On Designing Workplaces Around People

Zach Dunn
Zach Dunn
Published on 
3.23.2022

Listen as Robin’s Zach Dunn chats with Twitter's Director of Global Design & Construction, Sameer Pangrekar about building workplace strategies that account for all types of workers.

 

Zach Dunn: How exactly did you end up in your current role at Twitter?

Sameer Pangrekar: I currently lead three verticals within our global Real Estate and Workplace team. Workplace strategy, which is all the work we do around workplace experience, which for Twitter is whether you work in an office, work from home, or work from both, which is the hybrid world many of us are getting used to. Design and Construction is the group that facilitates building all of our offices, and audiovisual is audiovisual, a lot of the conference room technologies, but we're really expanding beyond that.

I took a nontraditional career path to this role. I went to school for electrical engineering, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo here in California, and I studied designing buildings. My first couple jobs out of college were to design different types of spaces. I started first designing healthcare buildings, such as hospitals and office buildings, and then transitioned to another company where I did everything except for hospitals, sports stadiums, high-rise buildings. But coincidentally enough, my first day on that job, I got put on the San Francisco project for Twitter, 1355 Market, and so got exposed to their Real Estate and Workplace team, their Design and Construction team. As I got to interact with them more and more, got to learn about Twitter as a company and the culture, I just fell in love. I fell in love because of the culture, but also because of the unique role that an owner's rep plays in designing and building these offices. Was lucky enough that they had a position opened up, applied, and started off as a small projects manager, and I've been able to work my way into an expanded role almost eight years ago now.

Zach Dunn: One of the things that we've talked about with a few of our guests so far is the emergence of the word workplace as a central theme inside of these facilities, these real estate teams, and then the broader organization. When did you first start noticing workplace and workplace strategy as words that showed up in your line of work?

Sameer Pangrekar: I'd say it's been a few years since it became as prevalent and well-known as it has become, especially over the last two or three years. But workplace strategy has always existed, and it's existed for us in a different form, and really as part of our Design and Construction group. As Twitter, like many companies, was a little bit more office-centric than we're going to be in the future, when we designed and built space, we were thinking about the strategies of how that space was used throughout the design process. When we partnered with external design companies, more often than not, inherently, those teams had workplace strategists and others that helped facilitate the design's understanding of how you're going to use your office space.

I think for Twitter, we've always had the mindset of thinking about how the workplace should be used and a strategy on how to use it, but it focused on the office. As we, even pre-pandemic, started to expand our ability and our desire to not be office-centric and hire more folks that work full-time work-from-home or in different locations, we started to transition and recognize that we need a group and a function that thinks beyond just the office. That's why our workplace strategy function thinks about the work-from-home experience, the work-from-office experience, and the work-from-both experience, again, the hybrid experience, and how they interconnect and not just thinking of them in silos. If you're working from the office, you're going to interact, at least at Twitter, with someone that's work-from-home and probably many other companies, so you have to have this holistic thinking, and we want to have it internally to make sure we're driving a positive workplace experience for our employees.

Zach Dunn: How would you describe to somebody who is completely unfamiliar with your role what Twitter's workplace strategy is?

Sameer Pangrekar: I think our workplace strategy is focused on providing great experiences for our employees to work wherever they choose and however they choose. That's a really broad term, but it encompasses so many different aspects of the workplace experience and working experience, right? It's not all under Real Estate and Workplace, right? But we partner closely with so many other teams to think about that end-to-end employee experience. From the second they get their laptop, to getting set up at home, to coming to an office, how they use the office, how they book space, how they collaborate with others, how they socialize with others, what are the experiences within the office we provide? It's this really end-to-end mindset of, hey, we want people to have a really great time working at Twitter. We want them to hashtag love where they work. If you are on Twitter and you click on that hashtag, you'll see people talk about this. Our mission is to enable that. It's not any one specific thing, but it's this broad category of, how can we have a positive impact?

Now, a lot of it is focused within the office, but very recently, we've expanded our thinking to think about the work-from-home experience, because so many of our people, beyond just those that are full-time work-from-home. Gone are the days where I'm necessarily always going to be in the office at the same time as my teammates. Even if me and my teammate live in the same city, I may go into the office on a different day. That, very naturally, is going to be a great experience when I'm working from home and my teammate's in the office, and how we can work together but also socialize together, and different ways of enabling that.

