This week, we welcome Corinne Murray, founder of Agate Studio. As a leading workplace strategist, Corinne helps organizations think differently about how they approach the creation, management, and evolution of their places of work. In an enlightening conversation, Ryan and Corinne explore the nuanced world of the future of work, touching on several approaches employers can use to evaluate both the built and social work environments to improve employee experience.
For more content geared to help organizations prepare for the future of work, visit https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/designing-better-tomorrow-millerknoll/.
Speaker 1 (00:06):
This is looking forward. Conversations about the future of work brought to you by MillerKnoll.
Hey friends. Today we talk with Corinne Murray, founder of Agate studio. Corinne has a deep background in workplace strategy and commercial real estate. She provides us a really helpful perspective for any organization on how traditional approaches to real estate planning are being deeply challenged by a need to understand employees in new ways and their preferences, and ultimately how a new approach to piloting can provide a more user centered path towards better offices and better workplace experiences in the future. Enjoy this conversation with Corinne Murray. Hey Corinne, thanks for joining us today.
Hey Ryan, thanks so much for having me.
Well, let’s kick off the way I usually like to, which is tell our listeners a little bit about you and what you do.
I am the founder of Agate Studio, a small consulting studio, really just hoping to help companies figure out what comes next from this post pandemic inflection point that we’re still wrestling with. So whether they’re companies that are just starting out and need to build their foundation around whatever their idea is, their product is, or helping a company really go through the transformation of what do we look like as a post COVID company. So not just return to office or are we remote first. There’s a whole set of other really needy and people centered items that need to be sorted out before you start deciding, what does my workplace look like? When do my people come in? What do they come in for? So really the top to bottom, how do we start the change and how do we actually preserve the change? Because whatever we decide today is probably not going to be salient four or five years from now.
So in a sense, it’s this adaptation that you’re helping to achieve, and you’re building on a pretty awesome background in the world of workplace strategy and beyond, right?
Yes. Yeah. I’ve been around the block in the real estate in the workplace world. I started my career at CBRE. I did market research. I was a broker for a bit. I did corporate accounts and that’s where I was introduced to American Express. I did some mergers and acquisitions, real estate stuff there, which my 25 or so year old brain categorized it as like, oh, this is a corporate divorce. We’re separating the assets, we’re assigning things to different entities. Then that was really where my first foray into workplace happened. I was the manager of the workplace program at Amex, which hindsight being 2020, they were probably one of the only financial services or financial adjacent companies that were ready for the pandemic. There was a remote and flexible working strategy in place for upwards of 10 years. So it says a lot for something … for an industry that is typically known to be the least risky and most steady eddie, they were ahead of the curve. So that’s a cool thing to look back on.
Then I did a very quick stint at Gensler where I really dug into change management and how do we bring people along for the change aspect of things. Then I got swept up by WeWork, which is where you and I met. I had a couple of different lives there as well. First being a more traditional consultant for clients, doing master planning and physical built environment transformations. Then I shifted more into my expertise around activity based working and how do we really start that transformation. So this is the through line, that transformation from everyone’s in a desk to let everyone have choice within the workplace. It’s since evolved obviously into not just flexibility and choice in the office, but flexibility and choice by geography. Are you home? Are you in another place? Are you in the office? Things like that.
Then in between that, I was at RXR, which is a big landlord here in New York City, and I was their first workplace hire, really helping them to just translate what does a commercial real estate portfolio look like for way more dynamic workers. Even prior to the pandemic, landlords were starting to see these changes and needing WeWork-ish or lounge-like environments or shared economy environments for their tenants just to make buildings more competitive and also just more fluid. That’s a whole other ball of wax that maybe you and I can get into another time, but the commercial side of real estate is really poised for some tremendous change, I think, in the next five or so years. So we’ll see how that plays out.
This arc that you’re describing in my mind, it’s like you were moving from the real estate and even real estate transactions closer and closer to the people, closer and closer to the work. That’s kind of how I caught you somewhere in the middle. That’s some of the best conversations we’ve had for me is just what does this really look like? What does that intersection look like?
Whether conscious or not, there definitely was this gravitational pull toward you can’t solve the space and the real estate and the design stuff until you solve the people stuff. And part of that was just sort of like the undercurrent. You would pick up on hints of it here and there. Then there were projects where, especially one that I did at WeWork where we redesigned and transformed the whole headquarter space in a ridiculously short amount of time with no change management attached to it. So anyone who is listening to this and understands change management is probably clutching their pearls and thinking how and why. I’ll say we just didn’t have … there weren’t two of me basically.
