

All right, so I think I’m going to be closing up here and I wanted to leave everybody with six questions for greater vulnerability. How do we push ourselves out of those comfort zones in our daily environment, regardless of the atmosphere that we’re in, and have more vulnerability? So number one … Also, it’s from an author called Margie Warrell, Stop Playing Safe, and they sound like an old lady is talking but the questions are good. So do I keep doing what’s always been done or challenge old assumptions and try new approaches to problems? Do I proactively seek new challenges or just manage those I already have? Do I risk being exposed and vulnerable or act to protect my pride, and patch of power? Sorry, these slides … Do I ask for what I really want or just for what I think others want to give me? Do I toot my own horn to ensure others know what I’m capable of or just hope my efforts will be noticed? And lastly, do I speak my mind or bite my lip lest I ruffle feathers or subject myself to criticism?

So I really want everybody to just … have those questions always on the back of your mind, regardless of what environment you’re in. And go ahead and ruffle feathers because it’s a good thing for everybody. That pretty much concludes my talk. I have a bunch of credits.