Harvard Business Review

The Rudeness Epidemic by Anne Kreamer

This post originally appeared on The Harvard Business Review.

When his three-hour board interview ended with an offer to join the executives for a beer, 35-year-old Martin* figured he’d nailed the job. He had spent the last two months interviewing for a position as director of operations at a sporting goods company. His resume was spot-on — he’d spent five years as a sporting goods sales rep and several years as an operations manager doing “everything from ordering for shops, to speaking with dealers, to sales.” Senior management at the new company knew him, his successful track record, and the companies he’d worked for. Slam dunk, right? Wrong.

Martin had participated in five interviews, between which he managed myriad back-and-forth e-mails and deliverables. At the company’s request, he created and submitted a five-year business plan and a master list of vendors and buyers. He was asked to explain his strategies for expanding distribution and introducing new products to market. At the time, Martin had felt uncomfortable about offering so much proprietary information to a company for whom he did not yet work, but colleagues who’d more recently been in the job market told him, “This is how the interviewing process works these days — you jump through hoops.” Martin decided he wanted the job, and if he had to give up the keys to the car to get it, he was going to hope for the best.

But after months of interviews and assignments, Martin said, “Instead of making me an offer, they told me they had to make a ‘really tough decision’ and ‘decided to move in a different direction’” — that direction was giving the position to the most junior board member, who lacked any hands-on experience. “We hope this won’t affect our relationship,” they told him. And with months of his “life down the drain,” but knowing that he worked in a small community, Martin felt obliged not come off as a sore loser. “But the fact of the matter is, I got taken.” His goal today? “To ruin this company.”

Maybe you’re thinking that Martin just didn’t know how to play his cards right. Or that maybe, in the end, he simply wasn’t the best candidate for the position. But Martin is not alone. His utter frustration over the hiring process is pretty much par for the course these days. This type of behavior is happening more and more often. Ask five acquaintances about recent hiring experiences and I bet you’ll encounter one friend who personally has suffered something similar. Data compiled for The New York Times by Glassdoor found that an average interview process in 2013 lasted 23 days versus an average of 12 days in 2009. And time-consuming assignments and auditions for candidates as chronicled in the stories here, and here, and here, are the new normal.

This problem is the result of several factors:

Fear of decision-making. Back when I was hiring people as an executive at a large business, I’d solicit candidates, look at a batch of resumes, decide who had the requisite skills on paper, and then interview the top three or four. Each interview lasted about 30 minutes. I had my standard set of questions that probed their personalities, attitudes, ambitions, skill set, and prospective fit with the company ethos. If two potential hires seemed close, I’d have a breakfast with each and then make a decision. And I personally wrote everyone who didn’t get the job. This wasn’t rocket science.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when the hiring process went off the rails, but I believe it began in the late 90s, when cost cutting became a mania and headcount was slashed to the bone, requiring every employee to do the work of many. With so little margin for error, every hire became a fraught decision, and the fear of making a mistake loomed larger and larger. To protect themselves and validate their choices, managers began to seek more and more “evidence” of their thoroughness in vetting their hires. New hurdles were added until someone interested in a director-level position, such as Martin, is now routinely required to submit the kind of analysis and proposals that were once the province of in-house executives or paid consultants.

A culture of rudeness. Rachel, a 60-year-old former news producer turned freelance marketer, was introduced by a friend to the CEO of “a fast growing ‘deep content’ company with clients like GE and Xerox.” The company seemed like a good fit for Rachel’s portfolio of skills, and employed a large staff of experienced journalists, artists, and web designers. After a brief phone conversation, the CEO wanted to meet with Rachel “ASAP.” During their first in-person conversation, Rachel and he discovered shared viewpoints, and after talking for an hour, the CEO asked Rachel to meet with his editorial VP. But first, the CEO gave Rachel his card. “This is my direct line,” he said, “and I return every call on this line. Call me by the end of the week.” Rachel did as requested. Six weeks later, after several awkward interactions with the CEO’s assistant, he finally took Rachel’s call.

CEO: “Hi Rachel, I’m too busy to talk today.”

Rachel: “I understand —maybe Monday?”

CEO: “Well, I can’t commit to that right now, either. And I need to tell you, it doesn’t inspire me that you’ve been calling so much.”

