Episode 6: Workplace Strategy

In this episode, we are revisiting the topic of reimagining the office by talking workplace strategy. If you haven’t already listened to our 2nd episode, where we first discussed back to office life, I recommend you pause and go listen to Reimagining the Office to set the stage.

To discuss workplace strategy, we decided to bring in the experts: Kyle Ciminelli and Tamar Moy. Kyle is the Executive Vice President at Newmark Ciminelli and Ciminelli Real Estate Corporation, and Tamar is the Senior Vice President of Workplace Strategy and Human Experience at Newmark. Together, Kyle and Tamar had the pleasure of pitching workplace strategies to clients at Newmark’s Headquarters in New York City for two years before Kyle ventured back to his hometown, bringing the Newmark name and his gained experience with him. Their joint and individual success make them the perfect guests to share the impact of workplace strategy and how it’s shaping the commercial real estate market in Buffalo, NY and globally.

Grace: Hi Tamar, thank you for joining us today. Let’s start with just an overview on workplace strategy. Can you define for us briefly what workplace strategy means and what needs it addresses?

Tamar: Absolutely. So I think at its very essence, workplace strategy is about really focusing on people, and taking a consultative approach to understanding employee behavior and leadership vision within an organization, and really aligning employee behavior with that vision and the organizational goals by using location, space, technology, tools, policy, to really kind of drive the desired behaviors and outcomes. And so for the most part, it's really about taking a focused look at how people work and what the vision is for the future and then driving at recommendations for the space that kind of helps support that. It’s not about just focusing on how much space do I need and what kind, it's about being really thoughtful about how that space could almost be used as a tool to help drive organizational performance.

Grace: Workplace strategy is not a new concept, but it's definitely a hotter topic in our current environment. So can you share a perspective of how workplace strategy has evolved over the past ten years?

Tamar: Absolutely. I'm going to go back even farther than that because I actually went to university for workplace strategy, so that was nearly 30 years ago. Certainly, it's not a new concept, but 25 years ago or so, really, workplace strategy tended to focus on the architecture and design kind of fields, and I think what we've seen over the past ten to 15 years or so, is that workplace strategy has really evolved to be not just sort of confined to those sort of touch points, but now we're seeing people who majored in business, people who majored in organizational psychology, furniture vendors, I mean, I think even for a point Staples had like a workplace strategy team. There's been an increasing body of research that really sort of shows the impact of the built environment on people's behaviors, right? So if there's certain levels of lighting, if there's certain levels of noise, if there's an air quality sort of issue that could impact people's ability to have memory recall, it could impact their morale and their satisfaction. So I think over the past ten years, the conversations have started being more broadly had, but now I've noticed that the conversations are happening earlier on. At Newmark, these conversations are happening even before a real estate strategy to inform the real estate strategy, so that you're really kind of leading with that knowledge and that when you go to market as a client, you're so much more focused on exactly what you're looking for and how the space can be used as a tool. It really streamlines that whole process and makes it much more efficient, and it allows you to make a much more informed decision about ultimately where the organization ends up without having the constrictions of a pre-established space.

Grace: Looking at where we are now, coming out of the pandemic, what was the most surprising change that you noticed with workplace strategy and how it's being assessed?

Tamar: The past couple of years have certainly been a doozy for the industry, but I think what's really surprising to me is like all of a sudden everyone was a workplace strategist and sort of talking about kind of their view of the future of work and workplace. The biggest surprise I think that comes out of all of this is that people are really kind of fundamentally like rethinking everything, and it's not just about the space design or build out, but it's like how do we want to work? And what is even the purpose of having an office? Do we even need an office? I mean, these are like fundamental baseline questions that were and are being asked and really kind of focusing people on purpose. At Newmark, we kind of approach workplace strategy with a framework that we call the five P's. It's about people, place, process, productivity, and purpose. We’ve always kind of approached having conversations around all those topics, like an ecosystem of supporting factors. And people are using space now as a way to support the organizational purpose. So what are you trying to do? What makes your company purposeful? What would change if your company wasn't around? Why is what you do meaningful? And then how do you design the workplace to support that purpose? So that's been an interesting sort of conversation, I think, that's emerged that might have eventually come to the forefront, but I think it definitely got there a lot sooner.

Grace: Right, and that makes sense. The pandemic forced us to shift our perspective on purpose in the workplace. Have you seen higher retention rates or even recruitment numbers going up as a result of companies being more interested in their workplace strategy?

Tamar: I think the answer there is yes. I mean, that's certainly not a quote, unquote post-pandemic kind of data point because I don't think we've had the benefit of time yet to see sort of those results. There's lots of factors that go into employee satisfaction. I'm not saying it's all about workplace, but definitely when you take the chance and you take the time to engage your employees in the conversation and kind of find out what's really important to them and what they prioritize and what they need from a tool and space perspective to support what they're trying to do on a day to day basis, and they feel involved, and they feel like their voices are heard and valued, we have seen increases in measurement with satisfaction from being inclusive in the process.

