Worker's Resort



Primo Orpilla Interview #3: The workplace is undergoing constant change

[June 27, 2017] BY Kazumasa Ikoma

It is likely that the office of the future will become one of several lifestyle environments.

In this third article we continue the interview with Primo Orpilla, co-founder of Studio O+A, an office design company based in the San Francisco Bay Area. We talk to Primo about office design and organizational change at corporations around the world and we delve into his thoughts on the next generation of office design.

Major corporate brands are no longer attractive

I have given talks in several countries and I keep hearing stories of how major national corporations have more trouble recruiting than in the past. It seems that the Millennial generation, who will sustain business in the future, are not attracted by name recognition.

Recently, this trend is particularly noticeable in the automotive and financial industries. The trouble is that these types of industries have made no internal changes at all in the past ten or twenty years. In the Bay Area as well, young people are looking for change and they don’t want the same jobs as their parents. So, they are more and more likely to join startups than major corporations.

Adapting to change beyond industry barriers

Studio O+A has a strong affinity with corporations that welcome change. So, until a few years ago, we focused on startups and tech companies, avoiding banks and other financial institutions. However, in the past couple of years, we have also worked on projects for sports apparel brands and corporations in the cosmetics, hospitality, banks, oil, and automotive industries. We started working on designs for these companies because these days a lot of them have started to focus on environments that demand change, just like the tech companies do.

The Nike head office in Beaverton, Oregon, completed in 2016.

The well-known sports apparel maker Nike is one of them. Nike products have been big hits for several decades. Even so, there is a sense that things aren’t going that well these days and the company was already looking for change before we became involved. These kinds of companies are different than offices for engineers, but we learned that the method of creating workflows that are adaptable to change, which we worked out with tech companies, could be applied in any industry.

Another good example is Capital One Bank, one of our clients in 2013. The office of Capital One Labs, the bank’s product & technology incubator and accelerator, has much more of a startup feel than the offices at the Virginia headquarters where the designs are formal. The bank’s executives came out to San Francisco to study design thinking and what they learnt about diverse working styles is reflected in the design.

I had a lot of discussions with the executives. The purpose of incorporating the startup feel was to strengthen the unity of the teams and to streamline the flow leading up to decision-making. At the average bank, the interior of the building is strictly compartmentalized. They also have rigid decision-making processes where any ideas from employees have to wait several days for scrutiny by a manager, and then another few days if their ideas are promising enough to be passed to the next level up. We tried to use office design to find solutions to these increasingly outdated structures.

Capital One Labs on 3rd Street in San Francisco (completed in 2013). We worked with Evelyn Huang, Director of Design Thinking, to come up with strategies to solve problems in the office.

Tech companies excel at rapid innovation, coming up with lots of ideas and instantly sharing them with other employees. Collaboration between different generations is also extremely seamless. I believe that this internal fluency is important for other companies as well.

Foreign culture blended with West Coast office design

As these examples of our work suggest, we field inquiries for office designs that embrace change not only from U.S. companies, but also from overseas corporations. There are two points we pay particular attention to when working on projects for overseas corporations.

First, we build relationships with the local community when we try to design an office somewhere else in the world. Obviously, we do not simply transfer West Coast designs to other countries without modification. In every country and corporation, each employee has his or her own opinions and the issues they want resolved are also different. By forging close relationships with the local community, we gain a deep understanding of the differences between the United States and the culture and history of other countries. This helps us to understand whether specific problems experience by the company or the employees are due to issues with the company structure, or a matter of national character and culture.

Second, we want employees in other countries to understand our open-minded approach. As I already mentioned, today’s innovative offices are the result of repeated trial and error because it is easy to design experimental offices in the Bay Area. However, the foundations that support such change are not yet in place overseas or in other regions of the United States for that matter. We go the extra mile when discussing new offices and working styles, and in some cases, we need to educate the client.

The San Francisco office of Alibaba, the largest e-commerce company in China

The relationship between office design and working hours

These days working style reform is a universal issue. Long working hours are still a problem in many Asian countries including Japan. In Europe, on the other hand, the labor laws are already extremely strict. In California, we have issues with worker exploitation, which has led to a tightening of the laws. Even so, there are probably still people who think that employees will be encouraged to spend more time at work if the corporation has well-designed offices.

It must be understood that the concept of “time in the office equals working hours” no longer exists. Today, work influences our lives in ways that are quite unlike previous generations. You can work anywhere—in the office or in a café, at WeWork or other co-working spaces, in the airplane, in a hotel room, or at home. It is even acceptable to work while eating. I think it is more accurate to say that work and life are becoming one rather than the borders between work and life becoming indistinct.

In this kind of environment, you will have employees who don’t know when to stop working during the day. This is precisely why the office needs quiet spaces for resting and spaces where employees can refresh body and mind. The office should provide spaces for employees to switch on and off similarly to when they work at home or elsewhere.

Everyone has his or her own working style. As well as making sure that employees can rest mind and body at any time to avoid long working hours, it is also important to be able to serve food at any time to people who are so immersed in work that they don’t even take the time to eat.

The office of the future will embrace daily life

We know that it is important to enter a mental state of flow—of being so immersed in something that one forgets the passing of time—to bring out the best performances at work. But it is not all that easy to enter such a state of flow. It is certainly not the case that bad news from home, a fight with your girlfriend, or other personal issues have no impact on work performance.

To maintain some degree of mental stability and to get into the flow it is important that all employees have a daily habit or routine. This is why I am convinced that we need to pay attention to the mind and body of each employee as well as to client expectations of working styles and collaborative perspectives when designing offices in the future.

For example, we try to be more aware of things like what kinds of food to serve in the staff cafeteria, or what energizes employees. Food is particularly closely linked to our everyday life, so as of this year we have started to interview cafeteria staff about ways to improve the office. Since the office environment is always associated with stress it important to create spaces for relaxing and refreshing the mind. People spend a good chunk of their lives in the office and we want to create an environment that helps them to do well at work.

The office will simply become one alternative

People refer to the past few years as a time of Renaissance in the workplace. A new generation is joining the workforce, free working styles are endorsed, people can now work anywhere, and to keep up with the changes office tools have to be completely redesigned. More and more corporations are establishing parking spaces for bicycle commuters, community spaces to encourage conversation, gyms, and clinics.

Even daycare spaces are now required. When changing jobs in the future, more and more people will list care facilities as one of the decisive factors. Whether the corporations like it or not, these things are now part and parcel of the company and of the office. They will become one of the conditions for choosing to work for a corporation. This is what happens when life and work conflate.

The workplace is always changing. People make a lot more use of co-working spaces and remote work than they have in the past, but of course everyone is not suddenly leaving the office. It is only that people choose their workplaces according to their situations and circumstances. The office is no longer the main workplace, but one among others, and employees can now freely choose between more alternatives than ever. This is happening all over the world, not only in the Bay Area.

Writer of this post

Kazumasa IkomaWhile working as an office manager in San Francisco, he posted numerous articles about the office designs, corporate cultures, and working styles on the West Coast. He researches what constitutes comfortable offices for companies and employees every day and puts his ideas into practice at his company.