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Rethinking the future of offices

Host Ryan Anderson welcomes Phil Kirschner of global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. A self-proclaimed “accidental workplace strategist,” Phil fell into managing workplace strategy transformation efforts at Credit Suisse more than a decade ago and never looked back. As a result, his openness to supporting new ways of working fuels this fast-paced exploration of the need for executive-level change management, for widening our perception of what “hybrid” means, for using AI to identify moments that matter in the physical workplace, and more. For a deep dive into MillerKnoll’s point of view on the future of work content, visit https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/designing-better-tomorrow-millerknoll/.


Announcer (00:06):
This is Looking Forward, conversations about the future of work. Brought to you by MillerKnoll.

Ryan Anderson (00:18):
Hey, friends. Today we have the pleasure of talking with Phil Kirschner, who’s a senior expert in Real Estate People and Organizational Performance at McKinsey & Company. As you’ll hear, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Phil for a lot of years, and he is got a multifaceted perspective on the future of work and workplace, having led workplace strategy for Credit Suisse, and also consulted with many organizations in his years at JLL, WeWork, and McKinsey. I always benefit from hearing about how Phil’s looking at the world of work and how he advises clients, and I think you will too. Enjoy this conversation with Phil Kirschner.

Ryan Anderson (00:52):
Hey, Phil. It is great to have you on the podcast. Thanks for joining.

Phil Kirschner (00:56):
Thank you, Ryan. I’m thrilled to be here.

Ryan Anderson (00:57):
Why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about you and what you do at McKinsey?

Phil Kirschner (01:01):
Thank you. I am a senior expert that sits between McKinsey’s Real Estate and People and Organizational Performance Practices, which is a really fancy way of saying I’m a workplace strategist, as I have been for the past 12 years or so. Our real estate group has grown up from being an industry practice, a vertical. So serving companies in the business of real estate, development, investments, servicing on, call it traditional management consultancy topics. But roundabout beginning of COVID, realize that many companies are now asking about what to do with their real estate, so more as a functional horizontal.

Phil Kirschner (01:37):
And our People and Organizational Performance Practice has been advising clients for decades on agile and org design and diversity and leadership. But also, shockingly, was never asked about the office before, say March of 2020. And I joined to try to resolve both problems at the same time. So I’ve been here about a year.

Ryan Anderson (01:55):
That is awesome. Well, I’ve had the privilege of knowing you, geez, almost 10 years. You have a long history in helping people figure out their real estate strategies. You want to share a little bit about what you did before?

Phil Kirschner (02:04):
10 years, as we just realized, from when I met you at WorkTech. WorkTech 2012, God, in New York. I am an accidental workplace strategist. I usually say I was clipping along at Credit Suisse for many years doing other things, like information security, having nothing to do with the built environment whatsoever. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time in an expense management group, when the CFO of the bank then received a report from DEGW, a firm that many of us in the industry know. The boutique player for future workplace, back in the day. He received a report, took the bait. Decided to try workplace mobility and change, and assigned the expense management group that I was in the privilege of running that program, as opposed to the real estate group, which was always very funny at the time. And I was gaggled together with a couple other people who largely also had no experience in real estate or design or architecture, to figure out new ways of working for a very traditional kind of company.

Phil Kirschner (03:04):
So I learned by doing. Helped build what eventually became a large global program called Smart Working, tens of thousands of people in a few countries in full mobile environments. Then went to JLL to try my hand in consulting and I led the Northeast Regional Workplace Consultancy there. Then went to try to sell consulting services to WeWork and found myself getting hired by WeWork to help lead their workplace strategy practice for about three years, which was an adventure to say the least. But definitely strengthened my backbone about workplace experience and activation and community, even more resolutely than I already had it.

Phil Kirschner (03:39):
And unfortunately, I got caught up in the general shenanigans around the IPO and COVID at WeWork. I was advising on my own for about a year at the beginning of COVID before meeting my now colleagues at McKinsey’s. And I’ve been here just almost a year, which is crazy.

