NeoCon 2019: Seminars That Caught Our Eye – Part 1

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Elise Shapiro
Elise Shapiro
Elise Shapiro is a contributing editor. Little did she know that her first job, in the facilities department at Ralston Purina, while obtaining her M. Arch at Washington University, in St. Louis would foreshadow where her career would lead. She has always been a strong advocate for providing the best possible spaces for people to work – where aesthetics meet function and drive business success.

The NeoCon 2019 proposals offered an incredible array of topics from all sectors of the industry. Here are a few of the seminars that caught our eye.

The experience of attending NeoCon, the annual contract design-centric event in Chicago, is exposure to an intriguing mix of thought leaders in our industry. No doubt, this year’s offerings are clearly curated to reflect the sea changes we are experience as the concept of work and work place design is evolving at a rapid pace.

A snapshot of Dean and Sven’s NeoCon seminar presentations –“This June will be our ninth consecutive talk at NeoCon, and we are excited to share and engage with our design colleagues. Each seminar has built upon previous discussions and this one is no different; part research, part experience, case studies and some interesting videos.” Image courtesy of Dean Strombom and Sven Govaars

As a long time NeoCon attendee, and this year from the advantage of participating as a member of the Program Advisor Committee, there is a plethora of seminars that could keep one busy from start to finish of the event. In addition to the keynote events and regular seminars, four seminars are scheduled for Sunday, June 9.

This year’s proposals offered an incredible array of topics from all sectors of the industry. We have reviewed the scheduled seminars and reached out to the some of the presenters in order to get a preview of what they are planning. If you are thinking about your schedule for this year’s event, it’s not too early to register!

Workplace of course is of primary interest to many NeoCon attendees. Here are a few of the seminars that caught our eye.

We connected with Verda Alexander, Founder Studio O+A and asked a few questions about her topic:

Friction in the Workplace: Has Ease Become Too Easy? – Tuesday, June 11, 2:30 PM – 3:30 PM – By Verda Alexander

For 25 years workplace design has moved steadily in the direction of comfort. All our efforts as designers of commercial interiors have focused on creating environments that make the job easier and the worksite more inviting. Have we gone too far? Young office workers who know nothing other than in-house cafes and light filled schmoozing zones (we call it “collaboration”) seem ill-equipped to handle setbacks, too inclined to embrace the first idea and too often creatively passive. This lecture will explore the idea of building resistance back into the work environment, making space that is less like a worker’s utopia and more like the psychological reality for which all working people need to be prepared. [Basic] [OF]

The Microsoft Envisioning Center by Studio O + A, photo by Jeremy Bitterman

WDM: We hear over and over that “recruit and retain” is the big ask when companies initiate a new workplace initiative. They say the need to bring in the new workers – workers of the future – and their office space may be key in inducing potential employees to choose their company over others. So, in a way, workspace becomes part of the equation. Do you think this creates a “beauty contest” scenario? 

Verda: I think the new workers are smarter than that. They can cut through the BS and the slides and the ping pong tables and discover what really is important in space. They can sleuth mixed or garbled messages or discover inconsistencies. What you want a space to communicate to new talent is the culture they’re about to enter, the values of the company they’re about to join: Can they do good work here? Will they be happy in this environment? That’s more important than “the beauty contest.”

WDM: When you are working with a client, how do you dig deeper to find out what kind of features will give them a productive and functional workplace (the working parts) that will support their work? How much does that inform the design decisions?

Verda: We spend a lot of time evaluating the existing situation if there is one and try to assess what’s been working and what hasn’t. If we are going to reinvent how they work, we must get buy in, and full support of management and facilities. One thing I think is hard is that there are so many buzz words out there. People think they want creative workspaces or collaborative areas. But do they really? Trying to assess what the real needs are is key–and every organization is different. We keep hearing a backlash to open office, and it’s troubling. We feel it’s next to impossible in this day to go back to closed offices (and I don’t think that’s what people even want when they criticize open plan), but we have to work to with our clients to arrive at a balance and a layout tailored to work for them. I would love to stop calling it open!

WDM: There is always the designer’s vision, choosing colors, material, furnishings based on how we want the space to look, but the seminar implies that there is a more involved set of decisions that need to be in place to ensure that those decisions are rooted in solving the basic problem of what kind of space will work best for this client. Can you give a few examples of the best questions to ask in the planning process that helps move the design forward?

