Let’s Get Real Episode 35: Disrupting Community Building: ChatGPT’s Impact and the Future of Workplace Collaboration

Discussions on the Workplace and Corporate Real Estate Podcast

Written by Sandra Panara, Director of Workspace Insights

Key Takeaways & Discussion Points 

  • Is ChatGPT destined to disrupt community building? And/or is it something we have to build into our approach to community building? 
  • Collective is a new resource hub for those just starting in facilities management or corporate real estate where you can find high-quality information and useful templates. 
  • The design and real estate world are full of tunnel vision — we all look at problems through our own subject matter lens. Ideally, we learn to work more cross-sectionally in our approaches and perspectives.  
  • How do subject-matter-focused conferences perpetuate this tunnel vision? What might a different, more community-focused experience look like? 
  • Do change projects need a champion? Or do champions harm the value and success of the project? 
  • Has LinkedIn’s algorithm walled us all into our own little echo chambers? How can we hear more opposing viewpoints and have fruitful debates about the workplace? 
  • What is the “Google-ification” of workplaces, and why doesn’t it produce the desired results? 
  • How do we let employees determine their own personal mode of productivity? And at what point does self-optimization tip into unhealthy behaviours? 


  • Sandra Panara on LinkedIn – Director of Workplace Insights at Relogix 
  • Omar Ramirez on LinkedIn – Co-Founder of Collective 
  • Collective – curating resources at the intersection of work and place
  • Future Forum – consortium based on building a way of working that is flexible, inclusive, and connected 
  • ChatGPT – a chatbot that interacts using natural language open to the public to use 
  • MillerKnoll – a collective of dynamic brands for the modern world 
  • Nicholas Bloom – Professor of Economics at Stanford University, heavily involved with the remote working movement 
  • Arpit Gupta – Professor of Business at NYU, with a research focus on real estate, household finance, and urban economics 
  • Salone del Mobile – design and furnishings conference held in Italy 
  • NeoCon – design conference focused on commercial design, offering ideas and introductions that shape the build environment today and into the future 
  • Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World 

If you liked today’s show, check out more episodes of the Let’s Get Real Podcast! This podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify and Google Podcasts.



Hey everyone, welcome to Let’s Get Real with Sandra and Friends, a workplace consortium podcast brought to you by Relogix. I’m excited to be sharing conversational musings about current events and how we envision the ever-changing world of work. I’m Sandra Panara, Director of Workplace Insights at Relogix. With 25 years of hands-on experience, I help value engineer global workplace portfolios and employee experiences by aligning workplace analytics with corporate real estate needs.  

Have any questions, comments, or suggestions for future podcasts? Please drop me a line at [email protected] 

Today, please help me welcome Omar Ramirez. Omar is the co-founder of Collective, a platform curating resources for professionals at the intersection of work and place. Omar’s extensive experience in workplace design and facilities programs includes working with top companies such as Google, Atlassian, Netflix, Dropbox, Stripe, and Miro.  

With Omar, we’ll be talking about creating more productive and fulfilling work environments from his point of view, so let’s dive in and learn from Omar’s valuable insights.  

When we spoke last, you told me you had started this new venture. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about it? What inspired you, what’s the intent, and who would it benefit? 


So, Collective is curating resources at the intersection of work and place. It started from this idea. My co-founder Kayla and I found that we just couldn’t find the information we really wanted to find in an easy manner. We found that from the beginning of our careers, it’s been very hard for somebody coming up in workplace who isn’t going to a traditional FM 4-year program at Cornell or somewhere like that, to get into the world of workplace and to truly get started, to understand where they can get information, what websites have good quality information. Now, it’s even more confusing, because we’re looking at the future of work and trying to understand what’s happening in the world of work and place. And those two things have become a little bit disjointed in our minds.  

So, we started with the idea of gathering free information and curating information for people to bring clarity and quality of information together in one place. That’s the problem statement we started with, and now it has three iterations and has grown into a much larger idea, which is why we co-founded the company called Collective that we’re going to be building over the next year. We’re starting slow, with small iterations, and with our website which we’re launching this coming Wednesday, the 15th of February. We’re launching the website with an initial newsletter to bring people together, and then we’ll form the community portion of this.  

And then over time, we’ll build out other aspects of Collective, which includes everything from a community forum to in-person community events, as well as some other implementations that we’re in the process of getting resources to start building now.  


Interesting! I have to ask you, with all the latest stuff in the media, and all the craze around ChatGPT — just this morning I was talking to my daughter about something completely unrelated around the use cases for ChatGPT and how community building, in the traditional sense of bringing people and knowledge together, which has tremendous value still today, is going to be completely disrupted as a result of using AI. Everybody’s inputting information into the AI system they’re using, and I’m seeing for myself how it works. I’ve been using ChatGPT since it became available, and I’m finding that I put things in, ask it to edit what I’ve written, it recalls some stuff from months ago, which is creepy but in a cool way. So, it’s obviously learning about me and my writing style and knowledge, because I’m not just extracting information, I’m putting information in.  