Ryan Anderson (03:54):
Yeah. What a great place to land.

Phil Kirschner (03:55):
Yeah. So I’m one of a few people out there, I think who has a really odd mix of practitioner and consulting and service provider workplace without really having done it before, so I only know the new way. I never knew the old way, whether it’s furniture or leasing or facilities. Flex-mobile, wacky and wonderful, is the only thing I know and love.

Ryan Anderson (04:15):
Yeah. Well, you’ve seen it from a variety of perspectives, including as that occupier end user. And just knowing you the way I do, I know that you love exploring new ways of doing things. And in this case, supporting new ways of working. I think we’re in the process where so many organizations are rethinking decades, really, of old assumptions about how their work’s done, where their work’s done. Can you share with us some of what you’re seeing in terms of the challenges that organizations are facing in this arena?

Phil Kirschner (04:44):
Yeah. And the challenges certainly are many. First and foremost, simply … we’ve all seen this, right? Workers are demanding flexibility and choice in a way that they always maybe wanted a little, but COVID has reinforced the desire that I want to have a little bit of autonomy over when and where and how I do that work. And that desire transcends ages, income levels, demographics, you name it. Everyone wants a good enough amount of it, that it is a problem for employers who find themselves a little bit on the back foot as many of those employees are actively quitting if they aren’t getting what they want. And it doesn’t have to be the absolute answer to what that flexibility is, but employers who are waffling on the future, what they will or will not be allowed to have, are facing a very real challenge.

Phil Kirschner (05:37):
So that’s one, I’d say, is the talent. Two … and I know you can appreciate this. The companies that were exploring new ways of working before COVID, in any form, more open, more shared, exploring utilization, had built a little bit of a muscle for how you do that analysis. Had crossed the line with their leadership to understand the difference between someone who is in the building somewhere versus actually sitting at their desk. Who had gone through several rounds of what having house rules or workplace protocols mean, like a sign on the wall, how you should use something. If you had touched any of that in any amount, pre COVID, you at least had a baseline for what people thought of your office, how they worked, how they wanted to work.

Phil Kirschner (06:25):
A lot of companies didn’t. They didn’t survey, they didn’t study. Either wasn’t top of mind, like workplaces, people came to the office just because. So they don’t have a baseline. So in this moment where everybody’s pattern changed overnight and their preferences changed overnight, they’re grasping for, what should I do now? And you’d always say in any industry, right? If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. And they’re grasping for data that just doesn’t exist for them before. And it’s so hard then to know what to do next. Baseline yourself of what was going on before, especially with assumptions of who was, or wasn’t around or ever working remotely before.

Phil Kirschner (07:03):
And then maybe the last one I offer is, no matter what any individual company thinks is the right pattern for their people, or no matter what they do or don’t know about what was going on before, the ship has clearly sailed. For certain demographics, certain industries, especially technology workers, software development, where the trend was already increasing pre COVID in the adoption of remote and flexible patterns, and even gig work, the ship sailed. It is not going back, for huge categories of workers that almost every company needs, no matter what your current employee base thinks.

Phil Kirschner (07:42):
So it’s a very difficult position to be in, where you have multimillion dollar decisions on the line. What do you do when you’re staring down the barrel of a very expensive lease or 1,000 people you’re trying to hire in this moment of incredible confusion?

Ryan Anderson (07:55):
Yeah. It’s probably difficult to easily characterize this, but if you had to describe the mentality or the attitude of the people that you might work with or serve, is it that they feel like they’re on their heels and they’re defensive and they know they need to do something, or is there a strong desire to move forward, but they’re not exactly sure how? How would you characterize just the mood or the temperament of those that you might come alongside to help?

Phil Kirschner (08:21):
Yeah, I think the higher up the stack you go, the more confident people are in the need for change. And one of the clear messages we’ve been giving to clients is, even more than before, where you and I have probably both said some variation of, you need to have IT and HR and real estate at the table together to make coordinated decisions about the workplace.

