Bellagio 2
This is not a holiday snapshot, it’s actually a photograph from the balcony of one of my recent workshop venues – the Bellagio Center, in Bellagio, Italy, on the shores of Lake Como.

I had long heard of this venue, but my first visit was only recently, for a scoping meeting of an interesting new social enterprise initiative called Sphaera (the subject of a future blog post).

Some groups hold their workshops a short walk down the hall from their offices. Some go a little off site to a nearby hotel or conference centre, not wanting to have to go too far to gather their participants together but wanting something a little different for a change of context. And yet others put a lot of effort into finding just the right gathering spot that will help participants bring their best and most relaxed and creative selves to the task at hand. Even if it means a little extra time and travel to get there.

Environment definitely affects people’s ability to work effectively and creatively. I have been to many workshops held in square, grey institutional rooms looking out at parking lots (if they had windows) that took a heroic effort on everyone’s part to get inspired and energised for a hard working session to develop their new partnership, strategic plan, or vision. When the food is so-so, and the bed rooms are so-so, added to weather or logistics hassles, no matter how well structured your event is, you are starting on the back foot with your people.

Now come with me to Bellagio, Italy for a moment – a visual feast every moment of the day (even in the rain), with cozy villa rooms to sleep and work in, served meals that always start with drinks in the drawing room or on the balcony. Winding lanes, vast gardens and olive trees to walk and talk, 24-hour coffee nooks, and bikes to borrow to follow signs to the swimming gate for before or after-hours exercise. Far from any large, noisy urban area (although gelati within a short walk) there is not a sound at night that can disturb deep sleep. What’s not to love?

I pulled out three immediately obvious benefits from working in a peaceful and beautiful place:

  • Presence: It is often hard for busy people working 150+ percent to stop the noise in their brains long enough to focus on your agenda and goals, even if they have a vested interest. If they are close to home or their offices, they tend to disappear from time to time, or try in all the breaks keep up as much as possible with their full-time work load. Give them a magical place to work and shorten that transition time from crazy busy to creative. They will be present not only physically, but mentally because where they are with you for work is better than almost anywhere else they could be. They will still try to keep up on email in the evenings at least for the first day or so, but there will be a lot to get and keep their attention here.
  • Pace: Sequestered as we were in villas that were over 500 years old, watching sailboats o the lake float by, walking up and down the hill to our meetings and meals, hearing the lazy buzz of bees on banks of flowers, a beautiful ruin of a castle reminding you of the slow march of time  – things slow down dramatically in a place like this. With your focus on the one thing you are there to do together, your pace slows down dramatically  – from the full throttle dash to keep up or catch up through frenetic full-time multi-tasking, to a measured, considered and thoughtful cadence (aah, so this is what life should be like).
  • People: So now with your head up (rather than on your screen) and in an awe-inspiring environment, you begin to notice those people around you, also attending your meeting. You have time for them, and wonderful places to get to know them. You enjoy the beauty of the place together, you sit in the garden for your small group discussion with your shoes off and your bare feet on the grass, the sun just starting to set over the top of the villa. You remember that drinks are being served in 30 minutes on the terrace and you finish your discussion on creative ways to bring more learning into the process under discussion. 

People are comfortable in this venue, they smile and laugh easily and before your very eyes, people are connecting, relationships are being built, and there is a desire to collaborate and co-create. Nice! (I just got a big rush of peaceful and productivity just looking at these photos and remembering my week at Bellagio.)

    Bellagio 3

    I think all of us would instinctively answer this question with a “Yes”, but how often do we actually take steps to create an interesting visual “learnscape” around us, particularly in our temporary learning venues.

    At least 99% of the time, the spaces that we use for our workshops, whether for strategic planning, team development, training or other, are square rooms with white or beige walls. All the chairs are the same. The tables might be rectangular, square or round, and probably all the same. The windows are uniform, the walls are blank. The latter is often a good thing, particularly if you want to hang up flipcharts and the products of your work. At the end of the workshop the walls may be covered and the “journey” of the workshop evident for all to see.

