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Hosting a school taught us lessons about ourselves

Posted by Chad O'Connor  May 23, 2013 11:00 AM

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[Editor's Note: In case you missed Global Business Hub Contributor Ellen Keiley's segment on RadioBDC earlier this week, you can listen to it here.]

When Communispace designed our new headquarters at Atlantic Wharf during 2010, we deliberately included expansion space that we could grow into. At our former office in Watertown, we had always grown quickly. As a result, our space was discontinuous and extremely cramped with people sitting at makeshift desks often located in hallways. In the new Boston location, we wanted to spread out and have plenty of room to expand into as the company grew.

But we realized quickly that once we were all settled in the new office the energy level of our space felt different. It is a beautiful office, but it felt quiet. We had 350 people spread out in a space that could fit 550, there were large areas of empty workstations. We realized the cramped environment of our old space actually had a value we overlooked. That situation created a high sense of energy. This did not translate in the new larger office environment, and we started looking at ways to change that.

So in October 2012, when the Startup Institute (then the Boston Startup School) approached us about hosting their 2012 Fall Program, it seemed something worth considering. After all, we had an entire area of wide open space which we intended to fill with workstations in late 2013. With so much focus in Boston on space sharing partnerships bringing young startups together with seasoned companies being facilitated by organizations like Workbar, we felt it would be a great opportunity to help an innovative and exciting, new organization. We also thought Communispace could benefit from the experience. So we explored ways to make it happen.

Meeting with Aaron O’Hearn, the Co-Founder and CEO of the Startup Institute, right away we knew there was a fit. Communispace has been around since 1999, but there is still a thriving entrepreneurial spirit here because of the very nature of the work we do, and many of us come from startup backgrounds. Aaron’s enthusiasm about his vision for the Startup Institute was contagious and we wanted to be a part of it.

Despite having enough space for them, the idea of injecting over 70 people, including 60 students into our environment was somewhat intimidating. There was concern from some of the staff that having so many outsiders in our environment would have a negative impact on the culture of Communispace, a culture we value and go to great lengths to preserve. There was no furniture for them and at the time the open area had no internet access. We also sponsored several in-house wellness events for our staff in that space. These wellness events had become very popular with our staff, so we wanted to find a way to accommodate both.

We thought long and hard about how this could work, and what benefits our staff would enjoy from the experience. In the end, we decided to give it a try.

The Startup Institute provided its own furniture, and we were able to provide wireless internet access to the area. We worked with their program’s event schedule to work around our wellness events. Once we overcame the logistical hurdles, we just needed to deal with the culture shock of integrating our office with the students.

It was not always easy. During their opening week we had learning experiences. Their groups would often break after a class all together; the hallways would be crazy. Some people said it felt like what High School was like, after the bells rang and everyone crowded the hallways. Lines actually formed in the bathrooms and in refreshment areas, like at a sports stadium. To address these issues, the Startup Institute team and the Communispace facilities team met regularly and found ways to work through them. Quickly, reports of incidents decreased and then disappeared altogether.

And when they did everything about the partnership felt right. The Startup Institute hosted fun events in our space (such as a Trivia Event, and others attended by area business leaders) and brought in many interesting speakers. They always invited Communispace to participate in these activities. Communispace received some positive press for being a part of the session and increased exposure in the Boston business community. Communispace even hired one of their graduates to a full time position. We viewed the experience so positively that we invited them back for their Spring 2013 program. And we think they liked it here too – they posted this video as a thank you to Communispace.

So what did we learn from this? We learned that we can invite outsiders into our world and that they will not disrupt our culture. In fact, they can contribute to it. We learned that taking a risk does indeed bring rewards. Rewards include the rich relationships we developed with the Startup Institute that will last long after their departure. We also know that we played a part in helping a great new organization establish itself.

Now the space sits empty, awaiting the 60 workstations being built there this summer to be populated by our staff. But it will be a while before we stop thinking of it as the Startup Institute space.

Jack Cahill is Global Facilities Manager of Communispace, the leader in providing Online Consumer Insights Communities for Market Research.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
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