Ryan Anderson (08:44):
I think you and I were saying that about a decade ago.

Phil Kirschner (08:46):
Yeah, exactly. Right. The three legged stool or some other metaphor about those three groups in particular. And I would’ve advised the client back in the day to say, yeah. You need to have some kind of a committee that looks at this and you all play nice and you make decisions together. That’s gone now. This is now a … well, same parties. But is unavoidably, a CEO level initiative to cut across the discipline lines. So the further down you go, when you get to a head of real estate or a technology leader or human resources leader, it is very difficult in a moment of stress, not to acquiesce to the thing that you know, or that you are being held accountable for.

Phil Kirschner (09:24):
So in real estate, it is feeling on the back foot, and how do I size this? What do I do about this lease or HR? What do I do about people that are leaving or I’m struggling to attract … to think about just one issue. So it really has to be escalated to the CEO. And that’s what we are messaging to all of our clients. This, like it or not, is your job now.

Ryan Anderson (09:45):
That makes sense. Everyone’s trying to fit years worth of conversation into months. And it’s not like you can just stop what your job is while you completely figure this out.

Phil Kirschner (09:53):
Right. And I think that’s why we’re also seeing the advent of new, ideally executive level roles related to what it feels like to work somewhere. Whether that’s head of remote, head of dynamic work, head of virtual-first, chief employee experience officer. Head of future of work. Something like that, where delegated by the CEO, someone is put in the middle of that group to mediate, right? And cut across the lines and do nothing but think about this problem, all day, every day. Without fear that the lights go out in Boston and they get a phone call, or it’s HR comp season and they get sucked into that vortex. That … yeah. CEO and delegated to new and interesting titles related to the future of work and workplace.

Ryan Anderson (10:42):
Well, part of this, of course, is that our work has become increasingly digitized. And I can’t help but notice that many people want to see work either as entirely digital, like the physical space doesn’t exist or it’s not important, or it’s entirely placed dependent. Any thoughts on helping organizations to navigate the role of the physical space as their work becomes more digitized?

Phil Kirschner (11:05):
Yeah. I have a strong, very strong negative feeling about the word hybrid in particular, which is probably the most common term applied to the situation that everybody finds themselves in. Hybrid as defined, is literally the mix of two things, and home, office. Which just, it does not cover all the permutations of modalities of work right now, in when and where and how. And so I’m most often advising I think the future workplace is virtual-first, but by no means placeless.

Phil Kirschner (11:41):
And the reason I say virtual-first is that no matter where we find ourselves in this world, whether either with someone else or by ourselves, that the behavior still has to be digitally led. Someone is always not going to be there. And that was probably true before. We all had like, our colleague Mary, based in London, who was always on the phone. 10 people in the room, one person on the phone, and it was a terrible experience to be that person on the phone. We kind of knew that. We sort of knew it. Now we all really know it, because we’ve all been that person on the phone. We’ve had this experience of what it’s like when you’re not in the room when the conversation is happening. Or because of the sheer volume of working meetings now disconnected in time from when the conversation happens.

Phil Kirschner (12:24):
So by saying virtual-first, it is setting an intention that I’m going to be behave in such a way that the place doesn’t matter. Better behavior around agendas and planning for meeting or notes after meetings. Better use of digital whiteboarding tools instead of the physical whiteboard. So that even with all best intentions of being together, when someone gets sick or client travel takes them out of the room, that the experience is still inclusive for them. And then with that behavior in hand, if you can get together for what we would say are the real moments that matter, great. It’s icing on the cake. Everything’s better usually, right?

Phil Kirschner (13:03):
The connection is better when we have a moment to be together. But still, you have to behave digitally, because that allows you to be more inclusive to the people who aren’t there. Inclusive to people who can’t be there at the same time. Inclusive of introverts. Inclusive of gig workers, maybe coming and going faster inside your organization who don’t understand the cultural norms. And in a way is even, the more digital friendly we are, the more automation friendly we are down the line as we get better with these kinds of tools. So it is a net positive to have that intention. Focus on the inclusion of people and then follow with the places that can make the experience even better.

