Blending Technology, Trends and People in the Built Workplace
In a workplace landscape that has become consumed by new trends, technology and preparing for the future, it’s easy to lose sight of the role that social behavior plays in workplace design.
Albert De Plazaola, Global Strategy Leader at Unispace and former Gensler consultant, has been immersed in workplace design strategy and corporate change management for over 15 years. As an industry leader, he brings his breadth of knowledge with an experienced approach to strategies that distribute an emphasis on the flow of social and technological requirements in workplace design.
You specialize in design strategy, workplace strategy, and change management. How important is it to have a holistic understanding of an organization’s work environment?
De Plazaola: I’ll be honest with you — I don’t know how or why you’d do it any other way. A workspace, as a piece of real estate, is typically the second-largest expenditure an organization makes. First it’s employees and salaries and then it’s real estate.
When I started getting into this stuff, I would ask myself “if people are spending a ton of money on real estate and offices, why wouldn’t you use it as an organizational asset?” In other words, why wouldn’t you use it to help promote productivity, effectiveness, or happiness? Whatever the case may be. It seems to be a great lever or an organizational fulcrum to use in order to encourage or foster certain types of experiences.
Your workplace ultimately plays a role in how happy your employees are. If your employees are your biggest capital expenditure and workplace is the second-largest — shouldn’t they work together? Shouldn’t that be a symbiotic relationship?
Our average client spends anywhere between $7-10 million on their workplace. If you’re going to spend that much money on a workplace, wouldn’t you want it to help facilitate and advance your business goals? Are you going to spend that just to house people in a building or spend it strategically to figure out how the space can make employees happier and better workers?
Historically, that’s one of the biggest differences between the United States and Europe. Europe has always had a lot of respect for design. For example, when you’re in Europe, the designer says “if we do a couple shifts here and make a couple modifications there, we might get better circulation flow and employees will run into each other more for spontaneous conversations.”
Typically, there’s an audience for that in Europe. Until recently, the American attitude towards workplace strategy has been to put as many butts in seats — but that’s changing.
For FMs out there, is there a basic framework you follow for approaching change management and some things they should keep in mind?
De Plazaola: Every workplace move, shift, or change, whether it’s revolutionary or evolutionary for the organization, it’s fundamentally a change management effort at its core.
The design of space isn’t necessarily the most challenging part of the project. As long as you get the program requirements, one can test fit a space based on those certain requirements.
What is really tough, and this happens especially when you’re moving from a traditional workspace to a more progressive workspace, is getting people to change their thinking and behaviors in that space. The biggest risk of moving into a transformational workspace is that employees bring their legacy behaviors into that new space which wasn’t designed for those behaviors.
Three months later, they’re looking around and saying “gee, this place sucks” because it doesn’t support the way they work. That’s because they’re working in the way they used to in an environment that’s encouraging something different. A lot of workplaces necessitate employees thinking differently about how they work and how they think about the workplace.
You’ve been quoted as saying “I am less interested in workplace fashion and trends and more focused on unique approaches that support business needs and enable employees to enjoy their time at work.” Could you tell me about some of those “unique approaches?”
De Plazaola: The question I get asked more than any other question is “what’s the workplace of the future?” That’s like me asking you “what car should I buy in the future?” I don’t know if you have a family. I don’t know if you’re interested in sports cars. I don’t if you have three or four kids and need more rows in the back. I don’t know any of that stuff. I can say “well the hottest car out right now is a Tesla,” but it may not meet your needs.
I don’t like talking about workplace fashion and trends. If an attorney, for example, asks “what are some things going on in workplace right now?” I can tell them Google is putting nap pods into their cafe areas. The lawyer is going to look at me and ask “you want lawyers to take naps in the workplace?”
On the flip-side of that, I can tell a lawyer what’s being leveraged very well by law firms and how machine learning and AI are replacing law libraries. When you’re thinking about a new space, don’t think about a new library, think about a community space that replaces that library. Most of that information is either online or can be accessed through other means and the law library is a thing of the past.
Something I’ve tried to do in every position is to find new and unique ways to capture the essence of what an organization does and then provide space recommendations that can get translated into a workplace.
How have new ways of working such as hotelling and hot-desking impacted your strategic process, having to now account for remote employees or ones who are physically in the office only certain days of the week?
De Plazaola: First of all, I would thoroughly evaluate whether or not hoteling or hot-desking is actually the right solution for that client. It’s a good solution for people who are in sales, marketing, and consultants that sit with their clients and aren’t in the office often.
For a lot of organizations, hotelling and hot-desking is not a great solution for a couple reasons. You actually build a sense of community inside the workplace and if you’re building a space for people who only come into the office 2-3 days a week, inevitably you’re going to miss certain people and it’s going to be a little bit harder to keep comradery and connectivity amongst teams. What organizations have to figure out is if hotelling and hot-desking is the right solution for them and if so — for which teams?
Two or three years ago, Marissa Mayer from Yahoo! basically proclaimed “no more working from home.” Guys like me and all these designers and strategists were like “that’s blasphemy! She doesn’t believe in flexibility!” I think everybody got that wrong. I think what she recognized was the fact that Yahoo! teams were super distributed and accountability was difficult. She realized there was little sense of community or company brand. Nobody really knew what Yahoo! stood for.
Mayer basically said “I want everyone back in the office, I want you to re-establish a sense of trust and community with your team, and I want this to be a Yahoo! community again.” One way she could do that is for her managers to interact face-to-face with their employees in an environment that would inspire innovation and creation. She leaned on the workplace and face-to-face interaction to help rebuild the business.
If you have a very well established organization with trust amongst your employees, then you can work from wherever you want. You have to establish that trust and those game rules first. While hoteling and hot-desking are space strategies, they should be subordinate to whether or not it works for the business.
Where do you think most workplace strategists stumble near the beginning of their careers and how do you try to avoid these mistakes from happening later on?
De Plazaola: I remember I was at a conference back in 2007 and this guy was going on and on about how in the future there will be no offices. Everybody would work from home and plug into a virtual workplace. When was the last time you plugged into a virtual reality platform to hold a meeting?
The worst part was the guy that was talking at this conference was me. I was the guy saying all of this because I got so enthusiastic about the future and technology. I was making grand statements without ever thinking about the implications of what I was saying. Do people people really want to be plugged into VR their entire work day? Why do people come into work to interact face-to-face?
The advice I’d give is make sure you always keep abreast of the newest technologies, but remember what the nature of work is. At the end of the day, we are social animals and technology isn’t always the panacea of everything.