In workplace design, much attention is given to the most exciting part of the process: strategy formation and execution. But the structure and context of the internal team play just as large of a role in a successful outcome.
I met Greg Farhat a few years ago during MOVO’s “discovery” phase. An experienced entrepreneur, Greg is the Director of Workplace Strategies at Jackson National Life Insurance Company® (Jackson®) and generously offered to discuss his experience. As I reflected on our conversations, a few themes stood out:
Greg’s workplace strategy group is acutely aware of how they fit into the organization. Greg put it better than I could hope to paraphrase:
“Our customers, the ones who pay for what we provide, are the company’s own senior leadership. But our consumers, the users of what we provide, are associates all over the country. Our group facilitates a continuous feedback loop: implementing the strategic vision from leadership, and bubbling up relative feedback from associates to inform the strategy.”
Greg provided a poignant example: earlier that week, he had personally spent time in the mail room talking with workers about the signage in that area of the building! And that is one example of many; this group is hyper-sensitive to the experience of all employees. IT, facilities management, and even outside vendors are all consulted during large projects. Another example: renovation plans are reviewed and edited by janitorial staff to make cleaning easier and more efficient!
The more we spoke, the more it became clear that the role of this workplace strategy group is to listen: proactively gathering feedback, synthesizing, educating, and acting on it.
The Right Leaders
A successful design is predicated on two factors: a strong company culture and an executive sponsor that embodies that culture well. Jackson had both when renovating and expanding their site in Lansing, Michigan. Greg clarified, “A true ‘executive sponsor’ must have both the decision-making authority to push for his or her vision, and the passion for the workplace to be truly involved”.
Greg describes then-CEO Mike Wells as the embodiment of the warm, collaborative culture that Jackson has become known for. An anecdote he shared:
“On the opening night of a satellite office, he (Mike) spent more than half an hour connecting with part-time college employees. This was after everyone else had left: there were no cameras rolling, no agenda; just Mike getting to know them. And I am sure he had a flight and a busy schedule waiting!”
Recognize your limitations
This might be the most difficult for designers or facilities teams to hear. Greg says, “The biggest mistake others make is thinking technology and furniture can create collaboration.” Does this downplay the importance of the very designs he helps create and innovate? Greg clarified: technology and furniture, at their very best, remove barriers to creativity and collaboration…but technology cannot create collaboration. “Only good leaders can create the safe space required for collaboration,” says Greg.
This distinction is more than semantics, as managers often blame a lack of collaboration on their work environment. When considering a workspace investment, the question should be asked: “Are we investing to make collaboration easier and more productive, or are we expecting to create collaboration where none exists?” If the honest answer is the latter, a training and incentive program for managers will be a far more effective investment.
A well-structured internal team is every bit as important as a thoughtful designer. Leadership should create a “listening” department that both implements and informs the workplace strategy. That department will need passionate, senior executive sponsorship, but should recognize that while it can remove friction and celebrate/amplify culture, it is ill-equipped to change culture or create collaboration.