Tourist Trap: The Employee Search for a Destination Workplace

A Q&A with IA Interior Architects on how leading companies are using the destination workplace to attract top talent.

For the past three years, Metropolis’ director of design innovation, Susan S. Szenasy has led Think Tank, a series of conversations on human-centered design. On August 16, 2017, in Seattle, she visited global firm IA Interior Architects to discuss the destination workplace. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity by S.T. White.

Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis (SSS): How do you create a  destination workplace? How do you retain workers and use design to help build careers?  The case I’d like to start with is the corporate culture at Starbucks. Tom Hebner is a “boomeranger”; after experiencing other corporations for many years, he returned to Starbucks.

Tom Hebner, director of corporate Real Estate and Facilities, Starbucks (TH): At Starbucks, I’m fascinated by the culture of connection which is drawn from the customer’s experience at a cafe, being greeted by name with a handcrafted beverage. We call corporate headquarters the support center, but most people call it headquarters. When someone is hired as a corporate employee, they are placed in stores for a week to experience what a star goes through, from a morning shift through an evening shift. I went through that immersion when I worked at Starbucks for the first time in the 90s.  I will never forget what that experience was like: being behind the counter, serving a customer with a smile, and making that connection. I still carry it with me as a badge as do most of our partners, which is what we call employees because we all have stock at Starbucks.

SSS: Some of the management are former baristas, so there must be an internal mechanism that allows upward mobility.

TH: Of the 50 partners on my team probably 10 began as baristas. The person who runs events was a barista and then a shuttle driver.

SSS: According to Gallup’s 2017 state of the American workplace poll, two thirds of Americans are not engaged at their workplace. Rob, as a commercial real estate developer, what is your approach to keeping people engaged in their place of work?

LinkedIn Offices. Photo © Eric Laignel

Rob Swartz, Sr. vice president, Kilroy Realty Corporation (RS): I focus on how a corporate user can attract talent to their office space. We are developing a building at 333 Dexter where we spent a lot of effort designing the ground plane and how the roof decks look from the street. Most interactions will happen at gathering points from the ground plane, so we have to engage people there.

SSS: Who are you expecting to occupy these spaces?

RS: It’s in South Lake Union, which is a tech center.  The building has two 12-story towers, roughly 25,000 square feet per floor, with the bottom three floors at 62,000 square feet each. The lower three floors will be incredibly activated spaces, probably for the tenant and the resident of that floor. The challenge for real estate developers is minimizing risk while also creating a lively building. Usually, the direction they give designers is, “See that building over there? That was successful. Give me something just like that but a tiny bit different,” which limits innovation.  Fortunately, our company is investing for the long term, with plans to generate income over the next 20 to 30 years, so we spend more time upfront on design.

SSS: Startups have unpredictable lifespans, which adds volatility to the market. Where do you get your confidence from?

RS: If I’m delivering a high quality and better value product, then I’ll attract brand leaders and first adopters, companies that have more resilience in a downturn. A commodity would be less reliable.

SSS: James, you’re a workplace strategist at IA. Can you tell us about how that position came about?

James Truhan, senior workplace strategist, IA Interior Architects (JT): The current paradigm rewards companies that take bigger risks. What’s needed is more groundbreaking moves. We’ve moved from valuing the quantitative dimension and productivity to a more nuanced vision of workplace potential. As a strategist, I help paint the future picture in a compelling way with a robust level of certainty to allow companies to take a leap.

SSS: What is your most interesting recent finding?

Confidential Technology Company. Photo © Jeff Cate.

JT: I have been thinking about the profusion of technology and the intersection of technology and people’s expectations in the workplace. There is a new service paradigm, like Uber or Lyft providing a car at just the moment someone needs it. Friction and logistics have diminished, so people can concentrate on experiences and services between workers and between workers and customers.

SSS: Shane, as the design director at IA, can you give us an example of a project you’re working on right now? I’m interested in how designs define a vision and culture of a company.