Zach Dunn: What do you think about the global reach of the offices that you have to support? You are all over the world, and I have to imagine that that's got to make some challenges for a team like yours to coordinate and make the workplace feel consistent.

Sameer Pangrekar: Yeah. What we've done, again, over the past number of years that I think we've been really successful at Twitter with our Real Estate and Workplace team and our approach is that it's not up to any one individual within our team. Where we've done a really good job is embedding that our entire Real Estate and Workplace team across the many functions that we have are responsible for the workplace experience. When we think about our different offices and our different approaches, we definitely have global guidelines that we want to follow and how we approach it, but we also are very mindful and very strategic and thoughtful about being locally centric, because we know what works in one location may not work in another, both from a design perspective, materials you use, vendors you maybe work with. We make sure that we're not trying to be too prescriptive and allow that flexibility and adaptability at the local level.

We leverage and we partner with other functions within REW, Real Estate and Workplace, one of them being our global operations team, which is really the most global team and most diverse team of us all. We have people all over the world, and so they are really at the forefront of enabling us to understand the different cultures, the different perspectives, the different business units operating across all of these entities and regions. We partner very closely with them to make sure anything we're doing isn't done in a silo and that can actually be successful in that local market.

Zach Dunn: Let's do this. If I gave you a time machine, and let's say you get to go back pre-pandemic and talk to yourself and give yourself some advice. It can't just be to buy Bitcoin, because that's free space here. What advice would you give yourself pre-pandemic?

Sameer Pangrekar: I think it would be to continue to maintain flexibility and adaptability, which is something I think we've done a good job of, but I think, in the pandemic, we've had to be so much more flexible and adaptable. I'll give an example. This summer, we opened our San Francisco and New York offices, at least in the United States. We had opened a few internationally. We had to close them for government regulations in those countries. Within the United States, we were open for about a few weeks, and then we had to close because of the delta variant. I think, throughout this whole endeavor, it's really staying focused on that approach, because at any moment in time, you could think, "Things are going well. We're going to do this."

And of course, things change in an instant, and not just with the pandemic, in everything you do. Especially in the space that we're in, the workplace is evolving at such a rapid pace. Technology innovation for our space has become even more exponentially changing that I think staying flexible and adaptable is critically important. Now, as we think about reopening some of our offices, we're taking that mindset, right? How can we make sure that, when we open, again, barring anything hopefully really bad, that we can stay open? It has a big impact on our employees when we open and close. I would also say that extends as far as to, when the pandemic started, we didn't all of a sudden say, "Okay, now, we're going to physically modify all of our offices and invest all this money." We wanted to be really thoughtful and patient and really see how things start to develop so that we can maintain that flexibility and adaptability.

Zach Dunn: With the pandemic now, let's say, two years, just about, have you seen the expectations of your employees shift about what sort of office they actually want reopened?

Sameer Pangrekar: Pre-pandemic, but throughout the pandemic, we have been spending a lot of time thinking about what we want to at least start our offices to look like and how they will be used based on a number conversations we had both internally with different user groups and different functional leads, but also with external folks, seeing where their trends are going. But again, I say that we have an idea of where we want to start. We're not set in stone, we're going to be flexible. We're going to test, learn, and iterate, because I think that's what our employees want to see. They want to see that we're being bold and trying new things, but also that we're not so set in stone that it's set it and forget it. Just, honestly, like our product itself. Our product isn't static in nature. It's constantly evolving and changing to meet our customers' needs, those Twitter users, and so we need to do the same with our employees, making sure they know that we are committed to that mindset of evolving as we need to, to make sure they can do the best work they can.

Zach Dunn: That seems like it's going to be the big make-or-break for a lot of companies, being able to really figure that out and make sure that the people that they have are actually able to do that work together. I don't know that anybody's cracked it yet, but hey, the jury's still out, and we'll get a lot more proof points, I think, in the coming months as people actually start to really roll back into the office.

