The future of offices and the urban environment

Two important conferences were held recently in San Francisco and Sacramento, California, one on the future of workplaces and one on the future of cities.

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By Jim Ware
Issue 11 – Spring 2019 pages 19 – 21
Tags: cities • workplace design • facilities management

Future Offices Summer 2018
San Francisco, California

I had the privilege and the pleasure of attending and participating in the Future Offices Summer 2018 conference (FOS18) hosted by IQPC in San Francisco in late August (a delightful time of year in San Francisco, though never as warm as outsiders expect it to be; that’s the tail end of our fog season).

The two-day conference brought together several hundred senior facilities and HR professionals who shared a common interest in the future of the office, in workplace design, and in how technology is and will be changing not only the way we work but the way we use space.

The event chairperson was Tracy Hawkins, Global Head of Real Estate & Workplace (REW) for Twitter, which is of course headquartered in San Francisco. Tracy shared a fascinating “inside” story about her personal history and role at Twitter as a change agent, focusing in particular on using workplace design to reflect and reinforce the culture and brand of an organization.

At first blush that approach may not seem particularly innovative or unique. However, I was quite taken with Tracy’s approach of imagining the “journey” for both employees and visitors as they enter a Twitter building, proceed through the lobby, settle into a work area, and then move around to different spaces like conference rooms, the cafeteria, private “phone booth” spaces, and so on. In fact, that focus on the employee journey, or experience, permeated many of the presentations and much of the informal discussions on the expo floor, at lunch, and over evening libations.

But Tracy went well beyond the concept of a journey to share a very personal story about a Twitter employee who suffered and eventually passed away from a virulent form of cancer. Her name was Lucy Mosley, and while she was struggling with her disease the London Twitter employees all learned to knit so they could create a blanket for her, so she would know how much they loved her and that they were rooting for her.

Lucy felt so much warmth and support from her fellow employees when she received the blanket that she tweeted “keeping cozy with my @TwitterUK blanket #LoveWhereYouWork #Family”.[i]

When Lucy passed away, the Twitter UK employees asked Tracy and the REW team to find a way to commemorate her in a positive and uplifting way in the new office they were about to move to. Tracy, who had never met Lucy, decided the best way to get to know her would be to go through her Twitter feed to understand what sort of a person she was, and the tweet ending #LoveWhereYouWork just jumped right out.

The REW team got to work creating a #LoveWhereYouWork neon sign that was proudly displayed in the heart of the office space known as the Commons – where the employees would meet to eat, have company meetings, and host important events. Those in the know knew it was a tribute to Lucy, but they could also own it as a team since it summed up Twitter’s culture so well.

Since then the hashtag has taken on a life of its own even though Lucy is gone, and now it reflects the heart of Twitter’s culture of caring for Twitter employees. Today Twitter offices all over the world, 33 of them in total, proudly display their own individual neon signs, each one designed in a unique style but all with the same message:  #LoveWhereYouWork.

I find it encouraging that workplace strategy and design professionals are increasingly paying attention to employees and their experiences at work. If that sounds like an obvious, palm-slapping-face “doh” moment, remember that most of the major professional associations in this space still use words in their names like “facilities,” “workplace,” “real estate,” and “design” as a way to describe their professional focus.

We all pay lip service to the importance of people, and every conference I’ve attended in recent years has included at least one presenter who reminds everyone that most organizations’ salary budgets are ten to thirty times the size of their workplace budgets. I do see more and more emphasis on the impact of workplace and office design on productivity, engagement, and employee retention, but I am still waiting to attend a conference that brings HR and workplace professionals together in one event where they can listen to and learn from each other.

That said, the FOS18 gathering came closer to my ideal vision than any I’ve attended in the last several years. Several other presentations highlighted the challenges of managing large-scale organizational change and of the power of biophilic design (incorporating plants, water, sunlight, and other natural elements into workplaces). And this conference included many more opportunities than most for conversations among attendees, rather than relying on one “sage on the stage” lecture after another.

I also enjoyed the sessions by senior workplace executives like Paul Battaglia of Clark Nexson, Al Kinisky of SAP, Art Aguilar of Bloomberg, and Jody Brown of Silicon Valley Bank, each of whom shared their lessons learned from many years in the trenches. We heard plenty of success stories, but we also picked up many of the behind-the-scenes dirty little secrets about what it took to produce those successes.

Even more compelling was the opportunity for attendees to make actual visits to several Bay Area corporate headquarters. The entire afternoon of the first day was devoted to on-site visits to the offices of firms like Twitter, Github, Pinterest, and AirBnB.

And, by the way, I want to commend Tracy Hawkins for being a presence throughout the conference. She attended every plenary session and hosted lunch tables each day. So often the leaders of a conference make brief appearances at the beginning and end of the event but are nowhere to be seen otherwise. Tracy was an active participant in all the plenary sessions, often asking questions herself during the Q&A, and often adding her experiences at Twitter to the conversation.

I am one of those people who takes copious notes during conferences, mostly to force myself to listen to the speakers. And now, a few weeks later, as I review those notes, I find several memorable lines that will forever mark the event as an important one in my own learning.

For example, here are two lines from my notes that I find myself quoting almost daily to colleagues and friends, even though I can’t remember who first said them:

“No one liked cubicles until they saw open plan.”

and

“Calling a smartphone a ‘phone’ is like calling a Lexus a cupholder.”