Rachel: “On the day we met you asked me to call you two days later. That was six weeks ago. I’ve called less than once a week.”

CEO: “Well, every time you call your name doesn’t go to the to top of the list – it moves to the bottom! This doesn’t mean I’ve lost interest in you and your work, but it’s not cool to do what you’re doing.”

Rachel: “I understand. I won’t call again. Thank you.”

The colleague who set up the initial contact told Rachel: “There is no bad intent here — like me, he gets 300 emails a day and works 18-hour days across five continents. It’s not personal.”

I wrote a book about emotion in the workplace called It’s Always Personal. And no matter what others say, it nearly always is. People hiring today have precious little time to read, process information, and respond to even urgent issues like staffing. But this comes at great peril to their organizations and to the rude employer. Instead of fostering good will among the prospective hires they interview, enemies like I-live-to-see-this-company-destroyed Martin are made.

My time is more important than your time. An author I know was approached by a publisher to write a book for which the publisher had decided there was a market. The writer was asked to write a proposal, but wasn’t told that he was only one among many other people from whom they’d solicited proposals until midway through the process. That process took “months and months and months,” he says, and “it was always a hurry-up-and-wait situation, where they made me jump through hoop after hoop — every one of them a last-minute-need-it-immediately kind of thing. And then I’d hear nothing for weeks.” When his proposal was finally accepted, they wanted the finished book in six weeks. “It took them about eight months to make a decision to accept the proposal — which, by the way, was their idea in the first place, and which they had approached me about — and then they expected me to just whip the entire book out of thin air in six weeks? What’s wrong with these people?”

This is happening to almost everyone I know looking for any kind of work, even those who have been invited into the process — freelance, contract, full-time. The prospective employer/client needs everything now and then it’s radio silence for days, weeks, months — leaving the prospective supplier/employee in the unenviable position of feeling like they must beg for feedback. During the last decade, it became acceptable behavior to simply not answer e-mails. But that’s the worst kind of ego-sucking, demoralizing power play imaginable. We’re all busy. That’s no excuse for disrespect. And the awful truth? I don’t think the employers have a clue. Fearful of losing their own jobs by making a wrong choice, they’ve lost perspective on what matters.

So what’s lost amid all these changes?

At a time when the buzzwords in corporate America are innovation, disruption, and game-changers — all actions that require recruiting the best talent in the marketplace — organizations, instead, are artificially creating bureaucratic inefficiencies that are inexcusably cumbersome and that result in the creation of legions of antagonists. It’s a waste of human capital, it’s a huge waste of everyone’s productive time, and it damages the reputation of an organization and the individual doing the hiring. Jobs are scarce enough, and the general economic vibe is insecure enough that companies and managers believe that they can be cavalier about how they treat people outside the organization — but in this thinking lies madness. Now that 20th-century-style employer loyalty and benefits are a thing of the past, employees return the disfavor, churning through organizations at a rapid clip. If a typical new hire is only going to stay at a company for two to four years, why sweat the decision so much? Be responsive. Act fast. Trust your gut.

Employers need to streamline the hiring process, calling upon both common sense and basic good manners. Here are six easy actions:

Make the process transparent from the outset for prospective hires

State the timetable for making a decision

Offer updates if the process extends beyond that timeframe

Limit the “tryout” requirements — proposals, plans, original work — and make the deliverables clear at the start of the process

Make the timeframe for submitting any materials reasonable — 3 to 5 business days, never tomorrow

Make certain that everyone who’s being considered for a position is given the courtesy of a definitive response within the stated timeframe. Just as e-mail has compounded our daily load, so too does it liberate us from making those hard calls person to person. Use the tool to your advantage.

The wildly successful actress/producer/director Lena Dunham perhaps said it best in a recent interview: “I’m never going to be the person who lets e-mail and voicemail sit for weeks — I’m going to be the person who responds, even if the answer is no.” How refreshing.

*Names have been changed

Not Taking Risks Is The Riskiest Career Move Of All by Anne Kreamer

This piece first appeared in Harvard Business Review.

