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  • Brandie Hopwood

Tom Suro interview: The workplace mix

This week, we’re sharing highlights from our conversation with Tom Suro, a global real estate expert specializing in workplace strategy, facilities management, design and construction. Let’s get to it!  

Q: Do you believe that your organization needs a physical workspace?

Tom: “Yes! A physical workplace provides an identity to the people who work there. Corporate offices provide a vision into the values, community connection and their business that goes beyond marketing programs.” 

Q: How do you make the financial case for/ against the workplace? And I’m guessing, in your case, it would be for the workplace. How do you justify its worth the expense?

Tom: “I would look at the corporate mission. If your clients and employees identify with your brand that’s one case. Having a place where you can bring clients in to showcase your products, really talk with them, and have all of your materials there... that’s another case. With the employee base, being able to provide a flexible workplace that allows them to come in and collaborate, get projects done, and really galvanize around the corporate function. Your ROI on that is certainly the identity of the business. Do you really exist? Do you really have that market presence or permanent presence? 

"Certainly, technology plays a huge part of that. There’s food for thought out there about, “why have an office when I can just get my team on Zoom and roll our projects that way?” And that may be possible. I think our need for human interaction drives the needs for that workplace.”

Q; How do you put an ROI next to that watercooler moment? 

Tom: “Yeah! Exactly. The ROI really depends on the business. If you are an intellectual property kind of business you’ve got other concerns, like security breaches if your folks are working over an open platform. Having that data captured and compromised is a real threat. However, the real ROI in the workplace is the need to create. This requires human interaction, intentional and accidental, that has yet to be replicated seamlessly by technology. This interaction can also speed up productivity, enhance development and create holistic business strategies.”

Q: You’ve touched on some real good points there. Data security is a very big concern right now... 

Tom: “Well, out in the world and in developed countries, every one of them have industrial espionage as a part of their central intelligence units. Everybody except the United States. For instance, in Japan, half their intelligence spend is on industrial espionage, whether it’s preventing it or accessing other people's tech. IP litigation cross borders is very difficult to do and, when you are successful, it usually doesn’t matter. The damage has been done.

Q: Scary! Let’s pivot and talk about the need for human interaction. pull up a little clip here. Have you heard of Simon Sinek? He’s a thought leader and wrote a book called, “Know the Why.” He’s got a quick clip here and I’d like to play it and get your thoughts.

“So, I’m actually a little nervous by so many companies saying, 

‘Hey! Turns out we’re highly functional by not having an office. Let’s just abandon the office.’

People are tribal animals. We’re social animals. We need human interaction.

 At the end of the day, though we can be functional and get things done, it’s very very hard to have any kind of brainstorming/creativity like this.  

We need to be in the company of others. We need to be able to interrupt each other and write on walls and have that wonderful, magical energy and then go to lunch together to build a relationship.” 

-Simon Sinek

Tom: “I’d have to agree! Before Covid-19, that was a big part of a lot of larger companies' impetus to put cafés into the workspace. A lot of major products were developed or started over lunch in the café, in a social setting, or an accidental bumping into someone. I used to design spaces just to enhance the collision effect for that very reason. I would not underestimate that impact. It’s that collaboration and ability to really sit together in physical proximity and be creative. I think you lose some of that over the video screens.”

Q: Plus, there are napkins handy to write things down on... 

Tom: “Yeah, exactly! I think that’s largely what workplaces are going to become. Certainly, you’ll have some workstations that people can reserve and show up and work the day there. Everybody has a different home office that may or may not be conducive to heads down work. Having a farm of cubicles with thousands of people plopping in there with no other reason than to do heads down work – I think is going to go away. Being able to come into the office, having the café, having collaboration centers available, and having the technology to be able to share with not just the people in the room but with people dialing in remotely, will be critical.”

Q: Also, a place that management is. If you want to go in, they will be there...

Tom: “Leadership has to be visible to be effective. You have to have management that is trained in leading a remote workforce but is also trained in how get people to collaborate. There are some folks that are wired to be able to collaborate over Zoom, but most people aren’t. If you really want to get creativity from your teams you need to give them a way to do it. I think that’s where the office comes in. 

Q: In this report from WeWork, it shows an 11% decrease in our ability to meet and collaborate, a 17% decrease in our ability to maintain social relationships, and a 25% decrease in our ability to have unplanned interactions since everyone began working at home. So, our question here is: “Is it safe to assume that this will negatively impact innovation?”

Tom: “If you’re not able to interact innovation is going to go down, in my opinion. The basis of intellectual property is that collaboration and being able to work together. I think this will vary company to company. You might be working on something, it flashes up there, someone sees something and says, ‘hey, you may want to change that code or reroute this’ and that’s how it gets done.”

Q: What amount of change would you make to the physical workplace from pre to post Covid-19?

Tom: “I would have a workplace that embraces flexibility, a lot of spaces that people could move things around, especially for work groups, and a reservation system that would allow people to hotel in and out as they need within their job. The workplace of the future will have those things. I think you’ll have a much better engineering backup in terms of HVAC, power supplies, etc.”

Q: It’s really going to depend on the size of the business but what do you think of the Hub & Spoke model? Where there’s one big office downtown and satellite offices in the suburbs, so people can get that collaboration but then also not have to commute as long?

Tom: “I’ve made that same recommendation to a number of clients mostly in the large company stratosphere. It used to be, with real estate, you would try to come in close to clients. I think that’s gone. Now, real estate is getting close to your people. If you have a business that requires a lot of collaboration you definitely want to have that hub & spoke going.

The people that can act quickly to diversify their portfolio are going to get the benefit of low market rates out in the suburbs. If they can turn around and shed some of that high end property they have in urban areas they can make a real dividend from that - but they’ve got to act now. As soon as other companies start to follow that process, that suburb real estate is going to go way up and your sublease rates are going to take a dive.”

"If you have a business that requires a lot of collaboration you definitely want to have that hub & spoke going."

As we enter the 2020 fall season, we will continue to speak with companies about their thoughts, trials and triumphs surrounding workplace methodologies and return to office strategy. We may end up creating more questions than answers. We may uncover something essential to your own future vision and planning. One thing is for certain; we will turn over every stone we come across to learn what’s underneath.

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