Yeah, yeah. Oh no. I remember what you shouldered there. Anytime you create a space or workplace experience for an organization that specializes in delivering it, you are signing on to just take it on the chin. That is a really tough choice. I have a tremendous amount of empathy for those that do it for our organization.
It was not for the faint of heart. An incredible amount of learning came out of it, stuff that still rings really true to me today and I think is really part of why I’ve continued to gravitate more and more in the organizational design org psychology and people side of things, because we worked so hard on creating spaces and this program that we really stress tested and tried to do the best that we could with whatever resources and time we had. But we did not have the buy in of the majority of people who were going to be using it. There was just too much friction and our very well thought out and thoughtful ideas crashed because the users weren’t willing to use it the way we needed them to. So that really crash and burn moment, even though it was on a day to day basis, it was fine.
It felt crash and burn to me as it was a brain child, but we learned so much about it. Doesn’t matter how smart the idea is. If you can’t have the people with you, it’s not going to work.
So I’ve really anchored myself around that learning. That’s why I’m really, really passionate and deliberate about this post COVID world. We need to sort out the people stuff before we start genuinely talking about how we design our spaces and what even spaces we need. We’re jumping the shark on those things because there’s so many people dynamics and invisible stuff that needs sorting and designing first.
Well, you’re offering up a really important principle and I think anybody who’s gone out and tried to do anything ambitious in terms of workplace design strategy has probably come across the learning. Maybe not in such a pronounced way as you just described that, if the people aren’t on board or if they’re not engaged in the process, it is super risky. You’re probably going to have those moments where you’re like, huh, this felt like a great idea, but there’s a disconnect between how people want to work and how they want to use a space and the way we anticipated it. But Hey, you can learn from those experiences. Can’t we?
A hundred percent. I don’t know the whole poem, but there’s this old … I think it’s Scottish, this poem of just best laid plans. It’s this ironic reflection on, sure, you did everything with the best of intentions and then reality happened. If you’re not paying attention to that reality, then you’re not actually able to learn. That’s where being in house versus a consultant is a really interesting dynamic. Consultants don’t often get to live that reality and practitioners, the people that are in the house operating the thing have way more experience with that crash course.
Hey friends, we’ll get back to our episode in just a moment, but first I want to take this opportunity to let you know that looking forward is part of Surround, a podcast network curated by [inaudible 00:09:29] 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 surroundpodcast.com and check out some of the other great shows on the network.
Well, you reminded me of a question that I want to ask you. You and I were together at a conference earlier this year and you were facilitating. It was a group of several dozen leaders in workplace strategy and real estate. Everyone kind of had a chance to nominate what they wanted to talk about as a group. The topic that really rose to the top was what does it look like to pilot new experiences without a lot of capital? I’m wondering maybe if the motivation behind so many people wanted to do that is what you just said, the knowledge that you can’t really just pick up and deploy some huge new program without some solid testing, but maybe organizations don’t have a ton of resources to go do it.
Yeah, funnily enough, I haven’t even seen that much progress since February. I’m speaking just from my little worldview, I feel like a lot of companies and a lot of leaders are still stymied by the fact that there are no benchmarks. There’s no data that is giving them, you should be going in this direction. So there’s a lot of analysis or lack of analysis and therefore paralysis because companies and decision makers historically, pre COVID, were able to look at these are best practices, or these are the stats that you can measure yourself against. Leesman being one of a really great resource for that. Even MillerKnoll, your resources have been so helpful in creating those ideas, but we’re a ground zero. The fear of making bad choices is holding a lot of companies back from making any choices.
That’s something that I really am trying to focus on with Agate of, we got to just do something. It doesn’t matter if it’s define wrong, because if it’s not the right thing, then it’s okay. You adapt and you go to the next, or you tweak it just a bit. But those pilots are really crucial because that is where the data is going to come from. There isn’t universal data that exists yet. It probably won’t other than sentiment data. I was just reading through a McKinsey report and a future forum report from a couple of weeks ago. We’re only going to have anecdotal and sentiment data for a while because we just don’t have people consistently coming into a common space where we can say, oh, this what’s driving people to come here.