Sameer Pangrekar: The nature of hybrid work has been around for a long time. I think what we're finding is it's the scale of the hybrid for companies that's going to be the challenge, but I think what we're doing at Twitter is we're really leaving that choice and flexibility to the individual. I think what we will see, and again, this is, I think, a giant experiment for society, is teams and groups will naturally figure out an overarching cadence that works for them. Me and my team or me and my friends at Twitter will probably, over time, develop some sort of habit of, "Hey, let's come in every so often." But again, I think that's naturally going to form, versus us saying, "Okay, these teams have to come on Monday, Wednesday, Friday," or whatnot. I think that, to your point, next year will be a transition year. I think, assuming hopefully things subside with the pandemic here soon, 2023 will be a really interesting year to see how people have developed those new habits and patterns.

Zach Dunn: At your scale, how do you take feedback about the workplace team successfully?

Sameer Pangrekar: Leveraging our folks that are distributed around the world, our workplace operations, who are on the front lines and interacting with our employees daily, we get feedback through them. We also proactively reach out and try to understand what's working well and what's not via a few different mechanisms, whether that's company-wide surveys, whether that's individual office surveys or a location survey, or whether that's focus groups. What we have really tried to do over the past number of years is, at a fundamental level, understand how each group works and what they do so that, when we're designing workplace strategies or when we're designing offices or when we're thinking about new technologies to deploy, that we have at least some base-level understanding of what those teams do. Am I an expert in engineering? Absolutely not. But I have some base-level understanding of what goes into the work they do to then inform what we can have as a starting point. But again, it's that constant feedback loop.

Yeah, we get a lot of information, and it's great, and I think where we're successful is not all coming to one person. It's coming to many different people, and through that, we can identify themes, we can identify common pinch points that either happen in certain regions or around the world. I'll give an example. Around the world, we've heard that we used to be assigned desking. The challenges of having the assigned desking based on your function, and you're trying to do focus work and the people next to you are talking, just doesn't work well. We heard that consistently around the world, either through workplace tickets where people would bring this up, or again, through focus groups. I think it's things like that. But then also, locally, we find out things, and enable our teams to make changes and not being so prescribed that it has to come back to one person to approve something, that we enable that experimentation and that evolution out all over the world.

Zach Dunn: Tactically, though, how would a tweep raise their hand and say, "I have a point of view about the workplace, or I have an idea about the workplace"? Do you have hotlines? Is there talk to your manager? They call your personal cell phone, I'm assuming, Sameer, obviously.

Sameer Pangrekar: They tweet at me. Come on now.

Zach Dunn: Oh. Oh, of course. But surely, the... Well, I guess there is no character limit anymore, is there? 280. Okay.

Sameer Pangrekar: We keep it short. No, I think this is where the operations team and being distributed... If I'm an employee, for example, in Chicago, I know who my office manager is, and if I have a problem with the Chicago office, I could go to them. And then of course, that gets shared out if it's something that needs to be. And it's not just operations. We have folks that handle onsite food and events. They're distributed around the world. We have project managers distributed around the world. Our leasing and planning team distributed around the world. People naturally know that REW is very open and wants feedback. All of our employees, whether they're working directly on workplace strategy, are ambassadors for REW, Real Estate and Workplace, to get that feedback.

Zach Dunn: Do you have a roadmap for your workplace?

Sameer Pangrekar: We absolutely have a roadmap. We don't try to get too far ahead of ourselves, again, because things are changing so rapidly and we don't know what next week, next year will look like. But we definitely have focus areas and things we want to achieve, and our number one goal right now as an overall team, not even just workplace strategy, is safely reopening our offices. And then from there, we'll see how things are going and continue to layer in some of the things we want to test and experiment and learn from over time.

Zach Dunn: You are probably one of the most prominent examples of, actually, your team rolling up to the people operations or the people team. I think that that speaks a lot to how you view the role of the workplace, but I'm curious, how did that happen?

Sameer Pangrekar: Yeah. We are part of the people organization. Our VP of Real Estate and Workplace reports to our Head of People, who reports to our CEO. The transition happened a couple years ago. Again, pre-pandemic. Everything happened to align right before the pandemic, and it's been great for us because of the synergies allowed for. But in our goal to really enable more full-time work from home and our ambitions to become more distributed as a company, we felt like there were so many great synergies in what the people team does and what the Real Estate and Workplace team provides that being part of one organization will help amplify all of our combined efforts and goals.

