The Conversational Firm Shows Pros and Cons of an Open Work Culture


"The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media" is about redefining what you think a business can and can't do. For ten months, Dr. Catherine Turco followed a business that dived headfirst into the world of transparency, remote work, and open workspaces from the beginning. The book helps readers get an unprecedented look into what the future workplace that so many experts talk about and so few business owners dare to try.

The Conversational Firm: the Pros and Cons of an Open Work Culture

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Several trends are impacting the workplace. There is the push for businesses to become more “social”, more transparent, more Millennial-friendly, more “flat” and more innovative. Is all of this “more” making our time at work better? The Conversational Firm: Rethinking Bureaucracy in the Age of Social Media actually attempts to answer this question with a real company that started off without an organizational chart, disclosed the entire operating budget to all employees, allowed employees to drink beer at work, and had no formal vacation policy.

What is The Conversational Firm About?

The Conversational Firm follows 10 months in the life of one company (given the fictional name of TechCo) as it evolves through many of the “future workplace trends” discussed in the media. Written from interviews and observations by a wide sampling of employees, the book looks at what it means to work in a place where Millennials really own the business. The book looks at what it means to work as a TechCo customer service representative who can chat with other agents during a call, leave her desk when she wants, and answer complex calls without consulting a supervisor. It also looks at what it means to work as a TechCo engineer with an unlimited vacation policy, access to beer and food at any time, and no set “office hours” as long as the work gets done.

While the above scenario might seem like heaven for any customer service representative or engineer, there is more to the story.

Maintaining a transparent and “open” work culture sounds like a worker’s dream come true. In reality, it becomes more confusing than either the employees or employers expect. This new environment requires a new negotiation of rights and responsibilities. Workers embrace their new-found freedom but still desire guidance and structure. Employers struggle to balance control with the freedom they have promised their workers.

In other words, The Conversational Firm is a rough-and-tumble ride through the latest workplace trends simultaneously celebrated and mocked by business experts. It is a guide to a new type of business, one that embraces a more interactive two-way conversation between management and employees who must find a new way to operate a company.

Author Dr. Catherine J. Turco is a former investment banker in the technology industry and Harvard Presidential Scholar who became an economic sociologist, organizational ethnographer, and MIT professor. As a consultant, she has worked for clients such as The Boston Red Sox.

What Was Best About The Conversational Firm?

The best part of The Conversational Firm is the detailed real-life observation Dr. Turco brings to the book. Most “future of the workplace” books rely on theory or a basic case study to prove their point. “The Conversational Firm” actually provides both, case study and theory, but on a much deeper level. As an organizational ethnographer, Turco spent over 10 months with the company depicted in her book. During that period, she had an unprecedented level of access to the company’s employees and resources. This access enabled her to gain an incredibly informed perspective on the workplace of the future.

What Could Have Been Done Differently?

The Conversational Firm is a detailed observational study about the potential future world of work. It is not a prescriptive book, so readers won’t get advice on creating the “perfect” open workspace. In fact, readers get a glimpse instead of the confusing situations arising when TechCo attempts to maintain a workplace with “open” policies and benefits associated with a Millenial-friendly workplace. For example, the book mentions complaints from customer service representatives about noise in the workplace that makes it harder to do theor jobs. But it doesn’t provide a satisfactory answer for that problem for the business highlighted in the book or for the reader.

Why Read The Conversational Firm?

The Conversational Firm is designed for anyone who wants to understand how the “future of the workplace” would actually look if a company were laid out using the latest workplace trends as a guide. The book shares 10 months in the real-life story of such a firm. Iy is a company bold enough to run without a human resources department (until its fifth year), or restrictions on free food and beer. Reading the book gives managers and employees a perspective on what might be necessary to incorporate these trends and more into a practical work place of tomorrow.

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Charles Franklin Charles Franklin is a Book Reviewer for Small Business Trends. He has a background as a professional reviewer, and is also a content provider and customer relations professional.