I’m just thinking about how all this could impact on the idea that you have.  


It’s definitely something we’re constantly thinking about. We’re using ChatGPT to ideate blog posts and things of that nature already, and for some future iterations of the site. We’re not starting off by writing our own articles, because frankly, there are a lot of articles out there, there are a lot of great websites, and a lot of good information. We’re trying to highlight the information that we think is good quality, before we go and start trying to write our own.  

I think that ChatGPT, in its current state, is actually very interesting from a technological point of view in the workplace world especially. We’ve considered the idea of putting a ChatGPT helper bot who’s trained on workplace, facilities management, and these knowledge bases into the site.  

The cautionary approach there is, though, how do we ensure it’s up-to-date information? Because as you know, in workplace, a lot of it is nuanced information that’s based on a number of variables, and those variables are dependent on the type of company, the industry they’re in, their geographical location, those are all a factor. And then also what your local rules and regulations are. There are a lot of things that are in play that are very nuanced and I don’t think that ChatGPT is really quite there yet.  

I think eventually the models will get there, from everything I’ve been reading at least, and I think it’s a helpful tool currently for ideation and iteration and helping to condense information. For example, if you have a 14-page article and you just want three bullet points, it’s very helpful for that. I think those kinds of use cases are really good for it.  

I’m interested to see what it does in the future. Obviously, as a photographer and sometimes artist, I do have a cautious approach to it as well from the standpoint of where the information is coming from, and how do we attribute it to people without stealing their ideas and stealing their creative output. I think there are still some questions around that, but it’s a fascinating thing and we’re definitely thinking about how to integrate it into our approach. Because the problem that we started with was obviously about information, and there’s new information being created every day.  

But at the same time, part of the purpose of Collective is to help solve or alleviate some of the old problems of workplace. You know, some people keep recreating a 3-year budget or recreating X template every time they go to a new company or every time a junior person starts as office manager and office assistant. There’s no reason why, if we’ve been doing workplace moves and space planning for over 50 years now, that we have to keep recreating those templates. Those templates often exist in someone else’s personal folder, and we want to help bring those resources together.  

We’re not actually really heavily monetizing the first part of Collective. The first part is about bringing together those resources, those templates, and aggregating them as a community so we can start to focus on higher level or higher order problems together. And that’s what phase 2 is about, solving those higher order problems.  


That’s pretty cool. When you talk about this sort of aggregation of tools, or at least exposing the tools that are used and constantly being recreated, where do you see that in terms of its relevance given where we are right now and what we’re foreshadowing what the office will be in the not-too-distant future? 


I think the tools are constantly changing. Some of the tools will always remain the same. It’s kind of how I think about design in some ways: a table will always be a table. We’re probably not going to make the table much better than it is today. It’s been this way for thousands of years. We might add technology on top of it or change little features, or the aesthetics, raise or lower it. But a table is still just a table.  

We think about space planning and approaching things like that. Yes, the methodologies might change or the variables might change, but there are still some basic approaches to space planning that just make sense.  

If we can bring together templates and bring together frameworks for those things, we can cut out some of the non-creative work that doesn’t need to be done repetitively, and enable people to focus on other things. I think some of the tools will still make sense. Some of them may slowly die out, and I think some of them will die out faster if we can get people better educated about workplace and about the cross-sectional aspects and specialties that they kind of ignore.  

Sometimes we all look at the problems through our own lens. I look at it through a multifaceted lens, because I’ve worked in different roles from FM to CRE to PM. But like we see a lot in LinkedIn comment sections, someone will put up a post and someone will look at it from an FM lens and say the plumbing is the problem. Then the CRE person comes in and says no, the lease is the problem. And then the technology person comes in and says, why wasn’t there a sensor? We’re all looking at it through our own lenses.  

But we want people to learn cross-sectionally, so they can better understand and solve problems together. That’s part of what the Collective name is about, bringing this collective of different professions together and helping them understand that we’re all one — we’re not a bunch of disconnected people. We all affect the other person.  


This is so interesting. As to the traditional collaborations, if you will, within organizations specifically revolving around corporate real estate, we all know HR and IT and CRE need to work together. The interlock between these three is really key.  

But I’ve also learned over the years that you also have other teams in organizations, and I think it’s probably become even more obvious since the pandemic hit and more people are working from home, how legal gets involved, and communications, and brand, and all these other things you never think of. Some of the companies that were more on the edge, a lot of their decisions were not just real estate based. They were about real estate, but they were smart enough to realize the potential impact it would have on other areas. You need to make sure you have all your Is dotted and your Ts crossed before you pull the trigger, so to speak. Do you foresee that being a part of Collective in the near or longer-term future? 