Verda: We have been doing this for 28 years, it’s such an intuitive process for us that it’s hard to describe. But we do to talk to /interview as many people along the corporate strata as we can during the initial stages of design. We ask questions that push a comprehensive agenda, like:

“What do you want to be known for?”

What do you want your employees to resonate with when they come to work.”

“What out in the world matters to this company (beyond the bottom line)?”

As designers we weave their story into their space, make it physical. That’s how it becomes uniquely theirs.

Gusto Headquarters – Image courtesy of Gensler – Photography by Rafael Gamo

We also caught up with Gensler’s Collin Burry who had some additional thoughts on where we are going with workplace design. The co-presenter will be Amy Storek, vice president, North America A&D Sales, Herman Miller, San Francisco, CA.

Design in a Time of Radical Change: Learnings From the Bay Area Tech Explosion – Monday, June 10, 9:30 AM – 10:30 AM – By Collin Burry and Amy Storek

As the tech sector explodes, tech companies are asking more of designers. These companies are literally changing the future, and their increasingly intense demands mean that we designers are faced with accelerated project schedules, high costs and high expectations. Join us to uncover how one key partnership can help. Designers and furniture vendors can successfully collaborate with tech clients to deliver high performance, highly tailored, branded and styled workplaces. In our discussion, we’ll reveal how we’ve transformed the way we do business to meet the evolving expectations of tech clients. We’ll also demonstrate how furniture providers and designers can be just as dynamic as their tech clients. [Intermediate] [PD]

WDM: The tech sector has been one of the main catalysts in changing up how designers plan workplace solutions. Where do you think things may have calmed down a bit and are now considered best practices? 

Collin: The tech sector has led the way in terms of workplace design and models since the last dot com boom at the turn of the century—remember 8’x8′ cubes with tall panels? They pretty much became extinct after the first dot com bubble. This tech run has seen even more dramatic changes. Now workplace is essentially almost entirely open-plan spaces comprise sit-stand desks with an array of closed and open working and meeting spaces. Space types such as crawl-in booths, bleacher seating for all-hands meetings, and amenity spaces on steroids are the new norm and so overused they’ve become clichés. If history proves true, what starts in the Valley eventually migrates its way across the country and the globe as the Tech Sector sets the standard for how to attract and retain the best and brightest that drive their businesses.

WDM: You mention the partnership of furniture dealers and designers as key to generating new design solutions. Can you speak to the evolution of how it is increasingly important to develop project teams that have the expertise to make design solutions more tailored to individual client needs?

Collin: The latest boom in design has seen the rise of the ancillary “furniture stylist” or expert in furniture dealership offerings. In prior workplace models, the split of ancillary to work settings was about 20 to 80, it is now closer to 50-50, thus making the ancillary expert invaluable to our process. Our clients want tailored, non- corporate looking spaces which has made office furniture specification as complicated as doing a hotel project. Partnerships with the dealers are invaluable in delivering the solutions our clients want and demand.

WDM: If you had to make a prediction about what may be the next big thing in workplace design, what do you think that may be? 

Collin: Now, this is a tough one. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of agile offices where workers do not have assigned seats but move as needed throughout their day. In a market like San Francisco which has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, our clients are looking to maximize the efficiency of their space – internal mobility is one such means of dealing with higher density. It may sound like a negative but our clients (and Gensler offices) that have tried this model are super happy. Who wouldn’t want more diverse settings and choice in where and how you work every day? To be clear we are not talking about telecommuting but new work styles that respond to the needs and desires of the modern, tech-enabled worker. We will also see the more process-oriented aspects of our business completed by software and AI. Imagine space planning, portions of construction documents, or programming being automated and completed by computers. I don’t see this as a threat to those that are truly creative and original as it frees up more time for what we love to do – design.

WDM: What do you like most about presenting at NeoCon?

Collin: It’s always a great challenge when you present to your peers. It forces you to think about what you “really” know when you have to share with an audience that knows what you’re talking about. I also love the design community in the U.S. and Canada—we are a genuinely unique and connected family—having a dialog among our peers advances us all.

