I’ve spent much of the last nine months working with Susie Wise on the launch of a new organization, Workswell. Currently Workswell is a part of Playworks, but the idea is to spin it out as a for-profit subsidiary of Playworks when the time is right. More about that in a moment.
The why of Workswell is two-fold. Susie and I have spent most of our careers working in education, and to this end we’ve spent considerable amounts of time thinking about kids and what they need to thrive in school. We’ve also been a part of building institutions - schools, a few different nonprofits, a design lab – that involved a whole lot of managing and supporting grown-ups. Over the years we have been struck by the tremendous parallels that exist between school and work, most notably that it really, really matters how it feels. The more we talked about it, the more convinced we became that, just like in schools, the difference between workplaces that get things done over the long haul and those that either have quick wins and peter out, lose their mojo, or never really get it together in the first place is in the level of intentional design that goes into the whole gamut of work experiences that collectively make up what we think of as work.
The second why of Workswell has to do with money. Over the years of raising funds for all our assorted projects and watching as good ideas floundered for lack of funds while mediocre ideas trundled along, powered by a well-oiled fundraising machines, we have become… disillusioned isn’t quite the right word. Frustrated isn’t quite right either. Maybe just convinced that expecting the folks who have profited from the whole philanthro-capitalist system to be the ones to dismantle it seems silly to us. And so we are genuinely interested in trying to build an engine for revenue generation that unlocks all the assets and resources of capitalism in service of a really great and effective idea: Playworks. We’re excited about how this presents an opportunity to change the power dynamic, and ultimately interested in experimenting with having new points of access into capital markets – e.g., selling shares of Workswell to building an operating reserve. Maybe think of it as a more entrepreneurial version of ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’.
In explaining the ‘what’ of Workswell, I want to start with what we are not:
1. We are not corporate recess. Play is an essential part of who we are and what we do, but it is delivered in the context of organizational experience design (OXdesign) and not as a standalone team-building service.
2. We are not an introduction to design thinking. Like play, design is integral to our approach, and in the larger context we introduce design tools and mindsets, but it is all done in service to creating a more human-centered approach to work.
3. We are not executive coaches. Workswell is focused on working at the organizational level. In nonprofit parlance, we’re a universal intervention as opposed to a targeted one, reflecting our belief that improving the environment is essential before more targeted efforts can be effective, including initiatives focused on building leadership.
4. We are not diversity, equity and inclusion experts. Again, our hope is to offer tools that build the foundational trust and practices that make DEI work possible, but that is not our particular area of focus.
Moving from what we aren’t to what we are, starting with our values can be illustrative. We are obsessed with learning. We’re convinced that belonging is essential to long-term success in all endeavors – from schools to businesses to functioning democracies. We really like getting things done. To that end, we’re interested in building tools and providing services that actually, concretely and measurably make a difference. And lastly, we’re big on starting from a place of focusing on assets: the idea that collectively we have what we need is central to our approach. Throw in a dollop of gratitude, a healthy splash of playful irreverence and a whimsical design sensibility, and you pretty much get us.
Workswell's underlying approach to helping organizations align their values and culture emphasizes putting the human capacities of play, design and storytelling at the center of the daily experiences of work. We’re calling this approach organizational experience design or OXdesign for short. We believe that workplaces are ripe for a new approach to intentionally designing the day-to-day interactions that constitute culture, and that by thoughtfully designing these experiences, they can make measurable strides towards increasing employee engagement while fostering more creative and productive work environments.
So, you ask, how might a group actually work with Workswell? Great question. Right now we’re focused on three basic buckets when it comes to engagement.
First dates: Introduction to OXdesign workshops give a sampling of play + design + storytelling activities to groups that are mixed by industries and roles. Organizations can also bring us in to do a custom one day introductory session for staff, portfolio companies, grantees, clients, etc.
OXdesign Sprints: Identify an aspect of your work experience that you are interested in re-designing – meetings, on-boarding, remote work dynamics, performance reviews, PTO – and bring us in for a multi-day sprint to engage your team in actively reimagining and then prototyping new approaches.
Catalysts: Bring us on to support the creation of an internal group that is focused on OXdesign embedded in your organization. We can train and support this group, co-designing culture hacks that they lead, and providing help around tools and mindsets that promote innovation in which employees feel ownership.
We’re also still experimenting with how we can mix and match these methods/modules so that we can work with companies to integrate OXdesign into staff retreats, strategic planning sessions, or, even better, co-design these gatherings bringing the idea of OXdesign to life. If you’re interested in learning more, don’t hesitate to reach out – email is probably easiest: firstname.lastname@example.org
People need meaning, the opportunity for mastery, and community to thrive. Creating opportunities for people to contribute, and to find their best selves is some of the most important work we can do.