Shane Katsoolis, design director, IA Interior Architects (SK): A strong trend with many of our clients is aligning the space with their purpose for doing the job. The more the company understands that, the better we can design the workplace as a platform from which  they can best manifest their vision.

SSS: How do you avoid the unfortunate possibility of, “Now we know better.” Like, open plan offices, which once were popular, but are now being replaced with more options for privacy.

SK: We make more informed decisions when we get to know the client well. That comes from doing utilization studies, using tracking devices, surveys, social feedback groups, etc. Both sides have data behind all the decisions, like the correct amount and sizes of conference rooms. The strategies team asks the right questions, digging deep and gathering data.

SSS: How deep is your interviewing process?

LinkedIn Offices. Photo © Eric Laignel

SK: We dive deep into both sides: the executive team with long-term aspirations and the user-end, the people using the scrum areas and libraries. Our strategists are on board from day one.

SSS: How do high-performance companies interact with the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest?

RS: In our new building, we made expanded windows with lower sill heights and taller glass to emphasize scenic views.  We also  increased floor loading capacity to take advantage of deck opportunities so that they can withstand plantings and other options.  But we don’t know who’s coming; it could be two or twenty tenants. How do we position spaces so they can expand on what we provide?

SSS: When you develop a building are you also cognizant of the urban fabric?

RS: Absolutely. The cross street of 333 Dexter is Thomas, which is a designated green street connecting Bay to Lake. We pulled the building back to allow for more landscaping with trees on Thomas Street and there are trees on the  interior to create a connection point to the building for pedestrians and bicyclists.

SSS: Tom, you worked at Nordstrom in addition to Starbucks. Was the culture of customer-service felt at the corporate level of Nordstrom?

TH: Yes, one great thing is they hire nice people and teach them how to sell, instead of teaching salespeople how to be nice. It’s actually a Northwest trait, to start with a person who fits the culture and then teach them skills. Companies that cultivate the customer connection often make sure their corporate culture mirrors that.

SSS: Could the cultures at Starbucks and Nordstrom teach lessons to other companies, like in tech? Why is there such high turnover in jobs overall? What is a potential fix?

LinkedIn Offices. Photo © Eric Laignel

JT: The topic today is the destination workplace, which differs from a tourist trap. Both companies and employees have to be clear about their expectations so that environments resonate with people. By 2020, almost half of the workforce will be contingent workers: contractors, gig workers, etc. I don’t think we can fix the structural paradigm of high turnover. The best path is to provide environments that manifest the brand in an authentic way, so that the culture meets employee’s expectations.

SSS: Let’s talk about the word “authentic.” To me, it means a way of connecting to materiality, other people, and a sense of place. It’s a very powerful word but we have a way of overusing and killing it. How often does authenticity come up in discussions with clients and how do you feel about creating authenticity?

SK: I think you touched right on it; it’s an overused and abused word, and if we look at the high-tech market in Seattle everyone wants to believe they’re a startup in a garage, but they’re in a 47-story gleaming glass high rise lined with plywood. It hardly feels authentic. As a designer, I need to consider the essence of a company rather than the aesthetic. That will help prevent it from feeling like a tourist trap, where someone turns up at work, are told it’s a startup, then treated like another corporate cog. Soon, they want to get out of there. What mindset and activities does the essence allude to? Can we turn that into design? Does the space need areas for collaboration, prototyping, packaging, or marketing? If a company’s vision aligns with what someone wants to achieve in the world, then they will love to work there.

SSS: What can the environmental graphic design department do to convey authenticity?

Confidential Technology Company. Photo © Jeff Cate.

SK: We shifted the name from environmental to experiential, because they create an experience that rings true to the people using the space. If tech workers are programming on two screens all day long, they don’t want to get up and face some loud jumpy video screens along the corridor as they’re going to the lunchroom. They want to touch something real and tactile, something they can move. We can provide moments which create delight and moments for people to meet and innovate.

