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On workplace design that inspires collaboration

Episode 101 with guest Nellie Hayat
Zach Dunn
Published on

Listen as Robin’s Zach Dunn chats with VergeSense’s Head of Workplace Transformation, Nellie Hayat, about designing purpose-driven workplaces that promote great work for healthy, happy, and motivated people.

The pandemic changed traditional approaches to workplace experience. In order to adapt, leaders must be in touch with their employees' needs to create workplaces that inspire collaboration rather than simply require attendance. Join us while we explore strategies for building a more employee-centric office experience. 

Nellie: I thought that people loved their job because they had amazing workplaces. Once I started designing them, I knew that it was very simplistic. They don't love their job because they have amazing workplaces, but actually they have amazing workplaces because the culture of the company is amazing. It's taking care of its employees. And so it's translated through the walls.

Zach: I'm Zach Dunn, founder and head of customer experience at Robin, a workplace software company in Boston. Today I'm joined by Nellie Hayat, who is the head of workplace transformation at VergeSense. She's done some amazing stuff, like building the international office system at Stripe and is a respected authority on workplace quality and hybrid work models. We talked about the importance of how a workplace is an anchor to motivate and reconnect people to the mission of their company. I think you'll have a lot to think about and apply to your own work. Let's hear what she has to say.

One place that maybe we can start today is just, from your vantage point, expectations have changed a lot. Probably over the last 18 months with the pandemic for what the workplace is for. How do you see that nowadays? What role does it have in the average person's week?

Nellie: I think what has changed is that we're hearing more from employees than ever before. Employees are a lot more vocal and the pandemic has really shifted the powers to employees. So what we're hearing from them is putting new expectations on what the workplace should be and the purpose of workplaces. So what I've really witnessed throughout the pandemic is that, somehow workplaces were not inclusive enough or were not accessible enough because we're hearing that minorities always felt that the workplace was not designed for them or people with neurodiverse types have said that somehow it was either too loud or too quiet or too bright or too dark. I think the decisions were made at the top with not enough checking with employees and employees changing the workforce of any company is going through a rotation. There's new people coming, other people leaving, and there's going to be soon five generations of employees in the workplace.

Zach: Oh, that's interesting.

Nellie: What the pandemic has done is that it really forced leadership to constantly be in touch with their employees, understand who they are, what they need to do their best work, what they need to rest and nourish that work with self-realization and adapt the workplace on a content basis to remain very in touch with the inhabitants. And, you know, it sounds, maybe it can sound overwhelming for workplaces, but hospitality has done it forever. You go to any retail store, they change according to the season, they change according to fashion, they change according to their location in any city. So we can have this reinvention of the workplace on a constant, on a new basis. I find it very exciting to be more in touch with the inhabitants of the spaces that we design.

Zach: So one of the things that I love about what you just said is you're designing the office and the workplace in general for people. And well, that matters a lot right now. So for the folks that are starting to rethink what it is that the workplace needs to be able to do for those people, what's most important in a workplace for the next year or two?

Nellie: I can think of two things. I can think of diversity. Definitely we've been hearing employees telling us that the workplace was not diverse enough. It was not answering to diverse types of people and to diverse activities. And the second one is the distribution. Somehow companies were picking some location in the world and they had to relocate talent to this location. Employees are saying that they don't want it anymore. They want to choose their place of living and they like the workplace to be close to them. So we're going to see a shift again. Employees are not going to pick a city and just move everyone to that city, but they're going to follow where people are and see in some areas where they will be a pool of employees getting to a certain level or a certain milestone, they would decide to open a workplace or they would give access to third places.

I love that because, again, it's following our people instead of dictating where they should be. Regarding the diversity, the first point that I made, as any workplace leader, before the pandemic, I could count my successes and my failures. I would be in an office that seemed to work great for a lot of people. I would see people coming with a big smile, entering the space, finding their way through different amenities, using it to the most. But I could also see people coming into the building, not with that big smile, not really engaging with the community, not engaging with the building, going to their desk and sitting at their desk all day long, eating also by themselves at their desk, and then leaving the office at the end of the day. That was a big failure for me. I would also hear some other times that people were staying at home to focus because they couldn't do it in the workplace. That sounded like a big failure for me too. Office is supposed to be this place where you go to do your greatest work.

And some of this work happens when you focus. And so somehow those were in my list of successes and failures. I think the pandemic has given us an opportunity to do better on our failures and to continue on the successes and build on top of them.

Zach: For people who are coming into the office, like you just described, they may not be super thrilled. How do you best support, through the workplace, people like that?

