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What I learned at Forge Conference: Building better workplaces

I attended Forge Conference a few weeks ago and was really lucky to have the chance to talk with a bunch of people there about process.

Process has always fascinated me because it’s really easy to see bad processes (Here’s me talking about taking a design-thinking approach to process) and really hard to create good processes. When I was in college I drove all over the country, usually 3,000 miles in three days, meeting with any newsroom that would have me and asked how they do what they do. I was able to come back to our college paper and implement those ideas, things like redesigning the paper and website, creating staggered deadlines, and starting online, investigative, and graphics departments.

So here’s some of the ideas I learned at Forge Conference talking to the people there, with a lot taken from Big Spaceship Founder and CEO Michael Lebowitz’s talk, and talks from other presenters, and a few added riffs of my own.

Write down a note anytime something good happens

Put the notes in a box and read through them periodically. You can do this as a team or individually. But it’s a quick way to remind ourselves of all the wins we have had, especially when we accomplished great things together.

Create a dreams chat room

Most of us work at a job for a reason. Maybe we like the job, or we’re there for the money, but we, I hope, have more going on in our lives than the job. I work because I love what I do, but also I’m saving money for travel and for my future family. We all have hopes and dreams outside of work. Everything from getting a driver’s license to backpacking through Europe. A dreams room allows us to bring these dreams into the workplace and talk about them openly and then together help each other with solutions. For example, if you want to go to Taiwan for a week, here’s how much it will likely cost and here’s how much you need to save each paycheck to afford to go next year. When we talk about our dreams together, we can create solutions together, and learn more about each other, making us all more rounded individuals.

“The Homepage is Dead: Designing for Content and Functionality” presentation from Natalie Be’er at Forge Conference.

"The Homepage is Dead: Designing for Content and Functionality" presentation from Natalie Be’er at Forge Conference.

Elastic people

Which is really to say, that we need to be more than a job. It’s always a fascinating question to posit "Describe yourself without talking about your job" and for many people it’s really difficult to answer. People are not a function. I am not the designer. I’m Yuri Victor and I have a whole lot more to offer than what font we should use. To be more rounded humans, we need hobbies inside and outside of work. We should have both majors and minors at work and in life. Full-time mom, part-time fisher, occasional engineer.

Disciplines not departments

Many companies have rigid department structures that are all about power and when you look at many org charts you can see who you report to and who they report to all the way up into a pyramid, but you can’t see how to grow, or learn new skills, or work with people from different departments. So instead we should create teams that have people with multiple disciplines. Product managers learning to code paired with coders learning typography paired with designers learning javascript. When we start to blur the lines into disciplines rather than departments, we all learn together.

Humanity not transactions

Think about your meetings. Are they all based on a rigid agenda? Here’s the latest news. Boom. What did you do? Boom. Why did you do it? Boom. Hurry up, we have to get out of here.

Our editorial products team has a retro meeting every Friday where we talk about what happened during the week, but the first half of the meeting is adult show and tell where anyone can talk about whatever they want. People talk about everything from their kids to their vacations to taking a woodshop class or how a lot of hanging bike racks aren’t meant for women’s bikes and how they hacked a solution.

A lot of companies bond after work over beers, but we try to make time to bond at work because we believe it is part of our job. It’s a way to add humanity into the workplace, helps us to get to know things outside of what we do and it’s a required meeting that happens during work hours.

Build trust and understanding

If you’re a designer, it’s common to think "Oh, everyone thinks they are a designer" or "Why won’t people listen to me? I’m the designer here." Every role at a company, I’m sure, has similar sad stories. But, these thoughts come from a place of disempowerment. They come from environments where managers often don’t trust people or people don’t trust their managers. We all need to get better about sitting on our hands and listening to each other. When people work on small cross-functional teams a lot of these problems go away because success as a group depends on shared understanding.

Behavior and culture not technology

Technology always changes. People remain. You aren’t creating a tech company or a media company, you’re creating a workplace that is able to shift and adapt to new opportunities. Lebowitz said "Remember Flash?" One day we all woke up and it was gone. Entire firms invested in a single product and idea had to change and the companies who were able to adapt the best were the ones rooted in culture, not technology.

Founder and CEO of Big Spaceship, Michael Lebowitz, during his opening keynote, “The Age of How.”

Michael Lebowitz, during his talk “The Age of How” at Forge Conference.

Have core values

These are Big Spaceship’s core values:

  • Take care of each other
  • Collaborate inside and out
  • Speak up (no silent disagreement)
  • Do great work

What are your company’s core values? On Vox.com, we have a document about our core values and one I really love is "Treat everyone like the hero of their own story" (which you can hear Ezra Klein talk about here). What this means is that we try to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not report on gaffes or that mistake they once made. But this doesn’t just have to be for reporting, we can also treat every situation like this. Treat everyone like the hero of their own story.

In summary

I had the privilege of hearing Ced Funches speak recently about work/life balance, where most of us are trapped in the 100 percent work/0 percent life grind, but the real point of the talk is that to change that we need to reset our priorities. Our jobs aren’t what matter, our friendships are what matter, which is kind of a summary of what I got out of Forge Conference.

To create better workplaces we need to treat everyone around us more like humans with hopes and dreams and values, bring those into the workplace to create more rounded people and environments and let those inspire our processes.

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