Mark was a survivor. Until he was fired in 2012, six months shy of his 50th birthday, he’d done everything right — rising through the ranks of the book publishing industry, from editorial assistant to associate editor to senior editor, then into management as an editor-in-chief. But as e-books and Amazon destabilized the industry, and waves of consolidation contracted available jobs, Mark (not his real name) admits today that he hadn’t “paid attention to the writing on the wall.” He confessed that he’d spent the 18 months prior to being fired living in denial as his team was reorganized. “Despite that,” he says, “I clung to my job rather than start thinking about how to leave. At that point, I couldn’t conceive of a life outside of the confines of corporate publishing, of not being at the center of the club I’d been a part of — and a star in — since the age of 21.”

Mark’s story is a cautionary tale for us all. In my experience, Mark’s kind of wishful thinking — that things will sort themselves out on their own — rarely works out. Not taking action has costs that can be as consequential as taking risks; it’s simply less natural to calculate and pay attention to the “what-ifs” of inaction. In today’s marketplace, where jobs and job categories are being destroyed and invented at an accelerating rate, I’d argue that the riskiest move one can make is to assume that your industry or job is secure. Just ask former employees of Countrywide, British Petroleum, or Newsweek if you doubt me. Former Chief Talent Officer of Netflix, Patty McCord, says that companies should stop lying to people about their job security, because there’s simply no such thing.

Research I conducted in 2012, 2013, and 2014 with the global advertising agency J. Walter Thompson for Risk/Reward, my forthcoming book, suggests that anxiety about our job futures weighs heavily these days. More than half of the respondents to our surveys — all over the U.S., with people ranging from janitors to CEOs, old as well as young — were thinking of changing not just their jobs, but their careers. Think about that. Half of all Americans long to do something dramatically different with their working lives.

But it’s hard to jettison a career decades in the making in the pursuit of something new. There’s an enormous gap between dreaming about doing something different, particularly if one has spent years building skills and rising through the ranks, and actually doing anything about it. It’s terrifying to think about just letting go of one’s hard-earned law degree and years invested on the law-firm partner track in order to write for television, as an acquaintance of mine has done. Most people dream, but fail to act.

What stops us? There are all sorts of complicated financial and behavioral barriers to risk-taking — loss and risk aversion, the sunk-cost fallacy, poor planning — but basically it boils down to the fact that as human beings, we are wired to resist giving up the known for the unknown. None of us tolerates ambiguity well — particularly when the losses and gains underpin our livelihoods or the projected long-term happiness of our families. Psychologically, particularly during tough economic times, people feel driven to hold onto an unsatisfactory job rather than gamble on something with uncertain odds that might be better in the long run. And we all have different levels of innate risk tolerance that inform our calculus for evaluating probable gains and losses. So how can we turn self-defeating inaction into sensible action?

Start by building vibrant networks. In Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, Herminia Ibarra, an organizational behavior professor at INSEAD, writes that people’s existing “contacts [don’t] help them reinvent themselves…the networks we rely on in a stable job are rarely the ones that lead us to something new and different.” There’s a reason, when we’re interested in making a 45- or 90-degree career shift, why most jobs suggested by headhunters rarely feel right. The majority of people we know in one line of work can only imagine us continuing to do the same thing.  So as we meet more people employed in a wide range of professions, our ability to imagine ourselves doing something different grows stronger.

Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter discovered that the contacts most helpful to people looking for new jobs were neither their closest friends, nor new acquaintances, but rather people with whom they had relatively weak ties that had been forged and maintained over several years. In addition, the more different their contacts’ occupations were from their own jobs, the more likely people were to successfully make a major career change.

Perhaps the biggest impediment to change in our working lives is the sense that any significant change has to be all or nothing. I either quit my miserable job or just suck it up and grind along.I’ve got to make a comprehensive business plan before I test whether my English muffin/croissant hybrid and baked-goods truck can generate enough income for me to live. I’m good at structuring logical arguments so I should quit sales and become a lawyer. Instead, we need to break problems into small actions. The more logically-oriented person might, for instance, test-drive the legal profession as a paralegal before assuming the expensive three-year commitment of getting a law degree. The amateur cook with a killer recipe could approach a local bakery with his novel product to see if they’d be willing to sell it, getting market feedback before spending time crafting a business plan for a new venture. The person in the miserable job could volunteer weekends in an organization they think might make them happier — learning what the work is really like from the inside before chucking it all on a dream that may be a fantasy. Then, armed with real-world data, each of those hypothetical career-changers would have more clarity and about the correct next steps. The trick is to start with the immediately, manageably doable and do.