So it’s too early, so we need to just be comfortable with taking some suppositions and moving with it without investing millions and millions of dollars. Find the budget way to test the same thing and communicate it to your people and say, we’re operating with just about as much data as you guys are, but we have a hunch about this thing. We want you to help us test it. We want to hear from you and we want to know, is it working? What does it specifically work for you? Do you see it existing in your work patterns going into the future? Those are all relatively simple and binary questions to ask.
So it’s low friction on the survey perspective, which every end user, every human is probably surveyed out from the past two and a half years. So the lower the hurdle we make that, the better. And that’s enough to at least go in a specific direction, but it’s gutsy. You have to be okay with the fact that this is a hunch. It might not work, but it’ll get us closer to something else.
Yeah. Gutsy, but strategic because really what you’re saying is, if this is a time of ambiguity, then this is a time for experimentation and problem solving. Waiting for clarity could be a big mistake. I was smiling when you were talking because probably once every two weeks I get a call from someone saying, what are the new occupancy planning ratios for the post pandemic workplace? Thankfully we’ve got a group of application designers who can help navigate that with a little more nuance than I can, but I usually have to start the answer with, well, I don’t know that those exist. We have to figure out what’s right for you and your folks first.
Which is an honest answer, but it’s not always a very satisfying one for someone who is maybe used to something that feels a little more formulaic.
So that’s actually a really good point too, of there is this chasm between needing to experiment and people having that fire in the belly to want to do that, and those that are in a position of just, I need someone to guide me. I need someone to just tell me what it is. That’s very reflective of the real estate and workplace adjacent industry as a whole. We move from certainty to certainty. Think about the built environment itself. We never are like, okay, it’s half finished so you can start now and we’ll keep [inaudible 00:14:39] as you go. It’s, this is a built space. This other one’s under construction. And once it’s done, you’ll be able to come in. That’s a very opposite mindset to experimentation, continuous improvement and iteration. Certainty to certainty is literally the opposite of staying in beta, figuring out what to tweak and moving on, getting feedback and acting like a product team.
That’s well put. I like that, certainty to certainty. You and I have chatted a little bit about this in the past, but one of the things that maybe is holding this back or at least complicating it is an extreme focus on occupancy numbers, almost to the point of where it feels like some are watching it like the stock market.
Are we at 42 point percent of pre pandemic occupancy? Which is interesting, because I don’t know that everybody knew their pre pandemic occupancy levels, but I take it that for many, this is now the sole measure of success. But I’m just curious, this is a big question, but if you were to think about a successful workplace, how do you begin to define it?
Yeah. The hang up on occupancy is definitely, that’s going to be a hard one to get people over because that was the measure from call it 2010 to 2020. So for a whole decade, that was the thing that we needed to know, but we needed to know it for different reasons. Pre pandemic, we needed to know those numbers to make sure that a fire marshal wasn’t going to get called because there were too many people on a floor because we spent that whole decade densifying and making space smaller and making things more efficient, which inherently meant we were going to have more people on a floor than ever before. Another polarity thing, we’re now seeing the complete opposite of … there could be one person on an entire 20,000 square foot floor.
Certainly in big cities. We’re seeing such disparities, yeah.
Oh my gosh. It’s wild. I can’t remember the number, but I saw this stat of something about London real estate. There’s enough vacancy in central London that it out matches all the new development that’s getting planned. It was something just … there’s a ton of vacancies, the too long, didn’t read version of this. But in terms of what are the new measures for success, in a lot of ways, we need to be thinking about the employees as customers or consumers of that workplace. So what is attracting them there and is it functional in a way that they need it to be, and will they come back, or will they come back for that same reason? So we’re at this point where it’s no longer, it’s a foregone conclusion. Work is happening, therefore people will be in the office. That’s obvious. We’ve departed from that with the exception of certain industries or certain niches within industries.
So we need to think about people as consumers. The reason that that’s such an important shift is they now have tons of choices and they also know way more about how to use them. Prior to the pandemic, technically speaking, everyone had the same set of flexible options, but companies did not condone or endorse or sponsor the idea of you can work from a coffee shop or you can work from home. All of it was very permission based rather than just you have agency. You do what you need to do. That shift is making this more obvious of every workplace is now competing with no fewer than three different types of places. One being the home, the other being a co-working space, and the other being a coffee shop or a hotel lobby or some other sort of lounge that is just outside of the home, but not a workspace.
