Event Recap
2023 CoreNet Global Summit

28 Oct 2023
Event Organizer: CoreNet
Event Link
Tagged as: Speaking Denver

PLASTARC transforms Culture and Space with LPL and ATB

In this opening conversation of CoreNet Global Summit in Denver, CO Melissa Marsh, the founder of PLASTARC, a social research and people analytics organization focused on the built environment, interviewed Stephanie Steele, Vice President of Workplace Strategy and Project Management within the Corporate Real Estate team at LPL Financial, and Krista Lauridsen, a registered architect and Associate VP of People, Places, and Spaces at ATB Financial. ATB is a regional bank located in Alberta, Canada that started in 1938 as one Treasury Branch and has become the largest regional financial institution in Alberta. With Wealth, Business, and Retail arms in over 280 locations, ATB, and its 5,300 team members are transforming people’s understanding of what banking can, and should, make possible. LPL is a leader in the wealth management market with a commitment to the advisor-mediated model that provides freedom for advisors and enterprise leaders to choose the business model, services, and technology that allow them to run a thriving business. LPL serves nearly 22,000 financial advisors across the US – their customer focus and people-centric business proposition is also expressed in their culture and workplace design.

The three spoke about the work that PLASTARC has done to help shape pilot spaces at both organizations. Through these initiatives, LPL and ATB have each started to identify and activate workplace strategies that will enrich their respective cultures and strengthen their commitments to growth, trust, and innovation.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Melissa Marsh: The last few years we've asked individuals and organizations what their expectations are around return to office. Before COVID most employees were working about one day a week outside of the office. In our survey, we asked not what people would like to be doing in the future, but what they anticipate doing in the future. The figure we found has remained pretty constant over the last nearly four years – at about three days a week outside of the office.

From a design perspective, this creates the necessity for our future work environments to be consistently exceptional, whether they're fully occupied or only supporting a few people at a time. So one of the questions we've been asking is not just who's coming in, but why are they coming in? According to our research, people like to be in the office typically for the following reasons:

•       To be around others for camaraderie and trust building

•       To be with their team for learning and development

•       To establish a physical sense of work life balance

We've been doing some work that explores personality, both introversion and extroversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness, and agreeability. We used the Big Five personality index, which is a publicly available question set so anyone can use this metric. We learned that people who are more open (partial alignment) with people who are more creative, are looking for more of those amenities in the work environment. Wherea,s among people who are more conscientious, there’s more of a demand that they have technology and tools in the office, particularly that they have confidence that those will be working when they come in.

Digging into the research at this level was inspired by the pilot environments and the studies that we did both with LPL and ATB, about which you are going to hear momentarily.

Stephanie: LPL has great amenities already in our space, but we still struggled to get our employees back into the office. At one point, our CEO realized we were asking the wrong questions. Why are we asking how we get them to come back? Let's ask, why should they? What would they come in for? What matters? What is more important to have a face to face?

This is what led to our pilot project with PLASTARC.

We decided to pilot new types of space, with four different objectives. First, we wanted to know - What can we do to our space to welcome people back in? Then, how can we use that to figure out how people will work post-pandemic? Next we wanted to get as much feedback as possible. And finally, we wanted to use this information to determine what we’re going to do next.

We had some hypotheses, and the first one was that if we create this new space, they're gonna come in. We built out two full floors on the West Coast and the East Coast to test that. Within this pilot we decided to create more open space, providing this type of variety we thought would help with people's team collaboration and their productivity and their engagement. We built space with various sizes and styles, and it really created a variety across the floors. And last but not least, we felt like technology was going to be a big deal not just because you're all working together doing different things, but you now have this huge population of people that are still home, right? Not everybody's in so how do we work together in person and with the people who are working from home.

We partnered with PLASTARC for the design of the space. We know what our gut says and what we think people need. What made the difference here was applying science to it.