The dynamic duo of Sven Govaars, Principal with Steelcase, Applied Research + Consulting (ARC) and Dean Strombom, Principal at Gensler, ride again with the topic: 

Give Me A Reason – Tuesday June 11, 4:00 – 5:00 PM – By Sven Govaars and Dean Strombom

With 50 percent of employees always ready to leave and only 15 percent engaged in their jobs, today’s workplace needs designers who can offer a solution. Join us to discover how to design a work experience to foster engagement and performance and keep employee disengagement at bay. Because physical space, technology and culture all influence an employee’s experience, real estate, technology and human resource functions must be in alignment to help re-engage and retain employees. In this presentation, we’ll explore parallel processes and effective tools designed to create an environment where individuals and organizations thrive. [Advanced] [OF]

WDM: Changes in one’s workplace environment have been noted as one of life’s more stressful experiences. As noted in the seminar description, more entities within a company are now called in to participate in the planning (and perhaps) design process. Can you describe three key challenges this has brought into the process and how it has impacted how designers need to address their project planning?

Sven: As you noted in your question, changes in the work environment are stressful and often, more people are involved in the planning and design of their workplace today than in the past. One impact is it can take longer to gain alignment on the purpose and outcomes of changing the work environment. We use a human-centered approach with research so clients can self-discover common objectives and work together to achieve optimum results and success.

It is challenging to balance the technical phases of design, develop, and delivery of workplace projects with supporting people to embrace, adopt, and use the workplace as intended. Outcomes are rated by clients as more successful when both are done together and early in the process. It has been more challenging when we wait to engage the users, and often negatively impacts the perceptions of individuals and the organization.

Successful work environment changes are often the result of engaging a wider-range of individuals, teams and departments working collectively on place, people, technology and process than in the past. Facilitating multiple viewpoints can be challenging yet rewarding. Since we do not experience problems individually, but as complex systems of interactions, following this path requires designers to be both technically and people savvy We hope the results are more holistic and experiential as we bring individuals and organizations along.

Employees have high expectations from their leadership in terms of promotions, amenities, quality of life, and pay – they are often tired, unproductive and burned out. They need to know why they should stick around. On the flip side, employers require more and more from their employees and have high expectations around performance and innovation which leads to “what have you done for me lately?”

WDM: Based on your experience how much pre-design engagement is needed to properly assess, and track employee wishes/demands for their workplace? Is there some kind of balanced equation that seems to work best?

Sven: We find two types of clients are most common. The first type knows what they want and can articulate their needs clearly so pre-design is more focused on clarification of their workspace needs to achieve intended outcomes. The second client type are working to better define larger organizational strategies where workplace is one aspect of a larger business or cultural change.

We will explore both aspects during our talk and share processes that can be adapted for both client types and multiple situations. We want to explore how designers can provide highly effective workplaces with the right technologies to make both client types and employees happy.

By far, the most interesting projects are the ones where the workplace is one component of a new, overall strategic plan for the organization. When that is the case, we usually find a steering or leadership committee already in place, thus the pre-design phase becomes the link to the end users. We have multiple tools to choose from to assess employees wishes and functional requirements, (which we discussed in last year’s NeoCon presentation). We select tools that are most relevant for the unique requirements of each project/client.

It isn’t just at pre-design that we need to assess, and track employee wishes, demands and expectations for their workplace. We must do this continuously throughout the workplace project and return when occupied for some time to observe if intended outcomes were achieved. 

WDM: How many companies track how many employees may leave after a big workplace (physical) change? Or if there is a bit of disgruntlement when a change is announced, how do they work with that to get employees more positively disposed to changes or bring them into the process? 

Sven: When significant changes are planned for the workplace, we often hear from clients that employees are disgruntled, even threatening to leave. Invariably, we find out later that few have left the company due to workplace changes. We hope that’s because we’ve created great workplaces and included users in the planning and design process, so they can understand the purpose and reasons behind the changes. Our experience and findings with large-scale change indicates that people weren’t always struggling with the work environment. They were struggling with bigger changes – organizational, emotional, ways of working – the only thing they thought they controlled was the workplace so that is what surfaced.

Most companies do track employee attraction, retention and attrition though usually related to factors such as retirement, health, job transfers, etc. They also look at significant external events and internal structural shifts. What they typically don’t do is tie attraction, retention and attrition to workplace change which is where the design profession can help. Design factors influence how people feel, how they think, and their overall wellbeing. Metrics on utilization and how people flow through a space can be revealing. Working with Human Resources to track these factors before, during and after a major workplace change can be revealing though we must do so cautiously.

Elise Shapiro
Elise Shapiro
Elise Shapiro is a contributing editor. Little did she know that her first job, in the facilities department at Ralston Purina, while obtaining her M. Arch at Washington University, in St. Louis would foreshadow where her career would lead. She has always been a strong advocate for providing the best possible spaces for people to work – where aesthetics meet function and drive business success.
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