Absolutely. One of the first things we’re doing is organizing our first in-person events. We’re planning a dinner series that we’re calling Collective Experiences. We want to bring together groups of 10 people in different cities, we’re already planning our first one for Los Angeles at the end of March. We’ll bring together, say, two people from HR, two people from CRE, two people from workplace, two people from the technology side of things, and bring those people together for cross-sectional dialogue, to start sharing ideas and building that community and relationships with people who might not be on your direct team. Understanding what makes them tick, why are they concerned about X? What are their needs and concerns?  

I think building that cross-sectional relationship will enable people to have a better viewpoint when they’re going to their own company and having to work cross-sectionally. Because you’re absolutely correct, the diagram we always draw has the employee right at the center with all these bubbles revolving around them. And you’re right — Comms, HR, IT, workplace, CRE, FM. Whenever I say “workplace”, CRE and FM people always say, oh, well isn’t FM and CRE workplace? Not necessarily, and that’s the nuance.  

I think all of these groups together, legal included, that’s the employee experience. You can’t make decisions about the employee experience without understanding the legalities, especially in the light of some recent court rulings. You can’t make decisions about, for example, benefits without understanding the constraints of your finance org.  All these things are interconnected.  

I think if we can learn to work better together as humans, the outcomes will be better because it will no longer be the approach of meeting once a quarter, this is my budget, this is yours, everyone’s split apart and then we try to accomplish things in tandem. I don’t think that’s a good approach for the future of work. I think it’s a great way to produce substandard outcomes.  

If we can all work together and actually work cross-sectionally and understand this as a holistic problem, then I think we can create better outcomes. That, in the end, is our altruistic goal with Collective, and that’s where we started from — creating a better opportunity for the world of workplace. Because right now, we’re kind of lost in the woods and we want to help people navigate their way through this and fight the signals and the noise.  

We did a survey a few months ago, and we found that 94% of people were reliant on social media or LinkedIn for their future of work information. And that’s a huge problem because SEO is not based on best-in-class research. SEO is based on optimization of search performance — it might be a good thing that ChatGPT is disrupting this and helping us get past this.  

But I don’t think LinkedIn is going anywhere. And that’s where most people get their future of work news, and it’s not necessarily the best research. I think everyone knows the Future Forum exists. I am constantly surprised when I mention the Future Forum, or MillerKnoll and there are people who don’t know that exists. And they’re just the tip of the iceberg. They’re some of the better-known ones.  

And then you get into people like Nick (Nicholas Bloom) at Stanford, Arpit Gupta at Columbia. You go down the research levels, there are so many people doing great research and large studies of humans about the future of work, and where we could be headed. I don’t think a lot of that is getting light shone on it.  

That’s what we want to do – shine a bit of light. That’s why we’re doing our newsletter, to shine some light on people who might not be getting enough attention, who are doing great research and great things. And shining light on products that might not be getting enough attention, or might just not be breaking through that SEO barrier.  


That’s really interesting. When it comes to some of the challenges and difficulties you’ve had in the past, thinking back on being in organizations working with maybe corporate real estate teams both as a consultant and also being part of a corporate real estate organization — one of the things I often found, and still find, is this weird sense of ownership. With the people who are in this space because it’s a sort of cool emerging thing, there’s this — I don’t even know how to describe it. Almost like this desire to be the one who says, “I did that”. They’re the champion of bringing that change forward and so not necessarily recognizing that it literally takes a village.  

How much of that do you think will change as you move forward, both as a result of what you’re doing, but even from an organizational point of view? Because it feels like that’s still very much alive in a lot of organizations.  


I’m of two minds on this, because I think that in the end, we want to have people who are champions, and it’s great to have people who are very vocal about things, and you need internal champions to move things forward sometimes. Especially when not everyone is on board. You might have somebody who’s really motivated from the IT department, who’s really, really excited about championing this thing. And you might have somebody from the workplace side who’s not. And that’s okay, it works both ways sometimes.  

I think the magic starts to happen when you’re all on the same page and all at the same level of motivation to be championing stuff. That’s when you get those teams. I think you’re less focused on one person, or one person being the hero.  

I think there’s also a very negative side of this, which is that some people like to play “hero ball”. In leadership classes I’ve taken, the idea is that, if there’s a hero, there has to be a villain in that two-player model. Who’s the enemy of the hero, right? When people have these binary conversations on LinkedIn, saying “it’s all in-office” or “it’s all remote”. Or it’s all X or Y, like they need some sort of “I” and the “other” to parry against, in order to make their points seem more relevant. That’s the negative side of this. You have one person who’s the focal point in championing it — but I guarantee you in any workplace effort, there’s 50 people working on it, there’s not just one person.  