So that’s a lot of competition just by that. Then you add in travel and really doing the work from anywhere kind of life. A company needs to start thinking, okay, if we’re going to be investing in this asset, we need to make sure that we’re investing in things that people are going to come in and use. You can’t just assume we’re going to tell you to come in Tuesday through Thursday and we’ve done our job. What are you designing for a 30 person team to do a quarterly workshop. And not just what space are you designing. What other programmatic stuff are you designing for them? All the way down to the granularity of booking systems, like catering. Is there someone who is a community manager or just office manager kind of person that is setting everything up. So that way the team can just come in and plug and play.
Are you extending it even further to say you the team are the customers of this big room planning or this workshop. We’re actually going to provide you with a facilitator, so that way you all can be actively engaged rather than managing the room. Obviously that’s one that matters to me because I’ve been on both sides of that. Being a facilitator and a teammate at the same time, quite hard, but really thinking about that as an experience and all the different touch points. Just the same way that, if you’re on vacation, you’re thinking about all these different things. Or if you are booking a big dinner for a friend’s birthday or something like that, you’re thinking about all these tiny details. Whereas in a work setting, we just think, all right, we’ve got the space and then we’ll figure it all out.
You’re talking about a much deeper level of consideration. I kind of actually the language around office space or corporate workspaces competing with those arenas. I know that might for some feel like, uh-oh, but maybe it’s my, or our team’s natural sense of optimism. But I don’t know that a lot of us here were particularly thrilled with that highly densified, it’s just a given, everyone comes in approach to workplace design. So this journey towards much higher degree of consideration, treating the employee and teams as customers and trying to determine the value of the space rather than just the day to the occupancy of it, to me feels like a long overdue correction.
Basically a market correction in what the workplace can be.
I couldn’t agree more. Even as you were just describing this, I was remembering the feelings or what was really on my mind, especially at WeWork, and my time at WeWork was spent with enterprise clients, so big companies, and then also looking inward. So I was looking at WeWork’s employees and our workspace and the capital thing that was on my mind was how do I provide enough people with more of a release valve? Because everything was so dense. Everything was so loud, everything was so busy. So I was wired to think about things as a mitigation strategy. How do I make this suck the least possible amount? That was literally my mission. This is a way more fun mission to play around with because it’s creative and it’s people centered rather than, okay, this is the box that we’ve now decreased by 20%. We need to fit the same number of people in there, and we need to make sure that they’re happy about it. This one’s way more fun.
Yeah. It’s ambiguous because it’s not so quantitative in its nature, but yeah, it’s definitely more aspirational. I want to pick up on one thing you said earlier. I can’t remember exactly how you framed it, but something about the evolutionary constant [inaudible 00:22:36] of a space. I am intrigued with what it looks like for spaces to get better over time and to not necessarily remain static. We’ve definitely seen this among organizations we’re working with. There’s a feeling like you’re not likely going to get the design “right” when it there’s so little information to build from and people have been working from home so much. What are your thoughts on a workplace that has that level of adaptation? Is it possible, and how do we begin to approach it?
This is where I am mega optimistic of, I think anything is possible, and I think there are a lot of really interesting design and especially pre-fabricated companies that are really trying to figure this out. I think that’s really right where we are right now, going the FF&E strategy route rather than hard construction route is probably the best bet for companies to endure, let’s say the next five to seven years of what’s probably going to be the highest amount of ambiguity that we feel.
That would be furniture, fixtures, and equipment, for those that aren’t familiar.
For the insiders. So focusing on phone booths, modular meeting rooms, things that don’t need walls and wiring. All those kinds of things I think are probably the best bet now because, one, those capital expenses are fractional of what a whole classic workplace transformation would look like. We don’t even need to get into the environmental benefits of that.
They’re able to be depreciated much quicker.
They’re able to be depreciated way faster on an accounting standpoint. So that means that you can then do that [inaudible 00:24:25] on a more frequent basis than the traditional seven to 10 year asset amortization process, which for those who don’t know, it’s basically the price of whatever the asset is, divided over the course of every single month for seven to 10 years. So that’s mostly why you don’t see workplaces turning over and getting better with really quick, just a lot of frequency. That’s the anchoring on why is the accounting, everything. It comes down to the money. So I do think that assets that are either meant to be played with, like a puzzle, or pre-fabricated units like phone booze or those meeting rooms that you can stick literally anywhere and they will still be functional and of use, are probably the best ways to start.
