A Healthy Return: The Business Case for Wellbeing in the Workplace – Part 2

Workplaces are beginning to understand that in order to retain top performers, they will need to do more than put a foosball table in the lobby. Today’s most progressive organizations are attracting talent by creating workplaces that build a culture of emotional well-being in addition to supporting productivity. By supporting workers holistically, organizations have been […]

Workplaces are beginning to understand that in order to retain top performers, they will need to do more than put a foosball table in the lobby. Today’s most progressive organizations are attracting talent by creating workplaces that build a culture of emotional well-being in addition to supporting productivity.

By supporting workers holistically, organizations have been able to optimize their investments in talent, building teams that are in it for the long haul, thereby maximizing return on investment.  Susan S. Szenasy, our director of design innovation, sat down with a panel of design experts at the San Francisco offices of Haworth, a workplace furniture manufacturer, to talk about these changes in company cultures. The panel included Stacy Grubbs, Senior Manager, Global Facilities & Real Estate at Equinix, Randy Howder, Principal at Gensler, Anjell Karibian, Senior Workplace Design Strategist at Haworth Inc, and Tracy Maher, Area Human Resources Leader at HDR. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, edited for clarity.

Susan S. Szenasy (SSS): We often talk about how great design is but we rarely talk about it from the business case. Tonight we are going to examine how design can retain talent and improve productivity. I’d like to start with Stacy Grubbs, who is the Senior Manager of Global Facilities & Real Estate at Equinix. Can you tell us about Equinix and what you do?

Stacy Grubbs (SG): How many use the internet? Everyone in here. We are a data center.  Basically, it’s our fiber that transmits the information from one customer to another. Globally we’re in forty different countries. I’m the senior facility manager for Equinix and I’m responsible for overseeing our Americas team and our design team.

SSS: Next, we have Tracy. Tracy is the area human resources’ leader for HBR, working out of San Francisco. Human resources, in a design firm, what does that mean? Who are you? What do you do?

Tracy Maher (TM): I work with employees, I work with management, and I’m helping them to try to solve problems. Since I work with four different offices and each office has a different location, we do find there are cultural differences between those offices.

Lucha Libre Wrestling Ring, Facebook Mexico City. Photo by Rafael Gamo

SSS: What are some of the sticky issues in San Francisco?

TM: I think the stickiest issue we’re facing now is our move. We’re going from offices and cubicles to a completely open space. In particular, for my job, I do a lot of in confidence conversations. I don’t have an office in the new space. So you have to figure out how you do the job differently. I think the same thing is being faced by the staff in our office as well. They’re challenged by how they’re going to do their job in a new space.

SSS: That’s very interesting. Let’s move on to Randy Howder, Principal at Gensler. What is it that you do?

Randy Howder (RH): I’m a partner in our San Francisco office. I wear a couple of different hats.  I direct a studio in our San Francisco office. I also co-lead what we call a practice area, which is focused on how we understand specific client types.

SSS: Are you facing many of the same kinds of transitional pains and aches that Tracy was facing?

RH: We have an open space and a completely open plan and no private offices. The challenge that we face is how technology is changing our interactions with each other.  I hate to use the term ‘generations’, but we have senior people and people right out of school coming together in the same office space. So, we have to work with those different approaches.

SSS: As an architect, how do you think through the design challenges of putting people together that are coming from different places? What drives you crazy?

RH: I think the biggest challenge is understanding our client’s world of work. So we really have to get into their heads and understand the business and the culture in a really compressed time frame.

SSS: Anjell Karibian, you are the Senior Workplace Design Strategist for Hayworth, and you’re the research expert among us. I want to touch on the recent McKinsey article that showed the hidden toll of workplace incivility and how it is on the rise. What in your research explains why people get rough in the workplace?

Anjell Karibian (AK): It’s a great question, but we hear many things from our customers and our clients and from the design community. One of the main things we have seen is that because of the cost of real estate, the square footage per person has really shrunk.  So we have to think about designing places where people can do their best work. I think we get too prescriptive and say “oh, well, of course, this space will work – it’s open and collaborative.” But that behavior is something we have to watch because it doesn’t work for everybody.

SSS: What are some of the indicators that incivility is happening and what is missing from those offices?

AK: When leadership doesn’t set the culture from the top down, that’s when it starts to break down. You can’t just say it, you have to live it.

SSS: How strong is the vision at Equinix?

SG: I would say our vision is actually very strong. We take a survey of the staff every six months. From that survey we see issues come out. For example, one survey said that workers didn’t feel like there was any cohesiveness globally with the other offices. Now if you receive X amount of mentions, for a week, you get to go any place in the world where we have a data center.

Wellness Center for Employees, Symantec SymFit. Photo by Emily Hagopian

SSS: Tracy, can you talk about how HR works in a design firm with all of the egos and issues in the office?

TM: What I’d say is our biggest challenge is communication and the fact that everyone has an opinion on what the design is. It doesn’t always match up, so that creates communication problems. It creates clarity problems. So we have to work with that.

SSS: That’s really interesting. Is there a generational divide in all of that? Randy touched on how he works now and how his group is very different from his 60-year-old partner and the way he works. I’m not sure that the 30-year-old is as convinced as the 60-year-old about how to get things done. Can you tell us about how that interchange works?

