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.

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.

More on Marketing

This week I secured a negotiated project with a client. I visited the client about 4 or 5 years ago. I hadn’t secured a project before this week. I know their CEO, Director of Marketing, VP of Operations, Engineering Manager, a couple of Project Executives, and project managers. But nothing happened prior. Sometimes these things take time.

Over the 4 or 5 years I have been an admirer of their growth and I have kept in touch with them. They are reasonably well represented on social media, so my company social media person and I advocate for them and support a lot of their values. One of them is their “Women in Construction” advocacy and staffing.

They like us, we like them. We both create visibility and awareness. There’s been a lot of talk, contact at conferences, and just some good mutual respect. But no work. No project. No actual transactional business relationship. But that’s okay.

Then it all changed. And it changed quickly. You see a project manager from another client that we worked with joined their organization last year. When the project executive on her project needed an engineering parter, and someone that could collaborate through the process, she said “what about Wheaton Sprague and John Wheaton?”

Then came the RFP, then the phone call, context, urgency, clarity of values, and timing. The proposal was written. Follow up happended from them immediately, and a deal was cut, a proposal signed and a Purchase order received.

You see, the relatiohship is paramount. The relationship is to be nutured always, regardless of where it leads transactionally or at a given moment. The relationship has meaning OUTSIDE of a sale. The SALE is just the final expression of value, trust, and relationship; a promissary note that describes what they will pay us when we deliver on our scope and promises.

Don’t ever lead with a sale. It’s disengenuous. Lead with relationship and with sincerity, not manipulation. Everyone knows you are in business to make money. But that’s the end of the process, not the start.

I’m grateful to now be working with them.

Sometimes these things take time.

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?

The Escalator

I couldn’t get to the trade show floor until 10:00 am. That meant 15 or 20 minutes to kill. I looked around at the options and said to myself, “Why not stand at the bottom of the escalator? There’s no better place to see and meet people.”

In the sea of people there were two gentlemen standing near me with name tags that noted their business location; Nantucket, MA. I had just returned from a business trip to Boston the week prior, and then spent 4 days on Cape Cod. It wasn’t Nantucket, but it’s close enough. I started a conversation.

We talked about their work on the island, about the culture, what kind of support they needed, and how they managed logistics. They asked what I did. We shared business cards. I invited them to contact me anytime and they did the same. Then we both went on our way.

That was about 5 or 6 weeks ago. One of the guys, Lee, called me today. “Hi John, I don’t know if you remember me or not….” “Of course, I said. We met at the bottom of the escalator!” “Yep. That’s me.”

He said he needed some engineering support and asked about our availability at Wheaton Sprague. He asked what the next steps were. He said he’d email me the info. I said I’d assess it and get him a proposal. He said, great.

How do we “kill time” while waiting? Usually with our head in a phone or waiting in the wings. That particular day I chose to engage at the bottom of the escalator; to be where people were congregating. Who would have guessed? We never know when an interaction will lead to more. But most business is relational, whether B2B or B2C. How’s your engagement going?

Selling “Experience” – The Gas Stations

There are two service stations in my town. Both are within blocks of each other. Both charge within pennies per gallon of each other for gas. Both are national-level name brands.

One always has receipt paper at the pump. The other doesn’t. One always has full window-cleaning fluid troughs at each pump. In fact, at the one, the fluid smells like Wintergreen. The other rarely has enough fluid, if at all. It smells like regular cleaning fluid.

One has an ample stock of snacks and beverages inside and a clean smell. The other is always under-stocked and has an awful odor like a bad hospital smell inside.

One has nice canopies at the pump stations, well intact, with clean lines. The other always seems to have some maintenance issues going on at the pump stations.

One has uniformed attendants inside that typically respond with a polite greeting. The other has people with no uniforms, and generally a dis-interested person behind the counter.

The price is almost the same at the one or at the other; sometimes even the exact same price. But even if not, it’s worth the extra thirty to fifty cents per fill-up, to use the one.

At which one would you purchase your gas and snacks?

In a commodity business, “the one” has learned at how to differentiate. The other doesn’t care. It is always possible to differentiate within our existing revenue stream and context; to deliver value with some thought and care for the customer’s experience.

How about your business? How about mine? What experience do we want to create? What experience are we delivering?