Grace: Looking at the Buffalo market and beyond, what has client interest in workplace strategy looked like recently?

Kyle: We’ve been doing a lot of tenant representation over the past couple of years, and I think what we've really been trying to challenge the tenants within the Western New York community is to really take the time and build within their relocation timeline the time to sit down with someone like Tamar and really define those objectives. Because what we're seeing is there's a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of companies choose to skip this step and try and solve those challenges as we're touring physical spaces. We’ve been trying, and hopefully with help of this conversation, to challenge a lot of smaller and larger tenants to really take the time before and to define those objectives before we even step foot in a potential alternative.

Grace: It seems like maybe smaller industries maybe aren't thinking as broadly about workplace strategy, and correct me if I’m wrong there, but are there certain industries more than others that are jumping right in or some that are taking a little bit longer to find their workplace strategies?

Kyle: Well, we're definitely seeing a little bit of a tech resurgence in Buffalo, New York, which is fantastic. And we have some product in the Central Business District as well as the outskirts that can accommodate these types of creative users. I think what you're seeing with these smaller and mid-sized companies is they're gravitating to those three or four properties that have the built in amenities, so they don't have to create them within their own walls.

Tamar: And I think from a more holistic perspective, it used to be the more kind of creative techie companies, but I think that it's become so much a part of the conversation and keeping up with peers and competitors and providing the sort of experience that folks like want to come to work has become so critical that we are really engaged with clients like across the board. So I think that really we're at a point now where it's a conversation that is valued by all industries.

Grace: From an office user perspective, how have you seen workplace strategies be most effective?

Tamar: It’s most effective when you can, as an organization, involve all levels of staff to give their feedback. I think the most powerful implementation of workplace strategy is when you really take the time to engage everyone. There are so many ways that you might choose to engage your staff, and sometimes organizations are a little hesitant to do that because they don't want to kind of open up a can of worms and not be able to give folks things that they ask for. So, we're super mindful of that and know how to manage expectations kind of every step of the way and ask questions that aren't just like, what do you want? You know? We really kind of focus our line of questioning to be very smart and targeted. What are you trying to do? What are your tasks, what are your roles, what are your objectives, and how can the space and the tools kind of support that? We certainly try to take the personal out of it and make it really defendable from a business strategy perspective. So, when you can kind of effectively communicate with staff about here's what your leadership vision is for your work and your workplace, and here's what we heard from you all, and here are the decisions that are being made with regards to your workplace and why. Even if folks aren't getting everything they ask for, they understand the thought process and the reasoning behind it, and that tends to be a very effective way. To successfully implement workplace strategy, you really need to kind of retrain your staff on, “this is a new kind of space, here's what it's for, here's how you use it, and here's why we're providing it for you,” and kind of give almost like an introduction to a new workplace. That really helps with the success of the strategy being adopted.

Kyle: I think that's one of the hardest parts, Tamar, and it's a really good point that that may be missing. It’s not going to work without what you just said, taking that additional step and really reeducating.

Tamar: Absolutely. It’s not just about educating on a new workplace strategy from like a physical design perspective, but assuming that organizations and people just automatically knew how to work in a hybrid way and that managers automatically know how to manage distributed teams. It's a very different process, so we're now providing manager training to our clients to kind of help them set the rules and the protocols for when do you do a Teams, when do you text, when do you call, when do you have a video call, when do you have a face to face meeting? Like you need to kind of talk through all that to really kind of make sure that your employees have the tools that they need to be as productive as they can in this new paradigm.

Kyle: I know there's no black and white answer to this and there's a lot of different hybrid policies out there that are that are being implemented, but what are you seeing as the most successful hybrid policy out there now that's really been able to still work and create the engagement and the collaboration and the efficiencies that really are supposed to come out of it?

Tamar: I think for the most part, all in or all remote is going to have its challenges and really not be the answer for many going forward. It is going to fall into a hybrid kind of situation. It’s very industry based because of what I mentioned before about keeping up with your peers and competitors and not wanting to lose out talent to folks that are offering like more flexibility. But then at the same time, a lot of leadership really does see the value in having people come together for culture and for mentoring and knowledge sharing and creative thought. I think it really is dependent on like what's the organization's key driver? If the key driver is saving on real estate, you're going to be more aggressive with your seat sharing policies to try to benefit from folks not having a one seat to one person ratio. If the key driver is not real estate savings, but it's about providing this employee experience, and getting people back to the office, and recruitment and retention, and culture, and all the kind of softer things that are super critical, then they might say, if you're in two days a week or three days a week, we want you to want to come into the office. And if that means having you have your own seat, that’s worth the price for us. Or, they're putting into the office more amenities types, destination spaces, that people really value and that help build culture and those connections. It really depends what the key driver of the organization is that will inform kind of what the hybrid strategy is.

Grace: Yeah, and the past few years have been a testament to how quickly workplace strategies can shift, so how often should a company assess their strategy?