Ryan Anderson (13:36):
Do you think there’s a risk then if organizations don’t take that approach, that some of that digital transformation work that’s happened in the last couple years could be reversed as content on a physical whiteboard replaces a digital one, or decisions in a hallway or replace those that might be done within a collaboration platform?

Phil Kirschner (13:56):
Yeah, there’s absolutely a risk of sliding back the other way if people are feeling really stressed in this moment, but I mean, we were bad at it before. We were really bad at meeting culture, having unnecessary meetings, or excluding people on the phone, not doing agendas, not taking notes. But what we are learning from the companies that are the most successfully distributed, largely those that have been doing this since long before COVID, this culture of increased asynchronous communication, increased documentation of how things are done, how we work with each other, is critical to sustaining any level of true distribution in where and when. Where we are when we’re working, when we are working, it’s a practice that would’ve helped us before.

Ryan Anderson (14:40):
Yeah. I’m in line with your thinking. And for me, that doesn’t in any way discourage me from thinking that the physical environment isn’t incredibly important, because we’re always somewhere, whether we’re alone, whether we’re together. I think the physical environment in this world of more digitized working is really important, but it’s there to support that highly digital process you described.

Ryan Anderson (15:03):
Hey, friends, we’ll get back to our episode in just a moment. But first, I wanted to take this opportunity to let you know that Looking Forward is part of Surround, a podcast network curated by SANDOW Design Group. Surround brings together some of the best architecture and design-driven audio content available. So if you like what you hear from us, visit surroundpodcasts.com and check out some of the other great shows on the network.

Ryan Anderson (15:27):
I’m curious, given all of your years in thinking about how the future workplace might evolve, how do you now view its primary purpose? The value that it adds to individuals and organizations?

Phil Kirschner (15:41):
Yeah. When I was at WeWork, our workplace team was largely focused on what was called, the powered by we business, at the time. So that was, I would say, we go to you, not, you come to us. Taking all the best of what WeWork knew about design and activation, but going to a client’s context and really doing it in a consulting led way. Because we’re coming to your building. There’s lots of space and things we don’t control here. So we have to understand quite a lot about you before we go and place something into your environment. And after two years of doing that, we looked back and were looking for common themes in all of the vision statements, the north stars, the guiding principles that ever came out of any of those projects.

Phil Kirschner (16:25):
And a shockingly high percentage, maybe two thirds or a little bit more of all the projects, across industries, different regions, at least one of the core, core principles was around connection. And this was 2018, 2019. And I’m sure it was informed a little bit by WeWork’s way of thinking about community spaces, but in the result of the clients learning about us and us learning about them, that word always bubbled up as something that they were like, we struggle with that. We’re really good at collaboration, but that’s, I push paper around better with you than I was pushing paper around before, digitally or physically.

Phil Kirschner (17:04):
But our people don’t really know each other. They don’t really trust each other. And we see it in moments of stress. Again, pre COVID, they’re like, so we would love to build an environment that is purposely oriented around constantly strengthening the true human bonds and connection between our employees. Which was getting harder and harder all the time because, again, pre COVID, Zoom, our phones, lots of things were already making it easy for us to just go down a hole and not, not talk to each other. So I started saying then what I now believe even more, which was that I think the workplace of the future, shifting away from the activity-based terminology that we’ve been using for the last 10 or 20 years, is going to be connectivity-based.

Phil Kirschner (17:50):
Connectivity-based workplace, both physically and digitally, which is to say if I was being assessed every day on … I’m not part of McKinsey’s corporate real estate team. But did McKinsey’s real estate today work? Did it work? One of the salient things I would be quizzing myself on is, did we increase the connection between our employees? And yes, our mission, our projects, our teams, our ways of getting help, resources, and maybe even cool cityscape stuff like transit or nature, but ultimately, each other. Do you know more people now, and are you seeing them, seeing the real humanity in the other people around you? Because the bandaid has been ripped off by COVID. There is no such thing as work Phil and home life Phil anymore. They are not the same. Colleagues, people I worked with or worked for me, knew I was a parent before. Now they know I’m a parent.

