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Returning to the Office

A virtual interview with CEO Sam Dunn for WORKTECH Academy

In partnership with WORKTECH, who hosts WORKTECH Academy and other events all over the world, our colleague Brendan O’Neil sat down with our CEO and Co-Founder Sam Dunn to find out how he’s viewing the current workplace landscape in the context of COVID-19 and what the future holds.

Watch the full interview above or read the transcript below

Introduction

Sam Dunn: Hey! Sam from Robin. We’re a Boston-based workplace tech company and what we do every day is help companies manage the workspace they’ve got and help employees actually use it. So that comes with office wayfinding through interactive maps, which lets you, as an employee, find and book meeting rooms, find people’s seats, generally know what the office has available to you shared via displays throughout the office. And on the other side, we help the workplace team in charge of actually making the office the place that everyone wants it to be. 

We refer to the term workplace as oftentimes some combination of the physical place, like real estate and facilities teams, combined with the digital workplace, I.T., the folks who are responsible for things like Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams. It’s the marriage and awareness of the online and offline workplaces that everyone has to deal with. And those two groups of people are helping the workplace run today while we’re all working from home, as well as when we get back. I think everyone learned in a hurry that work from home is now going to be part of the toolkit. And the question is, how do you plan space for that?

How do we see employee expectations about the workplace changing, especially given the state of things right now?

Sam Dunn: Everyone knows they can work from home now. It might not have been part of a company’s policy before, but they’re now aware that it’s at least possible, in part because they’ve been able to function in some capacity for the past couple months. Understanding that logistics, safety, and employee confidence are going to be a huge part of the office return. But what really is going to have to be addressed: What is pulling people into the office? Because they want to be there? They can do better work there? And what type of work is that?

For at least the foreseeable short term future, work from home will be the default when you wake up. When you think about the work you get done over a week, what sorts of things would be better done together in a group at the office? And how much time do you need to do heads down work  remotely? Most people’s work weeks will start to look like a blend of individual time at home and then one to three team days where they go in for purpose-driven meetings.

Where do you see the placemaking and workplace experience side of things shifting now that all of these new ingredients are on the table?

Sam Dunn: You’re going to be planning for teams, not departments. Departments are certainly going to be accounted for, but the teams are going to be the people using the office first. A good parallel here is when restrictions start lifting, people start returning to the office, and we’re able to go out into the world again, are you more likely to watch a movie at a friend’s house or in a movie theater? Smaller groups of folks are going to be the default. 

What that means is you’re not going to go to the office just to be around as many people as possible. You’re going to go into the office for a reason, to get something done with a small subset of people that you have meetings with directly. You have to start looking at the office in terms of zones which are available to different teams as they need them, not departments and floors.

When you start to look at placemaking and how space is created, this plays nicely into all of the flexible, agile, activity-based-work conversations because everyone’s coming back to the same office with fresh eyes. It’s a new workplace now because people are going to use it in a different way. Knowing which territory you’re coming into and booking a zone of the office for your team is going to be how people start to think about it in the short term. 

How do you think teams are going to try to build a more engaging space?

Sam Dunn: If you look at it like an overall campground, there’s going to be a bunch of different campsites, aka territories of the office where people can section off. Knowing what suite or zone of the office you get when you come in will be huge. 

Here’s a good example of a purpose-driven activity — this is a throwback to college. An activity that I understand some people do is studying. During finals, you might be able to rally yourself and a bunch of friends to pull an all-nighter studying for those tests or finishing that final paper. Or maybe you go to the library and knock stuff out for the full day. 

Similarly, if your roommates are being too loud, the library very much looks like a sanctuary to study. The difference today is that some people’s roommates are  their own children. They now have to deal with this idea of, “I just need to go to the office.”

The office return needs to be a sanctuary for some people for focus and quiet. It has to be readily apparent why that space matters and what it’s good for. The library mattered to me because it was quiet and everyone who was there was there for the same thing. That’s the social contract for being there. 

Obviously, offices have a wider variety than libraries, owned or not. There are places for collaboration. There are places for short bursts of teamwork. There are places for interviews, for calls, sales demos. There is specialty equipment, for things like video editing suites. These are all things that have to be accounted for where work from home isn’t necessarily greater than work from office. 

It really matters as to how your day and therefore average week looks like in order for us to see which people are going to be scrambling to get back to the office first versus might actually be more productive from home. So they’re not necessarily going to be the first wave when people start returning back in shifts.

What will the draw be for people to return to the office?

Sam Dunn: The parallel I’ve been thinking through recently is that for us, it used to be that the office was the main center of gravity. It was the planet Office. Everyone went there every day. That’s our world. That’s how we know things exist. Then the Big Bang happened and we all broke apart. You’ve got everyone working from home and you’re starting to realize you need to re-establish what the new center of gravity is because not everyone is going to necessarily lurch back to the office.

There are going to be things people have realized go better at home. The people are going to be what brings people into the office. That is the reason why you have an office meant to provide a better work experience for the folks that show up every day. An office should minimize the things that take people out of their work, like distractions or lack of available tools and resources so people can get to work. Robin done well should feel like the world’s best executive assistant/air traffic controller. The sorts of things that you don’t have to be asked anymore is as much a metric to watch as the sorts of things that you’re now able to do.

What’s the number one thing that needs to change about the office?

Sam Dunn: I say it a lot. The office can’t be an attendance mechanism anymore. It used to just be an expensive way to take attendance. Now it’s expensive and dangerous. Understanding what is going to cause enthusiasm about going to the office and why people would feel compelled to be there, if you’re not allowed to say attendance, begs the question: what is that thing? Optimize for those things.

What are your predictions for the workplace?

Sam Dunn: The office is going to be more of an interface, with the data it can produce. Sensors, both occupancy and environmental, are going to enable people to know a lot about their space, like how it’s being used. That information traditionally has been a pretty closed off system. The thing that ticks on and off your HVAC might not have had any way to connect to outside systems in the past. You’re starting to see those walls coming down. With the sensors in the market, indoor location is going to be  baked into most things as part of those sensors.

It’s very hard to be prescriptive about how someone should change their office, because even within one company, there might be dramatically different work styles. We have to give computers a lot of credit but that’s a tall order to be able to automate. There are meaningfully going to need to be translators. And that is the workplace experience team in most orgs who have that knowledge of the space as well as the technology. With all this new influx of information about a space, we can start to know what’s hard to do, what’s over/under supported, what environmental qualities or occupancy levels we need to be mindful of? They might be early indicators of spaces succeeding or failing. Pulling together all of those things will be a big part.


We’ve touted employee-centric workplaces and workstyles for a while now, and with COVID-19, taking a human-centered approach to offices is more relevant than ever before. Workplaces should serve the people, and not vice versa, and it will be interesting to see how the industry settles over the next six to twelve months in a post-pandemic world. 

If you’re curious to see how Robin can help you achieve a human-centric workplace, reach out to one of our workplace experts today.