We need to continue to find new challenges, and to acquire the skills to meet those challenges. Moreover, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, the act of committing to goals also provides structure and meaning to our lives that leads to more overall happiness. She quotes G.K. Chesterton in this regard: “There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.”

Real life, by necessity, is improvisational and interactive, crafted incrementally through our responses to the particular circumstances at this moment in time, and the next, and then the next. As author Tom Peters wrote, “I have said and mean with all my heart I’ve only learned one thing ‘for sure’ in 48 years: WTTMSW. Whoever tries the most stuff wins.”

Make A Stranger Believe In You by Anne Kreamer

I recently received an e-mail sent to my business address that began with the salutation "Dear Ms. Anne," — the kind of greeting that suggested that the rest of the note would offer me riches from some recently deceased Estonian cousin I didn't know I had. It continued, "I know you have no idea who I am, however, I will try to keep this as short and to the point as possible" — words destined to cause a further sinking feeling about what was to come. But in the seconds I skimmed the note, a few words jumped out at me and I was intrigued. In three short paragraphs, Zanele Mutepfa, a junior at Portland State University in Oregon, told me that she was an immigrant Zimbabwean-born orphan and youth advocate who aspired to be a television talk show host. With a bravado that might have been off-putting, she said, "I assure you, my dynamic life story will one day hit headlines...but most importantly change lives, it just needs to be shared with the perfect person." She was coming to New York City — might I have time to meet with her?I had moved from the hinterlands to New York myself, 35 years ago, with virtually no professional contacts, so when she closed her note by saying, "Some may think one of the strangest things to do is believe in a stranger, but if

not one stranger believed in us, once upon a time, where would we all be today?... someone did it for you."

Yes. Yes they did. So I Googled Zanele, found a link indicating she was who she said she was, and agreed to meet. And as I discovered, so did several other media professionals whom Zanele had e-mailed cold. In this challenging job market, I think it's worthwhile to explore why these busy professionals took the time to respond and help Zanele. I contacted a few of them to find out, and have come away with some ideas that might help other people looking for work — and not just those entering the workforce for the first time.

Have clear professional goals

Before she e-mailed anyone, Zanele sat down and wrote an outline for herself, articulating her several goals: to become a talk show host, establish a women's empowerment organization, become an author — and maybe become a plus-size fashion model as well. While these are crazily ambitious and at first glance unrealistically expansive goals for a college student, two unifying themes — to work in the media and be a catalyst for helping other women — helped her target her search.

Cast a wide but focused net

Zanele's focus on media professions (she wasn't exploring legal or financial positions, for instance) allowed her to channel her search towards those operations (Oprah Winfrey Network, Oxygen Network, Essence, Ebony, YWCA) whose missions seemed to align with her dreams. "It was important for me to truly believe in what they do," she told me, "in order for my letter to have truth." Like any modern day sleuth, she used every tool to find the right contacts, web-searching terms such as "corporate women authors," "women in magazines," scouring sites like LinkedIn, company websites, Twitter, and executive profiles. Since most companies have standard e-mail formats, she sent multiple emails in every conceivable format until she didn't get a "mail delivery error." Within her relatively narrowcast objective, she contacted as many people as possible — eventually writing to 2,000 people. Thirty responded to those e-mails and six agreed to meet with her in person. With that kind of a response rate, the benefits of going wide are obvious.

Be authentic — tell a personal story

Dina Gusovsky, a broadcast journalist and columnist, was one of the media professionals who responded. While most people would think that being as brief and to the point in their cover note as possible would be the most professional and likely to succeed approach, Dina's response indicates that the opposite may true. She told me that she agreed to meet with Zanele "because I think at one point we were all Zaneles. Sometimes I feel like I still am. For creative people...the journey never ends. Whatever success I have had so far is directly correlated to all the people who gave me a chance. Not just those who decided to put me on television, but those who listened, those who gave me advice, and those who mentored me." But as an emigre from the Soviet Union, for Dina it was Zanele's immigrant background that resonated most. Her meeting with Zanele was "probably less pay-it-forward and more pay-it-backward. I think all those people who had helped me and continue to help would be proud that I was in some way continuing this wonderful trend."