Ryan Anderson (18:50):
They know your kids, probably.

Phil Kirschner (18:51):
They know my kids, they know my kids’ costumes. They know …

Ryan Anderson (18:54):
They know your costumes.

Phil Kirschner (18:56):
They know my costumes. They know the voice they’ve all heard … and I’ve done it with my colleagues. Formal business Phil immediately drop into, oh, are you okay? Because you’re now crying next to me, like parental Phil. The divide is gone. And we like that, I think, actually. It’s been incredibly engaging. And so because we’ve discovered that the times we want to be together, the so-called moments that matter are largely we-oriented, group-oriented, most of the purpose for most of the things that we call offices, I think will be to fuel the strengths and bonds, the connections between our employees and the problems that they’re trying to solve for themselves and their clients.

Ryan Anderson (19:36):
I love that description. That resonates so true. I have a similar anecdote.

Phil Kirschner (19:40):
About costumes?

Ryan Anderson (19:42):
Not about the costumes, but about this core reason of being for space. Right at the end of 2019, I think it was November of 2019, I got a chance to speak at the Festival of Innovation in Sao Paulo. And I was asked about the future workplace. And I said, well, can we all hypothetically imagine that we close all of our offices for a couple years and just decide to work remotely? And let’s imagine the good things that would come of it, and there were, but also some of the challenges we would face. And so I posed it to the group. By the way, I did catch a little bit of heat several months later like, what were you thinking? Not that I had anything to do with that. But that’s what people came back to.

Ryan Anderson (20:23):
And I think if I’m being a little hard on the industry, meaning the interiors or workplace industry, maybe we in the past defaulted to, you should be in the office to collaborate, when we know that you can collaborate quite effectively, digitally. But this type of connection, if you think about long distance romantic relationships or any other relationship in our lives, we do crave being together, don’t we?

Phil Kirschner (20:47):
We do. I used to go a whole hour from Brooklyn to the Upper West Side in New York to see my now wife. We used to call that a long distance relationship. Which I mean, in terms of embarrassing historical stories, I remember at the beginning of the pandemic, looking for a document and coming across something I’d written in 2015 for my then boss at Credit Suisse. All the reasons why mobile workplaces are great. And sadly, in a long list of bullets, there it was, pandemic preparedness.

Ryan Anderson (21:14):
Oh, wow.

Phil Kirschner (21:15):
I was like, oh, no. It’s true. But here we are.

Ryan Anderson (21:18):
Well, let’s talk about where we’re at. Because I think a lot of organizations sense what you’re getting at, but might not be able to articulate it nearly as clearly. And are in the midst of either encouraging their employees, or in some cases actually mandating their employees to spend X amount of time in the office. What do you think, good approach? Is that, long term, going to prove to be successful?

Phil Kirschner (21:42):
I don’t think so. No. The mandates, that is. We were not being told what to do by our employers before, generally. We went to the office because, kind of like the thing you did. It’s just the thing we all did. You went. It’s office-based culture. Sometimes, maybe you had to be somewhere else. You traveled for work, you went for training. But no one was telling you, come into the office. And folks like me who say, gosh, it’s really weird when you tell a 22 year old that’s just come out of college, and they’ve spent four years working in dozens of different places in dozens of different contexts … depending on their mood and what they’re doing. When they get to your office, isn’t it weird that you go, sit? Sit here in this one little box for you.

Phil Kirschner (22:29):
You haven’t really told them to show up at the building, but I think it’s weird that once they’re here you’re like, you should sit exactly in that place all the time. I was like, that’s just not going to resonate with them, because they’re not used to being told what to do. And they’re used to having all this choice, and now you’re telling them [inaudible 00:22:43] not have a choice. So that disconnect was already happening, but now we have had ultimate flexibility. We vote with our feet and no longer have to hide the fact that that office that most of us came from probably wasn’t so great before. We didn’t really love it.

