Let’s Get Real Episode 31: Thinking Outside the Box: What CRE Professionals Can Learn from the World of Workplace Design
Discussions on the Workplace and Corporate Real Estate Podcast
Key Takeaways & Discussion Points
- How can we get organizations to bring their workspaces into 2023, let alone think about the future?
- We’ve been asking employees what they want — but what about what they need (or don’t know they need) to be happy, healthy, and thrive at work?
- Our cars know whether we like our seats warmed or not — so why haven’t we started personalizing the office? How can we adjust the workplace experience to how different people want to work or even simple things like the temperature they prefer?
- What is an “intuitive workspace”, and what are the limitations of creating a perfect workplace for every employee?
- How do you encourage companies to invest in a better workplace when there’s no guarantee it will attract employees?
- We recognize that remote learning was a disaster for our kids — is it any different with young people entering the workforce?
- We tend to focus on the commute when talking about the environmental sustainability of hybrid or remote work, but is that focus misplaced?
- Be scientific when testing new procedures, policies, workplace ideas — if you test everything at once, you test nothing.
- Sandra Panara on LinkedIn – Director of Workplace Insights at Relogix
- Kay Sargent on LinkedIn – Senior Principal – Director of WorkPlace at HOK
- IFMA’s World Workplace – the largest and most highly acclaimed facility management conference in the world
- International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) – organization that provides certifications recognizing buildings designed and constructed to support the health and well-being of their occupants
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, I’m thrilled to have as our guest Kay Sargent, a highly regarded expert on workplace design and strategy issues. Kay’s impressive credentials include being the Global Co-Director of HOK’s WorkPlace team, and serving on HOK’s Board of Directors. In 2020, she was recognized as ASID’s Designer of Distinction, and she is currently actively serving on several advisory boards. Kay is also an active member of IFMA, and the co-founder of the IFMA Workplace Evolutionaries, known to many as the WE Community.
In addition to her professional achievements, Kay’s impact goes beyond the workplace. In 2021, she was selected to provide congressional subject matter expert testimony to the US House of Representatives on federal real estate post-COVID, a view from the private sector. Kay’s wealth of experience and knowledge make her an invaluable resource in today’s rapidly changing world of work, and I’m excited to dive into the conversation with her. So without further ado, let’s get started.
Hi, Kay! Welcome, I’m really glad to have you on as a guest today.
Happy to be here.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? I know you and I go back several years. We recently met in person at World Workplace in Nashville back in September, but we’ve been connected on LinkedIn, and I know we’ve exchanged many messages over the years.
Yes, so I’m a practicing interior design professional. I’ve been practising for 38 years before we had the Internet, before we had cell phones, before we even had fax machines, just to put that in context. I’m the Director of WorkPlace at HOK, which means that I work with our clients that have multiple projects in multiple locations all over the world. Just to give you a little sampling, in 2019, our team delivered 55 million sq ft of space in 44 countries around the world. So that’s how I spend my days, and usually my nights, too.
In 38 years, I’m sure you’ve seen a number of changes and the emergence of the future of work from 38 years ago until now.
Yes, there are some things that are shockingly different, and some things that are shockingly the same. So again, 38 years ago there was no internet, fax machines. We were drafting and couriers had just started coming into play. People didn’t even have beepers yet. That’s a very different time. We still got a lot of stuff done, but in a very different way.
But if I think about the fundamental setup of a lot of offices, in many cases, they haven’t necessarily changed as radically as everything else in our world has.
You know what’s interesting about that? I’ve worked very closely with the design community over the years in the various roles that I’ve had, and I often hear this even just in social discussions that I’m having with friends, that the office hasn’t changed that much. It’s always interesting when design organisations come into a company and do their studies. They talk about activity-based working, and this and that, but it’s always interesting how you come away from that and the office still looks the same.
The first realization of that for me was when I worked at CBRE and had the opportunity to go to multiple offices around the globe. I walked into different offices, and different brands obviously had different experiences. But after the fifth or sixth one, you realize all these offices are all kind of designed the same way. It’s kind of a cookie cutter design.
There are certain things that haven’t changed, because we’re still fundamentally working and sitting at a desk, whether it’s with papers or computers. If you think about it, houses haven’t radically changed that much either. They also slowly evolve. So I don’t think there’s a need to totally throw everything away.
But I do believe there’s a huge opportunity now to do things better. And there are some great precedents of what you could walk into and say wow, this is radically different than what we saw 30 or 40 years ago, even 10 years ago, perhaps. But in a lot of offices, we still had rows and rows of assigned work points where people are supposed to go. We didn’t even design zoos for animals like that. Even animals are allowed free range and free room. But for office workers, it’s this thing companies haven’t really been able to get over.
And I think part of that is that since forever, we’re rewarded people with more space. You might have spent your whole career trying to get that corner office. And now you have it, so you don’t want to relinquish that. There are certain aspects that people have gotten stuck in, and quite frankly, one of the problems that you and I have, Sandra, and probably a lot of people listening to this, is the curse of knowledge.
