The Flagship Office- The Office for the Now

Back in early December of 2020, one of my outside board of advisory members asked me this question, “So now with COVID19 reality and remote work, what are you going to do with this building?” My immediate answer was brilliant, “I don’t know.” Subsequently the board members, my partner, and I, engaged in a discussion about the pro’s and con’s of having a substantial office space that was equipped for doubling the size of our staff, assuming everyone was in the office. “What do you think the odds are that everyone will return to the office?” “Do you envision a reality where 100% of staff will be operating together 100% of the time, with no offsite remote work?” “How do we justify the overhead costs with empty space?” “What’s the value?” Many of us are asking these same questions.

I recently participated in a PSMJ (Professional Services Management Journal) webinar about current compensation strategies and the future of human resources (HR) in A/E firms (Architecture and Engineering.) Multiple surveys were taken from the 300+ participants during the 1-hour session. All were dealing with the questions of remote work, partial remote work, in-office, out-of-office, and so on. Interestingly, while multiple hybrid work models were the largest percentage of the sampling, a follow up analysis showed that only 5% of people wanted to remain remote and work at home 100% of the time. If you had gotten answers to the same question one year ago in February of 2020, prior to everyone actually doing remote work, you would have gotten a much higher percentage.

The debate is real. The questions are substantive. We’ve seen big companies choose to not occupy new headquarters buildings, to cancel new leases, and to stay in current spaces. We’ve seen some say “we’re going to be 100% remote now forever.” We’ve seen some still going ahead with buildings equipped to house all or part of their staff. But the reality is, everything has changed. What was once the norm is now disrupted. It was going this way, but the COVID19 pandemic reality accelerated the process; it created the cause-effect response available in a connected, internet-based, digital world. Response to the remote-based work environment, hybrid models, or 100% in-office, are going to vary by industry, company, and position. All I know is that it’s going to be different.

Once again, the question: “So now with COVID19 reality and remote work, what are you going to do with this building?” I’ve been thinking about this continually, monitoring our experience, getting input from others on an Executive forum thread with PSMJ, listening to staff, to podcasts, gathering information, talking to clients, related businesses, and more. I’ve been watching the realities hitting retail in the pandemic and digital environment as well. We all know that the future, and the “now”, of “brick and mortar” retail is quite different. Smart retailer’s have gone digital, while also showcasing some of their work and products in specific stores. Outlier stores have been closed, inventory in the remaining stores reduced, and more invested in online and warehoused inventory. So what about the future of the “office?” What about the future of it in the context of professional services? How about more specifically in A/E? Here’s how I envision it.

Think “flagship store.” The future of “the professional service office” is a multi-dimensional experience for all who enter, all who are affiliated with the company, including staff, clients, vendors, affiliates, referrers, advocates, collaborators, students, recruits, and more. Just as smart retailers have put in place digital infrastructure while creating a physical retail location that is experiential, showcasing products, services, and supporting their brand, such is the future of the professional services office. What does this multi-dimensional office look like? What is the envisioned experience? What is it? What is it not? It will depend on the location, industry, work type, and so much more.

It is no longer simply a place to go work for 8 hours a day and go home. It is no longer a static space to just do work and collaborate with clients and staff. It’s a “watering hole” a “community well” a “gathering place” for the industry, domain, practice segments. It is a representation of brand through physical placement of things representing the work, through digital experiences accessible in multiple areas throughout the facility, where clients can access and reference the showcased services, engage electronically, or personally. The 3-D printer is continually printing samples of products and goods supported by the service. Spaces are nimble and flexible for collaborative teams. Spaces are hybridized. Glass is more prevalent in creating separation and visibility at the same time. People can talk to a representative like they do at a bank. Services can be ordered and procured on the spot if desired. Clients, supporters, and other people connected to the company can come and use common spaces as a “third space” to use wireless, collaborate, take a coffee break. Staff members work productively whether from home or from office based on the need, the work typology, and tasks at hand. Projects are displayed physically, and electronically. The space is a shared work space, brand support, resting space, and more. It is a media center as well. The podcast (if you have one) is produced from a studio in the office such as the one I produce called “The Creating Structure Podcast.” When not accessible, staff, clients, and constituents can have a virtual experience.

Everything we do, including the facilities in which we work, are an opportunity to support and express brand; to express innovation, attract, retain, support and care. The facility, in my reality, has always been required to communicate as much as possible about who we are in the physical expression of the space.

I’m looking forward to creating more of a “flagship” office experience. That’s what we are going to do. That’s how we will use the space. Now let’s see how much we can make it a reality.