That’s always hard for me to swallow, when you see one person as the very focal point of a change or transformation. We keep seeing great people pop up, great practitioners, but there are definitely 50+ other people involved in that change process, and the formulation of these things take so much time. I think it gets a little lost, and when we start having “heroes”, we miss out on the team win, which I think is an important part of this. There’s not just one person working to make change.  


I also find it interesting about LinkedIn being the source of information when it comes to the future of work. One of the things that I’ve observed just in my day-to-day conversations and discussions that either I start or other people start on my feed, is that it’s more workplace practitioners than people who are actually in the workplaces that are in dire need of change. They’re there, you know that they’re there, but they’re observing more than they are participants.  

It’s interesting to me, it’s like preaching to the choir a lot of the time. If people are in that space, they kind of know what the issues and challenges are, and potentially where some correction or improvement might need to happen. But to your point, it’s kind of expanding, because there are so many other areas where these decisions are being made, and now we’re having impacts on other areas of the organization. So we talked about legal, we talked about finance, and we talked about HR and policies, and the list goes on and on.  

One of the things that surprises me though is there are organizations like CoreNet and IFMA — you would think that those would be the places where we’re talking in great detail about the challenges and the interlock that’s required between these various teams, and you don’t really see much of that. Corporate real estate is corporate real estate, HR is HR. Which I’ve always found really interesting, because we’ve all known for many, many years that these groups have to work together. But when you look at conferences or opportunities for these worlds to come together, you never really see that.  


No, you never really see it. I think the other conferences tend to take one focus or another. You see a people-centric conference or a workplace-focused conference, and none of us are really ever going to the same events. Yes, sometimes you’ll run into architects at CoreNet, because they’re hanging out with the brokers and working with the PM and construction people. So, you get to see a lot of that intersectionality, but good luck finding one at a people-oriented conference. We’re starting to see smatterings, but very few and far between. Or good luck seeing an HR person at CoreNet.  

I think it’s very similar with IFMA and things of that nature, and I see the opposite side as well, having been a designer myself. I went to Salone last year with the interior design team who I was supporting with some projects and I found some great workplace people there who I knew from the Bay Area. Workplace people, yes! But the majority were interior designers and industrial designers and the like. NeoCon is a good example as well for design in the US.   

And we don’t really find each other at these conferences. There’s not really a series of events yet that brings together everyone in a larger way. I think for us, we’re focused on the smaller community aspect, because found that in having deep, intellectual conversations, eight to ten is a great amount of people for a wonderful dinner and a wonderful conversation that stays in one conversation. When you go above ten people, suddenly you start to get those broken up conversations.  

I think we tend to be in our (as we call it in the digital front of things) walled garden of the algorithm that LinkedIn has developed for us. If I open LinkedIn on my friend’s laptop and then my laptop and then another friend’s laptop, you see three different versions of LinkedIn. I find that fascinating, because you hear, “all I’m seeing on LinkedIn is X, is Y. It’s the same thing on Instagram or TikTok or all of these platforms.” You wind up in a walled garden that you kind of create for yourself. 

But the problem is that you’re not seeing much information that might challenge you or challenge your worldview. And that’s something that we want people to feel — challenged. It’s one of the reasons why we’re going to build a community forum into our site very quickly after our initial launch because we want to enable people to have intellectual debate and to discuss ideas, not in the way that we do it on Slack, at least in some of these communities. We want to have true discussions about, what does ABW really mean? What does hybrid really mean? How do you define hybrid, and things of this nature, that are essential to the future of work? 


That sounds fantastic. There’s definitely a need for something like that, a building-up of the community and the cross section. And keeping groups small, staying in one conversation, I think those are key. And more so, the opportunity to remain curious, I think that’s really key when it comes to LinkedIn. You get these walls up where you only see what you see based on what you build for yourself.  

My personal experience with any social media platform — I mean, obviously business is different than personal use — but when it comes to business, it’s about having curiosity. And I think the key is, you can’t just take what you see on LinkedIn at face value. You have to go and research different things, and decide if it actually makes sense, go on the Wayback Machine or look at stuff that’s really current and do that comparison. There are hordes of information.  

Every once in a while, I’ll come across what appears to be this great news article, its title is very “now”, and then you look at the date and realize the thing was written in 2003. You start to realize, wow, this is how long this type of conversation has been going on, what the heck? Why is it taking so long for people to get with it? And you’re tempted to share, but then you know you’re going to get lambasted for posting this because it’s from 2003. But it’s very relevant.  


I think some things from the 70s are still relevant. This is how I think about it — there was a lot of work that was very aspirational, that could have been better implemented over time. But the problem is, it’s a very natural human thing to take something that was a beautiful idea, a beautiful design, a beautiful concept, and then we optimize it.  

