Who Owns Brand Culture? A Recap of our SF Work Design TALK

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Chair of the Month

Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie is a Workplace Consultant at Herman Miller and the former Editor of Work Design Magazine. She’s currently based in Pittsburgh.
Guests mingle in DPR Construction's new Front Street space. All photos by Jason Cheung.
Guests mingle in DPR Construction’s new Front Street space. All photos by Jason Cheung.

On Thursday evening, we gathered at DPR Construction‘s new Front Street office in San Francisco for our first ever Work Design TALK on the West Coast. The conversation focused on how designers, architects, and strategists can help young companies to first identify their brand and culture and then design a workspace to support it.

“DPR exemplifies a company that has successfully integrated culture and brand into the space,” said Bob Fox, our publisher, and the moderator of the discussion.

Indeed, employees at DPR call their 20,000 square foot, net zero space a “living lab”; a super-sustainable showroom for DPR’s construction capabilities. And all of that came through before I saw a DPR logo in the space.

Eric Ibsen, the chief design officer at FME Architecture + Design — the firm responsible for DPR’s new space — said that this certitude and elegance in brand culture is the result of the firm being able to look at the client and say, “I get you.”

“Why is DPR different?” he said. “It’s the people, it’s how they do business, it’s how they treat each other. Understanding the client is key.”

A big part of this comes from the assurance of a business that’s been in the game for twenty-four years. That might not sound old, but compared to other Bay Area companies, it’s ancient. And this is where the conversation kicked off.

“Especially with younger companies, when the culture is not already firmly rooted, there’s a very high level of anxiety around [establishing] permanent spaces that cost a lot of money,” said Antonia Cardone, a workplace strategist at DTZ. She added that you’ve got to “tap in to the business” to understand what behaviors the space needs to support in order to diffuse that anxiety and build something that’s going to support the business’s culture and growth.

For too long, the panel agreed, we’ve worked in prescriptive spaces that aren’t designed to support how people are really working and the things that they really value.

Mark Gilbreath, the founder of LiquidSpace.
Mark Gilbreath, the founder of LiquidSpace.

“From now through the next 3-5 years, historians will frame this as the sunset of ‘command and control’ culture,” said Mark Gilbreath, the founder and CEO of LiquidSpace, a digital marketplace like Uber or Airbnb that allows people to rent out office or meeting spaces by the hour or day.

“More and more people are leaving the office to get stuff done,” said Gilbreath.

And if that sounds to you like the death knell for the workplace design industry, don’t be so morbid. Gilbreath explained that the more people who use LiquidSpace, the more we’ll know about what kinds of spaces employees value. For a young company, this is gold. If they grow, data from LiquidSpace could actually inform how to build a permanent workplace that’s perfectly tailored to how the company really works. Choices made in “liquid space” could actually help to get to the heart of what matters to employees.

“When people talk about brand and culture, a lot of times they separate them in their minds and within the company,” said Cory Sistrunk, president and design principal at Rapt Studio. “The dialogue gets fragmented.”

He added that you’ve got to identify what it is that matters to a company’s clients and to the employees. “Aligning that is a great place to start,” he said.

Thanks again to the panelists, the attendees, and to our sponsors for making this event possible:

DPR Construction
FME Architecture + Design
Decker Electric
Habitat Horticulture
Mission Bell
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