People rowing on the ocean

Prototyping a Social, Digital, And Physical Future Workplace

ET Group’s 2019 Societal Transformation Lab

This is the story of ET Group’s (ETG) journey through the Societal Transformation Lab (s-lab).  ETG is a Toronto-based collaboration technology company that helps people work better together.

In this story we share:

  • Background
  • S-lab intention
  • What did we do?
  • How did it end?
  • The journey continues


The s-lab is “a multi-local innovation journey for teams who are co‑shaping more sustainable and equitable social systems worldwide”. It is a program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Presencing Institute.

The Lab supports teams and initiatives with some prior experience using Theory U to lead a change initiative. In 2019, the program supported and connected 300 teams across 35 countries to simultaneously tackle social challenges using collective systems mapping and design processes.

For more information on Theory U, please visit their website or listen to this podcast.

ETG’s s-lab

ETG’s s-lab was born in Toronto on November 22, 2018 and was active through June 2019. During a company visioning session, team members modelled the world of work.  The group created a physical model using their bodies. The team used a Theory U tool called 4D mapping. 4D mapping is part of the Social Presencing toolkit. The model depicted a global workplace challenge.  The systemic challenge was identified by the group as:

“Change in the world of work continues to speed up, while the WAY work happens, to a great extent is not moving forward.” 

The 4D map revealed new insights, questions, and opportunities.  These culminated in a realization that some employees felt left behind.  There was emphasis on client well-being over employee well-being. Thus, the team decided to take action through the s-lab.

S-lab Intention

The intention of ETG’s s-lab is, “to nourish the evolution of organizations to meet complex challenges by prototyping the social and digital into the physical to inspire collaboration.”  We are prototyping a future workplace on ourselves, and sharing that journey with the world.

Passion led us here

Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash

What Did We Do?

From January to June, we participated in

  1. Forming the team and setting the ETG s-lab intention;
  2. Applying Theory U co-sensing methods (3D Mapping) and systems-thinking analysis to the ETG initiative; better understanding how all stakeholders experience the current situation – particularly those who we know the least about; learning new ways of perceiving blockages, needs and opportunities;  identifying symptoms and deeper root issues at play;
  3. Sensemaking of observations gathered in February; applied Social Presencing Theater (SPT) exercise, 4D mapping, to model the ETG collaboration ecosystem; generating ideas for prototypes;
    • Enabling Personal Connection
    • ETG Collaboration Hub
  4. Exploring prototype ideas by doing, taking concrete actions to generate feedback from relevant stakeholders;
  5. Refining prototypes through knowledge capture and narrative creation;
  6. Reflection, next steps.
people sitting at tables

Photo by Jordan Encarnacao on Unsplash

Prototyping – Exploring the Future by Doing

Prototyping is a key aspect of the s-lab. It moves an idea into a concrete action.  Prototypes do not require a lot of investment as they are an early draft of what the final result might look like. We had to remember that prototypes are disposable tools, allowing the team to play,  test, and validate ideas.

Prototypes are not pilots.  See the differences in the chart below:

Experiment Plan
Rapid, Iterative Phased, careful, sequenced
Fail fast to learn fast Prove why this approach works
Learning and outcomes matter Only outcomes are important
Owned by (all) stakeholders Imposed from the outside

ETG Prototype: Enabling Personal Connection

We created a story around the Personal Connection prototype as follows. The storytelling begins with the s-lab, envisions key moments and paints a picture of the future.  We invite you to read our story below.

We are telling this story because currently people are disconnected.  People, space and technology can and need to be woven together as ONE THING.  As humans, we are becoming more digital. Yet, we desire to maintain social connections. Further, we want to come together in both physical and virtual spaces.  We want to bring the soul and quality of relationships back into our organization. We can remember what is was like to create community 20 years ago. We can recapture that experience into our present moment.

With this story, we want to reach non participants, all ETG people energizing roles, clients and partners, the S-lab community and the world.  We want people to remember that social connection is important & valuable. It takes intention and attention to make it happen. Being human in community is fun and makes a better workplace.  Everyone can take part.

hands holding tomatoes

Photo by Elaine Casap on Unsplash

The story of our prototype goes like this:

Once upon a time, ETG had a certain soul.  Today, people seem distant and our physical & virtual workspaces could be more fun.  Then, our team cooked, laughed and ate together. We made music together, had parties, played sports and games. We got the inside scoop on each other’s lives.  Fast forward a few months. We enjoy fun & meaningful connection, collaboration and communication together. We rediscovered and enriched our sense of soul.

Everyone at ETG is part of this story. with the whole self, bringing their many gifts, coming together to shape our soul.  The story happens in physical and virtual spaces. It happens in eating, music and playing spaces too.

The experience is human, fun, soulful, connected, with a lot of diversity and variety.  We are infused with the vibe of fun music, laughter. Food is always present.