It’s the same thing with the open office, or cubicles, or “action office” —- that, too, was a great design and a great idea of working in different modes of setups. It was probably initially a 12- by 12-foot area, pretty large for the initial setup. And I think about what that became over time, the 6 by 6 cubicle, and it’s been optimized not just for cost but for efficiency. It becomes this very Taylorist approach to the action office. Unfortunately, I think we continually see that happening. There are a lot of good lessons from the beginning of “workplace” history. A lot of them have some universal truths within them.  

The thing that bothers me personally is when you have a headline that’s optimized for SEO and it’s just obviously optimized for clicks. And that might turn some people away from what otherwise might be a great article filled with awesome insights and information. The headline is, however, not actually what the article is about at all. That really bothers me, because we want people to read good research and find good information. But the SEO optimization game is a huge challenge. Obviously, it’s helped people define information and sort information, and change the way the world works.  

But we started this conversation talking about ChatGPT — I think it’s also going to shift the way the world looks in some interesting ways. I think we’re still at the very beginnings of it. But I’m hopeful that it will help shift some things away from SEO and maybe base things more on the information and content people are generating, as opposed to just the title of an article.  


That’s actually a really interesting concept. I can totally see a shift like that, because of the appetite for good information and how hard it is to get. Like you said, SEO has really been the guiding light to get there, but as you said, people have gamified it. So, OK, it’s not what it used to be, and now it’s just for clicks. You can’t really take article titles at face value, because you don’t really know what’s in them unless you go in and read. And time and time again you see comments saying, this title is totally clickbait, but there are some good points in the article that are worth sharing.  


I think something we’re also thinking about and haven’t been able to implement yet in this iteration of the website, because it’s very complicated — I always tell people this, Facebook has an interesting feature now, when you click “Share” an article, a pop up jumps up and says, “you didn’t read the article, are you sure you want to share this, because you don’t know the context of the article yet?”  

That’s a really interesting feature, because the first thing I would say to people when they read an article about workplace and get all fired up is, wait — who wrote this article? Who do they work for? Those are two great things to check. And the third thing is, what is the sample size of the study they’re referencing? Sometimes you can go back and look at sample sizes and it’s a 100-person study in the UK from 10 years ago, and they’re making extrapolations. Is that really what the future of work is now? This random SEO title generated about this article that somebody cherry picked the study for?  

You have to dissect information a little bit and be critical and think critically about it. I think that’s important for people to understand. We’ve been trying to figure out a great way to do that on the website without upsetting too many people and marketing in a way that tells you where the information comes from, this is the company it’s from.  

We’re not linking a lot of articles in the beginning on our website under our resources page — we’re mostly directing people to organizations, books, podcasts, templates, and things of that nature. Because for one, there are so many articles all the time. We want to be pointing people toward larger resources as opposed to smaller resources in the beginning. And also, because we want to find a great way to tag things in a way that enables people to understand what they’re digesting a little more.  


This is really fascinating. I can’t wait till you launch!  

Let’s shift gears a little bit. I’ve been following you on LinkedIn for quite some time now, I know you have quite the background in real estate and many highly coveted technology companies. We know that non-tech companies pre-pandemic wanted to be like the tech companies, thinking that by having an office space that mimicked those environments, they’d somehow get the same effect.  

Having been completely immersed in those worlds, what would you say are the similarities and differences as you’ve moved across different companies and how they view real estate and the role that the office plays for the employee? 


A lot of questions in there! Going through tech companies as I came up was interesting because I found myself going to smaller and smaller companies as I took different roles, and then helping them to scale upwards.  

I thought that was interesting because it’s very hard to make change at a larger scale tech company, or just a larger scale company in general, because once the cake is baked, everyone has these roles that they’re solidified in and their way of doing things. It becomes much harder to implement change as somebody new coming in, because there are a lot more considerations. There are a lot more people to talk to. There’s a lot more cross-sectional dialogue that has to happen before any change happens. Change in a start-up might take 2-3 months, whereas at a larger-scale company, a 10,000+ people company, change could take six months to a year to two years, just to get something to change.  

At these different companies I worked for, like Google or Dropbox or Atlassian, they all had very specific, thoughtful approaches to how they thought about workplace. They all looked at their culture, looked at what their company wanted to accomplish, looked at the kind of company they wanted to scale into, and based their workplace off of that.  

I think the positive part of that is they’re doing a very thoughtful approach. The negative version of this happened too, which is what I call the “Googe-lification” of workplaces. People would look at Google and go, it’s all about their great office, the slides, the amenities. They took a surface level copy and paste of Google’s workplace and started trying to do that.  