Phil Kirschner (22:58):
So now you’re saying, you must be here, is almost akin to someone saying, you must eat dinner at this terrible, terrible restaurant that is all the way across town. It’ll take you an hour to get to, it’s all the way across town, and some of your friends may not even be there. So they’re going to resist. They are resisting now.

Ryan Anderson (23:18):
That is a powerful analogy. And to your earlier point about data, I have had organizations tell me that they’re shooting for 70 or 75% occupancy on a daily basis, when I think if I recall from maybe 2018, 2019, having maybe 60% of people show up to the building, but seeing 35, 40% desk utilization was normal on a given day. It may be that without those baselines, the expectation isn’t just to see something similar to what was going on in 2019, it might be unrealistically high even beyond that. But what you’re saying makes a ton of sense to me.

Ryan Anderson (23:55):
I do have to ask though, if the restaurant’s crappy and we’re encouraging people to want to spend quality time together, it sounds like some improvements are required?

Phil Kirschner (24:06):
Well, yeah. And there’s a couple of points there. So by the time this comes out, optimistically, I will have written a short piece on the framing that I think is more useful in this context. Which is instead of telling people where you must be at certain times, or trying to manipulate them that way, that what we’re not talking about enough is choice. And I was inspired a couple weeks ago when I was reading the book, Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein’s book, and it talks about workplace choice architectures, or choice architectures in general. Helping us humans make a decision that is good for us. And that’s applied in picking healthy food, right? In some cafeterias or restaurants, prominent display.

Phil Kirschner (24:45):
And in the workplace, the term choice architecture was always applied to usually, like 401ks. Welcome to McKinsey. You’ve joined today. Unless you say otherwise, we’re going to automatically enroll you in our retirement program. Not at a crazy level, but at some level. Which, if you forget that we did that, you won’t be so upset, but we know, and lots of science knows it’s good for you. But I think that there’s room now to reclaim that … or claim it now. The concept of workplace choice architecture to help people make the decision about where and when and how to do work, because going to work was not hard before. We got up, we went to the same place. We largely sat in the same seat. The person next to us is there. We knew where the big conference room was, it wasn’t hard.

Phil Kirschner (25:26):
It gets harder when you took the baby step into desk sharing. Anyone who ever explored those programs in the office, like which seat do I sit in? How do I behave? Few more choices. But now it’s, do I commute at all? If I do, probably less likely that I have an assigned seat, as office offices shrink to react to this demand. Are my friends going to be there? The people that I want to be there? Are we going to be able to get the room that we want to do the thing that we have to do today? Is the weather nice? Is the transit moving the way I want to? All these … there’s dozens of variables now that go into this decision that we’re trying to make in real time. It’s really, it’s oppressively complicated. And when we are faced with increased friction, the easiest thing is to acquiesce and just go, nah, I’ll stay here.

Phil Kirschner (26:06):
So the onus on employers is to really take a test and learn, data-driven approach to figuring out, as I said earlier, the moments that matter. The actual activities that objectively result in better outcomes when they’re done, let’s just say, in real time. Maybe virtually, but also in person. And socializing with employees. Sharing those stories when people go, hey, we, the whatever, the marketing team, have found out that our every two week sprint planning meeting we’ve all just anchored, that is always better when we do it in a condensed block of time in front of each other. And we throw in lunch, that these kinds of meetings work better.

Phil Kirschner (26:55):
That if you share those stories, that ultimately not only can you have other teams making the same decision, but I look forward to the day where we can apply the kind of AI-driven, nudge science that is already being used in certain industries. Like the kind of technology that tells a call center representative where to take the call or how someone is feeling based on what they’re saying. This nudging in the background, can we apply that to the workplace to say, hey, you are supposed to have that planning meeting with Ryan. And surprise, surprise Ryan’s in New York today. And maybe you should go, or you definitely should go to the office. Would you like me to book a room? Would you like me to get you lunch? Eventually saying, yes, Siri. Thank you, right? That’s making it easy for us.