That second one may not have much to do with future offices, but it serves as a reminder that we tend to impose our historical experiences on our current technologies. Sure, a smartphone can make phone calls, but think of all the other things it can also do – and does for you on a daily basis. And if you are like me, you do all those other things with your “phone” far more often than you use it to actually talk to another person.

Remember that the next time you hear someone talking about the “office of the future.” Chances are it will be a whole lot more than an office, or not look like one at all – and it may not be in an “office building” either.

The Meeting of the Minds 2018 Summit
Sacramento, California

Several years ago, a group of us who were active in the IFMA Real Estate and Advisory Leadership Community realized that what happens outside and near a corporate facility is just as important as what happens inside the workplace.

That is, where a building is located has a huge impact on the experiences of everyone who travels to and from it, to say nothing of the quality of the workforce that employers can recruit and hire to work there. And the connections an employer builds with local urban planners and city leaders also matters – a lot.

Because we wanted to learn more about urban planning and development we organized an “FM in the City” session that was held at several IFMA conferences. While it was well-attended and produced some great insights, the interest wasn’t high enough to keep the sessions going for longer than a couple of years.

Independently, I had the good fortune several years ago of meeting Gordon Feller, who had cut his teeth on sustainable urban planning as the CEO of the Urban Age Institute, a World Bank spin-off. Out of the Urban Age Institute grew “Meeting of the Minds,”[ii] a consortium of companies and urban leaders who all care about the future of urban areas (with a particular focus on producing sustainable and affordable transportation options for both local residents and corporate commuters). Gordon also served for many years as the Director of Urban Innovation at Cisco Systems.

Gordon’s passion and commitment to sustainable urban areas has helped “Meeting of the Minds” (MOTM) grow into an international movement that promotes leading-edge examples of urban planning. Among the most prominent examples from the Summit that excited me were ubiquitous sensors that monitor roads, bridges, traffic, lighting, and air quality; smart lighting systems and signage that ensures safety and convenience, urban farming that reduces both food waste and the greenhouse gasses generated by transporting fresh produce from distant rural areas; green areas that both conserve water and absorb carbon dioxide; and LED-based signs that inform shoppers and walkers of upcoming events, provide real-time weather reports, and offer not only “You are Here” maps but also report on current special events, provide traffic and parking information, and even offer ways to connect with your nearby friends.

The 2018 “Meeting of the Minds” summit was held in late November in Sacramento, California, the state capitol. We were greeted at the opening of the conference by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who demonstrated with his energy and his stories exactly how central a leader’s vision of a city’s potential is to creating a new future.

Just like any corporate leader, a Mayor’s sense of what is possible produces an incredible virtuous circle of self-fulfilling prophecies. Mayor Steinberg’s belief in Sacramento was palpable as he described his commitment to public/private partnerships in education, affordable housing, and renewable energy, and his experiences in recruiting both large businesses and entrepreneurs to invest in Sacramento.

I particularly liked these two comments from the Mayor’s presentation: “Homelessness must not become hopelessness” and “We must focus on innovation because innovation translates into growth – for the city, for our citizens, and for our economy.”

Following that terrific opening to the conference we were treated to a series of engaging panel conversations (rather than formal presentations), a format that made the topics both more compelling and easier to absorb. The panelists, too numerous the mention individually, included a Stanford professor, the youngest U.S. mayor of a city with a population of more than 100,000, several under-thirty  CEOs of wildly successful start-ups, and an advocate for urban farming who still lives in the community where she grew up.

We also had an opportunity to visit several local businesses and make on-site observations of what they are doing to make Major Darrell Steinberg’s vision come alive.

Over the two days we heard from almost 100 experts and advocates who shared their passions and their accomplishments in creating livable, sustainable urban communities all over the United States. I am particularly impressed that the “Meeting of the Minds” team was able to pack the two-day agenda so full yet still leave plenty of time for the attendees to meet each other, share their personal experiences, and engage with the presenters both formally and informally. That’s a remarkable achievement.

“Meeting of the Minds” is exactly what it claims to be. If you care at all about the city you live and/or work in, you owe it to yourself to sign up for the MOTM newsletter and blog,[iii] and to plan on attending a future conference.

About the Author

A former Harvard Business School professor, Jim Ware has invested his entire career in understanding what organizations must do to thrive in a rapidly changing world – and enabling them to succeed. He is a workplace futurist, a meeting design strategist, an accomplished author, and a keynote speaker. He is a co-founder and Global Research Director for AndPlaces, Ltd., the Hong-Kong-based publisher of Work&Place, for which he serves as Managing Editor. Jim holds PhD, M.A., and B.Sc. degrees from Cornell University and an MBA (With Distinction) from the Harvard Business School. He is a former president of IFMA’s Corporate Real Estate Council and a member of the National Speakers Association. He lives and works in northern California.

website:  www.workandplace.com
email: jim.ware@workandplace.com
LinkedIn:  https://www.linkedin.com/in/jamespware/

References

[i]    https://twitter.com/LucyCDMosley/status/392349873976385536

[ii] The website is at this link: https://www.meetingoftheminds.org

[iii] To sign up:  https://meetingoftheminds.us5.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=2737b2e898d81d84f3181747a&id=cdb70a5ce7

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