    But what about the first morning, when people first walk in? What do they see and how does it set them up for the exciting, creative and productive experience that you will help them co-create with your terrific interactive agenda and fast paced repartee?

    It is interesting to notice when workshop or conference organizers do take the external environment and the challenge to create visual interest into consideration. I think that conference organizers perhaps try a little harder as they assume that the participant experience is more passive, so they add a plant or a sofa. Actually, TED Conferences are really brilliant at this, the stages that you see in the videos, or as a participant from the floor are intricate, rich and interesting.  Watch a minute of this Tim Jackson TED video for an example of the eclectic mix of background articles they use. Or take a look at the photo I took of a panel discussion at the TEDGlobal Conference I attended last summer. The TEDXChange Geneva event that Lizzie organized also featured a whole task list on procuring props for the stage, shipped in from Zurich, to make the background for the speakers and the conversations look interesting, including a vintage coke machine, a wagon wheel and more (see photo here), which all tied in some way with the talks being given.

    When you can’t truck in props, you can still create visual interest in other ways. The recent Membership Meeting of a standard setting textile product group that I facilitated featured a sample from their first harvest on each table – there to admire, feel and connect people with their process. In the room as people entered were also maps of their strategic regions, with photos of the value chain stakeholders, and posters created to show the value chain. We used these for one of the first exercises, and put them up before we started for the visuals and to get people in the theme of the meeting from the onset.

    It you want to leave the walls free, what about the ceiling? I was mesmerised by the big room at the Hub in Brussels, where we had a recent LEAD Europe (Leadership for Environment and Development) training course gathering, where a local artist had hung a cardboard sculpture. How visually stimulating it would be to have a workshop in that space! I remember during past IUCN Commission on Education and Communication workshops, there would be bouquets of fresh flowers, and bowl of bright fruit and chocolate on all the tables. I remember a facilitator from Disney telling me that at some of their planning workshops, each participant would have their own placemat and setting with drawing paper, coloured markers, playdough, lego or other small items to “play with” while the meeting was going on. What can you bring in that will be different and interesting to look at/interact with during your learning exercise?

    Creating stimulating visual environments for learning, even in our temporary workshops spaces, can enhance creativity and spark ideas and engagement. It can signal that something different is coming, something that will connect people will both their left and right brains. You can do this by moving people around, by using different rooms, by going inside and outside, and also by looking differently at your main workshop room and setting and thinking more about how you can make it visually stimulating. Even you are a canvas – people will look at you, the facilitator, trainer or organizer for HOURS, what colours are you wearing???

    Time is like snow. It’s all made of the same stuff – minutes for time, or water in the snow case – but it takes so many different forms. Did you know there was a Field Guide to Snowflakes? (over 35 different kinds!) I want to write the Field Guide to Time.

    I never noticed what kind of time I had until I had a different kind of time. And now that I have made this observation I’ve started to look more closely at the nature of my time, at the individual forms of time, to see how different they really are. In my Field Guide to Time I would have both Office Work Time and Home Work Time.

    In the office I saw different kinds of time floating around me:
    • Desk Time – Perceived blocks of time for working on documents/reports/proposals, often interrupted by all of the following. What you tend to get hired to do.
    • Email Time – Chunks of time for zeroing in-box and working on action file. Should be linked to “Desk Time”, but can include many other extraneous things.
    • Meeting Time – Hours of time (and sometimes whole days or weeks of time) for collaborative discussion that can sometimes also count as working, and sometimes not.
    • Corridor Meeting Time – Minutes of time to gather information that is not found elsewhere.
    • Pop-in Meeting Time – Usually happens when you are at “Desk Time”, longer or shorter depending on the pop-in person’s place in institutional hierarchy, and/or desire to procrastinate.
    • Phone Time – Answering calls that I miss while I was at Meeting and Corridor Meeting Time.
    • Negotiation Time – Very brief moments providing windows of opportunity to change things.
    • Talk to Your Colleagues Time – This time expands when procrastinating and can often lead to “Coffee Time”.
    • Coffee Time – Self-explanatory
    • Cleaning Your Office Time – Time so called when you can’t or don’t want to concentrate on anything else. Could also be called “Procrastination Time” except nobody would ever pay you for that.
    If you were lucky, you could get useful things done in all of these times (including needed mental rest and processing time from the last one). And if you needed to, you could theoretically shift around the time so that you had more Desk Time when you needed it, and less of the other kinds of time in your day.