We know what’s out there. We’ve seen really amazing spaces. But for a lot of our clients, they’ve never seen anything like that before. They’ve never seen anything but what they sit in every day, so what we’re proposing to them might seem radical. I always say to my clients, I’m not trying to get you to 2030. I would love to get you to 2030, but I’m just trying to get you into this century. I’m trying to get you out of 1990. I’m not talking the bleeding cutting edge for a lot of you — let’s just play catch up a little bit.
Baby steps! That’s an interesting point that you made about the fact that most companies haven’t seen some of the stuff we have, or as you say, the curse of knowledge. What’s interesting to me is, how do you think the pandemic has played into that? Because I think back on the resistance to change that was seen in employees — like, what do you mean you’re going to get rid of my desk? You’re taking me out of the office? We’re going to go to open office space, drop the panels, and all those discussions. But now, at least in the knowledge worker community, people have been working at home for the last almost 3 years. So, you’ve experienced what it’s like to be able to work outside of the office. Are you finding that employees are still struggling with what happens in the physical office?
I think there are multiple things at play here. Number one, there are a whole lot of offices that are not designed well, which we just need to be honest about. They really aren’t. They’re not great spaces to be in, but we suffer through it because we don’t know anything else, or we don’t have an alternative.
Number two, we have an amazingly empowered workforce. Quite frankly, early on in the pandemic, a lot of companies asked the wrong question, which was, what do you want? And it’s not that I don’t care about what you want, but their thinking is self-centric, it’s about what do I want right now. Do I want to drive to the office? Probably not.
But they’re not thinking about what’s right for the business, what’s right for their coworkers. They’re not even really thinking about what’s right for their own professional development or themselves down the line. Their mental health, physical health, you know, all these things.
And I think the third thing that’s happening here — if you asked me what I wanted for dinner, if I answered that question honestly, I’d say I want chocolate for dinner. But I don’t eat chocolate for dinner, because I know the consequences of it. The workforce is being asked a similar question, but they don’t necessarily understand or haven’t experienced the consequences of what it is they’re asking for. And what we started to see after 3 years of that, is there are certain people that are feeling lonely and isolated. The quality of what is being produced is starting to be impacted. Peoples’ mental and physical health is being impacted. Churn has gone up because people aren’t as connected to what they don’t see.
So, we’re just trying to understand the ramifications of that. You and I have been working with clients for 30 years that have been working remotely, and we know what worked and what didn’t. And we’ve been working for 10 years with clients that have adopted hybrid working. And again, we know what works and what doesn’t.
But a vast majority of individuals don’t, and they were asked the wrong question. When we’re asked, “what do you want”, we’re always going to default to what’s easiest in that moment.
I think you make some great points. The other thing to think about is the aspect of what’s good for business, what’s good for the team, for the employees — I’ve had some conversations in the past 2 or 3 weeks where some people referenced some studies that had been done. And my comment was, well, that goes back to pre-pandemic times. I think I made that comment in a podcast episode that I did with David Gray not too long ago. It was about how the conversation around what’s good for us is based on an experience from before the pandemic. So, is it even still relevant or valid? Because that’s all we knew. That was all we knew, this is how we work, and this is how we benefit from collaboration and innovation. This is how we do it.
So in 3 years, everything changed. It was sink or swim, figure it out, and people figured it out. This is where the debate is, for me. Some people feel that it doesn’t have to be the way that it was, and teams can benefit from this new way of working where you don’t necessarily have to be reliant on an office setting as we used to think of it. And that’s not to say you don’t need an office, because like you said, I think the whole benefit or value of hybrid is having access to an office. It’s just that the way you interact with it is different than how you interacted with it before.
Yes, it’s interesting, we did a survey before COVID, and we did the same one after COVID, to see who are the most engaged or disengaged. And the most disengaged employees tended to be the ones that were always working remotely. They didn’t feel as connected to their coworkers or to the mission of the organization. They often felt left out.
We did it again after COVID, and we got the same result. The second group that feels the most disengaged are the ones that are always in the office, because they don’t feel empowered. They don’t feel like they’re trusted. You start to take your coworkers for granted. The people that are the most engaged are the ones that have a little bit of control or freedom, and find that balance between appreciating when I’m in the office, and appreciating the things I can do when I’m there, but also have space and time that I can work remotely and do other things.
That really drives us to another conversation about, what is the purpose of ‘place’? Are we designing for the right purpose? I want to be really careful, because what we’re finding right now is that some people are totally on one side of this argument. Others are totally on the other. Most people are basing their opinion on their personal situation.
But I now live in the grey. Just because something’s right for you doesn’t mean it’s right for everybody else. If you had asked me during the pandemic if I was functioning alright working from home, I would have said, yes. I have a great house in the suburbs with an office setup, great Wi-Fi, great infrastructure, limited distractions. I don’t have little kids running around.