SSS: Is employee dissatisfaction at work an indication of a larger societal malaise that we’re all going through? What else contributes to it?

TH: I think it comes down to leadership. If I asked the audience why they left their previous employer, I bet three quarters of people would say it’s because of their supervisor. That’s how I ended up at Starbucks from my last firm. A lot of leaders are not engaged. I don’t think people are leaving because the design isn’t good, with apologies to architects.

SSS: I’d argue that dissatisfaction and design are connected. Unless the environment supports leadership mentoring, there won’t be connections between leaders.  The space must act as a tool to support a company’s desires. At Microsoft yesterday, we heard about the technological products they’re developing that will impact everybody’s future. We need a system of educating ourselves about tech innovations, including how to not let it take over our lives.  We tend to grab onto it and do the best we can, then move on. In workplace strategy, do you read anything that addresses that issue of alienation from working with technology?

JT: The beauty and pitfall of technology is how it constantly evolves. It can feel like we’re being moved along by technology. By the same token, technology will enable a lot of things in the workplace that we can’t even imagine. I don’t expect to be a cultural doctor, but we can point out gaps in experience that we notice today.

Twitter Offices. Photo © Hufton and Crow.

RS: The challenge is to design for flexibility while still supporting people, because emotionally people aren’t that different today from a hundred years ago. We’re still overcoming tragedies, facing challenges, and working with others. It’s a given that technology is going to be completely different every ten years.

SSS: Any last thoughts about the destination workplace and how it will evolve?

JT: We travel to have experiences outside the boundaries of normal life, and people are interested in integrating with the local culture. That’s why Airbnb has become such a big factor in hospitality. To me, a destination workplace is a place I feel compelled to go. Companies increasingly allow employees to work where they want. What makes you go to the workplace on a particular day? It’s for the environment, the light and comfort level, but it’s also to connect with your company’s mission and brand and the people there. Co-working had to enter into this conversation at some point. The main attraction is the other people with light in their eyes and ambition.

RS: How do we differentiate a destination building from an average building? Adding experiential value, like art in plazas and main areas, create appeal rather than just responding to market pressure to keep rent low. For our new project, we are commissioning an outdoor piece near our loading dock that will make it the prettiest loading dock door in the city.

TH: I get up in the morning excited to go to what I call the beehive. It’s a hub of activity, and I want to be a part of it. That’s what we’re trying to create in our workplace. Since change happens so quickly, spaces need to be flexible, but you can’t walk away and expect it to work over the next five years. You need to keep your eye on it.

This is a funny story that I almost hate to admit. When I came onboard at Starbucks I said, “How many regional offices do we have?” It was 22. I asked the team, “How many have you seen?” Not one of my management team had seen any of the regional offices in the last three years. They said, “Oh no, we have AutoCAD and pictures.” I was shocked, so six months ago we started going to the regional offices. We weren’t treating our global offices the same way as headquarters.

Audience: Now that people are much less likely to stay at one company, but rather assemble a set of marketable skills, how do workplaces respond?

JT: If a company knows they’ll only keep someone for two or three years, then they can make it really hard for them to leave by creating an ecosystem that provides desirable experiences they might also return to years later. Work-life separation has given way to work-life integration. Companies can provide resources that help their employees have complete lives inside and outside work.

Hosted by IA Architects, the panelists presented their thoughts on the evolving workplace to a full house audience. Photo © Lauren Killary.

Tom Hebner, director of corporate real estate and facilities, Starbucks

Shane Katsoolis, design director, IA Interior Architects
Rob Swartz ,senior vice president, Kilroy Realty Corporation
James Truhan, senior workplace strategist, IA Interior Architects

Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metrpoplis

The Metropolis Think Tank series is presented in partnership with Corian® Design, DXV/GROHE, Shaw Contract, Staples Business Advantage, and Sunbrella Contract Fabrics.       



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