Workplace Talk: The Redesign of Office Design

This article is part of the “CORT Workplace Talk” series where Melanie Jones, CORT’s National Director, CRE Partnerships, sits down with thought leaders in commercial real estate to discuss advancements, insights, and trends within the industry. Sit back and learn more about CRE and how CORT Furniture Rental can benefit your organization.

I sat in a room, filled with CRE professionals like myself who were eager to learn, during CoreNet Global 2021 in Seattle, listening to several speakers, including Kay Sargent, Senior Principal, Director of WorkPlace at HOK. During a moment I’ll never forget, Kay, challenged the audience, “Do you really want to own furniture?” I quickly sat up a little straighter and knew instantly that I needed to have a conversation with Kay.

For years now, I’ve articulated the vision of the CORT Furniture-as-a-Service™ model changing how furniture is utilized in the workplace and buildings through our access instead of ownership approach. To hear Kay, a globally recognized thought-leader challenging others to think this way, was spectacular for me.

Here is a snippet of our recent conversation. Reach out to either of us if you’d like to learn more!

Melanie Jones: Kay, so much has transpired in commercial real estate, in the design of workplace and buildings, health and wellness, diversity, equity and inclusion, and our very planet, for that matter. How are you helping clients unravel the web of change?

Kay Sargent: Recently, I spoke to Jennifer Wammack from BIFMA, who attended the CoreNet Global Summit and IFMA World Workplace Conference for the first time. I asked her, “What do you think?”  She responded, “I find it interesting that it doesn’t seem like anybody has any answers.”

That sentiment was shared by many who attended the Fall Corporate Real Estate conferences. In reflection, it bothered me because I think we know more than many are acknowledging and we do have some answers. We know a lot about what’s going on, but people are hesitant. I believe many are unsettled and have the hesitancy to put a stake in the ground because the ground is moving.

As a whole, we’re lacking clarity and courage, which results in many leaders not doing anything, which translates into people returning to subpar workplace experiences.

But there was some good news that came out of the conferences as well that I found encouraging.  Many companies are looking to “test and pilot” new ways of working going forward, especially in North America.

In NAM, we tend to be a little behind more progressive regions of the world, primarily those that have shorter lease terms and don’t build out space as extensively as we do because they flip it more quickly. They’re not building slab to slab as we tend to do

In the US, we tend to build more extensively for a longer period of time, which means companies have more invested, and are more at risk. And because of that, many tend to be more cautious and err on the side of not wanting to make a mistake that might be costly, and they will have to live with it for a long time.

If we are finally seeing many embrace the notion that we need to test and pilot more, well I welcome that. We need to have a little courage to be bold, coupled with a bit more forgiveness. We need to understand that we’re not always going to get it right because things continue to evolve.  This way of thinking is long overdue.

Jones: Do you see those conversations bubbling up with your clients?

Sargent: Yes, I just got off a two-hour call with a global client speaking about piloting. It’s relatively new for all of us in the US. We are helping clients understand the difference between a lab, a mock-up, and a pilot.

We typically first explore the “why.” “Is the desire to test based on: a need to understand whether employees will use the space or whether they like the space? And we need to assess if this is the right time to be testing given how few people are in the office.”   We must acknowledge that things are still in flux and understand that we may get a lot of really muddy results in the beginning.

Jones: It is fascinating to hear your perspective from a design and consultative position. We see many similar things from our viewpoint—just further down the line. I’m working with a client who has removed chunks of furniture in various offices, and we’re now working to test new configurations.

Their goal is, like you said, to determine what furniture and configurations appeal to the employees in making them feel comfortable, safe, inspired, invigorated, and so on. Do they prefer Sit to Stand desks over soft seating? Are high-top gathering tables utilized more often than benching or private offices? Are huddle rooms preferred over larger conference rooms or vice versa? The FaaS model allows subscribers in “testing” mode to stay fluid, monitor utilization, and change the furniture out as needed.

In this case, we are looking at incorporating our 4SITE sensor technology to help gather utilization data in support of the testing.  Many of our clients, and likely yours too, are working to answer these questions:  “Is this space working for my workforce now?”, “What type of space is needed for what comes next?” and “Should I stay or should I go when my lease is up for renewal?” FaaS is skyrocketing in popularity because it provides the necessary flexibility to support proper testing!

Sargent: Let’s discuss terminology because our industry is horrible about using a common vocabulary. First, we must determine what is being tested.

Is the test to figure out if somebody likes something OR is it to understand if they will use it? Very different things!

One option is to go to a furniture showroom and determine what people like. Another option is mockups which allow you to compare and evaluate.

Then we have labs and pilots, and they are different.

Lab gives users an opportunity to assess and test different settings or configurations of work points to determine functional preferences.