If you had asked the KIPPERS, (Kids in Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings), who were sitting in their bedrooms in the basement working the first year of the pandemic, they would have said it was horrible. It wasn’t the same situation for them. They didn’t have a network, they didn’t know what the expectations were. They didn’t have coworkers or understand the protocols. They were sitting in a small bedroom trying to look professional.
I think what we need to understand is that just because it works for you does not mean it works for everyone else. There’s a whole variety of scenarios. We have to create this ecosystem that really addresses the diversity and complexity of the workforce that we’re dealing with today.
I think that’s a great point, because that’s one of the things that hybrid enables, is to support that kind of diversity and inclusion. I think, if anything, it’s really lifted back the covers of some of the challenges. So if you talk about the fact that not everybody has access to the same space at home — not everyone was thriving during the pandemic because they didn’t have the space to continue on their work day as if they were in the office. Some struggled and I think that being able to have access to an office space where people can feel like they can do their best is really important.
You also made a comment about the whole personal experience — what’s fascinating to me is that, when you think about life in general and the advancement of technology, virtually everything we do now is personalized. You get in your car and your seat adjusts and your mirrors adjust, all based on what you prefer. You go to the mall and start getting bombarded with marketing, because they know you’re there and how you like to shop. So you get a discount here and a discount there.
But it’s kind of creepy at the same time. Cool, but creepy. But what’s most important to people is not wasting time. So if you have an objective, it gets it done for you. You’re off getting what you need to get done.
And that’s a question that’s been asked over and over again over the years — why is personalization such a taboo thing in the workplace? The same level of personalization where you’re collecting information and you’re basically adjusting the workplace experience to how people want to work. We try, but we can never get there because it keeps changing, because it’s so different for each person.
You know the answer to this one — have you ever walked through a space and come across that one workstation where somebody took it to the extreme and they’ve got 20, 25 Beanie Babies like it’s a kid’s room. This makes me think of a few things. First of all, we all have a space we can do whatever we want with. It’s called our house. Go do whatever you want in your house. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t personalize it, but I’m going to change the word personalization to stylization.
And I think, if we’re returning to workplaces that are stagnant, that are sterile, that have been wiped clean of everything, it’s not going to feel comfortable. We as humans want these elements of hospitality or comfort around us, and the more high tech we go, the more high touch. That’s what we see our clients wanting when it comes to personalizing things.
Most people right now have pictures here or there or on their laptops. And if you’re moving around, you don’t necessarily always want to be in highly customized or personalized spaces. What you find comforting, your neighbour could find distressing or uncomfortable, quite frankly.
We know that visual clutter is one of those things that is grossly understudied or ignored. But 62% of women have a real issue with visual clutter, with chaos. It impacts us in our ability to function at a high level. So, what we need to do is find areas where we can celebrate without just dumping tonnes of stuff in the workplace. In most designs that we’re doing, we’ve created neighborhoods based on zones. It’s kind of a space where everyone can go and feel grounded and connected. But then there are opportunities for them to celebrate the team. It’s going from a ‘me’ mentality to a ‘we’ mentality.
Just think about a locker in a locker room. You can personalize your locker, but the area is more about the team identity and your group identity. I think it’s important to have a balance of both. But we’re coming in to the office to be part of a team. So you have to create spaces that celebrate that, whether it’s a wall where we can put our pictures, and then there’s a wall with team awards, so we know what we’re working on, and moments of pride from an organizational standpoint.
I think it’s that balance that we’re trying to find, and it’s not either/or, it’s not no personality whatsoever. But I think we need to do it more strategically and more intentionally.
On the note of personalization, I totally agree. I’ve seen many of those stations that just look like junk on top of the desk, completely. You can’t see the desk, you can barely see the computer. And I feel sorry for people working around that, because, wow.
But what I’m referring to is the here and now. So, thinking about the technology that’s available to us — comfort sensors, for example, that deal with temperature, lighting, noise, that kind of a thing. Imagine being an employee walking into a space and it knows what type of environment you like to work in, so it directs you to a specific space. When I think about design, as you mentioned, there’s a team area, you’re creating an area where the team knows that’s where they go. But if you were to use more of an intuitive space approach — I’m coming into the office for a specific reason. Yes, I belong to the finance or marketing team, but the people I actually work with might not be on either of those teams. So based on your behaviour and who you’re actually working with, why not have it so that the data helps you? Maybe you like a lot of buzz in the office, or maybe you prefer a quieter space. What if it could direct you based on your mood, or your preference for that day?
We’re going to call that intuitive workspaces, or Internet of Things 2.0. Right now we have a tonne of clients that are rushing to put sensors everywhere. We always say, what is the problem you’re trying to solve, and what are you trying to do? Because there are multiple ways you could do it. But sensors are collecting information from the environment and the surroundings and sometimes from the individual.