Now, we were part of the finance organization before. We had great relationships with the people team, and I think that's part of why folks recognized that, "Hey, they already have great relationships. If we can put them together, we can amplify that even further." We still maintain great relationships with finance, the group we were part of, and all of our core partners. I think that's what's more important, is that you have to have the relationships built across the organization to ensure that you're successful, because the people team as an organization, we have a lot of goals, but those are reliant on our partnerships with other functions. IT is a great example. We have to partner very closely with them, because laptops and other things that IT provides are core to the people's experience and the workplace experience. It's great for us that we're part of the people team. It allows us to focus on those combined strategic goals and amplify our strengths, but more importantly, it's the relationships across the organization, no matter where you sit, that are critical to enabling your success.

Zach Dunn: One of the things that struck me, though, was that your IT department is separate from the organization that you just described. I guess, to some folks, you might look at that and say, "Well, gosh, how do you draw the line between AV and IT, even if you are partnering closely?"

Sameer Pangrekar: Earlier this year, the audiovisual group transitioned from IT over to Real Estate and Workplace. Thinking about the synergies, especially in this evolving world of how people work and where they work, we felt like there was an opportunity to amplify the work that we can collectively do when we think about the employee experience, whether they're work-from-office or work-from-home. When that transition happened, we really started to think beyond just traditional AV as well. We're thinking more so about workplace technologies and what are those different technologies that employees need in order to do their work.

Now, again, we still partner very, very closely with IT, because we have to be connected with them because of all the great work they do to enable our employees to work and give them the physical tools. Those partnerships are still really important, and I think we're really excited about how we can expand AV to think beyond just traditional conference room technologies, but think about other things, such as collaboration technologies. How can we better understand how space is used? What are the things we can provide our employees to interact with each other in a more seamless manner? Our relationship and our partnership with IT won't change, but I think our synergies with having the core AV function within Real Estate and Workplace will be great.

Zach Dunn: What made you excited in that arena? What tech are you interested to see unfold over the next couple years?

Sameer Pangrekar: When I think about the tools that we can provide employees to work together. There's a number of different technologies that are interesting. How people can collaborate across different locations and different time zones, whether that's, again-

Zach Dunn: Like digital whiteboard type stuff?

Sameer Pangrekar: Yeah. It could be digital whiteboard, it could be AR, VR, which is a very hot topic, a very recent tenure, but also-

Zach Dunn: Yeah. Shut down your office now, Sameer. You should just move everything into the metaverse.

Sameer Pangrekar: But also, how can technologies enable async collaboration, which is another way in which people across time zones and regions can collaborate? Accessibility is a huge focus for us. I don't think I fully appreciated the challenges that some folks were facing when we were using different VC technologies that didn't have captioning or translation or things like that. I think it's just the combined pace of all of this to allow employees of different backgrounds and lifestyles to equitably participate in the workplace.

Zach Dunn: Okay. My understanding is you've actually valued accessibility and that digital equity so much that you've actually made some hires around this recently.

Sameer Pangrekar:  We have a person that leads overall accessibility almost as a center of excellence. The role that they play is actually not just related to the workplace, but they consult with others across the business on how to embed accessibility into everything we do as a company. We partner very closely with that team to think beyond just traditional accessibility and think about how we can ensure every employee has an equitable experience, both in the physical world, but also in the technologies that we deploy as a company. Whether it's captioning, translations, other sorts of tools that enable employees to participate equitably, is very important to us, and across mediums. When someone's in the office and someone's at home and maybe someone has a unique need, how can we allow them to collaborate and participate equitably? It's definitely a big focus area for our Real Estate and Workplace team, and as a company, it's very important to us.

Zach Dunn: What roles are key to think about as I'm navigating the next couple years? You mentioned accessibility, but are there other roles that you're starting to hire for the first time?

Sameer Pangrekar: I think it comes back to first defining what our workplace is, where we'll have people working. It'll be different for different companies, right? For example, some companies are all remote. It'll be a little different. If some companies are more office-based, it'll be different. But I think what you definitely want to have is someone that's thinking through that within your organization. Doesn't always have to be a massive team, because there are opportunities to leverage external partners in that work.