 

 

 

 

 

PRICE IS IRRELEVANT

If the first question a client or prospective client asks about is related to price, then we know that their values are centered around cost. Most attempts to sell them otherwise will not typically work. To this purchaser, value is based on low price, and the product or service is viewed as a commodity. If the client-buyer is interested in what we’ve got, and we aren’t the low price, they may ask us to justify ourselves. I got this question last week “Why are you double the other price? Can you explain why your price is so high?” (This is a downward spiral by the way. Don’t answer the question to try to validate.)

I provided a polite and professional response, but didn’t answer the question exactly. I indicated what value was being provided and how the fee compared to other service-company fees in our category. My response asked the opposite question back, “Why is their price half of ours. What are they so cheap? We are both looking at the same project, right?” Then I explained what was being provided and nothing more.

I didn’t hear back from that client yet. And there’s a good chance that I won’t. They will likely purchase the other provider’s services. Because what this client was really SAYING, not asking, was “Hey, you’re too expensive. I can get the same thing for 40% less.”

So why do I say that price is irrelevant? Because we buy based on our values. Price is the consequence, the manifestation. It’s not the issue. Price or cost-based buying says “any of these firms will do, just get me low price.” The problem with this is that the buyer is assuming that they are getting the identical service from any of the choices presented to them.

It’s never really about price. It’s about the buying mindset and values.

Cost-based buyers want low price. Cost leads the conversation.

Value-based buyers want what they perceive to be the best investment and value for the cost of the purchase. Value and investment leads the conversation, price falls out, sometimes negotiated, sometimes as stated.

Identity, connection, or brand-based buyers, want to identify with a particular person, enterprise, brand or genre. Being connected to the associated values leads the conversation. Price is what it is; “If you want to be connected with us, the fees associated with that are as defined.”

Price is important, but price is really irrelevant. People already know about what they are willing to pay based on their mindset.

What kind of buyer are we seeking to attract?

What values are we seeking to communicate?

How is that portrayed in our brand?

Are we delivering?

Whatever we choose, we need to stick to it and dive deep. Pick a lane and stay in it. We can’t be all things to all people.

Compressed construction 

I mean REALLY compressed. Rarely works.

There are many brilliantly crafted plans on paper that have no allowance for the unexpected, for supply chain issues, for unintended consequences, or poor execution by someone or some organization along the way. Plus the single biggest issue I’ve seen and experienced over and over again that leads to challenges from the outset, is simply delayed decision making, and delayed release of contracts.

Compressed construction requires concurrent, collaborative, (shared-reality) communication; cultural alignment, confidence in each other and in the enterprises involved, and it requires everyone to follow through on the decisions and tasks in their domain within the proper timelines. It can’t be done with the old “throwing it over the wall mentality.” Each decision and event is not “someone else’s problem.” It’s everyone’s problem. This teamwork is difficult to achieve and it requires commitment from all parties, and to be led by the GC or CM.

The thing that happens most often in compressed construction schedules is erosion of relationship, poor profitability, and a project that still takes the time “it needs” to take to get finished. This often results in an unhappy owner asking questions due to failed expectations vs. promised goals and deliverables.

I’ll offer some solutions and suggestions on a future blog.

Post Project Meetings – Defining Experience

Post project review meetings are arguably the most important project and team meetings in an organization (and a required SOP now at my company) since it defines lessons learned; what we did well, what we did not, how we can improve. It helps identify “the experience” of the team and the client. It’s ALL about the client’s “experience.” The team’s experience is equally important  (client experience is only as good as the team experience and service to each other)

There’s many hotels, restaurants, auto dealers, contractors, engineering firms, professional services corps, ALL TOUTING the SAME THING.

Which one’s do you like to frequent and write checks to? Those with whom you have a positive experience or a negative experience ? Positive experience (gratitude, smiles, fair price, great value, delivering on what has been promised) means repeat business and growth.

Post project reviews are necessary for company and professional advancement.

All progress starts by telling the truth. These meetings are great truth revealers and tellers. We learn and grow through doing, celebrating wins, and fixing problems.

Advice

Some advice I gave to a staff member the other day regarding an email exchange with a client on which I was bcc’d.

While you’re right, and factual, I’d never say to a client “you’re wrong”
It’s not appropriate expression and just shows the growing frustration on this issue
Words like “I disagree” or that’s not aligned with specifications”
Never directly attack the person no matter how foolish they are, because it wont register to an angry or stubborn person. Attack the problem and suggest an alternative path to resolution
If they are unwilling then seek intercession as you’ve done. As you stated, sometime it’s best to step back and stop

communicating”

Be wise

Be personable

Be clear

Be respectful

Draw appropriate boundaries