Nellie: When I was an engineer, I moved to Silicon Valley and I thought I would continue working as an engineer, but something struck me as being so different in Silicon Valley was that people loved their job. They loved working, they loved their companies, they loved their manager, they loved their friends at work. And that's something I had never encountered anywhere else in the world. And then, I had lived in more than 10 countries before moving to Silicon Valley. So for me, there was this-

Zach: People that like their job? That was a new thing for you?

Nellie: Yeah. It's kind of crazy, but it was not part of my work story. In most other places I've lived at, people just wait for the end of the day. The work hard, play hard mentality. You work hard, but in that sense, you almost sell your soul for eight hours or 10 hours, and then life comes back when you leave the office. That was what I've noticed and experienced and heard from generations before me. And when I moved to Silicon Valley, it was just so different. I thought that people loved their job because they had amazing workplaces. Once I started designing them, I knew that it was very simplistic. They don't love their job because they have amazing workplaces, but actually they have amazing workplaces because the culture of the company is amazing. It's taking care of its employees. And so it's translated through the walls. It's translated in the offerings to employees in their experience that they're having throughout their life with us in the company.

So obviously there's a stronger emphasis on the impact of work on mental health and the need to disconnect. But we're also thinking that work from home is not perfect. So as we want to offer different options, the office needs to remain a valid option to connect with your mission and to connect with the greater mission of the company.

Zach: For those folks that maybe have realized that a lot of their workplace culture requires an office to really be delivered, what are some of the ways that you've seen work for people trying to navigate hybrid work? How should they think about the work week and the office in supporting that mission?

Nellie: It's such a complex question because, unfortunately, countless surveys have shown that there's a great disconnect from the top leadership and from employees. All employees are saying, or the majority of employees are saying that they feel they can stay connected to the culture. They can stay connected to their colleagues. They still love their work, and they're eager to work even in a remote setting. And I think culture and interactions still happen in a virtual setting, but bosses are having a harder time to really embrace it, or even admit that it can work in a remote setting. So we're having this fight, which shouldn't happen. Again. And keeping you at the edge of your game or at the top of your game. But it's legitimate to hear that for the top leadership who are maybe more mature in their career, and they have always known culture in the office, they're afraid of getting to an erosion of the culture.

And so the best ways is very much like a conversation. Can we try things together? Can we learn from our remote companies? Can we try from companies who are now experimenting with hybrid? Can we think beyond the box? Culture doesn't have an every day at the office or it doesn't happen on a dual day. It happens when you come with intention and motivation and happiness. We can have this moment during offsite and this way, even the best companies in Silicon Valley also had offsites. You can wonder, what is the good of the offsite if the culture is happening in the office? Actually, it just happened when you create an intentional setting. Going to the office now will come with this intention of meeting with other, of reconnecting with the mission, or maybe disconnecting from the dual days at home. And many of you are saying that the offsite is not coming on site. It's going to be this very extraordinary experience that you share with other, and that you just reboost your motivation to continue being part of this amazing company.

Zach: The cost of getting it wrong, the office not supporting collaborative work, it's high because where else are you supposed to have those meetings? Especially now that folks can work from home, do that focused work if they are trying to unplug. Give me an example of great strategies. I know you're really into what Dropbox is doing.

Nellie: There's definitely this trend emerging, as you called out, of the office being a collaboration home. And the trend is that any Me work can happen at home. Any We work will happen in the office. And to really emphasize, or even anchor that new model, we've been seeing companies renaming their offices so that employees know the office is for We time. When you come, maybe you don't bring your laptop because it's your time to socialize with others, to come up with fresh new ideas, to brainstorm, to work out together. And so that's what I love about the Dropbox name because they renamed their office Studio. For me, a studio is like a podcast recording studio. It's a photo studio. It's a place where somehow we work with our minds and body, but it's very creative and maybe it's loud. I'm probably a loud person, so that's for me the idea.

But it develops in many different other areas for Dropbox, but I love that they've really empowered people to find what they need for their Me time. And so they offer co-working passes if you don't want to do it at home, or they give you the opportunity to do wherever. On an island, on the beach, in the mountains, in a cabin. But for any We time, where they want you to really engage with the community, the Dropbox community, then come to their studio. Come to the studio and you'll find this very amazing energy that somehow we used to have before the pandemic.

Zach: Who do you think is responsible for some of the changes that you've shared and are these new jobs that people need to start hiring for?

Nellie: I love this question because it brings me back to my days at Strive. I was part of a workplace team and all our projects were a collaboration between people responsible for the real estate, so leasing spaces and designing those spaces. So that was my team. And we were in collaboration with the IT team and with the people team. So it was really teamwork across these three teams. What has happened with the pandemic is, first, I can never tell if it's unfortunately or fortunately, but there was first an erosion of that head of real estate. Because the first thing that happened at the start of the pandemic was, do we ever need offices? Why were we spending that much money on offices? And why were we choosing this location? Why were we spending so much money on desks? And so there was an erosion of the ego of that head of real estate.

