CEOs Talk Workplace: Interview with Kenn Fine

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Bob Fox
Bob Fox
Bob is an industry leader and the founding partner at Fox Architects in Washington DC, celebrating 20 years of design professionals working together to reshape the office and work environment. Bob also publishes Work Design Magazine, which, with its thousands of global subscribers, is the premier online publication dedicated to workplace strategy, information, and resources. Bob earned his B.A. in Architecture from Temple University in Philadelphia. When he’s not innovating new concepts for the workplace, Bob leads a competitive sailing team on his 44-foot race boat, “Sly.” He’s been racing offshore for almost 20 years, sailing more than 30 thousand nautical miles of open ocean. Bob lives in the Washington DC area with his wife, son, and three daughters. He remains focused on our changing work environments, and the state of workplace design today, and looking ahead to dynamic shifts that are forthcoming.

Find out how Kenn Fine, Founder and Creative Principal of FINE, created a space that embodies the essence of the company’s brand.

Kenn and Jambo
Kenn Fine and Jambo take a work-break! – Image courtesy of FINE

After a preliminary discussion evaluating the merits of different donut shops across the nation, Kenn Fine, Principal and Executive Creative Director at FINE, A Brand Agency, exuberantly jumped into our CEO Talk by warning us that we most likely would abandon our standard order of questions. After Bob Fox asked the usual, “Tell us a bit about your business,” Kenn related that his business was born from an entrepreneurial passion that has informed his whole professional life.

After taking on a few strategic consulting projects and enjoying the intensity of re-igniting other companies, Kenn launched FINE to help organizations reposition, rebrand, and reveal their unique factors. FINE works with clients to tactically help clarify a company’s brand and bring it to fruition, both cosmetically and operationally.

Bob Fox:  How do you connect what you do with your physical environment?

Kenn Fine: We engage directly and intensely with our customers. The way that manifests in our space is that you walk right into the middle of the office – you are immediately drawn right into the mix. We have eliminated that empty little chair in a formal reception area where someone is sorting the mail. When you enter our space, you might walk into an active yoga session. We had a very intentional goal to demonstrate our brand of highly personal engagement by creating a dynamic and active space, not only for our employees, but for anyone venturing into our offices. As we designed the space, we pulled our kitchen right into the center. It is a giant bistro, stage, and work area. It’s the center of activity where everyone mingles. Our space is flexible and serves as a place we can share with the larger community during meetups.

Activity-based work takes on new meaning in FINE’s offices – The Monday morning meetings begin with Yoga and stretching – Image courtesy of FINE

Let’s talk about the how people are working, interacting and doing that creative work in the different environments you provide in your workspace. How does that work?

There is a purpose behind every design element in the office. You can write on most of the walls; we promote a stop, drop, and collaborate environment. Even though everyone has their own desk, our workspace is designed to encourage everyone to move around throughout the day. There are places to sit, stand, lounge, and escape. Although everyone has a home base, we want to physically support our staff by providing opportunities within our space, to think about the same problems in multiple settings. We thought that would affect the outcome and quality of the work in a positive way.

What other aspects of your work informed the design of the space? How does your workspace support your business?

This office is the second office we have occupied since relocating from the San Francisco area. To put things in perspective, I should talk about our first office here, which was a satellite office. It was a craftsman house that we completely renovated. It was spectacular, cozy, comfy, and had that whole family vibe. However, it had the wrong flavor for our high-end, luxury clients, and it was not a good fit with what our clients expected to see when they came into our space. They could not bridge the visual gap between our casual, “down home” style with the high-end luxury spaces of their businesses and the work we do with them to shape their image and brand.

Additionally, our younger-skewing staff could not reconcile the casual ambiance with how intensely we work. And that sent the wrong message. Even though we may be sitting with our feet propped up, and come in and out to manage that work-life balance, there is a requirement to have a sense of vibrancy that keeps everyone’s heart rate up. We want our folks to be enlivened by their work environment.

What other factors pushed the idea of changing up the environment as you contemplated the design of your new office?

