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People, Place, Culture, Innovation, Design, Technology, & The Great Debate!

WORKTECH22 San Francisco was yet another great event attended by many workplace and work experience professionals from some of the most progressive organizations in business today.

I was very honored to co-moderate the event with Lisa Hsiao, Vice President of user strategy at Era-co. Here are my takeaways from the event.

Almost 3 years since the pandemic disrupted the world. The great debate remains around return to work and the chasm that exists somewhere between mandated return to work policies, fully flexible, and everything in between.

But what is right for your organization?

The why versus the what

It seems that many organizations are seeking the answer to what is the right strategy for them, but the really important question is why.

Now, if you’re in the business of making stuff - cars, food, widgets, then clearly, you need people in a place making your stuff. However, if you’re in the knowledge working space, employees have proven that they can work anywhere, and heads-down work may even be more suited to places other than the traditional office.

Rather than seeking a single magic solution, it’s dynamic. Its complex has lots of different factors to consider, and as every individual is unique, so is every organization.

Sunaina Lobo, Chief People Officer at Fintech firm Marqeta, posed these three questions as a foundation for thinking through their “Flex-First” RTO strategy:

  • Who we hire

  • Where we work

  • How we operate

Creating an environment where everyone does their best work is the ultimate goal, right? And for many during the past 3 years, we’ve worked out how to adapt, improvise, and overcome – whether setting up a home office, working at the dining table, using local coffee shops and co-working spaces, or going back to the physical workspace, organizations and people have survived, and in some cases thrived as a result.

But what does that mean to culture, community, creativity, and collaboration?

Pre-pandemic, we knew that the commute and coffee were important factors of why people chose to stay or leave. Other factors like convenience and choice play a part in today's new normal.

A study conducted by Phillippa Lally, a psychology researcher at the University College London, found that it takes just 66 days before a new behavior becomes automatic - the reality is that we’ve been in this pandemic world for almost 3 years, and things have changed - according to this research, likely forever.

For those who had previously a daily commute to the office, a cubicle, their space for the 9-5, a cheap cup of coffee from the breakroom, and a curled-up cheese sandwich for lunch, then return home commute – what compels them to go back to how it was now that they have improvised and learned to survive?

It’s actually counter to the evolution of our species to imaging that the human being will return to the former state, when for many this new normal is better than the old, and these new routines and habits are now part of our lives.

Mandate or magnetize?

There are some recent high-profile “Mandators” that have insisted on their workforces returning to work, and in many cases, these demands have been met with reluctance, if not rejection, as people have more choices today than perhaps, they did before.

On the other end of the scale, the “Fully Flexible” work where you want has other implications that potentially challenge important issues such as culture, community, collaboration, and maybe even real estate investments - what do we do with all that empty space if we don’t use it?

That said, mandating doesn’t necessarily mean demanding your workforce return to the office 5-days a week, 9 to 5. It can be what you want it to be and, more importantly, what is right for your business and your people.

There is a multitude of examples, from:

  • Mandating your workforce to a full return to work

  • Partial mandate – one, two, three plus days a week

  • Flex-first supplemented by coming to the office once a week, or every two weeks

  • Fully flexible, work where you want

The key to the future and return to office strategy is transforming your spaces into places where people choose to be.

So, understanding the levers to compel your people back to the office becomes ever more important:

  • What’s important to your organization?

  • What’s important to your people?

  • How can you gather around teams and micro-communities?

  • What services and amenities can add to the draw?

This is in the context that there is no one-hat-fits-all solution.

The Human Evolution

Many organizations are searching for the “What” as if there is one solution to the challenge when the reality is that by nature, there can be no singular answer to this complex puzzle - every organization does slightly different things, has its own unique culture, its own personality, AND every individual working for them is different and unique.

What we do know from pre-pandemic research is that coffee and the commute were always the top ten serious issues in work experience and employee satisfaction, and therefore big obstacles to overcome in the challenge and puzzle of solving the return-to-work strategy dilemma.

Organizations need to embrace that people have changed - you may have some of the old guard who is no longer around, you will have new hires that don’t know what the “old normal” even was, and among those, you will likely have folks who have never been in the workforce before at all!

It’s in this context we think about the process of human evolution, how we have survived and thrived as a species, and how we adapt, improvise, and overcome.

Throughout this evolution, we have moved forward, never backward, and therefore, why would we go back to the 4-hour-a-day commute, the sea of bland cubicles, crappy coffee, and a curled-up cheese sandwich for lunch?

Caroline Quick, Head of Global Real Estate and Workplace at tech company Cloudflare, described the physical eco-system of the future, which includes on-demand opportunities for dispersed workers to be supported with physical space from the headquarters to Lighthouse Offices and the use of micro co-working hubs on the very local level.

Looking at the challenge differently is key, rather than trying to force the return to the ways of the past. Understanding the why ahead of the what is critical so that we can reinvent the future and not just reengineer the past.

Productivity is a dirty word?

Loneliness has become a thing. Disconnectivity is an issue, and according to Dr. Bobbi Wegner from Groops, these factors are at least as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day! And if this state exists among our workforces, then openly talking to productivity can be received as an insult to the sensitivities of your people.

