Q&A: Alison Kwiatkowski

How the new, tech-savvy generation sees work and the workplace evolving.

Alison Kwiatkowski came into the workforce from architecture school, just when the bottom fell out of the market and the new normal of limited resources kicked in. Her generation of designers has been shaped by the economic crisis—to the benefit of their clients, the profession, the communities they belong to, and the planet Earth. As builders of the 21st century, this generation is key to our understanding of how culture, design culture, and technology are changing the ways of work, as well as the places where we work, and the changes coming in the near future. Her insights of how we’ll work in 2020 (the subject of the Business Interiors by Staples/Metropolis competition) are hopeful as well as useful. Alison is working on the front lines of workplace design, at AECOM Strategy+, as a senior consultant to Deutsche Bank’s workplace strategy for the Americas. Here she talks about the shifting real estate models, the changing nature of businesses, the importance of connecting globally, and all that these imply.

Susan S. Szenasy: You've been out of architecture school for a short five years now. What were your expectations of the workplace you entered as a new grad, and what became your reality? I'm very much interested in your assessment of the ways you and your clients work today, as opposed to five years ago.

Alison Kwiatkowski: As a new grad, I entered the workplace with the rose-colored glasses of a designer, thinking that my collegiate studio hours would seamlessly transition into my career, and little did I know, I was entering the industry at the onset of an economic rollercoaster. 

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From my perspective, a few years ago, clients were more eager for the band-aid solution as a way to weather the recession and it seemed that overnight the pendulum swung towards “faster, better, cheaper.” Five years later, clients are starting to understand the lost opportunity of designing a workplace strategy in a vacuum and recognize that more impactful business initiatives require better integration across service lines and often much longer-term investments beyond merely the physical workspace.  Engaging counterparts within HR, IT, Building Engineering, Sourcing, and FM, to name a few, are not only essential to identify the potential for larger cost avoidance and increased asset optimization but also prolong sustained success. In parallel, both clients and the users themselves have higher expectations from the workplace – they are more aware of the exponential impact that work environments play in productivity, employee health and wellness, talent retention and recruitment, and business performance, and so they are asking more informed questions and demanding more innovative solutions.  Conversation that once revolved around the nuanced design of office furniture now seems to be more aligned with service design.     

When I first entered the industry, user-focused workplace research was something rather pioneering, owned by a few niche firms. Today, my colleagues, from real estate brokers to management consultants to IT providers, are digging into the extensive scope of workplace strategy.  What used to be a field that once was almost impossible to explain at a cocktail party is now recognized as “the trendy thing to do.”

SSS: As a senior consultant to Deutsche Bank in the Americas, could you talk about what that strategy is? Many European countries are known for their strong programs in sustainability and understanding of the technology. How do these traits translate to North America? What are their workplace strategies here?

AK: Deutsche Bank’s global workplace strategy is a three-pronged approach, focusing on strategic investments in IT infrastructure, the implementation of a set of a consistent workplace design standards, and workstyle transformations to enable greater mobility and employee engagement. The intention is to design smart, highly-functional workplace environments, flexible enough to adapt to the changing needs of the evolving business, yet tailored to improve the opportunities for collaboration between teams and enhance the nature of focused, individual work. 

The integration of leading technology and support for the bank’s sustainability targets are absolutely integral to the global strategy, and therefore at their core, the workplace standards rolled out in Europe are the same as in North America. However, the approach and execution are tailored towards inherent regional challenges. In my experiences industry-wide, European clients are more open to being progressive, to implementing rather aggressive strategies, and to investing in the workplace. Moreover, our European counterparts, particularly in locations like London, face increased pressure around cost per seat. There is no doubt that here in the states, we have historically maintained a territorial inclination to guard our personal space and so the process is much more gradual to redefine our organizational perspective.

Seamless Web New York City office

SSS:  You are involved in developing design standards for the bank’s alternative workplace program. What does that mean, exactly? Can you describe those alternative workplaces and how design responds to them?

AK: The alternative workplace program is essentially the mobility and non-territorial working components within our larger strategy, supported through workplace design, deployment of mobile technology, and comprehensive manager and employee training on how to leverage working in new ways. The global design standards are intuitively designed to support the inevitability of increased agile working.  Although the program allows for an incredible amount of employee freedom and autonomy to choose where to work, the workspace design itself is all very intentional, planned to retain crucial team dynamics and cross-communication.  