Offer a variety of connection points

Janice Huff, the chief meteorologist for WNBC TV in New York, responds to lots of inquiries from young people interested in becoming meteorologists, but rarely takes the extra step to meet with them. However, Zanele had susssed out that Janice was a fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister, and personalized her note referencing that shared connection. For Janice, "that's what made me decide I'd love to meet her and help her." Zanele took the time to find shared interests for about 20% of her targets and mentioned them in her notes. So before you reach out it pays to research, and determine where your connection points might lie.

Don't be afraid to show vulnerability

Ellianna Placas, a fashion consultant and another immigrant (from Australia), and the former Fashion Director for Essence Magazine, was impressed by Zanele's ability to "show honesty and vulnerability and risk, putting her faith in human nature first — a brave and open beginning. 'Believe in a stranger' was so romantic, yet realistically appealing to me. Maybe I am imbuing it with more than Zanele intended, but it held universal appeal. We should all be helping each other. Zanele came to me for advice, she left as a new friend."

Be open about where the path takes you

After several people in New York City had responded to her letter, Zanele decided she had reason enough to make the trip from Portland. And while she did not leave New York with a firm job offer, she will be returning to follow up on the leads developed in her first round of conversations. "I learned so much about myself and exactly what makes me tick," Zanele told me after her trip. "I believe it is so important to know or hold a conversation with people who have career positions you aspire to have someday. The value of relationships and conversation is incredibly important to me. Those conversations will not magically appear on my phone and g-mail, I have to go and get them. No, not everyone will respond and not everyone 'needs' to — only the people who are meant to."

Ellianna Placas put it best: "No one knows how we arrive in the places or jobs we do. We did not do it by ourselves, we were surrounded by people along the way who gave tiny bits of advice, who we watched, who helped us make and not make choices."

That's something we should all keep in mind, especially as we make the upward and sideways journeys in our own careers. To paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton, at some point in our lives we have all stood on the shoulders of (seemingly gigantic) strangers, and there comes a time when we need to give others the chance to stand on ours.

Why Big Bird Remains Powerfully — and Globally — Significant by Anne Kreamer

Big Bird has had a big presence in the collective conversation lately, thanks to mentions in the first two presidential debates. The outpouring of support for the giant yellow puppet that followed the first debate is a testament to his and Sesame Street's continued relevance in people's lives. Sesame Street, in fact, is a great case study of a brand that has managed to remain powerful over decades and across cultures. In the 1980s, I was part of the team that sold Sesame Street around the world — either licensed and broadcast in English or in locally adapted indigenous-language co-productions. Long before "think global, act local" was the conventional wisdom for how corporations should operate in

the international interconnected marketplace, we at Children's Television Workshop (CTW), as it was known then, pioneered the development of a flexible global brand. Our approach to programming was to maintain the values, look and feel of the parent company and its main product, Sesame Street — carefully crafted live-action and animation and puppetry segments, woven together with a curriculum designed by educators, writers, producers and artists to help pre-school kids learn basic cognitive skills, to appreciate cultural diversity, and to achieve broader goals, like learning how to handle conflict. At the same time, we wanted to enable our co-producing partners to work with local educators, writers, and producers to craft the specific early childhood educational goals unique to their own countries. For example, in those early co-productions, the North American urban street of the original series was replaced by a plaza in Latin America, a strassa in Germany, or a rue in France. And those international stageset streets were populated by original puppet characters — parrots, hedgehogs, bears, and camels characteristic of the region and created by local producers.

Today — 44 years into Sesame Street's run — the program airs in 146 countries, with 23 co-productions in places as politically and culturally complex as South Africa and Afghanistan. I was curious to see how Sesame Workshop had continued to grow its operations over the years while remaining true to its mission to improve the lives of kids. I called Shari Rosenfeld, Vice President in Sesame Workshop's Global Education department. As a case study, she pointed to a venture launched in India in 2006 — Galli Galli Sim Sim — to identify a few of the key drivers for how they've remained a relevant, dynamic global brand:

Identifying The Country-Specific Critical Needs First "According to the McKinsey Global Institute's "bird of gold" index, India is entering a period of sustained, but unequal, economic growth with 161.1 million (or 67% of its population) gaining access to mass media. That leaves 33% of the country with limited access to mass media and educational opportunities. And while school enrollment is at an all-time high, UNICEF has reported that the educational system is "inadequately developed." "The scale of this underserved market, coupled with Sesame Workshop's 40 years of expertise in partnering with local educational and programming experts, created an important opportunity," said, Rosenfeld, "for us to meet critical needs on an unprecedented scale, while at the same time building toward a future that would allow our work in India to be financially sustainable."