But I think I would definitely suggest that, once you know what kind of workplace environment you're providing for your employees and where all you're going to be located and how you're going to be located, you need someone internally that can almost be representing that work. Someone thinking about the workplace experience, what that means for your company, having those conversations with different business units and leaders, but also building the program, enabling the program, capturing feedback on the program. Again, you can call them workplace strategists, you can call them experience. Operations for us are beyond just the core operations of running a building. They are cultural liaisons for everything that we do as a company. Those roles are super important for our team based on how we're set up. We have a team that does leasing and planning internally, because office space is important to us. We have a small team that focuses on that. I think it's dependent on how your company is set up, what your company's focused on, but definitely, some of those roles, I think, are key.

Zach Dunn: Inevitably, you're going to have to get some buy-in from senior leadership. How has that process been for you? What's the guidance and support that you see from your leadership?

Sameer Pangrekar: We've had an incredibly visionary CEO and C-suite in this area. Pre-pandemic, our CEO came out and said, "We want to hire in more locations, we want to become more distributed to represent the platform that we are, we want to enable more full-time work from home." With overall vision, we've been able to then distill that down and create a program that we're excited about, but it hasn't been without a lot of conversations with various business leads, other members of our C-suite, tweeps around the world. There, I said it for the first time. Tweeps around the world. And understanding how we translate that vision into something that is tangible and usable and relatable to the employees, such that they stand what that means when they go to the office, when they work from home, or when they're splitting time between the two.

Zach Dunn: You've gotten a lot right. What didn't go so well?

Sameer Pangrekar: I don't know if we're right yet. I think we have a lot of great ideas we want to test, right? Unfortunately, because offices aren't open, we haven't been able to test certain aspects of what we're thinking about for the office. For other things such as work-from-home experience, we've been successful in some things, and some things haven't gone well and we've taken that feedback. What we learned is around flexibility and adaptability, and talking again about opening our offices and closing our offices. That's a real disruptive endeavor for the company because of just employees getting excited and then it closing, the work that goes into it. I think that's one area, again, as we look to reopen some of our offices towards the end of this year, going into next year, that we will be, I think, more thoughtful about in ensuring that, when we open, again barring anything really bad, that we can stay open and really modify how we approach keeping the offices open to, again, keep employees safe, but enable that ability for them to come in.

Zach Dunn: I suspect that you are not alone in having an employee base that just went through an emotional rollercoaster of, "We're going back, we're not going back, wait another month." At a certain point, I'd imagine that gets frustrating.

Sameer Pangrekar: Look, I think, even for those that maybe aren't going into the offices, the signal of an office opening provides hope for everyone, because it's a signal that, hey, maybe things are getting better with the pandemic. Yes, there are many people that still don't feel safe to go into the office, even when they open up. What this pandemic has taught us is that we have to be flexible and adaptable and really understand the needs of our employees and be there for them to support them in every way we can.

Zach Dunn: I also tend to think that the phrase remote is getting more confusing in a hybrid world, too. It is a double meaning sometimes for being fully remote, just working from home for the day. As you said earlier, a lot of this hybrid stuff, it's been going on for a while. Pretty much, if you've been doing work from home, you've been doing hybrid just on a really slower time scale.

Sameer Pangrekar: Today, you've heard me say a lot of work from home. I very sparingly use the word remote, because we don't want to use that word remote anymore because of what you just said. It connotes that you're away from something. And even the word distributed has the connotation that you're distributed from something or somewhere. We really think about diversifying our locations, and those that are work-from-home, they might be full-time or part-time, but again, when you're work-from-home, you're just work-from-home. It doesn't mean that you're remote from anything. You're as much a part of the company as the next person.

Zach Dunn: By the time your children grow up, do you think that offices will still be a thing?

Sameer Pangrekar: 100%. I think, for every company out there, the office serves a different purpose. I think the term office could change, right? Even the companies that are going fully remote or fully work-from-home, they still do things that other companies do at the office, such as social meetups, bringing everyone together. Yeah, maybe they don't lease office space, but one purpose of a physical location for them is to bring their people together, and you need physical space for that. Whether you call it an office, or maybe in the future, it's just space, and that's similar to our point about traditionally how sports stadiums were very purpose-built, but more and more sports stadiums, as an example, are becoming multipurpose experience centers, right? Many of these locations now do multiple things. I think space is going to continue to evolve on that trajectory, because almost every company, I would venture to guess, every company needs to bring their people together at certain intervals, and you need space to do that. When my son's in college, he will likely still need to go to a space, a campus for certain things. I guess offices, more so, space will always be needed, whether it's called office, and what that purpose is for each company will change over time.