In Workplace Projects, HR People Are Designers’ Best Allies

A Think Tank discussion at Corgan’s Dallas offices emphasized the role that “people people” can play in creating exceptional workplaces.

Toyota Motor North America Headquarters, Plano, Tx
Toyota Motors North America Headquarters in Plano, Texas. Courtesy Corgan

When CPS Energy, San Antonio’s well-respected energy company, was ready to redesign its headquarters, the company’s vice president of people and culture, Lisa D. Lewis, made an unexpected but fundamental contribution. The existing structure had been built when the San Antonio river was more or less a canal, not the prized urban amenity it is today. So the HVAC mechanics were all on the river-facing side of the building. “I remember giving our facilities leader a heart attack when I said, ‘Well we can’t have all that there! We need access to the outside!’,” Lewis said. “But I was able to convince them.” Now CPS’s office, designed by Corgan, takes full advantage of its connection to the river.

The role that the “people people”—i.e., the people in an organization in charge of human resources, talent, and culture—can play alongside designers in creating exceptional workplaces was the topic of discussion at a Metropolis Think Tank discussion last year hosted at Corgan’s Dallas offices.

In fact, the panel argued, when HR leaders aren’t involved to effect policy change in workplace redesign projects, it can have disastrous effects. Lindsay Wilson, president of Corgan, rattled off horror stories—people accustomed to large computer screens being forced to work on “itty bitty” laptops just because the organization wanted them to be mobile, or fitness centers that just can’t deal with the demand during lunchtimes or immediately after hours because the workers don’t have flexible schedules. “Sometimes it’s just silly,” she said. “If an organization creates a really casual work environment as the design direction, and they don’t change their dress code, you have people in ties sitting in tiny chairs looking very uncomfortable. It just doesn’t work.”

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Panelists included, from left to right, Metropolis editor in chief Avinash Rajagopal; Lindsay Wilson, president, Corgan; Terri Von Lehmden, vice president of human resources, Toyota; Lisa D. Lewis, vice president of people and culture, CPS Energy; and Jason McCann, CEO and founder, Varidesk. Courtesy Daniel Driensky

This is why Jason McCann, founder and CEO of Varidesk, often starts projects by taking clients through his own office, which is a testing ground for design ideas. “They all had the same comment: ‘I’m looking for this’,” he said. “What they were describing was the culture. That is really built upon your core values, and getting those really right and dialed-in.” Now his company has created Varispace in Las Salinas, Texas, to improve the workplace-as-service model. There he utilizes the “test and see” model that all the panelists heartily espoused—building prototypes and gathering feedback every step of the way. “If you can learn with your clients, each step of the way, and share these ideas, it transforms a culture,” he said.

While the people-people work with employees at large to manage change, they are acutely aware of the role of leadership in any successful workplace. Terri Von Lehmden, vice president of Human Resources at Toyota, reiterated the value of a “leader-led” strategy in the company’s recent workplace design project. “We took every opportunity of getting the message to our leaders, how we wanted them to show up, how we wanted them to work differently and work flexibly,” she says. “This was really critical for our successful transition , especially when we designed our building with 50/50—50 percent for the individual and 50 percent for collaboration. When the team member is not at their desk it does not mean that they are not working.”

When HR and people professionals lay this kind of foundation for organizational change, then workplace designers can work wonders. As Wilson said, “Designers can’t create culture, but we can definitely shape it.”

The Think Tank discussions were held on October 16 and 17, 2019, in Dallas. The conversations were presented in partnership with DXV/GROHE and National Office Furniture.

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