One thing we know about people is that they don’t really like to be monitored. They’ll find ways around that. But if we can take that information and empower people with that to give them the opportunity to have more control, that can be really beneficial.
There are certain things that everyone complains about in the workspace. You know what they are. It’s too loud, it’s too bright or too dark, I have no access to natural daylight, or I’m cold or I’m hot.
I’m just going to acknowledge something that our industry has skirted around for a long time. I’m just going to be brutally honest. Nobody in our industry can create a space that is the perfect temperature for every individual at a given time. That is an impossible task. You are always going to have some people that are a little cold or maybe a little hot. Part of it is our physical bodies. Part of it is our layering. But part of it is where we sit and how the sun moves. So if you have the Internet of Things that’s collecting information, it can feed into an app that says, where you’re sitting its 68 degrees, but on the other side of the building it’s 72 degrees because the sun is over there and is coming through the windows. Or there’s more people over there, so there’s a rise in temperature. Or it’s brighter over there. Or there’s a person who’s annoying you because they’re talking so loudly — well there’s a spot over there where the sound level is much quieter. Or maybe all your coworkers are sitting over there. Would you like to book a spot by them?
What I think we haven’t necessarily done is take this technology to the next level. Some companies are starting to do that, which is fabulous. I know Relogix is one that’s starting to do that. But we’re not doing it enough, and I think our clients need to adapt to that and to think about how we can leverage technology to improve the overall human experience and the human condition.
That’s interesting, because it’s definitely something we’ve been exploring. We’ve been toying around with comfort sensors for a while. We actually met with the Well organization to look at how all of that plays into certification and their process. And then could you potentially automate that where the score is based on how that information comes through, where it’s more legitimate because the number of points that you get are capture points of those variables. That’s much better than if someone comes in with a clipboard and says OK, the temperature is this. OK, you’re certified. That’s one day.
Sandra, I’m going to go back to something you alluded to earlier and I’ve said for years — the auto industry is kicking our asses. Let’s just be honest. I can start my car from inside my house, get it nice and warm, I can get in without touching a key. It automatically unlocks because it knows it’s me because of the fob inside my pocket. It automatically pre-sets or adjusts everything in the car to my preferences, even syncs my phone with my dashboard or the light or the temperature. Or the music. Any of those things.
In the workplace, people are still crawling around under their desk trying to find a power outlet! We have not even begun to tap into that in many cases. And yes, it’s a little bit of a different scale. And people can choose that level of sophistication, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t do that in workplaces.
I think we have an opportunity to do so much more, but our clients are terrified about technology. They’re afraid they’re going to buy something that is going to become obsolete, or people aren’t going to know how to use it. And part of that is the fault of the AV IT industry. I’m going to share the blame here. Interior designers are not incorporating technology as part of the solutions early enough in the process to make them as successful as they could be. If I design a conference room and do the wrong proportions, no technology is going to be able to solve that because I made choices in the beginning that absolutely hammered that. So we need to work together. But the IT community does not understand digital fitness. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve walked into a conference room with a $50,000 TV on the wall that’s basically a piece of art because nobody knows how to use it, because they were sold something that was above the ability or desire of the individuals to use it. They didn’t align the solution with the digital fitness or ability of those users, so it was all for nought.
I completely agree, I’ve seen that many, many times as well. And I think it’s absolutely true. People go into these rooms and go, how do I turn on the TV, or how do I get an image up on the screen? And they’re like, oh, I forget, so they go back to tried and true processes.
But it’s interesting to hear you speak of how in 30, 35 years, we’ve seen all of this company advancement, and yet quite frankly, it feels like it’s almost too late. That’s been my feeling since the start of the pandemic. Maybe in pre-pandemic times there would have been a much greater appetite, maybe not. We’ve seen that there wasn’t much appetite for change. We’re like, it works the way it is. Let’s keep the workstations, the cubicle farms. Surprisingly, people are shocked when they hear that this still exists, but it does, because companies don’t spend that much capital on renovating their offices. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Just keep it as it is. But things have moved ahead quite substantially.
I’m going to pause you for a minute. It is broken. You’re just suffering through it.
That’s a good point! It’s broken.
You’re just hobbling along.
So, is it too late? Are companies willing to spend the money to make the improvements? When we were at IFMA’s World Workplace, a lot of the comments were about how there’s only about 30% of people back in the office, so we’re not going to spend money changing the workplace.
Let me just take exactly what you said and put it in another context. Nobody is coming to the restaurant because the food is just OK. So why does it matter?
Make the food better, then you might get people coming to your restaurant. Part of the reason why people aren’t coming back is that we aren’t creating spaces that are commute-worthy. We’re not creating amazing experiences for people in places where they want to be.
There are some companies in the world that are doing that, and they’re getting a much higher percentage of return. I think that goes to show that depending on what your business models are, some people can function just fine while working remotely. And other ones are really going to struggle. It’s against their culture or the organizational culture and they need to be together. So, it’s about creating a compelling environment that can really do that.