And it was hard to see, and this is why with one of my friends we created Workplace to really help all the people in the workplace team who lost a job at that very critical moment. Because they didn't build their ego out of nowhere. Companies were giving them the power of choosing the location and picking their amenities and designing with the best architects, because the assumption was amazing workplaces give the [inaudible 00:13:29] to be able to do their best work. So with the erosion of that persona, somehow the people leader took a greater role because the people leads were definitely in charge of looking for talent, signing this new talent, but not too involved in their life during the company, except if they had a moment. And so now people teams are a lot more involved because they have that first knowledge of who are the people we hire? And where are they coming from? And where were they before? And what culture are they bringing to ours?

And that should be taking a greater place in the conversation of how do we keep in touch with our employees? So we women are really in touch with what they need and our workplaces and our ways of working can be aligned with them. And so at the intersection between the people team and the workplace team, we're seeing this head of remote work or head of distributed workforce, somehow we want to mix the distribution of talent across geographic areas, which is real estate, and this access to a diverse workforce that comes from the people team. So we have this head of remote work. Between the workplace team and the IT team, we're seeing a lot more head of workplace insight, for instance, which is also like using the data of our workplaces to be more aware of how people are using it.

Are we using our spaces to the most of their efficiency coming with the sustainability mindset, but also with this idea that we need to collect data as people enter and linger in our spaces so we know what corners are successful, what are the ones that are not successful, and we can continue revamping. I love those new roles. I think they're really going to nourish the collaboration of these three teams.

Zach: How do you measure quality? How do you make sure that the office you've designed is actually serving the people that are supposed to show up every day? It always blows my mind when we encounter folks that think that all of these decisions can be made without talking to their employees or checking in, and that feedback loop is super important.

Nellie: No, and this is why we're seeing some of the most forward companies really using workplace data with employee survey feedback. So they can really almost be the ears and the eyes on the ground, from the data, from the workplace data sources. And also, getting a sentiment from people, which sometimes they might contradict and this is why having people who have been in the industry for a long time can really, how they can bring value. And this is why we created the workplace because we didn't want to see that many people leaving with so much wisdom and knowledge accumulated throughout the years. But they can find, what is the real story between what my buildings are telling me and between what my people are telling me.

The goal is not to find a compromise, but it's really to find the underlying story. And somehow, we haven't been renamed that way, but I wouldn't be surprised if people in the workplace will be called storytellers in the future. Some internal comms have this storytelling mindset, but we're also telling a story through and it translated in the words. And I love that part. I love that component of our job.

Zach: So when you say that you're not looking for a compromise...

Nellie: It really happened when I started playing with data. So I was still at Strive and I was very interested in workplace technology and I was one of the few ones who were eager to get information from our building so we could know how much good work we're doing and also what are failures so we can do better. And so I started playing with sensors and other tech technology. For instance, I would get data points that were telling me that people spend very little time at their desk. So I was like, ah, I guess we can just move to the hot desk. And people don't need a desk and they don't spend time at their desk. And we start exploring this question and we're like, okay, let's check in with people to make sure that they're okay with it. And then we'd run out of hot desking. Obviously, the answer we got was, "Don't take away my desk. I want my desk. I need my desk. My desk is my home. Don't take away my home within the office." And we got very surprised because-

Zach: You have your front calendars there. Yeah.

Nellie: Exactly. My stuff is there. This is where my team is. I know where to find them. And so the data were almost conflicting. One that I was telling is that people are never at their desk. We could get rid of them. And one sentiment was that people need that thing that is theirs. That's maybe the one thing that is theirs. And so we start digging. We're like, oh, that's very interesting. Why are people telling us one thing and the data is telling us another thing? First the data was not telling us that the desks were empty all the time. So yeah, there were times where people were at the desk. Mostly in the morning to leave their coats. And at the end of the day to leave their coat.

Zach: It's a locker, not a desk at that point.

Nellie: Exactly. So we're like, oh, maybe they need a locker. As we start digging with employees like, why do you need a desk? They say, oh, this is where my team is. Oh, so you'd like to have a corner that belongs to your team so you know where to find them. If you have a corner, do you need a dedicated desk? And they were like, oh no, I don't need that. I will know where to find my teammates. We start digging, we start to understand what's the story. The story is that, when people come to the office, they want to find their friends. Technology was maybe not available or not accessible to them to check. Whereas, Patrick today is in the coffee area, so I know where to find him. People didn't know, in a big campus, where to find their friends. And a lot of their friends were part of their team.