At the end of the year, when reflecting on months passed, we will be able to tell stories of music, fun, laughter, great food, personal anecdotes, and new connections.

green bamboo in a white room

Photo by Riccardo Pelati on Unsplash

ETG Prototype: Collaboration Hub

We created a story around the Collaboration Hub prototype as follows. The storytelling begins with the s-lab, envisions key moments and paints a picture of the future.  We invite you to read our story below.

The evolving nature of work is creating a gap between people. There’s a need emerging for a workplace that’s a collaboration hub.

Our story goes like this:

Companies struggle with real estate. Costs are always increasing and there’s pressure to make the best use of what they have. Mobile technology means that people are often out of the office. Their space is unoccupied but paid for. Meeting rooms are either over-subscribed or empty for hours.

People struggle with workplaces. They often don’t even have their own desk anymore. Noise and lack of privacy intrude into productivity. Commuting gets longer and more frustrating every year. Why even go?

People struggle with technology. They avoid video, so everyone’s a disembodied voice. Engagement suffers. Technology fails to work as expected.

Our goal was to use our own space as a continuous prototype for a better way to collaborate. What we learn from this can help others on their own journeys.

We asked ourselves: How might we live the experience that we want our customers to have?

We will hear the “voice of technology” and connect everyone – simply and easily.

We will talk and eat with one another in spaces of comfort and sharing.

We will make our guests feel welcome and inspired.

We will come back to this place even when we are far away.

We will be connected.

airplane reflection in a puddle

Photo by Marc Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

How Did It End? Individual Reflections

Two subteams convened for a reflective session on the s-lab.  Some highlights from these reflections are given below.

From this time together as a team…..

  • “We were very internally focused on space and people.  We did not spend time on the broader ecosystem.”
  • “We practiced letting go of outcomes, enabling playfulness, knowing that to impact the larger ecosystem we need to work on self, then team, then the outside world.”
  • “We learned the importance of making the time to do this work.  Some are committed to the self work, why not enable each person to do that, as part of their role at ETG.”
  • “I was surprised by some people who showed up at the 4D mapping and how cool it was to experience the participation and openness.”
  • hands on a tree trunk

    Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

    “I noticed that I can keep doing things that feel right,  without asking permission. I know that I won’t be judged for this.”

  • “AT ETG we are taking baby steps with judgement, trust, self-management…..and now there is more rope to do something beneficial. I can bitch less, have coffee with others more.”
  • “When transforming people, space and technology, the hardest thing to change is people.  I realize that some really small changes, like having a BBQ, can have a big, positive impact.  Small things can have big, positive or negative impact.
  • “The biggest concern for any organization should be when their most passionate people become quiet.  I was bitter and jaded before. Then I noticed that my one, little, loud voice was heard. This was a big change for me. I learned that you have to change yourself before you can change an organization.”
  • “There is a realization that we have created a framework for change, but then there is the individual’s desire to change and exist in a new reality.  One big opportunity is individual development and acknowledging that you can’t push this on someone. At the same time, we have to accept that some people may not want to do self work.  We need to meet ETG where it is.”

We, as a team, see the following possibilities.

  • “We can sense back into the societal transformation lab’s intention and really realize it.”
  • window with ocean view

    Photo by Nicolas Jossi on Unsplash

    “ETG will be socially sustainable first.  Then it can focus on the environment.”

  • “There is power to engage with like minded companies in Toronto to have greater societal impact.”
  • “There can be two initiatives, ETG and an initiative of a group of companies.”
  • “We can create a satellite office.”
  • “There can be space in the office for socializing.”
  • “We can have BBQs and other social gatherings.”
  • ““The s-lab can live on through our playbook, the ET Group Way, as a mindset and as a collective movement.”
  • “We can introduce the symbiotic organization, to enable people to understand the importance of the evolution of the individual.”
  • “As individuals who participated in the s-lab, we can model that it is ok to develop yourself in the context of your ETG work.  ETG can invite that by not forcing people to take time off to do self work.”

The Journey Continues

The s-lab journey continues in a container, where learning is amplified, and we cultivate our social soil.

The container. Engaging as a team in the s-lab enabled us to build a container for change.  This container is the holding space for individual change, team change, organizational change and ultimately, societal change.  We are committed to continuously evolving this container for a generative social process. We recognize that this is only the beginning.

Learning amplified. We have experienced learning differently.  Traditionally, we are conditioned to learn mostly by reflecting on the past.  Now, we know that we can also learn and lead from the emerging future. Recognizing our humanness, we can sense and actualize a high potential future with the new practices and tools we have tested.

fresh soil and grass growing

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Our social soil.  We have awareness of our social field, both as a team and as part of a larger ecosystem.  This social field is the quality of relationships that result in patterns of thinking, communicating and organizing.  These patterns create practical results. Thus, we care about the quality of the ETG soil that nurtures the ETG field.

In conclusion, the s-lab lives on in our continuous evolution towards self-management.  It lives on through the ET Group Way. The continuation of the s-lab prototypes and the creation of new initiatives aligned with the ETG s-lab purpose, is held in the newly formed Teamwork & Relationships circle.

Stay tuned!

Featured image by Ian Stauffer on Unsplash