For this month’s Workplace Experience Lab, we scheduled a chat with Doug Binder, author of the recent book Gather: The Business of Coming Together. We discussed how Binder sees the evolution of the office as a place where people gather for collaboration, connection, and socialization. Think work, team meetings, and live events.
Doug has been an organizer of company events for over three decades and knows as much about organizing business events as anyone, which is why we invited him to the WorkEx Lab this month.
We began by asking Doug about the impact of the pandemic on the workplace. “Productivity has excelled as a result of the pandemic because people were not commuting into work and not getting distracted or interrupted at the office,” he says. “But those in-office interactions can also be very positive when you're sharing ideas with colleagues or just having very human encounters. Serendipity in the office is a very real and valuable thing,” Binder explains.
Why We Gather
Humans want to gather in the workplace, as countless surveys have shown, not only for collaboration but also for building community and culture. While people enjoy the comfort of their own homes, they’re craving social connection. The office can give them that.
“Gathering together supports personal growth,” Binder says, “because you learn from other people, and you can gain from teaching and mentoring others too.” Binder adds that “humans also have a need for celebration, which might be collective rituals like celebrating a colleague’s birthday or collectively celebrating business milestones.”
Binder points to a widespread sense that something has been missing from our work lives when everyone works remotely. Technology, especially remote technology, has made it possible for us to collaborate in ways we never would have pre-pandemic, when being on Zoom all day would have been inconceivable. “Technology can deliver the sight and sound of the office,” Binder says, “but not that sixth sense of being in a room and sensing the vibe.”
Binder offers an example “If you're presenting in a meeting room, you can sense if people are getting the message or not, then adapt what you’re doing. You can't sense that vibe so well on Zoom. For me, I’ve missed live events the most, the magical sound of applause and laughter – you feel that stuff viscerally in your bones and in your heart.”
Your office is a place to get work done yes, but it’s also a place where you can establish company culture and build intentional relationships amongst your teams. Something most of us have truly missed.
4 Ways to Bring Teams Together
1. It’s About Them, Not You
The mistake Binder sees people make most often when organizing events/gatherings is beginning and ending with a notion about what they're going to do, such as an agenda of sessions or schedule of speakers.
“Instead,” he says, “organizers need to begin by thinking about what the audience needs and wants. As organizations struggle to bring people back into gatherings, whether meetings in offices or other events, the audience holds more of the cards. You need to provide them with a clear reason to come, because they can access remotely.”
Your events, just like your office, need to have a purpose. Ask your teams what they want to see and use their feedback to build an event you know they’ll love. Data-driven decisions go a long way.
2. Make People Feel Something
Binder believes the pandemic has “rewired people’s brains and motivations” around work, pointing to “quiet quitting” and “the Great Resignation” as prime examples. To succeed at organizing gatherings, according to Binder, “you must put yourself in the audience's shoes. Empathy is a much bigger deal now than it was before the pandemic because we've all been through so much. It’s not so much about what we say or what we do at the gathering that matters: people largely remember how you make them feel.”
In the past few years the line between home and life has gotten thinner. We’re all human, and we’re all looking for a way to connect. Provide meaningful opportunities for your teams to engage with one another in the office.
3. Give People Choice
In addition to a desire for “experiences,” people also want more control of their time and more choices. So at a typical conference, you might have the general sessions, two hours where you need people to be present in order to listen to the leadership team, learn about the product, or watch the demos. “But after that’s done,” says Binder, “give people options where they can go to the beach or go to a class or maybe have a one-on-one meeting with the VP of product marketing.”
Giving people choice drives better experiences and more engagement. Hybrid work is all about flexibility when booking your desk, coordinating your week, and choosing to attend events.
4. Leverage Technology
Binder views technology as an important enabler of new ways of working and gathering. “Robin, for instance, is great at helping people find and book workspaces to do their best work, and also supports communication around events, meetings, and other gatherings.” People need the capability to plan, which technology enables, but Binder also champions “the capacity of gatherings to deliver serendipity, surprise, and delight.”
The right tools can help you give your teams an overview of the office - from what desks are available to what activities are taking place that week. The easier it is for your teams to access the office, the more likely they are to come in.
Building Purpose in the Office
In the end, the goal of the office should be to make people feel valued, and t offer them a clear purpose within an organization and culture.
“Technology can help foster all that,” Binder tells me as we conclude our conversation, “and I think Robin is at the hub of what’s going to be the evolution of work over the next few years.”
The office is changing, but it certainly isn't going away. You have to find a way to build a lively workplace and enable a seamless experience for all of your people, so they can find value in your space.