    Now that I am working at home, I am getting to identify some different kinds of work-related time, some are the same, many are different. At home, for example, I find I can subtract “Corridor Meeting Time” (for obvious reasons) and “Pop-In Meeting Time” has reduced (or at least now there is a warning phone call since I live outside of town). And some new specimens of time have been added:
    • Car Time – This could also be called “Thinking Time” for return trips when car is empty.
    • Judo Time/Circus Time/Football Time – Highly fragmented minutes of calm during children’s flurry of activities – could also be called “Checking Iphone Time”.
    • Car Park Time – This time only occurs in daytime or in carparks where the space near the light is free. Includes much balancing of papers on knees.
    • Skype Time – Occurs more because now I am paying the phone bills myself.
    • Google and Social Networking Time – This time increases, as guilt decreases about surfing when someone else is paying for your time.
    • Cafe Time – This is different than “Coffee Time”, although they can overlap. Cafe Time is more about working around people (as opposed to working with them).
    • Making Dinner Time – This would have previously been called “Phone Time”, now all the most important calls come when you are making dinner.
    I’m sure there are more, feel free to add some!

    These latter kinds of time take forms that I am not yet used to using productively, although I am getting better at it. I do notice that they crowd out a lot of “Desk Time”, which means that I need to be clever about the kind of projects I take on. No longer do I seem to have long stretches, day after day of “Desk Time” when I can work on a big writing project, for example, or any task that demands hours back-to-back of stationary, uninterrupted concentration. This seemed to be an easier environment to organize in a workplace office rather than a home office. Now every work day is an aggregation, a collection of kinds of time, a veritable snow bank of the many different, often fleeting forms of Time that make up my day.

    Being productive in this kind of environment must be like choosing the right shovel or wearing the right clothes – noticing the kind of work that fits the quality of your time. Being able to identify the kind of time you have, in your own Field Guide to Time, must be a first step.

    Imagine you and another trainer got together and could dream up your perfect training centre. What are some of the things that you would avoid, that have driven you crazy in the past, in various hotels and conference centres around the world? Heavy or fixed furniture, poorly lit rooms, carpeted walls, struggles getting one more flipchart at 11pm, getting internet connections for speakers – you name it. What trainers and facilitators want more than anything is flexibility. How might you design a centre for maximum flexibility?

    This morning I had the pleasure to visit just such a training venue outside of Geneva called Ecogia. It is the main training centre for the International Committee of the Red Cross. And in fact, it is the manifestation of the vision of two trainers, Christiane Amici Raboud, now the Director of Ecogia, and one of her ICRC colleagues, also a trainer at the time. They seemed to think of everything and built up a delightful learning environment for both their peers, and the participants who spend time at Ecogia.

    Each meeting room is the ultimate in flexibility. Everything is on wheels, the tables, the chairs, the projectors – there are even mobile units that people can wheel around after them to hold their materials and documentation (with handles at the front and perfect height for humans as opposed to smaller mammals). Each of these items has a very small overall footprint and weight – the tables quickly fold up into slim objects that look like flipcharts, the chairs are very light, the projector is in a trolley (and the cables are in the floor) so you can use any wall as a projection screen.

