The Secret to a Great Workplace? Think of It as a People-Place

To be successful, workplaces must promote human connections and nurture employee pride. Photo courtesy JLL.
To be successful, workplaces must promote human connections and nurture employee pride. Photo courtesy JLL.

Ed Nolan, managing director and practice leader for workplace strategy at JLL, discusses the power of human experience in the company’s recently completed Chicago headquarters refresh.

How can we create an office that truly moves people? At JLL, we asked ourselves this question in 2014, when lease expiration was looming on our headquarters. We opted to stay in Chicago’s iconic Aon Center with a catch: We needed to completely overhaul the office in order to create a workplace that was truly fit for the future.

Today, as I walk through the now completely revitalized 200,000-square-foot, six-floor renovation, I believe we have found our answer. To inspire humans to do great work, we need to ensure that the places where we gather, think and do, are blended in a way that directly supports the human experience and not the other way around. Too often in corporate real estate, the focus has been on how to fit people into a workplace. In this remodel, we turned that on its head, ensuring the place would fit our people, driving their quality of life, well-being and a sense of community.

Why focus on the human experience? The office opened its new doors recently, but already, we have strong anecdotal evidence that people are more likely to go the extra mile, to take pride in their work and feel like their personal success aligns with ours. That in turn feeds productivity, collective responsibility and ultimately improved client service.

The notion of designing around human experience is garnering lots of interest outside our own office too. In a recent global research project on human experience, part of JLL’s recently launched Future of Work outlook, we surveyed more than 7,000 corporate employees from across 12 countries and found that overwhelmingly, workplaces focused on human happiness and experience are the most engaging and effective.

So, how did we get where we are today?

Our roadmap to enriching the human experience at work

There is no magic approach to mastering the human side of workplace strategy. But our experience in the Office ReNew project uncovered meaningful benefits of engaging in the following:

  • Engage employees early and often in workplace change. A good employee survey can go a long way in identifying what works, and what doesn’t work, about the current space. So we did three. We began with a Location Analysis survey in early 2014, asking our teams about their satisfaction with working in the Aon Center and what was most important to them when considering whether to stay or explore new locations. We analyzed the results across multiple demographic cuts, and we made a much more informed and inclusive decision to stay.Later that year we went back to them with a Workplace Experience survey to gather feedback on such things as where people felt they lost productivity during the day and views on corporate culture. From that, we learned what would be our most important lesson: JLLers craved more collaborative space and new meeting technology that would make it easier to connect. Then in 2015, after engaging Gensler as our design partner, we conducted a third survey focused on the specific objectives for Office ReNew. The need for superior collaborative experiences was further reinforced. This resulted in a workplace design that delivered about 3 times more collaborative spaces and a significant supporting technology upgrade.
  • Embrace space mixology. JLL’s culture is deeply collaborative, but our previous space was not conducive to it. For example, Mary Davenport, a Senior Program Manager who has worked on and off at JLL for 19 years, says her early days here were mostly spent in a wood-panelled cubicle, with few places to engage with colleagues. Being tethered to a desktop computer didn’t help either.Now, instead of a row of cubes, our teams move freely between private heads-down space, conference rooms, huddle space and one-on-one rooms configured in areas called Studios. There are also a handful of drop-in rooms with keypad lighting to indicate at a glance whether the room is in use.

This desire for mix can be seen as a larger trend across the U.S. as well. According to our human experience research, 70 percent of U.S. employees say they would prefer an open-plan desk to an enclosed office if it means they would gain new access to a variety of attractive settings.

  • Don’t underestimate the power of a great hangout spot. Daily coffee drinkers spend an estimated 62 hours a year buying coffee outside the office. So in some ways, offering an in-house café, as we’ve done with the Club, is simply a practical way to save time. But there’s a lot more to it than simply keeping people on site. For JLL, offering a coffee bar with comfortable seating options and flexible meeting space inspires positive collisions between people having both formal and informal ideation sessions.This also creates a sense of community across the organization, with people from all departments and every step of the corporate ladder crossing paths more often. For example, when employees see a pair of global executives chatting in the Club, it shows that they’re approachable. “That kind of transparency is very powerful in a company this large,” says Eddy Wagoner, JLL’s Chief Global Innovation Officer. “It’s like a high-end restaurant lounge. People are more relaxed, and conversation is more collaborative and open.”These kinds of informal collisions are supported throughout the office in other ways, too. For example, Jose Cruz, an office receptionist for JLL, appreciates the more open and comfortable reception area. “I’ve met people across so many business lines and roles, from senior people to associates. I’ve made connections with people in departments I didn’t even know existed.”
  • Look for ways to support comfort, well-being and work-life balance. In our new headquarters, we set out to ensure the workplace was pleasing to all five senses. We also wanted to ensure people felt free to move between spaces, even outside the office. Some changes were relatively simple. For example, Wagoner, who is 6-foot-5, says the new standing desk setups have made his lower back pain disappear.New conferencing and mobility technology was also a key piece of the puzzle. People can now digitally connect easily and securely, whether they are on the road, at home or in the next huddle space over.
  • Nurture employee pride. People feel better about coming to work when they take pride in their workplace—and that can be contagious. JLL broker Deanna Becker says she thinks the redesign has elevated the brand’s image to clients. “Our industry tends to be pretty traditional when it comes to workplace design, so I’m proud to say that JLL isn’t,” she says. “My team works largely with clients that are on the cutting edge and technology-focused, and it’s nice to have this more modern, innovative space to show we’re right there with them.”

Doors open…now what?

The future of work is being shaped now. But today’s employees may still need some help getting there. People who are leaving a desk they’ve been tied to for, say, a decade, will take time to adjust to the idea of exploring a menu of new locations. One way we’re working on this is by ensuring top-down encouragement. If a manager is not using the coffee bar, their team may feel timid about going there. So we’re talking with each other to help everyone understand that it’s more than okay to work in the Club, or wherever they like—it’s desired.

Our people worked hard to make this new office one that would go beyond your standard ‘check the box’ workplace. When I look at the result, I don’t see a place where people go to work. I see a community of people who are inspired to do their best by a space designed to put the human experience first.

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  • I wholeheartedly agree with the first principle, “engage employees early and often in workplace change”, but I think this can go far beyond staff surveys. I’d love to see workplace professionals incorporate more principles of participative engagement: spending the time to educate employees through workshops, mini-conferences/forums, speaker series, workplace tours, and deep dives into user research; and involve them in a co-creation process. It seems like a time consuming and expensive process but if you do it well then half your change job is done right there if you genuinely engage with people in the aspirational and strategy stages of a project, and it would mitigate the risks of the change efforts going badly.

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