Again, this is not the end state. If they are no longer suitable in two to three years or three to four years, it’s not a huge drop in the bucket the way that it would be if you spent 20 million on a whole fit out. So the reduced sticker shock definitely makes iteration and that constant [inaudible 00:25:40] less frightening from a budget standpoint, in addition to just the time and effort that goes into making that happen. So there are a couple of companies. I know you guys are working with Canoa, which is started by a friend of mine, and I’m an advisor to. They are essentially a marketplace that is gearing this furniture fixtures, and what’s the E? I always miss this up.
Equipment. They are an FF&E marketplace, but they focus a lot on the carbon footprint of all of these materials. So they’re really striving to strike that balance between how do we build good workplaces with really solid furniture like that from MillerKnoll and the well known names, but giving companies more data of this is the carbon impact of these things and helping them plan out. This is how you can design a space. This is plus or minus what the cost will be, and this is also comparatively what your carbon impact would be for designing this way instead of that way. So that part’s just been cool to see it evolve over time, especially in the past few weeks with the inflation reduction act coming out and all these hopefully very promising things around environmental protections and policies and grants and things like that.
It positions companies who are thinking that way and want to execute with sustainability and carbon footprint in mind. It’s a net benefit from a lot of different perspectives. So I definitely think everything is a Lego box. Anything that you cannot move or put on casters probably is something you should put on the back burner until you know for certain it’s going to be something that is persistently necessary.
Yeah, well put, particularly given that many organizations aren’t looking at specific projects like they once did. They’re trying to evolve an entire portfolio space. So having that modularity … clearly we’re biased because that’s-
… part of the business that we’re in, but to try to imagine gutting an entire floor and doing a build out in this period of ambiguity is maybe a little more difficult than those incremental improvements across the portfolio.
And not to mention the downtime that’s associated with it. We’re still dealing with supply chain issues and raw materials. So there’s a lot of different stuff that plays into … modularity is just beneficial from how you evolve and keep your employees engaged and happy with whatever they’re coming into the office to use. Then also from your own budgeting and much more corporate policy and standard standpoint, it just gives more breathing room, but it’s also new and that’s the hurdle that this stuff needs to overcome.
By the way, on a very random note, I not too long ago, looked up how to spell the word, [inaudible 00:28:32] and was surprised it starts with a T.
Or at least the spelling. Yeah. The spelling I found. How was that for a totally random bit?
That’s good to know. I learned something today.
Well, I want to be mindful of time. I’ll close on this question. If you’re sitting down with new clients and they’ve got some of these considerations in mind, what sort of things are you encouraging them to think about that maybe they aren’t, or that maybe we haven’t yet talked about?
Yeah. I think one of the things that I’ve seen the most consistently and is really part of why I’ve shaped Agate and my positioning the way that I have, is post … I’m not going to say post COVID because it’s still here, but in the window of return to office, which started let’s call it spring of 2021 in earnest, we collectively jumped to real estate and built environment solutions. Let’s get people back, as opposed to thinking we are no longer living in the world that we were living in prior to the pandemic. So we need to top to bottom, not even rethink, but just reexamine everything. I draw that distinction because it’s not necessarily that everything needs to be … you don’t need to throw the baby out with the bath water, but you at least need to take inventory, from a company perspective, what still makes sense and what do we still want to keep? What’s missing, and how do we build this together to basically do an internal brand refresh for our employees?
This is what we were. We had this middle period of just doing what we could with what we had. And now we’re starting to explore. Now that we have all of our historical experience, including these past two and a half years, which everyone under duress has become quite good at working from home. How do we now incorporate all of these learnings into what we want our future to look like? That is a way bigger conversation than how do I get my people back to the office or how do I design my offices? Now that’s at least 15 or 20 questions away from where we really need to be starting.
Yeah, it’s a transition forward, not a return.
That’s exactly it. But again, through that mindset of moving from certainty to certainty, past two years have been super ambiguous and I guarantee there was this feeling of like, oh, thank God. Now we can get back onto some sort of solid ground. But it’s too late to turn back. We have learned and experienced too many things for too long. If COVID truly ended in May of 2020, I probably would still be doing classic workplace strategy, helping people do activity based working and all that kind of stuff. But it’s been two and a half years. The saying is like, you need six months to commit to a new habit. We’ve now done that five times over now?
So leaders and decision makers need to accept that we need to be focusing on what needs to be created. Not necessarily let’s fit everyone back into what we’re used to.
All right, my friend, we appreciate you sharing your insights with us.
Thank you for having me.