A significant portion of our work is in the high-end hospitality market — placemaking and working with our clients to develop not only their digital and media branding, but also concepts for their actual spaces. We are sometimes brought into projects late in the game. Brand is the key to planning experiences that align with the space they happen within. Brand informs architectural and interior design. These are lessons learned from changing up our own space and designing our offices.

We are now usually at the table early on, when our clients plan their spaces, so the branding design and concepts are incorporated into that process. We work to take the brand experience our clients want to have, and inject that into their design process.

How did the design process work for you? How did you describe your goal for space with your design team?

Well, that was easy. The functional direction was that we wanted the space to feel small and substantial at the same time. We also thought it needed to feel highly active yet provide places for people to focus. The aesthetic direction was to design a space that would fit in easily with any sophisticated metropolitan area. Our clients span the globe, and we needed to have an office that would be familiar and comfortable for them. We did not want the Northwest-centric, roughhewn wood, and flannel shirt environment that is prevalent in our area.

Our office is undoubtedly comfortable, but has more of a serious vibe by the energy that’s expended as you move about the space. However, we did have a few bumps in the road with some of our design decisions.

Can you elaborate on that?

Falling prey to the media, we put in a pool table and ping pong table. It was not well-utilized. Those who did use it during the work day got a bit of the evil eye. We wanted to nurture our staff and create a place where our team can grow, and for our high achievers to be successful. We do not want anyone to feel held back. But play tables just did not work for us. 

The pool table, why?

We need to attract talent. We are competing for that against other business that featured similar places. I thought that is what we needed at the time. In the end, it just didn’t work for us. We had to re-engineer to make that space work for our culture.

We took out the toys and put in soft seating and Buzzi hubs. We added some built-in benches and created an “indoor park.” Now it is one of the most popular places to work. You can work in multiple postures, and there are always a few people working back there.

The re-imagined space that replaced the ubiquitous pool table works much better for the FINE team – Image courtesy of FINE

What about branding in your own space?

We don’t usually embrace old-school logos on everything. While we do have some branding in our space, we feel that it is the experience, interaction and the energy that defines us. We think people make the brand, and the inner person is what drives brand. These elements are more subliminal than an actual sign on the wall. But we have a few of those too.

FINE’s crest – Image courtesy of FINE

What do you think people feel or remember when they experience your space?

Anyone entering our offices should feel our energy and engagement. We make our clients feel like friends. It is an immediate immersion in our culture. A visitor is greeted, and their first decision is what kind of coffee or other refreshment to have. The walk to a meeting room can become a bit of a meet-and-greet in that our circulation paths are internally plotted through all of our work areas. To get to our meeting rooms, you must walk past, and say hello, to almost our whole staff. That was by design. We want our clients to mingle and feel a part of us when they are in our workspace. We think our space embodies the whole essence of our brand.

We can see a physical response when we show visitors around. They pick up on the energy and interaction. We are welcoming and relaxed, and that demeanor translates to our visitors. Although they are there to conduct business, they are absorbed into our atmosphere. They roll into our culture. Our space is a tangible example of what we do.

An intensely collaborative work ethic is supported by space designed for that purpose – Image courtesy of FINE

How do you use the space as a leadership tool?

We talk about our process while we are in the space. Seeing people’s visceral response to our office gives me a way to assess their reaction not only to it specifically, but also to our ideas and concepts for their brand. That has more impact than an hour sitting in a conference room. We put people at ease and give them a sense of belonging. We try and provide tangible demonstrations of our creative intent.

For example, we do our “deep work” in the library. We also have a “suspended” chair in that area. It has become a tool and a metaphor for how we evaluate ideas. There are different types of personalities and projects, and in our discussions, we may ask ourselves, “Would this one get on the swing or not?”

The library is the deep-thinking space of the office. The space is defined by the flexible furniture arrangement – not enclosed by permanent walls – Image courtesy of FINE

Where is the most significant value in your workplace?