But I think our industry right now is being set up for failure. There are so many people that are coming and saying, Sandra, I need you to create the workplace of the future so that everybody will want to come in and it will solve my hybrid problem.
Hybrid is the most complex model out there. It’s the hardest to pull off, frankly, and that is much more of an operational issue than a workplace solutions issue. That’s part of it, but not all of it. I can create an amazing workplace, but if you don’t have policies or procedures or culture, or it doesn’t align with your DNA or the work styles and what people need to be doing, it’s all for nought.
You need to understand who you are. You need to understand what your workers really need. Not just what they want, but could they and should they? And then create different scenarios. Ok, if we want them coming in for this, then let’s design a space around that. If we want them to be doing this at home or remotely, let’s ensure we have the ability to focus on that as well.
Because what’s going to happen here? I’m willing to bet that 80% of companies are not going to put in the work that’s required to make this really successful. And they’re going to struggle because hybrid also has the risk not only of being the best of everything, but it could also be the worst of everything. If I’m commuting to the office to sit on a Zoom call all day…
That’s very much true. If you design a better space, you may entice people to it. And I don’t like to use the word entice, because we hear it quite a bit, but that’s essentially what you’re trying to do, is make the space more attractive so that people want to come to the space. But my thinking is always that other spaces can serve different purposes. For example, you don’t go to a restaurant to just hang out, or you don’t go to a hotel to just hang out. You’re there for a specific purpose. If you’re in a hotel, you’re travelling, or you might be there for a conference or business meeting of some kind. You’re using the facility and their amenities.
Work is a little bit different, because like I said, you can work from home, you can collaborate with people virtually. So, for me, the challenge is yes, we could potentially spend the capital on upgrading the office, making it a better place, but will that guarantee that people come in? I think that’s where the hesitation is, because that’s a lot of capital you could potentially sink into your real estate, and maybe that capital could be used in your learning and development, or could be used for training or other programs you haven’t been able to fund.
There’s something we all say that we need to be a little more honest and transparent about: “we could all work remotely.” But can we? 42% of the US workforce does not have the option to work remotely. They’re service industry, they use specialty equipment like labs, they’re clinical workers, they’re hospital workers. 42%. And we, by the way, have the highest percentage at 58% of knowledge workers that could work remotely. That is the highest percentage almost anywhere in the world of people that have the ability to do it. So this whole conversation is only about half the population. And how do you think all those people that don’t have a choice feel about us dedicating all this attention and time so that we don’t all have to commute?
Like, wow. Sorry for you! The rest of us don’t have a choice. And we run the risk of becoming siloed and creating tiers. So now let’s take that 58%. Of that 58% that could, there are many that don’t have the infrastructure, or their house isn’t set up for it. Or they have multiple roommates, distractions at home. No privacy. Or they need direction.
So, let’s take that big chunk out. And then there are people that are doing things like going to meetings with clients all the time. They’re coming in to have great sessions. So there’s a whole group of individuals, there’s a big chunk of what they do that can’t necessarily be done remotely or at home.
And there’s the whole thing about culture. I find it fascinating that as a society we have so quickly decided that remote learning was a disaster for our children. Most of those kids have lost two years of education and academic advancement. It’s taken a mental health toll and a socialization toll on them, and yet we haven’t equated those things to emerging young professionals who are trying to navigate the professional world. How do I model my behaviour, how do I build my network, what should I be doing, how do I learn? All of those things. We haven’t understood that those negatives are also negatively being impacted by this. I think that’s part of the reason why that group tends to be the Gen Zs and the younger Millennials who are most excited about coming back. They see more value in shared spaces because they see there are things there that they can’t quite get at home.
Frankly, it’s people like myself who have a network set up. I know what I’m supposed to do. I travel a lot. I don’t necessarily report to just one office. My expectations are clear. I can work very independently. I’m a self-starter. I’m perfect for remote work. But I come in, because I feel like I have an obligation to the younger generation, to not only be there for them, but we need them to figure all this stuff out.
This morning, I went into the studio, and I had received something on my phone and I didn’t understand the social media platform, and they were like, oh, it means this! It’s very helpful. Or, can you get this technology to work for me? I think we’re better together.
We can say we can all work remotely. That is true. For a portion of the population. But there’s massive group of individuals that don’t have the choice, and we need to be honest about that.
I think that’s true. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say that everybody gets to work from home?
Oh, there are people who say that. Absolutely. And by the way, the majority of the people that say that are independent, and have always worked from home and do their own kind of independent research or analysis or whatever. They say that.
Interesting. I’m thinking more along the lines of your typical knowledge worker, office worker. You know, we’re not looking at retail or health care. They’re very specialized in what they do because of the need for equipment, and obviously you can’t do that from home. But when you think about being able to work remotely, I don’t think it’s an all or nothing thing. I think we’ve finally come to the conclusion that the reality of hybrid is that you still have to have some level of physical space to go to as an option. Whether that’s a vanity space or the office or a coworking space, or whatever.