Phil Kirschner (27:42):
And hopefully … back to what we said earlier. A greater scrutiny around meeting culture and an increased use of asynchronous communications, in theory means that the act of adjusting our day or days a few days in advance, doesn’t feel so crazy as it does right now. If my phone suggested, go see Ryan tomorrow. Go into a place you weren’t planning to go in, for a few hours. I’d be like, that’s bananas. Have you seen my schedule? No way. But my schedule shouldn’t be that way to begin with, so that I can actually make a better choice that leads to a better outcome, both for the company and for the individual.

Ryan Anderson (28:14):
Yeah. You’re talking about equipping people to take charge of their own productivity. And rethink, or maybe think for the first time, about the where, the when, the who, in ways that maybe we didn’t in the past. And the reason why that resonates so much with me, is that for organizations that are supporting more flexible working or hybrid or whatever you want to call it, I’m often in a situation where I might have to remind someone, particularly someone senior in organizational leadership that providing more autonomy to employees should really not be viewed as a concession.

Ryan Anderson (28:46):
Ideally, to whom much is given much as expected. Those employees now need to be accountable for more goal-based performance metrics, making sure that they’re getting their work done, that they’re being inclusive of their teammates. And we shouldn’t assume that just because we give people more choice, that they know how to navigate those choices to produce the best outcomes.

Phil Kirschner (29:06):
Right. And the company can still have a perspective. It can be over time, a little paternalistic, right? You can gently nudge someone to make a decision which is also good for you as the company, but it should be based on information. They’re already really fascinating tools out there. One called Gong, have you ever heard of Gong?

Ryan Anderson (29:24):

Phil Kirschner (29:26):
I know it a little bit, but they listen in on sales calls. It’s like a little agent that sits in the background for a seller, and listens for behavioral changes … well, or even just words that you use or how long you let the other person speak versus you. And it’s connected to your sales system, Salesforce or whatever. So that it actually can play back to an individual sales representative, hey, did you know, your colleague over there sells 10 X better than you, but your colleague also uses the word compliance 10 X more than you. And it’s playing that back to guarantee, if you try to introduce this word or listen a little bit more, speak a little bit less, try it this way, it’s going to have a better outcome for you. Which in the case of sales professionals, probably means more money in their pocket.

Phil Kirschner (30:12):
We are inclined to listen to instruction, or suggestions if there’s a clear path to why it is better for you to take that course of action. And not just like, you must be in the office three days a week.

Ryan Anderson (30:22):
While the notion of a nudge or some automated tool set to do that’s provocative, I think based on what you’re saying, even as a starting point, helping employees to have a series of questions, who am I spending time with this week? What might be the best location? What type of work setting would lend itself to the sort of work we’re doing? Maybe if it’s co-creative, a traditional conference room isn’t going to cut it. Just to get people beginning to think a little bit more about navigating choice.

Phil Kirschner (30:50):
Yeah. And you nailed that. And that comes back to the office question. Instead of going across town to the terrible … oh, I have to go in. The machine has told me that I have to quote, “go in” for this activity, or I should. I should go meet this person or that senior leader that I was on a project once six months ago, who is not based in my town, is here this week. It’d be like, oh, that’s awesome. I would like to see that person, right? No one’s telling me, I want to do it. But that doesn’t mean I necessarily have to go to the bad restaurant across town. Maybe it’s like, go to the nice coffee shop nearby.

Phil Kirschner (31:21):
Be together, also does not mean it’s in quote, “the office” as we thought of it before. It can be in a bazillion other places, which are workplaces or not workplaces, but focusing on the work. The how and the when and with whom, but placing less emphasis necessarily on it always being in the same place that was built for one purpose, before even going forward.