We held surveys and focus groups during the pilot testing and after. Obviously they loved the variety. They loved the aesthetics, but it was the technology that they really felt was the most important having the different types. We really got a sense that no matter where people move – whatever space, no matter how big or small – they want technology.

Melissa: We also have this saying now that people are the new amenity. They're coming in to see each other. So you might be focusing on the things that attract them, such as technology, but really seeing one another is also a critical piece of that.

Stephanie: In one particular group, we saw attendance start at 70%, and rise to 95% by the end of the pilot. Everyone wanted to come in, because everyone was there.

Melissa: They had some fear of missing out.

Stephanie: The number one thing that we continuously heard is, “I want to come in, I want to see people, but it's a ghost town.” Why should I waste my time putting on pants, driving, and parking? There's one person sitting on my entire floor.

So we closed some floors in both of our major cities, consolidating the space that was available to everyone. We kicked that off in April. It has gone very, very well. All the feedback has been positive with the exception of like a handful of people who actually come in to have the entire space to themselves.

When we started consolidating space, we really thought about who really needs to be in the office. One of the pieces of data that we saw was that people had higher attendance if their immediate manager was in the office. As a leader, you have an obligation to your people, to your team, and to your organization to be there. We decided to focus on our executives and test this out. We've just kicked off and are in the middle of an experiment, where three of our business units have all of our SVPs come in three days a week. And so far, that's going really well.

Melissa: You also were commenting that one of the benefits of your approach to pilots was getting to see what happened in different parts of the country.

Stephanie: That's right. Different regional cultures, different environments, different drives into the office, that kind of thing. This really gave us some interesting information.

Melissa: Thank you, Stephanie. I’d like to pass it over to Krista to discuss her experience now.

Krista: At ATB we’ve been hybrid since 2010, so when the pandemic hit, it actually wasn't a significant change for us. The interesting thing though, is pre-pandemic, we were seeing significantly decreased real estate usage, and in 2018 we deployed utilization sensors in our corporate locations. Pre-pandemic utilization numbers sat around that 20-25% mark.

The pandemic created an opportunity for us. We started to question – what is that value proposition of the workplace, and how does that actually align with the culture that we're looking to create from an organizational level? When we started to articulate our culture. Some key underpinnings for us were around community belonging -- how does the workplace really start to serve as a place where team members can come together? And how do we create that sense of team and of community and belonging?

Much like Stephanie shared about LPL, we had too much space. In addition to developing our hybrid pilot spaces, we also reduced some of the floors that our team members were able to utilize. We implemented these pilot locations in four of our corporate head office areas throughout the province.

We really wanted to lean into articulating our culture in space to further bring to life some of those key pillars of our culture. So some of the changes that we made in space were to directly connect our space to our overall enterprise purpose. We are in a tower in downtown Edmonton, the capital of Alberta – to be able to look around and see our connection to the community is an important part of our culture. Because it's not just about the workplace, it's about the businesses that we're helping by being located there –it’s about the dry cleaner and the coffee shop, and all of that ancillary economy that surrounds our workplace.

In these spaces in particular, we implemented banquette style seating to kind of reflect that coffee shop environment. We implemented music and smell as well. Coffee shops are obviously a very popular place, so we wanted to bring to life some of those elements in the central hub spaces.

Another key guiding principle for us when we looked at a shift in the workplace, was a shift from that individual coming to the workplace to really do that individual focus, heads-down work to a much greater focus on connecting and collaborating in the office.

We brought this to life in our pilot spaces by changing some of our traditional meeting rooms to be more informal collaborative spaces. People have the benefit of working from home and sitting on their couch, and taking meetings from their living rooms, so we wanted to find ways to bring some of that residential aesthetic into our spaces. We got softer seating options to kind of bridge that gap and soften the barrier between the comfort of working from home and the ability to now come back into the workplace and be just as comfortable. We also wanted to foster employee choice and autonomy throughout the workspace so that whatever they were doing, from an activity-based sense, they could pick the space that best suited the work that they were doing.