That said, it’s still important to understand, but how do you measure it?

  • What is the number of widgets you make?

  • Your top-line revenue?

  • Bottom line?

  • The amount of code produced and progress made.

At the end of the day, if you’re measuring productivity for the reasons that you don’t trust your employees, then you probably have the wrong employees in the first place. Or you’re taking the wrong approach to trusting and empowering them to be the best they possibly can be.

Focus on people Jennifer Adams of Poly HP described a story of change when an employee was presented with the future state, and the employee simply responded, “I don’t want this.” And how that put the context into how change management needs to embrace the perspectives of all the stakeholders and how the future can be shaped together and not in isolation.

From their research, they have seen a shift in the prevalence of different personas in the workplace, with the biggest shifts connected to where people work in relation to the office environment.

Understanding the needs of our different user groups is key to understanding how and what to design to help them do their best work for their individual needs.

Maintaining the focus on people is important because no matter what our organizations do, our existing or future real estate, the services that go on inside, ultimately, we’re in the people business.

The Digital Divide

During the round table discussion, the day before the main WORKTECH event, hosted by Peter Elden of property developer Hines and Poly HP, we had folks in the room and remote participants via video. What became apparent was that there was a digital divide and inequality between those on video and those in-person.

The question became that in the new future, where we are dispersed more than ever before, how can we bridge this digital divide and have digital equality no matter where our people may be?

The office can’t fix culture, but it can impact the community and the environment.

Design Matters!

Elizabeth Gordon and Lisa Scribante, Partners at design firm Mithun, went through their designs of the Atlassian office space in Austin with Atlassian’s Head of Real Estate & Development, Larry Segal, in the room. Beautifully designed, curated space with features to really attract people to come to the office.

Then how Mithun shared their design principles for the Atlassian Austin office - a design that not only addressed the business and physical needs but, through deep design and thoughtfulness, transformed a space into a place where people choose to be.

Joyce Li and Justine Hewitt also joined the stage with their designs and plans for Visa's new global headquarters, Mission Rock, in development in San Francisco – groundbreaking design featuring retail space, community areas, collaborative spaces, flexi-working, and outdoor terraces in the heart of San Francisco, overlooking the ballpark.

The design foundations were built on comfort and safety, but also easy to consume. Like Matthew Myerson’s presentation from the WORKTECH Academy and the example of the LEGO HQ and their 1/3rd workspace, 1/3rd collaboration space, and 1/3rd social space, these designs are much more than workplaces. They’re destinations.

These examples tell the story of how important design is to create places where people choose to be, around creating an experience beyond work itself, and how the office can become a homage to the culture of the organization and act as a magnate to your workforce.

In other sessions, Dr. Agustin Chevez of the University of Melbourne described his 42-day pilgrimage from Melbourne to Sydney and the things he learned from the beauty of boredom along the way. Lewis Love gave us a masterclass in thinking about how to think about the workplace and the future. Nicki Persaud, head of global safety and security at IoT company Samsara, gave us some pearls of wisdom and insights as we think about designing and delivering global experiences.

Another great conference, thanks to WORKTECH, Philip Ross, Isabel Dewhurst-Marks, and Samantha Cullen.

Thanks to all those that attended. I look forward to seeing you at the next one, wherever that may be!

WORKTECH Academy - How we'll work tomorrow

WTA is a global network of workplace and work experience professionals focused on #People #Place #Culture #Innovation #Design and #Technology. It's a place for insights, thought leadership, and community. If you've attended a WORKTECH event, you are already a member. However, there are additional ways to get involved at Community, Corporate, and Global Partner Levels,

Come Join the Conversation!


Simon Elliot is Managing Partner and co-founder of 4xi Global Consulting & Solutions and is focused on a people-first approach to enable optimum Human Experiences for people away from home: at work, in education, at rest, or at leisure.

Simon believes that Experience Matters! applies in many different ways and is the fundamental foundation of a successful business, no matter the business.

Simon is a global citizen, having lived, worked, and traveled to over 45 countries and six continents, and believes in the power of human potential. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Directors, a Member of the Institute of Leadership & Management, and the North America Chair of the WORKTECH Academy. Simon lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


4xi Global Consulting & Solutions is a team of talented leaders from both the client-side and service provider side, impacting the Human Experience (HX) for people at work, in education, rest, and at leisure.

We believe in a people-first, experience-led philosophy. Whether client, employee, or guest – their experience is the fundamental foundation of success.

We work with corporations, service providers, and innovators:

  • Strategic Advisory & Special Projects (SPx)

  • Headquarters Fractional Support On-Demand

  • Evolving Experiences© - Employee (EX) & Customer Experience (CX)

  • Design4Life©: Environmental, Physical, and Experiential Design

  • Global Amenities Strategy, Design & Operations

  • TRUE NORTH©: Strategic Partnership & Growth

  • Explorers Innovation Directory: Gateway to Innovation

  • Sustainability Simplified©: Supply Chain & Innovation

  • Market Research Reports & Benchmarking


4xi is proud to be Chair of WORKTECH Academy for North America and a member of its Leadership Advisory Board. 4xi is a Global Ambassador for WORKTECH Academy.

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