I’d have to have this conversation whenever I joined younger start-ups — this is not the most important thing. What made Google’s offices great was the culture that was behind it and the intentionality behind the design. Google was doing that even in the earliest days. They were doing studies and employing scientists, people with anthropology backgrounds to understand how people were using the kitchens, what kinds of foods they were eating, how can we encourage people to eat healthier foods, what effect does putting an espresso machine in the kitchen have? If we put that there, are people more likely to stay in and have discussions about ideas? Ok, let’s put whiteboards next to the coffee machines. How does that have an effect? There were all these little nuanced things.  

At each of the technology companies I worked at, they were being thoughtful about developing based on their specific culture and their specific type of company. And I think that’s a really important thing for people to understand. They were 1) always a work in progress. The work was never really complete. And 2) it was a very thoughtful, cross-functional approach to developing workplace over time.  

I think a lot of companies just see the surface level, then copy the surface level. That’s what a lot of companies did. They said ok, we’ll add ping pong tables and make the office bright and airy and have an open office, and that’s going to make us creative.  

No, what makes you good for innovation and good collaboration is developing a cultural model that works for you, and then have the physical model of your space based off that cultural model and your work model. And then once you understand those two things, you can start to develop the physical space in that image.  

I think that’s hard for people to understand. It’s hard for people when there’s not an easy button. People think, people have done workplaces before, surely there must be an easy button. Like, yes, but you would never copy someone else’s house just because you like the style of their house. That would make for a really bad living situation for you. You have very different needs and ways of living than the next person. Similarly, people just copy and paste workplaces as though that would work for everybody. But that’s not how it works.  


That’s actually a really good analogy.  

You said something really interesting about using design intent. There’s an intent behind the design that’s ideally aligned with the culture. That seems to suggest that there’s information behind it, that there’s data at play here. And thinking about, Google for certain, I’m not sure about the other ones, but how much did they actually use data to drive those types of decisions? 


I was in the space planning side of Google right before I left, and it was about doing all these moves and updates and things like that in North America. I would say that they were always looking at the information they had and trying to make better decisions.  

For example, food programs use data in a way that actually has an effect. There’s a lot of information in food consumption. The intention there was to measure what people were eating, and how could you encourage people to eat healthier snacks. A lot of that comes from not just quantitative information, like how many pounds of peanuts are we going through, how many pounds of M&Ms are we going through, but qualitative as well — getting feedback from people, observing in person, seeing people use the kitchen, seeing how they interact with different objects that you put in the kitchen. It was about the balance between both types of data, that made their design intent good.  

Dropbox did a similar thing. I remember talking to the chef when we were designing the new headquarters of Dropbox in 2015, 2016. He said Omar, do you know why we plate our food here? I said, well, the presentation is awesome. He said yeah, presentation is great, but I plate the food so I can control the portions so we can measure down to the ounce how much we’re actually putting out, and then measure the number of plates and portions and successfully budget, do our procurement better, so we’re not wasting food. So, it looks better, a better experience, but you’re also measuring more successfully. That’s great.  

I think people don’t realize how much thought goes into some of these programs to make them successful. Say what you want about that time period of tech companies, the perks and whatever, the free food — yes, it was designed to keep people in the office and encourage them to be at work, to eat together — but I think we’re beyond that now in some ways.  

That doesn’t mean I don’t think we should break bread together. I think we should, but I think the types of information we’re going to have to measure are probably going to change. We’re seeing companies start to recognize that a little bit now. Just measuring utilization is not enough, measuring occupancy is not enough. You need more information, and better data sources.  

I think that’s tough for a lot of people because if anything, the job is infinitely more interesting, but infinitely more difficult. We’re all having to learn new skills to adapt to the future of work and the future of workplace. I think if you’ve been in the same job for 30 years or 20 years, even myself, having been in this for 16 years now, it’s hard to adapt. It’s constant change and adaptation. We went from facilities management to workplace, to workplace experience, to employee experience, to the future of work, to remote, to whatever this is within 23 years, from 2000 to 2023. That’s a lot of change for people.  


Absolutely. I think what’s interesting too is the different roles and focus, more so, that’s evolved within the corporate real estate space. I find myself reading articles sometimes that are coming from thought leaders in the corporate real estate space, and I think to myself, why is that coming from someone in corporate real estate, that’s more of an HR-focused piece, or it just doesn’t mentally fit within the construct of what we know to be corporate real estate.  

Because number one, you have no control over it. You can’t control the productivity of employees, right? The other day, I was talking to someone about productivity, and they said, productivity is like love. Try to measure love. That got me thinking for 3 to 4 days. And you know what, it’s so true, because it’s such a personal thing. It’s a feeling. Yesterday I had all the intention in the world of having a productive day, but I woke up this morning and said you know what, today is not the day. I’ve had a few of those in the past week. That’s not something that a business or corporate real estate can control.   