Being Willing To Try New Operating Models According to Rosenfeld, "unlike most of the other markets in which we co-produce, Sesame Streethad never been broadcast in India. The fact that our audience had zero prior exposure to the brand created both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was that we couldn't trade on our global brand equity and iconic characters; at the same time, the lack of familiarity with the brand gave us greater latitude in creating a local interpretation of the Sesame experiences. That, combined with the enormous potential for large-scale impact, was a key driver in thinking through a new operational model in India. As always, we built a strong coalition of partners including broadcasters, educators, production companies, foundations, and corporations, but rather than manage the operation from New York, we decided to embark on a new path that would evolve our approach from 'project management' to 'social entrepreneurship,' by building a new 30-person organization from the ground up."

Embracing New And Multiple Means Of Distribution The limited access to broadcast technology (among the targeted 33% underserved target population) has spurred the Galli Galli Sim Sim team to learn from the market, improving and evolving content to maximize distribution. Rosenfeld says they've piloted the delivery of content through mobile phones, including teacher-training videos which are on pre-loaded sim cards. SWI has created community radio with call in from parents and educators, and "Radiophone," which delivers radio episodes via mobile phones. Outreach materials in 9 local languages on topics as diverse as health, nutrition, financial literacy and school readiness have been distributed to millions of children throughout India. And more than 200 television episodes have been broadcast on India's national broadcaster, Doordarshan, and on Pogo and Cartoon Channel, India's destination channels for young kids.

Propagating Lessons Learned Internally The Sesame Workshop India (SWI) enterprise has created a hub for the exchange of ideas and expertise for the region. Rosenfeld describes how members of the Afghanistan and Indonesian teams have attended content and production workshops conducted by the Galli Galli Sim Sim team in conjunction with select personnel from Sesame in New York. "Sesame Workshop India's outreach team has worked on location in Nigeria and Indonesia, supporting local efforts to develop outreach initiatives and explore new business models; having our partners recognize the value of each other's expertise and share their original content keeps all of us more nimble and engaged," she says. The benefit of this shared learning is invaluable across all of their efforts — encouraging a kind of permeable membrane of growth and innovation throughout the entire organization — domestic and international.

Taking The Long View "With SWI, Rosenfeld adds, "Sesame Workshop has extended the horizon line for success by creating long-term development plans that are building toward a base of diversified revenue sources, forging mass distribution through government-run preschools and cultivating a culture of innovation that pilots new content that reaches children across socio-economic and the urban/rural divide. The entrepreneurial spirit that characterizes SWI is born from the latitude to develop new enterprises, like launching a pre-school [classroom] business through a new franchise model, that will not only deliver on core educational objectives, but will also serve as a critical revenue stream necessary to cross-subsidize other work."

* * *

The creators and distributors of Sesame Street were successfully pursuing an aggressive global strategy 30 years ago, before "globalization" was a common concept or phrase in America. It has done so by being clear and steadfast about its essential brand values while also seeking to understand deeply and flexibly adapt to local conditions and norms. It is an important model for 21st century companies as they seek to be relevant in an international marketplace, where being a successful American brand is not in and of itself a guarantee of global success.

The Rise of Coworking Office Spaces by Anne Kreamer


"Coworking" office spaces, leasable by the day or month (think RocketSpace in San Francisco or The Hive in Denver) are multiplying in cities all over the country. Demand is predicted to expand by as much as 40% in 2013. And for good reason. It's no secret that the efficiency-driven modern office is a joyless and at best neutral venue in most people's lives. (Think: boxy cubicles that don't enable privacy or community, lack of natural light, incoherent design, etc.) And experiments to improve office spaces are nothing new. From the "college campus" envisioned by legendary adman Jay Chiat, where employees came to the office to gather information and then work wherever they wanted within the building, to Steve Jobs' Pixar campus, fluid, open plans have been touted as environments that lead to greater collegiality and productivity. But the 21st century workforce, increasingly telecommuting and/or bouncing from job to job and city to city, is making those "modern" late-20th-century office concepts feel quaint.