Tamar: That's a great question. So it's usually been when there's a key decision or milestone coming up, but I think that you can have much more frequent touch points on how is the workplace working. You know, do you have what you need to be effective at your job? Do you have the right tools? Those kinds of high-level questions can and are oftentimes baked into larger employee engagement efforts that a company might do right. So if they do every year an employees survey just like a check in survey, there might be a section on the workplace, or some companies do like pulse check ins. So I think it really does vary, but I think especially now with many embarking on new ways of working, having more frequent conversations about that is going to be even more critical.

Kyle: It’s really important to build in the flexibility within not only the physical space, but within any documentation, lease documents, and so forth. So when you do continue to have these surveys and continue to touch base with your employees and go through the workplace strategies exercises on a quarterly or annual basis, not based on your lease expiration, you're able to then take that feedback and go and implement it within the space by utilizing that flexible layout that was created, hopefully because the strategy was handled right on the relocation into that space. So we’ve stressed a lot during the last few years, build for flexibility, and make sure you have the flexibility within your documents to expand, to contract, to do anything of that sort because we don't know what the next few years looks like. And we need the ability to pivot based on how the employees are engaging.

Tamar: Yes, yes, yes and yes. I think the agility is like probably the driving conversation these days. And to Kyle's point, it could be at kind of the lease level, it could be at the planning level, and it could even be at that at the furniture level. If there's a large boardroom that's maybe only used once a month, maybe it's divisible, so that it has multiple uses and will have higher utilization. You should definitely challenge yourself and your architect and designers and space planners to kind of think day one and day two when the original design is being constructed, so you do modular planning, it’s called. You kind of think of the pieces that as a kit a parts and you might build out the infrastructure for that space and all of its possible configurations day one when the walls are down because it's so much less expensive than bringing someone in day two and build space. So companies that are really concerned with agile planning and the ability to evolve their space to meet their needs over time are focused on that concept and being really smart about laying out the space and choosing furniture for agility.

Grace: Does Newmark provide specific technology to clients in support of workplace strategy? If so, can you talk a little bit about it?

Tamar: Absolutely. So within our workplace strategy team at Newmark, we have a group of specialists who are part of like the Workplace Management Solutions that really just focus on advising clients on the best tools to use within the space. Optality is another one of the tools that we use, and it's really like a full-service kind of flex space and portfolio strategy offering, right? It's a mobile app with 24/7 customer support where organizations can look at thousands of locations across like thousands of cities and 80 or so countries and choosing, through one portal, the space in the flex solution that they need at any given time, so it really is kind of about making it as easy as possible for the users.

Kyle: So, you know, pre-pandemic, we saw this gravitation towards high density and we went from sort of an office intensive model relocating down to a lower floor and really having high density bench seating and so forth. At first, it was really a hard adjustment. Over time, I think everyone really benefited from it. We all started collaborating together a lot more, so it was a really unbelievable trend that you saw going up to 2020. And then obviously with what happened with COVID, personal space became a lot more important. Where do you sort of see that pendulum now? And I'm sure, again, it's a different answer by industry, but is there a middle ground? Where do you see that world evolving?

Tamar: It's such a great question because over the course of the pandemic, you know, people would come out and make these bold statements like everyone's going to want to go back to offices again. No one is ever going to want to sit in another room with another person. And so I think where we've landed, at least at this point, there hasn't been a great move to put people back into kind of offices or really high partitioned workstations anymore. I think the really the simple reason behind it is that for many now, the purpose of the office is to bring people together. So, planning a little bit more in like a neighborhood kind of concept where you might have smaller areas of open desks and workstations, broken up by team rooms, and zoom rooms, and phone rooms, and other kind of supporting spaces.

Grace: For clients that may be a little overwhelmed about the whole workplace strategy concept, where do you recommend they start? Where’s the best place to really kick off a workplace strategy?

Tamar: I think you need to bring in the experts. Having an expert come in and kind of listen to everyone and synthesize all the different perspectives and build consensus and make recommendations usually carries a little bit more gravitas. People know what others are doing in the field, so you're able to bring in benchmarks and best practices, right? Finding an expert who you feel comfortable with is really the first start. You're going to spend a lot of time speaking with them, so make sure the chemistry is good and the cultures fit. Then it's really about coming up with the key stakeholder team that will be responsible for overseeing all of the data gathering and the engagements and making the recommendations, and then starting from there. Then you'll work with your strategist team to kind of really figure out how deep you want to go, who you want to engage, what you want to do, what the goals are and the key drivers. I recommend starting with like the leadership and really kind of getting the vision down before you start engaging with everyone else, just so you can kind of manage expectations and drive conversations as needed.

Grace: I think we can all agree that was incredibly insightful. Thank you both for taking the time to chat with us and share your expertise on workplace strategy and how it’s shaping the future of office space and office culture.

Want to update your workplace strategy or need help assessing your company’s unique office needs? Contact us at newmarkciminelli.com to get started.

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