TM: The way I look at it is, it’s less about generations and more about life phases. When people are in different life phases, they need different things from their workplace and from their personal lives.

SSS: That’s a really new thing because we have segregated people according to gender, according to age, according to work types. We have really made a science of segregation in the twentieth century. Now, we’re figuring out that at 35, you might actually be doing what some 25-year-olds are doing.

TM: Yes. I have an employee in my LA office who is 40 and is only a year into their architecture career, so they’re not licensed. If you think about it, their life phase might be married and stable. Their career phase is entry level.

SSS: Randy, can you talk to us about how to design for commonalities? Globally, culturally, generationally, how do you design for these issues?

RH: On a very basic level, it’s really about the individual and knowing that regardless of age, you know where you come from. There are so many different components that makeup someone’s personality. So there’s a recognition on an employer’s part that needs to happen about employee experience; it’s almost the consumerization of employees in a way. Employers are starting to treat employees as consumers of a space during the time that they occupy a job. The experience has to be curated and individualized and treated in the same way that companies might treat its customers.

SSS: Anjell, what is your research saying about this shift? Are we thinking about the workplace in a new way?

AK: Yes. It is all about the individual. In terms of the environment, we have to look at it in a way that says “what allows people to be the most productive? How does this space support that?” That’s where, from the standpoint of the bottom line, if we can amplify the benefits of tapping into a person’s individual needs it’s going to work well for an organization over the long run.

Panelists and attendees at the event. Photo by Sam Breach

SSS: Tracy, as an HR person, how do you do that? I think you’re on the front lines of trying to deal with all these personalities and all these demands and needs that will make the group happy but will make the individual happy. What’s your method?

TM: I’m trying to listen to what people really want. What are their needs at that particular time? How can we best meet them? Sometimes they are simple. A desk might be the wrong size. It’s the simplest thing in the world, but that could be what they need at that particular time. I’m also listening to what are they doing next in their life and what are they looking for out of different programs in the company.

SSS: Stacy, I’d like to talk to you about the multicultural world you’re a part of, and the cross-cultural understanding that you guys have to deal with because you have Japan, you have Europe, you have the U.S., and they are very different worlds.

SG: Since we took the time to identify our culture and our values, now, we are looking at how a customer can go anywhere and know it’s an Equinix site. To do this we came up with the 80/20 rule. Twenty percent, culturally, should change because people work differently in different parts of the world. But, the remaining 80 percent looks the same, so you have an open plan in EMEA, open plan in Japan, America has a mixture.

SSS: Tracy, just to follow up on that, you’re on the West Coast, you’re in charge of San Francisco, L.A., and Phoenix. Briefly, what’s the difference between the three of them? What are the defining concepts starting with San Francisco?

TM: I think we see that cities operate differently. In San Francisco you tend to see employees come in a little later, they commute by public transit, they’re more flexible in how they’re getting to work and how they’re working. In Phoenix, they are really driven by their car culture. They tend to come in early, they work extremely early hours, I’m never the first one there. They actually want private space. Then when you move to L.A., you kind of see the mix between the two. So we have a flexible work schedule, that’s how we deal with the difference between those offices.

SSS: Anjell, the word communication has come up and it keeps coming up. Communication is such a fraught concept because we often talk past each other. Can you talk about some of the research looking at how we communicate? Are you finding anything in your research that can help us understand new ways of communicating better?

AK: The feeling of disconnection is a problem. From what we see in our research, a lot of it is about making sure that people have meaning in what they are doing. We want to make sure that people are productive and that they will stay engaged with their particular function. This ties into well-being, it’s about someone’s emotional well-being.

SSS: Tracy, what does well being mean at HDR? What is your concept?

Attendees discuss the topic after the panel. Photo by Sam Breach

TM: For me, well-being is personal happiness and that means having a purpose at work and a purpose at home. I think trying to translate that culturally, we say, “we do things right to make great things happen.” That’s really what it comes down to. If we have that we can reach well-being.

SSS: Randy, how do you think about this at Gensler?

RH: We’ve been thinking about the idea of healthy systems, healthy people. It’s sort of the basics of sustainability. It’s not just sustainability for the environment, it’s inclusivity of gender and sexual orientation, and all the things that recognize diverse populations. It’s about recognizing that everyone is different and offers different contributions to an organization.

SSS: Anjell, you are at the forefront of trying to figure out strategy. What does your research and your thinking reveal about wellness and what it means for the bottom line?

AK: The well-being side of our emotional state is something business hasn’t tapped into as much. What we’re looking at, is what elevates stress in the workplace. And then, how does the workplace begin to litigate that problem, because when you have someone who is under high levels of stress they are going to underperform.

So, what we are looking at is how people can find space to focus. We have elevated the paradigm of the open office, everything is about no boundaries, collaboration, but people are having a hard time taking ideas from the group and making them into something tangible. It is starting to change. Offices are beginning to realize that there needs to be a place for focus work and critical thinking.

Panelists and moderator (from left): Tracy Maher, Randy Howder, LEED AP ID+C, Susan S. Szenasy, Anjell Karibian, and Stacy Grubbs. Photo by Sam Breach

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