So first giving us a neighborhood to a team would first answer one of the challenges that we had. The second one was, to date, it's a lot more common to have an app and see, oh, who's coming tomorrow. And then sending a message, oh, I'll be there tomorrow so let's have lunch or let's meet in this amenity or let's meet in this corner. And so technology, as technology is developing, it's also answering some of the challenges that we had before. But that's part of doing the research and finding insight and digging a little more in the data. So you can find what's the challenge we're trying to solve here? And why it would serve them to have no dedicated desk and what it would serve them to have a corner for their team.

Zach: And for those who may not be familiar with neighborhoods in workplace design, could you speak briefly on that?

Nellie: I wish I had the date for when this concept was really created, but the idea of neighborhood is really to allocate a home within the big campus to a certain team. And what it had looked like for the past decade is, a neighborhood is like a small headshot of everything else you can have in the office. So you would have some dedicated desks, you would have a sofa and cushion. You would have a whiteboard. You would have a long table, a collaborative table. Sometimes you would have one or two meeting rooms that belong to that neighborhood. But it would really be a place for a team to really carry all the work that they have to do together and be that place that they know belongs to them. And this is where they're going to see their friends. And many great companies have adopted this neighborhood model into their workplaces. And it was very successful and we're seeing today more companies adopting it.

Zach: One of the things that intrigued me that we talked about earlier was how you think work weeks might evolve. So those specific days might actually serve different purposes. The routine's going to be a little bit different.

Nellie: First, for companies who were already collecting data through different sensors and all others before the pandemic, there was a common thread that Tuesday was the most productive day, and usually the most full in the office, and Monday was a little slow, and Friday was also a little low in numbers. Thursday seems to be also a full day, but mostly in social areas of the office. And when you look at studies that have been made about employees, I wish I had a reference, but a journalist gave me one recently, and apparently, psychologically, people are more hostile on Mondays and they seem to be less collaborative. They want to work more on Me work and Tuesday is their most productive work, and Thursday is their most social day where they're really eager to connect with other human beings. And Friday, yeah, Friday is almost going to be dismissed soon because we're talking about a four day week. So it was happening before the pandemic.

Zach: We are, for the record, recording this on a Friday. So whatever that means for us.

Nellie: But so, before the pandemic, even at Strive, we could see that different days were different in terms of how many people and what areas were successful and what were the ones that were less inhabited. And even this week was different in different months and in different seasons. And so with this great ambition we have for the new workplace of the future, that's going to be one of the components. How can the workplace be different every day and every week of every month. So Mondays will be the day where you reconnect with your purpose, where you reconnect with the community, maybe you don't have any meetings that day. Maybe you do yoga with your friends. Maybe you have this very loving session where you're like, oh, I'm so happy to be with you. I missed you over the weekend. And then Tuesday can be a very productive day.

Maybe it's at home because you do more Me work or maybe it's in the office because you do more We work. And then maybe Thursday, because it seems to be a day where we're craving for social interaction. That could be the day where you learn together. That could be like your learning and development day. That could be your innovation hub day where you collaborate, but again, it's not about meeting and getting things done, but more like can we deepen our like knowledge together and our wisdom together. Can we deepen a certain thing together because there's joy coming from learning. So that's how I see the demands and the week shifting.

Zach: Is that the sort of thing that you think workplace teams, like we discussed earlier, can design that sort of experience for their employees? Or is that more of a personal or team level choice of how to structure the week?

Nellie: I think there's a lot of power that is given to the team, which is great. Different teams, the same way that the neighborhood model gives different design and different corners to teams, different teams work differently. So we should empower them to choose what is the framework that works best for them. But it doesn't mean that, at the top leadership workplace team, we shouldn't think about... Why is Monday different from Thursday? And why is January different from July? And what can we learn from human psychology that would inform the experience we're going to create in our offices? I think somehow I still want to rely on amazing architects to create these amazing offices. I don't want to enter a restaurant and have it blend or white and have it to design every experience every time I go to a restaurant.

So it's amazing that we can rely on each other's talents, and there are amazing talented people in the workplace team and people team who can create an overreaching experience for all. And I can just tap into it every time I need it, or based on when I create the framework for my team, we define when we tap into this experience because it works best for us.

Zach: What a conversation, right? You can find Nellie at and LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, all of that is going to be in the notes. Interested in learning more about the work we're doing here at Robin and how it can help your workplace? is a great place to start. Anyways. I'm Zach Dunn. See you in the next episode of In the Works.


Episode Notes:

Nellie’s LinkedIn Profile

VergeSense Website

Zach’s LinkedIn Profile 

Robin Website

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Does your office collaboration need a reboot?

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Does your office collaboration need a reboot?

Find out if your workplace strategy is a hit or a miss.

office map
an employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshotan employee headshot