Curtain Wall Engineering

Curtain Wall engineering, a subset of the delegated design and engineering field, is a worthy craft and endeavor. Here’s some principles I practice and promote, personally and organizationally, to bring successful outcomes and value to clients.

Collaboration: Good engineering is collaborative engineering. It engages the client. This includes their project manager, designer, fabrication manager, field installer, and other vested constituents.

Construct-able: Solutions must be practical, able to be constructed with available materials, sequenced properly.

Client Centered: Collaboration starts with the client. It’s about mutual solutions, not the engineer’s solution alone. Start with the end goal and work backwards. This is simple on some projects, more complex on others. And most tradespeople are not used to engineering professionals talking to them, respecting their opinion, valuing their input. Win over the installers and project managers, and win the client long-term (and learn something in the process.)

Code Compliant: Our solutions must be compliant with the building code, which is the minimum standard for buildings and structures. Mastery over the code and applications of AISC, AA, AAMA, ACI, ASTM and other reference standards is critical. We’ve got to have “the right tools in the tool chest.”

Communicative: Communicate regularly. The number one predictor of successful outcomes, client retention, good solutions, and lowering of risk, is communication; no question. And just because a direction was established at the start of the project doesn’t mean it’s going to bear itself out at the end. Keep the client engaged in communication and be consistent.

Correct: We’ve got to be technically solid, technically correct, make proper judgements and support it with the math and physics. The “numbers” have to be right to protect the client, the project, the public and the PE in charge.

Creative: All projects are not created equal. All installers do not practice the same techniques. All architects want their project to bear the unique “signature” of their firm. Owners want a product that is attractive to tenants. Every problem has a solution. Be creative, both in engineering approach and in the elegance of the solution. Say “yes” as often as possible. Find a way. Back it up with the numbers, or develop a blended solution.

There’s much more, but let’s stop here for today. Of course, we need to make use of the most effective use of the tools of the trade; software, hardware, templates, allowable stress rules, product information, vendor support, 3-D analysis programs, and more. Those are support elements, not the value propositions. It’s what we “do with the tool” that provides the difference in the outcomes.

Master your craft, and deliver value in increasing measure.

Work Backwards

Clients engage design professionals for the RA or PE stamp, the expertise, the capability, or the capacity. But the value does not reside in the statutory compliance and capability. I’ve met plenty of practitioners that couldn’t engineer client-centered solutions. The reason? Well, there’s a lot of them, but I say it’s mainly from not thinking like the client; not “working backwards” from the necessary or desired solutions. The engineering supports the solution for the client, not the reverse. The engineering has to be satisfied but we have to “think backwards” from the envisioned end result to the start of the design and engineering process.

Think like clients. Think like a builder or a constructor who happens to be an engineer or architect. Get inside the mind of the builder, the glazier, the installer, the fabricator. Get into the “voice of the customer.” Listen. Respect their role. Work to solutions that are simple, sequenced, practical.

We exist for the client; their problem is our opportunity. Their complexity is our unique selling proposition. Every client and every project is unique.

Work backwards to help achieve value.

The Parking Garage Health Facility

The Cleveland Clinic turned a parking garage into a makeshift medical facility. It looks like a M.A.S.H. unit. This is a great example of “pivoting” (yes I know that’s a buzzword.) Let me back up and take you to the start.

A family member needed a Covid-19 test at the Clinic due to a required medical procedure. I was asked to drive them. The instructions said “go to the Walker parking garage lower level.” “What? Testing in a parking garage?” “This should be interesting,” I thought.

Fast forward to the parking garage. It was brilliant. It’s run with military precision. Specific cars allowed at specific times. Signage, work stations, medical professionals gowned and masked, directing traffic, helping guide, doing testing. No one got out of their car. It’s all done through an open car window. Fifteen minutes. In and out.

Why did this impress me? There’s multiple reasons. The Cleveland Clinic is BIG but they flexed. It was creative, it was clean, it was efficient and it was in a parking deck.

Here’s some of my impressions and takeaways:

1. Big business doesn’t have to be rigid.

2. I’ll bet the nurses didn’t learn traffic flow directing in school. We’ve got to be nimble and self educated in whatever we do.

3. The Clinic got creative and we can be creative in this environment as well.

4. The use of a parking deck; an ordinary, bland, concrete, parking deck. Brilliant. It’s out of the way, efficient for moving cars, isolated from the hospital.

5. Flexibility. People were working from the lower level garage. Its exterior air. There were propane heaters and chairs in strategic locations. It’s not the best space to work from. Professionals have to be flexible. One never knows what to expect next or how they can drive new value in new paradigms.

6. “Can do” attitude. The Clinic figured out a way to test quickly, safely, politely and with test results delivered between 8 hrs and 24 hrs.