I think it's important to say we didn't get it all right. Couches and chairs are not always not the most appropriate seating arrangement. I recall a meeting where our CFO was sitting on the middle of a couch surrounded by two or three other people all crammed in, very awkward.

Also, it didn't really matter that we created a lot of spaces if those spaces didn’t have the right amount of technology or power. We had a recurring problem of not having enough places for people to plug in devices. We didn’t have the right google operations and technology. The space can be beautiful, but again, it wasn't functioning properly. We had to learn and adjust.

The last element that was really important for us to bring our culture to life in space was equity, inclusion, and belonging, a key pillar of ATB's culture, and part of why we believe ATB is a leading workplace in Canada and consistently on the “Top Places to Work” lists. Amongst many solutions toward this end,we implemented a new booking system for our spaces and got rid of traditional hierarchical office spaces so that those who might be at a higher level of the organization no longer actually had an office on a particular floor. They were able to go through and sit next to a VP or SVP or the CFO one day. This helped bridge some of the psychological barriers that existed in traditional space.

PLASTARC helped us curate the intentional day-by-day activity-based journeys that our team members could leverage when they returned. The other piece that PLASTARC helped us with on the change management side was to create employee typologies. These were really instrumental in allowing our team members to connect to a specific type of identity when they return to the workplace – a specific persona, if you will, so how they work and then how they might use space to work.

Our team members returned to work in April 2022. We launched our hybrid spaces. We have a 70% higher utilization in our pilot spaces than we do in the spaces where we haven't changed in our traditional work environments. So we're continuing our hybrid journey. And we're continuing to iterate based on feedback that our team members gave us and the data that we have available.

Melissa: Could you provide some examples of how flexible work policies have been implemented across your organization?

Krista: We had to challenge our traditional notions of how we measure productivity when we started looking at policies and the research. In the end, the research has continued to show that remote work would be about 10% less effective than 100% in-person, whereas hybrid is actually showing to be just as effective as 100% in-person. Not to mention it’s also cheaper, saves space, and is better for the environment.

Melissa: Thank you so much. Krista, I love the rhyme between the organization as a community bank and some of the things that you're doing in your work environment. Could you describe your experience in community-building and reimagining the workplace, maybe include what guidance you might offer to others in terms of that effort of balancing culture, workplace community and even organizational change?

Krista: We moved from about 0% or a very small number of flexible workstations to now about 80% flexible and assigned workstations. So things are working. Another aspect of what we did along the way was really calibrating the top-of-house position. PLASTARC helped us with this as well. We met with all of our C-Suite and determined the key guiding principles that we needed to leverage from a change perspective so that we could have buy-in from their respective business units. People deeply care about space, and we were active about ensuring visibility into the plan. And then of course feedback and ensuring that there was some element that we could speak to major feedback themes that we had been hearing, either before the pandemic, during, or as this work kicked off.

The other piece from a change management perspective that was really necessary was building a governance model to guide this work, and cross-pollinating across the organization. We have executives from our HR side, from our tech side, and from our people side, coming together with appropriately shaped working groups to support this work and drive it throughout the organization.

Melissa: You also have some experience at this intersection of communications and research and how those go hand-in-hand. How has your approach contributed to a more positive workplace environment?

Stephanie: I mean, it seems so trivial, but just saying back to employees, “Here’s what you said to us and here's how we addressed it,” helps get more buy-in – it's important.

Melissa: So last question, is there something that you each see as a real opportunity given this moment in time right now, and maybe something that is a challenge?

Krista: The greatest opportunity for us exists in the ability to ask the right questions. I think the greatest risk is continuing down the road of mandates. For me personally, the biggest opportunity I see is continuing to have a seat at the table at the executive level. The speed of the data is definitely a major challenge as well – we've never come back from a pandemic before, so this is our first round of data gathering on the aftermath.

Melissa: Wonderful. Well, that sounds like a fabulous mission. And I think that that's something that as we all embark on a couple of days of learning from one another, we can maybe start to think about solving those problems as a community and putting more data to it.