To better understand what's going on, I spent time at Grind in New York City, an invitation-only co-working space. For $35 a day or $500 a month, 60 to 120 people populate Grind's 7,500 square feet at any given time. Benjamin Dyett, one of Grind's three founders, describes their members as "free radicals," or people who "network endlessly and collaborate constantly. They choose when and how they do what they do, on their own terms. They don't want job security, they want career fluidity."

It's a setup that clearly seems to be working for a growing number of people, and represents a cultural shift that is a corollary to (but extends beyond) the out-sourcing and employee churn of a top-down flexible labor force. Like cousins of the Chiat or Jobs workspaces, where full-time employees devote themselves to a single cult-like institution in groovy architecture that encourages playful collaboration, the new co-working spaces thrive on a constantly changing cast of characters — all with different skills, experience and business goals, where members are creating and running many different kinds of enterprises.

What makes these co-working spaces so attractive? (And what, in turn, can more traditional offices learn from them?)

1. They offer collaborative networks, built-in resources, and a dynamic ecosystem

While getting out of the house to work for free in the quasi-community of a coffee shop might feel like a no-strings, easily-accessible kind of co-working environment, don't be fooled. Free wifi places are fine as social gathering spots, but the random non-working others who share that space surely won't help you find new colleagues or generate development leads. Spanish-born Roberto Alcazar, who started his branded content agency EOIntegration.com at Grind at the end of 2011, told me one of the things he likes about Grind, "is that you get to interact whether you want to or not. There are lots of people with different backgrounds and disciplines and it keeps you up to speed and up to date. A five-minute chat with that investor or that start-up guy can prove to be invaluable." Former banker Hans Reichstetter, who runs three very different businesses in various stages of development out of Grind, sparkled when describing the huge diversity of people doing all sorts of things: freelancers, creatives, lawyers, entrepreneurs, accountants, coders — you see it all. "I needed an industrial designer who knew CAD and there was a guy here who knew it really well." And the fact that one's workplace neighbors are not official colleagues can have an upside in the lack of competitive game-playing and back-stabbing.

2. They foster innovation.

By attracting a variety of members from myriad backgrounds and industries, the looser connections of these constantly churning spaces also appear to have innovation advantages. Martin Ruef, a sociologist at Princeton who's studied entrepreneurs, found that those who broadened their universe of contacts from small groups of familiar acquaintances to larger, more loosely-connected networks of people were far more innovative. As another of Grind's founders, Stuart Warshaw, says, "Grind is a case study in collaboration across many disciplines and among established professionals."

3. They make starting a business simpler.

Former CNN.com sports executive Leora Blumberg, who is part of a Grind-based start-up called Personalized Media, says that the company found its way to Grind because they work on projects on an ad hoc basis with people in Europe and Washington, and they required the flexibility of operating from a place suited to a highly variable daily head count. Tom Chernaik, a lawyer running CMP.ly, a company that offers a transparent way to disclose legal terms within the social media context, thought his time at Grind was going to be temporary, but he sees no reason yet to give up the benefits of ultra-flexibility and low overhead. "With seven employees, we're at the tipping point," he says, "where it might be cheaper to get dedicated office space, but even if we do, I'll keep a daily membership here so we have access to the community."

What to Know Before You Go:

If you're interested in working from a collaborative workspace, explore the various options in your city. Visit a few on day passes to see which has the best vibe and infrastructure for you. The pricing varies from place to place — ranging from $150/month to $600/month and $15/day to $50/day. There are also a whole range of sector-specific spaces, specialized for tech, creative, food, or educational professionals. It's just one of the many ways that companies are capitalizing on flexible workspaces for a flexible workforce — a trend we can all expect to see more of in the future.

Follow the conversation at Harvard Business Review.

UPDATE: 9.24.12 Below is a clip of my appearance on CNBC

Appearing on CNBC's Squawk on the Street, Anne Kreamer, Harvard Business Review contributor, says the demand for co-working spaces are on the rise and reinventing the way small businesses lease space. -Sept. 24, 2012