Ryan Anderson (31:42):
I know that I could talk to you for the next hour, but I’m going to move towards a close with one specific question. Because you commented something to me recently that really got me thinking that companies formed after 2020 or more recently, will have a totally different perspective on supporting work. They’re not going to be in this transition. Tell me more about your thoughts there.

Phil Kirschner (32:04):
It just was like hybrid. I think I had that realization one day after hearing the words, return, and return, and return, over and over again. Maybe the more I got to know folks in the fully remote ecosystem, thought leaders and practitioners from the GitLabs of the world. Someone like Darren Murph, at GitLab, who’s amazing to work with.

Ryan Anderson (32:27):
Shout out to Darren. We had him on season one.

Phil Kirschner (32:30):
I know. And I listened and enjoyed. And Darren is amazing, having come from the world of advising boring companies in physical space, to learning about someone who advises cool companies in no space. It is a nice departure from my old world. The more I really got to understand that culture and what was happening and how so many smaller companies in particular, and startups were embracing this, at least remote-first, if not exclusively mentality, both for talent … because they’re like, we can get people faster, everywhere. And also for cost. Why take on the biggest scariest, longest commitment cost possibly of our company’s lifetime, other than salary, within weeks of start … why? That’s crazy.

Phil Kirschner (33:19):
When we need space, we will get space for the thing that we need the space for. We don’t need it all the time. And even seeing really enormous tech companies like a Stripe, always talked about their remote hub during the pandemic. And how for reasons of hiring, and even employee diversity … not just normal diversity measures. But they were crediting the role of remote workers, in their case like, we try to have payments everywhere, but now we have an employee in a country where we’re trying to implement payment systems. And we actually know what it’s like to live there because we had that one person who we hired for this, for no other reason. But taking all that together is like, this return is no longer applicable to those companies.

Phil Kirschner (34:02):
And to anyone who says and funnels clients to me, oh, well, you cannot do X, Y or Z in a full remote context, for our company of 1,000 people or something. And then I’d say, well then look at GitLab, which has 1,500 people in 60 odd whatever country it is. Oh, by the way, they went public last year at a 10 or $11 billion valuation. So they’re a real company. This is no longer just some startup you’ve never heard of. They’re public and they’ve never had an office ever. So clearly you can do those things. I’m not saying it works in all context for everybody, but the next class of unicorns will be born remote, certainly.

Ryan Anderson (34:41):
I think you’re right. And one of the things that has given me confidence over the years … because I think my team started looking at remote-first companies, maybe back in 2013 or ’14. Is just how many of them actually do end up with not only great home workspaces, which is something I think any organization should think about supporting, but many of them have amazing offices. Because they weren’t conceptualized with any preconceived notion of what the office should be, other than what the employees might really love.

Phil Kirschner (35:09):
Yeah. And you’re following the … you may follow more like the Dropbox studio model now. I’m saying, listen, if we have a critical mass of employees, we do like them to be able to get together. We would like to support that, but we’re still not building individual workspaces everywhere.

Ryan Anderson (35:21):

Phil Kirschner (35:21):
And the companies like a GitLab, and even WeWork while I was there, believe in large scale, high experience and connectivity, in-person events that don’t have to take place in an office, per se. They could be all off sites. But you get a lot of karmic juice out of two full days spent with someone in a very experiential, connectivity oriented context. And that could carry you for months of not being around that person, having difficult conversations, doing stressful work.

Phil Kirschner (35:53):
So again, they were remote first for daily work, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t appreciate the power of being together for the moments that matter.

Ryan Anderson (36:02):
On that note, I will bring us to a close. I’m thankful for you and for the insights you’ve shared with us. I appreciate you being on the podcast today.

Phil Kirschner (36:09):
I’m so thrilled to have had this chance, and can’t wait to hear the rest of the … whoever you’ve got coming up on the season. It’s really fantastic.

Ryan Anderson (36:17):
Thanks, Phil.


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Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson is one of the contract furniture industry’s leading voices exploring how changes in technology, design, and management practices are reshaping work.

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