I think the other part about learning and mentoring for the younger population is interesting. One thing that’s been brought up many times is you look at the way Gen Z and Millennials function, they have their faces in their phones all day. All their relationships, their friendships, their communication and the things they do, the planning, it’s all done via technology. Even dating.
And maybe that’s why we have the highest rate of teen depression, and more teens feel isolated and alone. They’ve never been more connected and yet never felt more alone and isolated in their lives. And that isn’t a positive thing in all regards. They network in a different way. But when push comes to shove, are your 1000 LinkedIn connections or Facebook friends going to be there for you when you need something? It’s a very superficial world that they’re living in. Facebook depression is a real thing. Nobody posts about what a crappy day they’re having. Everybody posts their top hits, not their B sides. But then you’re looking at everyone’s glorious moments and comparing what you’re going through, and it creates this false reality that everybody is living this amazing life, and that we’re the only ones that feel isolated or alone.
Yes, they connect in a different way, they’re not antisocial. That doesn’t mean that they don’t need to come together. There’s a guy called Scott Galloway, he and Michael Smerconish were having a great conversation recently about what this is doing from a societal standpoint. It’s creating silos and isolating young people. Where do you meet people today? How do you connect?
And then you look at what’s going on in the United States in the last few years during COVID, the amount of rabbit holes that popped up that people have been able to go down. Because they’re more isolated, and they have more time to go down these silos. I don’t think it’s a good thing in any way, shape, or form. I think we’re going to look back at this and say it was a perfect storm that created a societal rift that could take us a long time to come out of.
Here’s a different perspective. Do you think that what we’re experiencing is that the whole online world is opening up to us, because if you have the will to connect and engage in conversations — I can honestly say I’ve learned more in the last 3 years than I have interacting with people throughout my entire career, because of geography or connections with people from different parts of the world and learning what their experience has been like. I never would have had that experience if I was at work and just doing what was expected of me every day.
I’ll give you the counterpoint to that — I travelled all the time, and when I travelled, I got to see things and experience things in a way that being on a phone call with somebody in Finland wasn’t the same as meeting somebody in Finland and seeing the culture and being there. So, I feel like, from an exposure standpoint, it’s diminished.
But to your point, we have learned a lot in the last 3 years, and I don’t think it’s because we’re remote. I think it’s because the status quo was challenged. Everything was thrown up in the air. And we were all forced to re-think what was on cruise control before. And I don’t think that just because you’re coming into the office, everyone is a conformist. I think that what you’re doing is you’re seeing what the expectation is and you’re seeing different examples of a variety of different people. And you get help to find that sweet spot. You get to understand what is expected of you. You get to see how people interact with each other. Socialization.
The last 3 years of people being very isolated has had some real consequences on peoples’ mental health, their emotional health, their social health. Do we need to always be together? No, having a balance between being physical and engaging, and also getting exposure to different things virtually could be a great blend, but if they’re out of sync with each other, it gets dangerous.
Here’s the other part of the argument that I hear quite often too — it’s about social relationships at work and the value of those social relationships versus personal ones. Again, people could be speaking from personal experience, because your point is, there’s a lot of loneliness, there’s a lot of people who don’t have friends. Sometimes you’re just in a circumstance where it’s very hard. You know, there are people who are very introverted and suffer through that. Some people enjoy it.
Believe it or not, I am introverted. People are shocked when I say that.
I’m one that happens to be on the fence. I’m introverted, but I can be extroverted depending on my mood. But I like being by myself. But what’s interesting is when I first started working 100% remote, between three and six months, I did feel the loneliness. It surprised me, because I loved recharging. But once I got past that, I would still feel every once in a while like I need to be around people. I used to go to the Starbucks and just sit there, even if I didn’t know anyone, just to be around people.
I’m not going to lie, two years in, I did not feel lonely. Two years in, if someone had said, you’ve got to stay in lockdown for another year, I would have been fine with it. I’m good. People are shocked when I say that, because I was never home before. But maybe that’s part of it. I regenerate myself.
When I first started going back into the office, I thought it was going to suck. I have to get dressed, I have to commute. But I look forward to those days, and I actually enjoy it. The commute gives me time to listen. I listen to the radio, which I don’t do at home. At home, I just go from the bedroom, to exercise, to breakfast, to work. There is no time to just enjoy sitting in the car and listening to music or a podcast and catching up on things. It’s a mental break. It forces me to stop.
The problem is that during the pandemic, I think it took a mental and physical toll on us that we’re not aware of. First of all, most people sat stagnantly for hours on end in one place. And the number of steps we took per day plummeted for most individuals. Secondly, being on Zoom calls is more draining than in person, because you can’t move, you’re constantly on, you’ve got all these people staring at you.
There’s a great study that has said that people have spent 252% more time on Zoom calls. So, here’s a question for you, what percentage of time that people are on Zoom calls are they multitasking?