Questions:

How nimble are we? How creative are we? How quickly can our business and minds pivot? Can we rally people to deliver around a cause; around a problem, and above and beyond? Are we willing to go there as leaders?

Excuses are easy. Solutions aren’t hard once we eliminate the excuse, we stop looking for others to show the way, and we take responsibility to act, lead, move.

Even parking decks can be a place associated with healing. What have you got that is being overlooked?

Start with Zero

When my partner and I created the business, we started on day one with zero; zero dollars, two computers, some software, two clients and two projects; one project for him and one for me. We had zero revenue but we had purchase orders. That’s what we worked with. We built systems, tools, applications, and engineered work products that brought value to clients.

Fast forward to now; 25 years later. I’m getting back to this approach; to recommitting to creating new things, new services, practices, and applications, from zero. I mean, being an entrepreneur and business builder, that’s how I started; I took an idea, made it a reality, and built something that never existed prior. That’s what happens in all new businesses in some way; something comes from nothing; from simply an idea.

So we start with zero. We start with our time, our tools, and our existing infrastructure, which is way deeper than it was 25 years ago, and we build. If you want money, you’re going to have to really give me a good reason. How about selling the service and idea to the client first and coming to me with a purchase order? That’s the ultimate litmus test; the ultimate positive ROI.

Starting with zero doesn’t mean we don’t need money. It doesn’t mean we don’t get funding at some point if there’s good reason. But it does provide better accountability around creating new things and it puts everyone in the organization on a level field.

Start with zero and validate from that point forward.

Workflow and Development

There are two basic forms of “workflow” or “new practice” development:

  • That which we create (innovation and new category.) This needs to bring value to clients and they become part “creative partner” with us (from a “what if” and testing scenario).
  • That which our clients require (get competent and optimize)
    • They define
    • We build/design to spec
    • We execute
  • The Truth moving into the future
    • We all need in our businesses to develop one or both of these.
    • It needs to be done while being connected to the market; with the user/client

The details, the building, the success of the service or product, is up to the builders and operators

SWOT Analysis – Threat to Opportunity

Threats that are defined in our SWOT analysis can actually be opportunities in disguise. Recently in a SWOT analysis review with one of our branch offices, the leader was reviewing a legitimate threat that influences our office’s ability in that market to procure work with certain clients.  I immediately noted that the threat was actually a veiled value proposition, an opportunity. If we could sell the clients on what we know about that space in the supply chain, we would actually do the supplier causing the threat a favor, and make more value for our clients as well. It’s just a different pricing paradigm on the front end in order to achieve a better bottom line for them in the future. It’s a win, win, win if discerned and communicated correctly. Now comes the hard work of communicating the value and overcoming entry barriers; getting referrals; designing a pricing structure and a delivery method.

Some threats are hidde opportunities. Like a “no” in sales and “risk” in innovation. We need to go beyond the surface and figure out if these things are worth pursuing.

Have you dug below the surface?

Solution Sets 

Schedule & budget are also determining factors in a solution set and in providing problem solving and deliverables to clients. It’s not “provide solutions at any cost and for as much time as they take.” Also speed of response, speed of performance, and prompt project delivery almost always win, and are typically the top or near the top priority for clients.

It’s hard as technical professionals sometimes to consider budget and schedule as equal variables or boundary conditions with other more direct technical issues.

We’ve got to ask ourselves “how can I get this done in the allotted time frame and budget” and use that as part of the boundary conditions around the solution and deliverable.

When we do this on every project and task within the project, it mitigates loss, makes the potentially marginal job profitable, and makes the good one really great.

Every person, on every team, at every level should have this reality in mind. They should be accountable, and also empowered, to call timeout and to take action with the project leaders and principals.

And it means not being a slave to the defined technical and software processes when there’s an issue slowing us down. Remember, procedure and technical tools are supposed to serve us, not the opposite. These days that often gets reversed, spending more time on the process and software functionality than we spend on the problem or creative aspect of the solution.

Provide serviceable solutions while staying in business.

Margin and Creativity

For me,

Margin (space, reflection, free time, lack of pressure) is necessary for facilitating creativity.

This is not the same as getting things done. Pressure and deadlines get things done.

But creativity needs time to flourish. It needs margin – the “space” found in a run, a hike on the trail, time away from work, a change of pace, dinner with friends, Saturdays, playing music, backpacking, long flights, collaboration with the team, an offsite for the day. (You can fill in more venues…)

Great ideas need “room.”

In our world “space” or “margin” doesn’t just happen. We have to make it happen. We have to shut off the noise. Don’t your best ideas typically come after you’ve had some time to simply dwell or think and not just “do”?

Maybe space truly is the final frontier, just not the one we typically think about.