How to build an unforgettable workplace for your startup

Francis Aquino

Francis Aquino, Director of Workplace & Employee Experience at Honey, shares his insights about workplace leadership, employee experience initiatives, and the strategy behind building new workplaces.

Being a successful startup can be equal parts exciting and anxiety-inducing. While you’re thrilled that all the work you’ve put in is finally paying off, all that sudden growth has to be accounted for. Some startups even have to deal with the logistical challenge of moving from a small coworking space to a full-fledged office space of their own with several different floors.

Francis Aquino, Director of Workplace & Employee Experience at Honey, is on the front lines of his company’s rapid evolution. His vast set of duties find him balancing the needs of employees along with the inevitable challenges that come along with keeping a growing team motivated and satisfied.  

You’ve led workplace and employee experience at major companies like Uber and Headspace. What is your personal philosophy when it comes to building a great workplace and employee experience?

Aquino: One size does not fit all. That’s been my personal philosophy working with different companies, founders, and industries. I always make time for discovery and immersion when I join a new company. Anything that I successfully implement at one company may or may not be successful at another company. It’s very important to get to know the individual culture, voice, and inner quirks of a certain environment within an industry. Spending a good amount of time in the discovery and immersion stage almost guarantees a successful implementation.

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I don’t just sit down with high-level executives and department heads either; I participate in random coffee or lunchtime conversations with other employees as well. It’s important to get the feedback and vision from the founders and senior leadership as the main guide to what you want to implement in the office. That said, getting granular insights from employees is the cherry on top that wraps it all up and makes it a wonderful dessert. 

I also think that it’s very important to speak with pioneer employees who have historical data on how the company was in the early days. And then get insights from the new hires  who have fresh eyes and have recently come from different environments. Pick their brains to find out the best things they’ve encountered at their company and the things that aren’t as good and were better at their previous company.

Honey office space

How did your experience in being an Executive Assistant and working in Office Operations contribute to your current success leading employee experience projects and understanding the impact of effective facilities management?

Aquino: I’m lucky that I was able to experience all areas of office operations. I went from being a front desk coordinator  to working in office management and office operations and am now building workspaces. Having gone through all those experiences, I know first-hand what a front desk needs. I know first-hand what office management looks like.

As an example, when I worked at Nasty Gal, my first hypergrowth startup company, I got in trouble for ordering trash bins that were too small. In the first couple of months, we also kept running out of drinking water. I needed to define how much water a team of 15 needed versus how much water a team of 100 needed. Those are just a few examples of experiences that helped me design an office and create a workplace environment that was not only safe and comfortable but also functional.

Honey reception

What are some things you’d like to see included in a potential new HQ? How would this type of space fit into your company’s larger workplace and employee experience strategy? 

Aquino: The discovery, immersion, and time spent to get to know all the departments along with the vision of the founders have to all be in line when designing something like a new HQ. The new space should be completely our own and customized for us and our employees.

It also needs to include options. As we scale our headcount, we’re naturally going to have differences in the work styles of employees. It’s not as much about being unique as it is about thoughtfully considering all the work style options of all our employees. That means quiet and heads-down work zones to open collaborative settings. We want our employees to have those open spaces where they can communicate and collaborate with other employees freely.

Honey ping pong

There definitely seems to be a lot of thought and consideration going into building  a new HQ. In a more general sense, how do you think the physical workplace can impact employee experience?

Aquino: I’ve been in this field for a little over a decade and it’s been my professional mission to elevate facilities managers, office managers, and office coordinators because we play a really big role in creating environments that are conducive to productivity.

We’re the ones who are always on-the-go, creating relationships with employees, and listening to their needs and wants. With all the data and information we get from these conversations, we try our best to create the optimal environment for our customers — which are our internal employees.

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Lighting can really make or break an office space. Too harsh of a lighting setup can impact the eyesight and overall health of employees. Lighting also helps create a mood. It creates the mood for a collaborative space or a quiet work zone. It might be a little dimmer in the quiet work zones and brighter in the collaborative spaces. Our CEO and founder also shared a podcast about how important plants are in the workplace. They really lighten the mood, give you energy, and studies show that having greenery in sight creates a more positive work outlook and you’re able to find more creative ways to solve problems.

I’m really happy to see that these roles have been elevated in recent years. We understand that it's not just about creating a functional office space; it’s also about building a space that gets employees excited and motivated to go to work.

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Getting employees excited and motivated for work can definitely be difficult at times. With that in mind, what are your biggest personal challenges in managing a growing startup workplace? 

Aquino: In general with startups, the most exciting thing is change. More often than not, they’re generally really fast changes. One of my biggest challenges is keeping up with those changes. Trying to avoid putting out fires and strategically thinking about what happened, what it is happening, and what could go wrong. If we’re constantly running around like headless chickens, we’re still able to do our jobs, but we’re just going to continue putting out those day-to-day fires.

If we’re able to plan things out and strategically think about things that would be more productive for the company, employees, and facilities, then we’d be far more prepared for anything that comes up in the future. It’s really about anticipating those rapid changes and how prepared you are for them when they happen.

I always say sincerity and passion will always be the secret ingredients to being successful in the field of workplace experience. This role has high visibility and the need for excellence in customer service.  All initiatives, plans, and designs will have a higher chance of success if one is genuinely sincere and passionate about employee happiness.

Follow Francis on LinkedIn to get all his latest industry insights and find out more about how he is helping shape the workplace and employee experience at Honey.

What do you think are the biggest challenges associated with managing the workplace of a rapidly growing company? Join the conversation and leave us a comment below.

Photos: Francis Aquino, Brett Sayles