Most people say 90 to 100%. And what happens when you multitask? You’re taxing your brain, trying to do both the things you’re trying to do. So, we’re in a diminished capacity, quality is being reduced, you’re making more mistakes, you’re not really paying attention, you’re not processing it the same way you would if you listened to something.
We’re not giving ourselves any mental or physical breaks like coming into the office where you can have that water cooler moment, or have that exchange with somebody that you may not have made time for. It’s building back that social capital. Connecting us in ways so that when we go back and work remotely, we’re recharging and can focus, but we have those connections now that we can pull back in and rely on. I think it’s a balance, I really do.
Yes, and I think it’s interesting, I actually wrote a blog piece back in April or May of 2020 where I predicted the future of the office based on my personal experience. I said it would be the social day out. Work from home 4 days a week, 5 days a week, but you say, on Monday I’m going to go to the office and it won’t be a work day because I’m not sitting at a desk. I’d be there to meet with colleagues, reconnect with these people, talk about projects, things we’re working on. And then I’d come home and be good for another 5 or 6 days.
We all have those moments that stick in your head — the first day that we came back into the office, this was almost a year ago, one of my colleagues came up and said, I’m so excited to be here, I didn’t even bring my laptop today. It’s not a laptop kind of day. Today is a meet with everybody day. And I literally had heart palpitations. I don’t think I’ve ever, even on vacation, been more than a few steps away from my laptop. And the thought of leaving it at home and coming to the office and ignoring it for the entire day — I was like, now I know what a junkie feels like with withdrawals. I couldn’t even conceive of what he’d done.
But that’s not healthy either, that’s hustle culture.
Right, it’s not. Don’t do what I do. I tell my children that all the time.
Another thing I also wanted to mention is about learning experiences you were talking about before. I know you’ve had so many learning experiences through travel and the recent changes. This is something that’s been talked about for years and years now, but now there’s more focus on sustainability. So, using technology in the place of physical travel. Yes, there’s more of an advantage to meeting with people in person, but at what cost, from an environmental point of view? Where do you see that playing into how we think about working relationships and our interactions?
Let me play devil’s advocate here. Firstly, our industry isn’t even coming close to addressing what we need to as far as regeneration. I don’t even want to say the word that begins with S because nobody wants to just sustain, right? We all want to thrive. We are beyond just sustaining because we’re already in a bad spot. We’ve got to regenerate and rejuvenate, and we need to go above and beyond.
We’re not driving to the office, but the office is still there, being cooled and warmed, and now we’re running our houses, which aren’t as energy efficient as most of our office buildings. And we’re running at a higher capacity because we’re cooling and heating and using electricity there. We’re all paying for that, and our houses are belching our carbon while we’re saying, we’re not commuting.
But have you noticed how many delivery people are on the street right now? I find it shocking that nobody has raised the alarm bells. We all go to the grocery store with reusable bags, but when we order anything online, or food, a person is driving to our house in a car with a package. That is grossly excessive, for the one item that’s being delivered. The number of delivery drivers on the road, the number of Uber drivers, Door Dash delivery, food drivers, that are just wandering around waiting for us to call and need something — it’s replaced us being in cars. So, it’s not a clean swap. It’s not as easy as, we’re just not doing that anymore, look at how much we’re saving on travel.
Flights is absolutely a big issue. But what I think we’re going to see is a lot of our clients saying, we’re going to be more strategic. I used to be in an airport every day, but now I’m taking trips maybe once a week. I don’t think we’ll have as much travel, but when we do it, it’s going to be more meaningful and impactful.
Let’s switch it up a little bit and talk about the design world. We talked about hybrid and these systemic things, but how do you see the practice of design changing going forward? Do you think there are any required changes? Thinking about how you used to design, and how you design now, what do you see as potentially necessary changes?
I want to give a verbal slap to our entire industry. Because if I go to one more conference and hear people throw up their hands and say, “nobody knows anything, we’re all guessing”, I’m going to go ballistic.
First of all, we know a lot. We’ve been doing this for a long time. There are absolutely lessons learned. If you’re not looking and applying those lessons learned or understanding why those programs were either successful or failed, then shame on you, because you’re not looking at what’s clearly out there. There are precedents out there.
Number two, we’ve tried forever to get people to take what we do seriously. Now the entire world is asking us what the future of work is. And our answer is, I don’t know? That’s not an acceptable answer. Are we going to get it 100% right? No. Are we going to get it 80% right compared to someone who knows nothing about what we do? Yes. I’m going to go with us and say we’ll probably get it more accurate than people that are just guessing.
Lots of companies are piloting and testing things. But if you test everything, you test nothing. I’m thrilled that we’re going through a period of piloting, people are experimenting and doing new things. But you have to be really scientific about what you’re doing so that you’re not just throwing a bunch of stuff in there randomly and hoping something works. We have to be more strategic about it, so that the chances of being successful are higher and so we can determine and measure what actually had an impact or not.