So, this whole thing about changes impacting productivity is all just a wash because it’s not really true, but I think what’s interesting is when you’re talking about how many packs of M&Ms get consumed, my curiosity kicks in — like, I wonder if there’s a certain time of day that everyone’s going in to get treats because energy levels are down? Then you see that pattern, and what can we do as an organization to keep that from happening? Maybe a yoga break or something to get people re-energized.  

That’s kind of how I look at it — there’s an intent. The intent is then supported by research, and then the piece that comes after is the reality of it. Then once you learn the reality, how do you adjust, how do you go back and make the adjustments and tweak? It’s not linear, it’s never one and done. Ask anybody in corporate real estate, it’s never been one and done.  


It never is, and I think you hit on an important point. Productivity is measurable in very specific ways for very specific types of outputs. And even that’s still debatable. Cal Newport was on the HBS Podcast a few weeks ago, he’s the author of Deep Work, and he was talking about how for engineers, there’s an agile methodology which makes remote work very successful. With an agile methodology, you’re pulling down tasks and you’re writing code and you can easily remotely do that, there’s a good standard way of doing that. That’s repeatable and scalable and great.  

But for a lot of knowledge work, it’s not the same thing. Measuring the productivity of someone who’s a workplace coordinator, or an employee experience manager, you have to create KPIs, but what are you measuring? The number of events you held this quarter? A lot of people are guessing.  

We’re also concerned with Collective about helping people develop better business cases and better measures, to not just justify the existence of workplace, but to enable great conversations with work leaders about workplace and its benefits.  

I think when we talk about productivity, it becomes this nascent conversation and you have to define what kind of productivity we’re talking about, what industry, what team, what specialty, what geography. Because if we think of ourselves as a monoculture, sometimes that’s not how the world is. Productivity is measured very differently in the US versus other parts of the world. And when we talk about optimization — let’s say our goal and intent is to have productive, healthy employees. There’s got to be a tipping point at which productive tips into unhealthy.  




Like, to what level do you optimize yourself as a human before it tips into unhealthy? I think about this, especially as we get back to the conference cycle. I can see your badges hanging in the background of your setup. Right now I have all my conferences badges too from last year when we started doing facilitation. That’s where the idea for Collective came from, a lot of these conversations with people. But I think about ramping back up, going back in person, going back from the pandemic time period of not really having to go to in-person events — and it was exhausting.  

It was something my wife and I talked about at a very personal level. What level of intensity do I want to go back to? Because I think I was burnt out in 2019. The passing of my mother caused me to switch careers, switch jobs, and really reconsider my life. That was just two months before the pandemic.  

I think collectively, the entire workplace world is having that same consideration. Every employee is having the same consideration of, how productive can I be without reaching a point of exhaustion, and how do I have a better work-life balance? I think that people are optimizing for that now, and I think companies should be aware of that tipping point between productivity and having a healthy life. Obviously on the employee side, they’re going to want to be more on the healthy side, and the company is going to say hey, we want you to be healthy and productive. Can we optimize a little bit for productivity sometimes?  

I think finding the balance between those two things is going to be interesting.  


Yes, and just to add to that, you’re talking about the whole concept of optimizing productivity, and it kind of makes me laugh a little bit, because if you think back to a few months ago, probably in late Q3, early Q4, when the whole concept of Quiet Quitting emerged — it’s like well, what really is Quiet Quitting? It’s pushing the boundaries around optimizing productivity.  

When you were talking about engineering, they have their list of tasks, they’re pulling things and that’s how they measure productivity from a company’s perspective. Well, from the employee perspective, it’s a list of To Dos. I get those things done. I’ve had a super productive day, whether it took me an hour or 8 hours to do it. The measurement is that I’ve met the requirements for productivity, and this is where we run into challenges around measurement.  

As I said before, I could wake up this morning and feel super productive and get a whole whack of stuff done in two hours and have six hours of me time, if I wanted to. Is that OK? If I’m in that mindset and that happens to me, sometimes I get up at 5 AM and by 9 AM I’ve done 3 days’ worth of work, and it’s like ok, now I can start working on other stuff to get ahead so I can keep up with the day-to-day. But when you sort of put that into context — the company is pushing for productivity so they can get more out of people. It’s not that they’re not being productive, they’re being productive based on what you’re expecting of them, but it begs the question — on whom is the onus of responsibility when it comes to exceeding that expectation? That’s where the whole conversation around Quiet Quitting started. If I’m going to take initiative to essentially do more, because that’s what drives me, that’s my prerogative. It doesn’t mean I’m more or less productive than you. That’s just my way of working. 


Productivity is interesting. First of all, I think Quiet Quitting is a false narrative. That’s just recycling an old storyline of resting and vesting, which was a very popular thing. If my company’s not going to give me more, why would I contribute more of myself to this thing and burn out? There’s a natural human debate here, that Quiet Quitting is sort of putting a headline on.  