We created the environment to promote a high frequency of random collisions among staff/peers. By providing areas that specifically promotes these accidental conversations, there are increased opportunities for genius to happen in those gaps – in the spaces between going from one place to another.

That is where the sparks occur?

Yes, that is where the creativity and energy occurs. Getting that fourth cup of coffee of the day, you can run into someone, you can chat, you can detour to a whiteboard, and another person overhears and engages. By sharing an issue, problem, or idea, these casual interactions are what feeds the team. This purposeful, random activity also helps avoid the silos that can develop when people are physically isolated in their designated area with limited exposure to others.

The whole purpose of our space is to increase our creativity and not get caught up in rigid systems and structures that don’t apply to anything. We want to empower everyone’s spirit and expertise of everyone. 

You consider your space a tool you can use to execute your work?

Yes, it is a crucial tool, and it has taught us things about our work that we use outside of our office.

For example, that high-frequency accidental collaboration has changed up how we engage and talk with our clients. In some cases, we have ditched a rigid schedule of presentations, but work to connect with them more randomly. We may call them as ideas strike or decisions must be made. Our space does away with formality, and that has changed our communication process.

“The Swing” has a purpose and a place in the lexicon of FINE’s business model – Image courtesy of FINE

When people engage with you and experience your space, what do they tell others? 

I know that many people feel enlivened by a visit to our office. They come in as agents or collaborators, but we get calls back about something else. Surprisingly, our space has triggered a level of interaction that we did not expect — we have become more accessible on another level.

Demonstrating how we work and where we work seems to have carried over to how some of our clients and visitors may rethink their work and their workspace. They get a sense of the power of our energy, not necessarily anything specific to our business and what we do.

What kind of communication methods do you use to engage with your staff?

We create fertile soil, but it is up to you to grow.

-Kenn Fine

We have a mesh of technology that allows us to communicate internally and with our remote workers. Those tools are task and transaction oriented. Our preference leans toward personal communication. We gather every week to start with the yoga warmup, and then move on to talk about what is going on or planned for the upcoming week. People look forward to connecting in that way. We have a different MC each week, and when I talk I try to deliver information from my perspective. We have “5×5” (five slides in five minutes) presentations that offer something on a specific topic to the entire team. By intent, we think that our environtment fosters constant communication on many levels to keep the ball rolling across the entire team.

We also have a Director of Talent. That person’s sole responsibility is to make sure everyone in the company has an overwhelming sense of pronoia — someone working behind your back for a better good. Our people feel nourished and supported. In addition to the group meetings and events, each leader schedules one-on-one meetings with direct reports, for more personal engagement. 

Although everyone has an assigned workspace, there are multiple options when an alternate space is needed – Image courtesy of FINE

Do you have any way to measure the space’s performance?

I try to look for significant clues to gauge what is working or what is not working. How we use our space, which was designed to be flexible, lets me see what makes sense, and this may change over time. The humans can decide how they can be most productive. If a layout is one-dimensional, some people may not thrive in that environment. We wanted to mirror a more organic environment. 

Creativity and ideas drive your business. Is there a way you connect the innovation and ideas that happen in your space directly to how you planned for it?

The way we have designed the space has pushed the level of creativity because of the way it is organized and functions. However, there is no way to measure that. Working in hospitality – and being able to engineer an energy level in that industry – does translate into a quality that can drive revenue and be successful in our own space.

Having the choice of when and where to work, other than your desk, gives FINE’s employees the flexibility and freedom to do their best work – Image courtesy of FINE

The way people engage in the space delivers an energy level that it generates more business success? 

Yes, experience is an energy game. My mantra is, “Leave more energy than you take.” People leave our offices elevated and not depleted at the end of the day. We hope this does carry over into what we tell our clients so the spaces they plan can have the same positive effects on people. You want people to feel a reward from being in their places.

Where are you willing to spend the most money?

I am willing to be “silly stupid” with the budget because I have personally witnessed the power of, and positive results of, having space that supports our work.

We think Jambo would agree! – Image courtesy of FINE
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