Hosting a Jelly

August 2011

Last Friday I was lucky enough to host a Melbourne Jelly at The University of Melbourne’s Woodward Conference centre. So far, everyone I’ve told about the Jelly has asked “What’s a Jelly?”, so let me explain.

What is a Jelly?

According to:

Jelly is a casual working event. It’s taken place in over a hundred cities where people have come together (in a person’s home, a coffee shop, or an office) to work for the day. We provide chairs and sofas, wireless internet, and interesting people to talk to, collaborate with, and bounce ideas off of.

You bring a laptop (or whatever you need to get your work done) and a friendly disposition.

Watch this video about Jelly, or read about it in Wired,

The Melbourne ?packet? of Jelly is run by @pat and @irldexter – two lovely guys who amazed me with their professional approach to hosting something that is, at it’s most basic level, a free office environment for people to work from. Donal came prepared with industrial strength wireless internet gear and was only too happy to let us use it in order to ensure that people were not hindered by their technology.

Why Host Jelly?

Prior to hosting this Jelly I had never been to one, but had heard great things from many in the Melbourne web and Ruby on Rails community. By way of support, I thought it would be good to offer up some of the facilities that I have easy access to by virtue of the fact that I work for a large University (The University of Melbourne). The University has a mission statement and strategy involving things like Community Engagement and Knowledge Transfer so Jelly felt like a perfect fit. Selfishly, I also felt it would be easier to convince my workplace to allow me to use space somewhere on campus than it would be to convince them to allow my team to head out to another co-working location. For whatever reason (and I think there’s a blog post in this), I still feel awkward about asking to work from offsite despite the fact that I tend to get far more done.

The other reason I wanted to host Melbourne Jelly is that the view from the Woodward conference centre is amazing (perhaps the best view in Melbourne?). Working 19/20 days from an office that no windows, squeaky doors and ridiculously temperamental temperature control is less than desirable when compared to working in a gorgeous conference centre overlooking Melbourne, the bay and surrounding suburbs. Funnily enough, even though the University has a commitment to producing great learning spaces for its students, that commitment doesn’t seem to extend *quite *as far to its staff (there are pockets of awesomeness for a lucky few though).

As well as the personal benefits, for an institution as large as @unimelb, hosting an event like Jelly and inviting staff to attend is another way to break down internal political/organisational silos and to encourage a more entrepreneurial culture. I wrote the following to send around to University web staff (and our internal yammer community) before the event:

Just wanted to let you know about an initiative we are going to try and which we’d love you to be a part of. It’s called a Jelly, and it’s basically a chance to co-work with others from the Uni and wider-Melbourne (we’ve partnered with the people who run Melbourne Jelly so that we can hopefully learn from people outside the uni as well).

The idea, and our reason for supporting it is basically as follows:

  1. The Uni has lots of web people who often work in isolation. It’s nice to meet other people who work in the same field.
  2. By working in the same location every so often, we get the chance to learn what others are working on.
  3. Grouping like minded people in the same place means we can hold some lightning talks on new ways of working, new techniques etc.
  4. It’s amazing how a different perspective / different view can change your view of things and give you inspiration
  5. Working with others from the uni (and from wider-Melbourne) can be fun!

While we know that not everyone has a laptop, we thought we’d experiment and see if people like the idea of working together on a semi-regular basis – if it works, we’ll try and do it regularly (Melbourne Jelly is held at a different location once a fortnight).

What was it like?

I really enjoyed hosting and working at Jelly. I’m yet to get any feedback from my own team, but the general feedback on the day was fantastic. The productivity level was high, the venue was awesome and there was a really strong work vibe.

Basically, after a 9am set up (secure wifi and tables/chairs), people started rolling in and getting set up. What amazed me was how quickly people got stuck into whatever it was that they were doing – it was just like any other work day.

From my perspective:

I’d definitely do it again and have already booked up the space for the 7th of October. Jelly moves fortnightly to keep things interesting, but having now attended one, I feel quite confident in making a case for myself and my team to attend future off-site Jelly’s.

Looking at the feedback from another who works at the uni, I wasn’t alone in my thoughts.

Had a great time! It was good to get together with people working in the same industry. At my workplace, I’m surrounded by non-web or non-technical people, so it was refreshing to work in the same room (amazing view btw) with some cool people that understand what our work is all about.

Is co-working the way of the future?

Having only been to one co-working session, I feel I may have been over-zealous in my quest for title-bait but nonetheless I’ll give answering this question a crack.

Personally I can say the following with certainty:

  1. I love working offsite or at home – I find that different environments encourage different ways of thinking about problems.
  2. I get more done when I’m not distracted (and office environments are quite distracting). Even though there are a lot of people at a co-working even like Jelly, hardly any of them are asking you questions giving you long periods to work through problems uninterrupted.
  3. My team gets more done when I’m not distracting them
  4. It really only takes one face-to-face meeting a week to keep my team ticking along (brainstorming and project meetings aside of course)
  5. A large part of my job is finding the right people to do the jobs we need done – getting to know these people before hiring them is a way to improve my chance of finding said right person.
  6. As a manager, I have recently been given my own office. Ironically, it’s further away from my staff. Co-working allows us to co-work. This is good.

To be fair, there are some benefits to an office environment:

  1. Potentially better set up (eg. larger monitors), comfier chairs
  2. Easier access to people – although given the focus my team and I are putting on minimising disruption to larger project work, this is probably not always a positive thing

Personally, I think my ideal week would actually be a combination of 1 day in the office (for weekly meetings with the rest of the organisation), 2 days working from home and 2 days co-working with others. Having worked a 5 day week from home before, I find that you go a bit stir-crazy looking at the same walls. The biggest problem with an office environment is the distractions. There is a certain energy to be had from working with random people in a random location and I think #meljel captures that very well.

Looking beyond my personal experiences, I was lucky to catch Brad Krauskopf talk at Ignite Melbourne. The founder of Hub Melbourne (another co-working space), Brad talked about the way in which co-working is growing 100% year on year. From his perspective, with clients like NAB, City of Melbourne and RMIT, it’s something that is becoming the new way to work. I also like his definition of what co-working is:

Coworking is a style of work which involves a shared working environment, yet independent activity

I’d recommend watching his presentation from ignite if you have a spare 5 minutes. It’s quite informative.

Challenges to a co-working future

In no particular order, and without too much thought, I see these as the main challenges to a future where co-working is more prevalent:

I’m sure there are lots more, but they can and should definitely be overcome in support of this great way of working.I’m going to try and do it much more often.