Now is our opportunity to step up and do amazing things. For the younger generation of designers, I’ve waited 38 years for this moment to come, and we need to capitalize on it. We may not have this again. We’re going to be in a rocky period for a while, and then I think we’ll have it more frequently. We’ll go for these long periods of status quo. But this is a really unique opportunity for us to be forward thinking and not just address the problem at hand.
All of those things are on the horizon, and it takes a much broader approach to how we should work, where should we work, what is the workforce, what should we do. I don’t think we’re taking a broad enough view and doing that future casting to really think about that. We spend a lot of time thinking about robotics, AI, holograms, and how those are going to impact us, how resourcing issues are going to impact us, how all of these things are going to impact us. But we aren’t thinking enough to see the writing on the wall.
Our industry right now should be helping our clients do scenario planning. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we have a pretty good understanding that one of these 3 things are likely to happen. What are you going to do when it does happen, are you just going to wait till it happens and then get caught flat footed and then try to react? I believe we should be more proactive and say OK, what if 6 months from now people aren’t coming back? What if 6 months from now a lot of people are back? What are we going to do, how are we going to position ourselves to be successful for when that happens?
Some really, really good points you’ve just made. When you think about who you’re communicating with in organizations, are you working with other departments other than corporate real estate through these conversations?
Look, if we could get rid of the term workplace strategy, I would replace it with enterprise alignment. Because a lot of people say there are three things that are important. We’re going to say four. A lot of people say it’s people, place, and tech tools. I’m going to add process. Having a better understanding of what the business is actually doing. If you’re a sales organization, your solution should be uniquely different than an accounting firm or a law firm, or a trading company. They’re uniquely different and we need to have a better understanding of what work styles are happening, what people are doing, what they’re trying to achieve, what the culture is, where they want to go. And then we need to take all these things and develop a strategy that really helps our clients envision what they could or should be, and then chart a path to help them get there.
Wow. That’s very true. Working with HR and IT and other people in the organization, it makes you think about corporate branding and communications and all that sort of thing, because they’re all interconnected. And traditionally it’s been led by facilities management, corporate real estate with some input required from other teams. But I agree, alignment is 100% required because ultimately the outcome is that you have an objective as a company, and your behaviours are the desired behaviours of the workforce. And how you make decisions about your workspace needs to be aligned with the vision, the goals, the objectives of what you’re trying to achieve as a company, which is unique from company to company. They’re not necessarily exactly the same. And also because the workforce makeup is unique. So even though your vision and your mission might be the same, the actual makeup of your organization is unique in comparison to someone else. And that’s what should dictate the alignment. How are you provisioning space or the practice of work for the people that work in your organization?
Yes, and as I said before, I think that the workplace world is being set up because everyone is looking at us to solve this problem. I actually think it’s a communication problem more than anything else. And again, workplace is a part of this.
But let me just run this scenario by you. What do you want? Well, I want to work from home forever. Whatever, I get paid a tonne of money to do it. Ok. Everybody is making up their own rules, and now it’s a change management nightmare because you’re not trying to change one behaviour. You’re trying to change what every single person has adopted as their own behaviour.
Let’s take scenario two. You need to be back in the office. We’re going to mandate that you’re there five days a week. It feels like a punishment.
Versus, there are a lot of great reasons why we want to promote you working from home to be in the office, whether it’s through mentoring, being there to really help our younger staff or help them get their footing and to really build that next legacy. Being able to get the teammates that you need to build those strong connections and bonds to really support you, so you can go out and do what you do best.
We want you to have that great work life balance. We want a blend of the two, but we also want to give you moments where you can thrive, whether it’s taking a break from being at home all the time or taking a break from being in the office. It’s about that balance. We need your help ensuring the company is successful, and we’re ensuring the success of the next generation of leaders with their work life balance and long-term ability to thrive.
Right. And if we talk to people and lay all that out, I think that’s what most people do really care about. They care about their workforce, but they also have to get stuff done because if the company isn’t successful, we don’t have jobs. And I want to retire. And if we don’t have the next generation of leaders that are there, ready to step in and step up, that’s not going to happen. So, I think we’re not telling a compelling enough story about why we’re making the decisions we’re making. And I think frankly, a lot of CEOs are terrified, they don’t want to be the next Jamie Dimon or Elon Musk, that puts out a mandate and gets skewered for it.
Well, Kay, this has been excellent. I wish we could go on for another hour, because this conversation has been so good! Thank you for your time today, I really appreciate it.
Always happy to. We’ll get together in a few more months and we’ll reflect again and maybe project what we think is coming. I think we’re in a really exciting time right now, and I’m going to encourage everybody to embrace this moment, to go big, and to go bold. You’re not going to get it 100% right. But I think the world is going to be more forgiving than they ever will or have been. And we need to chart a path forward to really help people thrive.