Not everyone works the same. Not everyone is productive every single day, and some people burn out because the company has asked too much. They say, you’re doing 110%, what if you did 120%? That’s not sustainable long term. There’s something about taking advantage of human productivity to the point of burning people out — it’s a toxic culture trait. I think that’s very negative.  

For me personally, I never worked well in those scenarios. As someone who’s very focused on what I’m working on, I kind of zone in and work very hard on what I’m working on and become very passionate about it. But I work the same way you do. I wake up at 6 AM every day, because that’s when I naturally wake up, and some days I’ll be like OK, let’s go. I just start doing stuff and I get going and I’ll get it done before 9 AM. I’ve done a bunch of stuff and I could do more, but I take a break and do something else. I go for a walk, maintain work-life balance in that way. Is that bad? I don’t think so.  

But I also think it’s different, because I’ve been working with my cofounder Kayla, and we have our own way of working. We’re doing it in a different way and we’re managing ourselves, trying to build something new. I think that requires a lot of extra output. So yes, I do work Saturdays. But will I work Saturdays and Sundays always? I don’t think so. I think when you’re managing your own company versus working at a company, it’s two very different types of output. Two very different types of standards, because you’re creating your own standard vs the other one being based off society’s Monday to Friday work week. That is a construct that we have society have created, and we’re fitting work inside that box.  

I think what’s interesting is it’s about time zone more than anything else. As we become more remote and asynchronous, there’s time zone management. Where you hire your people becomes more and more important. Kayla’s in Atlanta, I’m in Los Angeles. We manage our time zones the way we think is best. She works a little later, I work a little earlier sometimes. But I think that becomes really important.  

I could ramble about productivity and time zones for the rest of time, probably! But there’s no one-size fits all solution to productivity or workplace or design. I’ve seen you write about this before, it has to come down to the team level and the individual level. Otherwise, you’re not getting deep enough on things, if you’re just setting standards at a company level, you’re going to fail and your data isn’t going to be good enough.  


Yes, it’s way too generic.  

I would say in response to your comment about working independently or for a company — as someone who’s worked in both of those worlds extensively, I don’t think there really is a difference. I think if the company gets it, they get it. And you can exercise the same level of — dare I say it, freedoms, of being able to turn into your most productive state.  

That’s one of the things I learned very early on in my career especially when I first started working from home. In the first couple of years, it was horrible. I can’t manage. Then over time, I started to realize that I’m super alert in the wee hours of the morning, or I’m my best after midnight. I get a second wind. If I need to figure something out, it’s an after-midnight thing for me. I can do it in half an hour versus trying to do it in 6 hours during the day when my brain just can’t get there.  

So, when you’re in tune with your capability, I think that makes a tremendous difference in terms of how you work, what you produce, how long it takes you, and then how you want to use that free time you get as a result of maximizing your own personal productivity to do other things.  


Yes, I think that’s an important point: you learn this over time. I learned this through reading, through curiosity, and I think we need to enable management to teach people how to manage themselves in some way. We need to help people understand how to build systems like this for themselves. If we can do that, we’ll have a much more balanced and productive but also healthier set of employees.  

Most people don’t understand how to set up systems like that for themselves, so they end up burning out because they don’t understand for example, their best times to work on XYZ. They don’t know how to set boundaries for themselves. They don’t understand how to set up systems for themselves. I see this in workplace as well as in regular employees. I think it’s people we need to start training people on, because if you can learn how to do that, you’ll be much happier and more productive because you’re happier. And because you have a lot of guardrails for yourself, in order to make yourself actually successful at home or in the office or wherever you’re working from.  


Absolutely. I can’t believe an hour has already passed! 


I know! 


I could go on for another hour, this is just too good of a conversation. Any final thoughts or comments that you wanted to share? 


No, I think we’re just really excited at Collective about the future of workplace. We think this is the most exciting time to be in workplace that we’ve ever experienced, and we hope that everyone will soon start to see that the same way. We’re excited to have people join us and we’re excited to start sharing what we’re doing with the world.  


Fantastic. Thanks, Omar. Really appreciate your time today.  


Thank you, Sandra! 

About the Author

Sandra Panara, Director of Workspace Insights

Sandra has both a deep and wide understanding of Corporate Real Estate and Technology. With over 25 years hands-on experience she is able to apply non-traditional approaches to extract deep learning from the most unsuspecting places in order to drive strategy. She has developed an appreciation for always challenging the status quo to provoke and encourage new ways of thinking that drive continuous improvement and innovation. Sandra believes square pegs can fit into round holes and that the real ‘misfits’ are those environments that fail to adapt. Her expertise ranges broadly from CRE Portfolio Research, Analytics & Insights, Workforce Planning, Space & Occupancy Planning & Workplace Strategy.