Workspaces are based on a neighborhood approach assigned to a set of teams. Teaming tables and touchdown stations are integrated throughout the open workspace of bench-style desks to enable staff to seamlessly transition from individual work to impromptu conversations with colleagues.  Quiet zones and study booths support focused work, while a mix of enclosed meeting spaces with both formal and casual seating enable a range of collaboration styles. The neighborhoods are tied together through a shared business lounge, the central point of interaction and information exchange on the floor, and walls are adorned with vibrant floor-to-ceiling graphics and writing surfaces for ad hoc brainstorming. Each of these spaces is technologically enabled and user-focused in order to promote mobility throughout our buildings. The progressive approach is reinventing the financial services workplace standard.

 SSS: As follow up, the bank's strategic initiatives embrace developments in workplace, technology, and cultural transformation. Can you talk about what this looks like today, and the bank's projections to what its workplace(s) might look like in 2020?

AK: Particularly given the past few years, all financial institutions are exceedingly aware of the rising challenges ahead – whether further increased pressure on cost savings and asset optimization, industry trends to reevaluate hub strategies, shifting demographics of the workforce, or heightened awareness to environmental issues. 

Along these lines, the fundamental principle of the workplace strategy today is to support the bank’s agility to respond to these unpredictable future demands.  Given the fact that 2020 is rapidly approaching (and at a bank – risk mitigation is embedded in all that we do), an effective workplace design is one that provides a nimble foundation to evolve with radical advances within technology, cultural shifts towards a more diverse workforce, and new work models, while expending minimal capital investment. 

However, what do we project those developments will be?  In addition to the roll out of more mobile devices, such as thin tablets and laptops, the bank is integrating a BYOD strategy and a move towards a unified communication platform, as well as an increased utilization of an internal social media platform.  Although our culture will be more geographically dispersed, the war for talent will be evident and ultimately an engaging and technologically-equipped workplace is essential to further expand our recruiting pool to and attract the best and brightest. 

Paypal software development office

SSS: As a member of the generation who will be designing and building the 21st century, I'd like to get your personal take on how the workplace will need to change in view of the rapidly evolving technologies, generational attitudes, and environmental concerns in the next seven years.

AK:  The next seven years will certainly challenge and test traditional real estate models – as we shift away from the concept of workplace as a location towards workplace as a service.  In order to minimize the fragmentation of a more mobile, digital workplace, employers must not only provide office technologies that can rival their personal technology but also invest in streamlined, user-friendly systems to propel knowledge transfer between colleagues.  And as employees become essentially untethered to a physical workspace through both technology and demands for choice, a more entrepreneurial spirit is emerging, with an expectation for a more fluid and less hierarchical workplace. 

Ultimately, we are social creatures – we build business through relationships and we build relationships through human interaction. Regardless of generation, the power of face-to-face human contact is essential to foster trust across our teams, seek out mentorship, and create and dare bold ideas.  Hence, an energetic and engaging workplace will always be at the heart of a high-performance culture, no matter the levels of employee mobility.  Yet, we must move past the concepts that a “brainstorming zone” makes one think any more inventively or that a corner office signifies seniority. The workplace model as a whole must serve to inspire and embed proficiency in employee performance as well as capitalize on business assets.  In the next seven years, both environmental concerns as well as increased attention to employee health and wellness will be addressed by highly responsive, self-automated operating systems.  As an example, I’ve seen clients pilot real-time utilization sensors throughout their workspace to not only temper lighting but also optimize building operations such as HVAC systems in unoccupied areas. Further technology improvements will also support sustainability goals, as such rising trends like cloud computing prove to be more energy efficient through sheer economies of scale.

By and large, I dismiss many of the studies characterizing Gen Y as a cadre of individuals with idealistic demands and lofty expectations, but I do think there is a distinct differentiator between my generation and the rest of the professional world – and that is for many of us, the recession years have been our most formative.  We have only known a business that needs to rely on efficiency to survive, a standard to be twice as productive with half the support, and a global demand to sustain our dwindling resources. And these years have made us all the more entrepreneurial, adaptive, and innovative, and so we expect the same from our workplace. 

Read more posts about the Workplace of the Future: Q&A: Jan Johnson on the Workplace of the FutureQ&A: Lyndon Thomas, Facilities PlannerQ&A: Tom KrizmanicQ&A: Paul Darrah

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