In a lab, the user is invited to try the settings and provide feedback so proper adjustments can be made.

Pilots allow a company to create a space for users to experience and set expectations before the move.  At this point, major design decisions have likely already been determined but minor tweaks can still be made.   It simply provides an opportunity for the user to experience and understand what they are going to be moving into.   It’s a modeling of behavior and the environment they are about to go into to help them to prepare. Setting expectations is a major component of change management for sure.

Many people are creating labs now because decisions have been on hold as leadership works to determine direction, test it, and eventually move on to the piloting stage.

One more thought here, you can set up a lab in the corner of a building and capture feedback on what users like and don’t. If you want to understand whether people will actually use it or not, well that is a different story. You must be mindful of what you set up and where you set it up to get the right results. Out of sight is out of mind. If you create a lab in a remote corner of a building, and people never see it, the likelihood of them going and using it is significantly less than if you embed it in their neighborhood or zone.   These are the conversations we are having with our clients.

Jones: That makes total sense, and I appreciate the explanation! I can see the value you bring to your clients! I’ve heard you speak about sustainability, flexibility, and agility in space creation. Will you share a little about that?

Sargent: Absolutely. These are critical topics right now, and we ask leadership to elaborate on their goals relating to becoming more sustainable, more agile, or flexible. If that’s important to them, and it often is, we must make it so that things are easily adaptable. It would help if we thought about how to rebuild some of these spaces in new and different ways.

Suppose a client wants a space that is highly flexible but it requires significant architectural build-out (walls, lighting, and the electrical). In that case, you are diminishing how flexible a space can be.

Jones:  True.  Why put permanent FF&E in a flexible space?  A mind shift for sure. We are certainly involved in these discovery sessions. Often, we’ll receive a test fit created by HOK and others with a request for us to duplicate the layout using our FaaS and provide pricing aligned to a lease term you are recommending or that the client is requesting.

Do you see a day when design firms come directly to CORT and perhaps tap into our Space360™ platform that’s loaded with product and pricing to support flexible space and lease terms?

Sargent: I think it begs a bigger question, and it’s a question we now ask clients, “Why do you want to own anything that ties you down or locks you in, especially furniture?”  We asked this question before COVID, but I think it’s even more critical now.

And in some cases, clients do want to own assets and build more complex spaces. If they have specialty equipment or are building out space that they will be there a long time, it may make sense, but with the fluidity of the world that we are living in today, people need to assess what they need to own versus what they need to have access to.

About Kay Sargent

With more than 35 years of experience, Kay is a recognized expert on workplace design and strategy issues. She is an award-winning designer who has worked with several Fortune 500 companies to optimize their global real estate portfolios and create innovative work environments based on their unique organizational DNA. As Co-Director of HOK’s WorkPlace team, a practice that supports organizations undertaking multiple projects in various locations, and a member of HOK’s Board of Directors, Kay is responsible for helping clients redefine how, when and where their people work, and supports a holistic design approach that integrates an organization’s people, processes and technology. She was recently selected from her field of peers to provide Congressional Subject Matter Expert Testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives on  “Federal Real Estate Post-COVID-19: A View from The Private Sector.”

In 2020 Kay was named ASID’s Designer of Distinction for the year. Kay is considered an industry thought leaders on workplace. She has authored multiple white papers and articles on a variety of design related topics including wellbeing; next gen workforce; technologies impact on the workplace; space fusion and the rise of the human factor.

Kay currently serves on the AVIXA Board of Directors; the National ASID Foundation Research Taskforce, the IWBI Mind Advisory Team and the Advisory Board for WorkDesign Magazine. She was recently appointed to the George Washington University Customer Experience Certificate Program Advisory Council. During her career she has also served on the International Boards of CoreNet Global and IFI – International Federation of Interior Designers /Architects, the Boards of ASID, IIDA and NCQLP and the Advisory Board of Virginia Tech School of Architecture and Design and NVCC.  She is an active member of IFMA and co-founder of the IFMA Workplace Evoluntionaries, WE community and serves as an Executive committee for WE. Kay is committed to mentoring the next generation of designers and as such mentors multiple individuals within HOK and across the industry.  She is also a Founder of the DC Chapter of UPWARD, a global network dedicated to the professional advancement of women in the workplace.

About Melanie Jones

Melanie, a self-described, Furniture-as-a-Service™ activist and is a passionate leader on the Strategic Business Development team at CORT. Her mission is to demonstrate the value of a furniture subscription (access instead of ownership) to commercial real estate leaders for their clients.

Melanie served on the Board of CoreNet Atlanta and is a graduate of the Real Innovation Academy. Her interests are sustainability, circularity, climate change, and helping others.