    Even the lighting is flexible. In the main room, the projector is linked to automatic blinds and dimmers, so when you are ready to go, you push the button and the lights immediately go off and the blinds down; when the off switch is pressed, everything lights up again. No fumbling around in the dark looking for blinds and switches.

    There are plenty of break out spaces, and to make it easy for groups to move around with their work, many walls are magnetic, and flipchart headers with strong magnets on them, filled with paper, are easy to take off one magnetic wall and into another room. Meeting rooms which have wall paper (the Centre was originally an 18th century orphanage, with modern additions, and has kept its charm), there are full length magnetic strips or clip in strips for flipcharts.

    Of course there are many great training centres in the world, frequently very expensive and exclusive, often the domain of private sector clients. However, Ecogia, which has the majority of its clientele with the ICRC, also rents its meeting rooms and sleeping rooms to other organizations, all at compassionate cost-recovery rates, in keeping with the ICRC’s community values. It also offers simplicity in both reservation, and an all-inclusive equipment etc. package. No negotiating late in the night with a junior manager who doesn’t want to part with that additional flipchart or projector because it is not on the reservation. Also surprisingly included – all the bedrooms and many small meeting rooms have internet-accessible computers, are connected to printers and have free phones!

    I must say, I was impressed. And I could clearly see, as Christiane kindly showed me around, the care and thought that had gone into every aspect of the centre. I love the idea that some trainers got together and tapped their learning about what works in training spaces, and then used it to make an innovative new place that uses learning for learning.

    I was interested to hear last week, from the Regional HR Director at Dupont, that for many companies the virtual office is now the norm and that companies are turning their attention to helping employees maintain connectivity, not only of the technical kind but also of the interpersonal kind.

    This may be the case for the private sector, but as far as I can tell it is still in an experimental stage for the not-for-profit sector. My organization for example, has a few people (only women I believe) who are working less than 100%, that gives them some flexibility, but no one (but me I think) is working part of my time from home as a rule. Experimenting with mobility has been interesting in an institutional culture which is very immediate and in some cases inpromptu. My observation is that dividing your time between a physical office and a home office demands a level of organization that is not always necessary if you routinely go into an office every day (for about 10 hours). You need to define and set some boundaries, and then keep both yourself and your colleagues mindful of them.

    The Dupont spokesperson said that the golden rule of mobile working, especially if you are doing it for work/life balance reasons, was to set limits, but still focus on a) flexibility and b) the customer. To make this work, particularly if you are a part of an office-based team, is to identify your customer (your immediate colleagues, your line manager, the top boss but probably not everybody) and keep your customers happy. It also seems that if you are in a results-based environment, it is easier to show that this distributed team system can work and be productive (perhaps even more productive than a traditional office-based team).

    It is also, ultimately, a perk. As the best people have more choice (HR is quickly becoming known as Talent Management in some industries), stay in the workforce longer (so salaries can reach their cap long before retirement), and the technology exists, I guess we will be seeing more people becoming mobile workers even in the non-profit sector. Institutions can also see that non-financial benefits work for employee retention and overall staff satisfaction. Still, there is a little fear about the empty institution; that social connections will be replaced by internet connections. So how can we make sure that the time people do spend together at work is really quality time, and not just coming in those big doors and going into a small office for the rest of the day (sending email to each other)? A workplace revolution needs to be accompanied by a workspace revolution….(and perhaps a small shift in institutional culture?)

    At the moment, I am at an NTL (National Training Laboratory) course on Group Process Consultation. We are learning about how to use this technique to help groups guide themselves to be more effective in their group processes.

    It is different than pure “facilitation” in that the Group Process Consultant (GPC) doesn’t do any of the up front work for the group (no standing at the flipchart, no developing ground rules, no notetaking). Instead the GPC’s work is focused helping the group perform those tasks itself. The Group Process Consultant will observe the group’s work and intervene periodically to notice and mirror back to the group some information and ideas about how the group is going about its task and what kind of group “maintenance” is needed for the participants to feel engaged and satisfied with the process. This particular technique is designed to reduce the group’s dependence over time on external help (like a facilitator) to achieve its goals. To me, it seems a little like being a group “psychologist.”

    In our opening day yesterday we spoke about how the course would be multi-leveled all the time. We would be working at the cognitive level by talking about theoretical models, methodologies, etc. We would be exploring the behavioural level through noticing what we are learning and practicing as a GPC. And we would be talking about the personal level and trying to understand as a Group Process Consultant “what I bring to the table”. So how can I be aware of myself in a process, how can I manage my assumptions, and notice how I react to things and how that might affect the group. Chuck Phillips, the course’s trainer, explained that in Group Process Consultation, “The delivery of the process is the delivery of ourselves. We are the process intervention.” So we are also trying to understand our own mental models and make sure they don’t get in the way of our work for a group.

    We also don’t want anything to get in the way of learning this week; even our learning environment is set up to help this. We are in a room with 20 soft chairs on wheels (which we use to scoot around into different discussion groups), but no tables. The trainer noted that when there are tables, people tend to hide behind them, or use them as a barrier between themselves and what is going on in the room. We can’t have that, so no tables.

    That might be an interesting feature of one of the rooms in the Learnscape we would like to develop at work. It would be nice to have a space to use where nothing is a barrier to process. A small exception might be made, however, for … footstools.

    If you could design your perfect Learnscape, what would it look like?

    We are in the process of putting together plans for a new building for our institution. We would love to have a purpose-built learnscape included in these plans. This would be a flexible learning space that would represent our institution’s learning and sustainability goals and be a physical representation of the way people will learn and work together in the future. We would be delighted to have your ideas on this.

    Here are some of the principles and features we are suggesting:

    Principle 1: Bringing people closer to nature – the Learning Lab would include indoor and outdoor learning. Glass doors on the main rooms would not only bring the external environment into the room visually, it would also allow learners to move their formal and informal discussions outdoors onto a patio area. There would also be an outdoor learning space for 10 people, and a green space for outdoor experiential learning activities.

    Principle 2: Supporting diversity – Adult learners have diverse learning preferences that are built upon culture, past educational experience, and their degree of openness to new ways of working and learning. The Learning Lab would include two main training rooms that could be merged for large group work. It would also feature a small informal room (Sandbox) with comfortable arm chairs and wall workspace for more intimate discussions. It would also have individual areas for more personalized work and reflection in the Blog Spot (IT space).

    Principle 3: Encouraging multiculturalism – The Learning Lab would draw on educational traditions from different cultures, linked with its goals to support diversity. It would include in its outdoor space, a Yurt (10 persons) for more intimate (fireside-type) discussions, a Stamptisch in the open meeting space for debate and sharing, and some flexible spaces that could either reflect more traditional learning environments, or be spaces for circles and storytelling.

    Principle 4: Convening, creativity and co-creation – Features of the Learning Lab would be designed to encourage convening, innovation, dialogue and co-creation of new ideas and actions. Here are a few of the ways that design would encourage these practices:

    * All the tables in the Lab would be round tables,
    * All rooms would be painted different warm, bright colours,
    * The chairs in the main training rooms would be different colours,
    * One entire wall of each room would be a white board,
    * No wall clocks would put pressure on participants or facilitators,
    * Learning spaces would be personalized with art from around the world,
    * More intimate spaces would have soft furnishing and carpets,
    * Different communication media would be available for participants to use – from the Blog spot IT space, to the equipment in the main learning rooms.

    Our goal for the Learning Lab is to create a learning space that promotes our goals in the world, that supports a diversity of learning styles and preferences, and is consistent with the needs of a learning organization devoted to sustainability. It would integrally link the internal world of the learner, to her/his colleagues, workplace, and to the wider world.

    What do you think? What can we add? What would you add/change to make your perfect Learnscape?