Kay Sargent Interview – COVID19 impact on building culture

Continuing our theme on how the workplace will change post COVID19 Dan interviews Kay Sargent on how COVID19 is impacting building culture, mentoring, ideating, growing, and connecting. Kay Sargent is a Senior Principal and Director of Workplace at HOK. With 35 years of experience, she is a recognised expert on workplace design and strategies issues. She is an award-winning designer who has worked with several Fortune 500 companies to optimise their global real estate portfolios and create innovative work environments.

As director of HOK’s WorkPlace team, a practice that supports organisations undertaking multiple projects in various locations, and a member of HOK’s Board of Directors, Kay is responsible for helping clients redefine how, when and where their people work, working in tandem to support a holistic design approach that integrates an organisation’s people, processes and technology.

I started by asking Kay, ‘how are things in the US?’

Kay Sargent: We have fires, hurricanes, the whole thing with COVID, and crazy politics going on in this country. It’s pretty surreal. And then of course, we have all the riots and the social injustice issues. It’s crazy times to say the least.

Dan Moscrop: It really is. We’re similar over here, I think we’ve got sort of a lesser echo of what’s going on over there. Obviously, we’ve got certain things with the politics, but everything seems to be so up in the air at the minute.

Kay Sargent: I think we take the cake when it comes to craziness right now. And I think we take the cake when it comes to bad responses to COVID. I think we’re running capitalist on that.

Dan Moscrop: We’re trying to be close second, nearest neighbours.

So I deliberately didn’t record any podcasts for probably the last three or four months — I realised that whatever I was going to get over the next three months was just going to be knee-jerk reactions to what’s happening. I wanted the dust to settle a little bit before I started speaking to people again.

Kay Sargent: Do you feel it’s settled at all? Because it seems like it’s still all up in the air. I checked out right around the beginning of July, because I just couldn’t take it anymore — the onslaught of all of the issues that are going on.

“You’re either here, or here, and the middle has kind of disappeared. And when the middle disappears, there’s no room for compromise.”

Kay Sargent: I think we’re living in a time, specifically in the U.S. right now, where we are very polarised. You are either here, or you’re here, and the middle has kind of disappeared. And when the middle disappears, there’s no room for compromise. And everybody is a little bit right, and everybody is a little bit wrong.

I think what we have to get comfortable with is embracing the unknown. There’s a lot we know, but there is a lot that we don’t know. We have to be able to be willing to acknowledge that there’s a lot of things that still need to be worked out, and we’re going to have to play it by ear.

“Let’s be honest about this: everybody’s running on adrenaline.”

Kay Sargent: Sometimes it’s going to be a little bit of a compromise. And I think too many people are willing to jump on one bandwagon about how great working from home has actually been. Let’s be honest about this: everybody’s running on adrenaline, and most people are afraid they’re going to lose their jobs.

Anybody can do anything for a few months. The question is, can we sustain it? Yes, people have been productive, but is having an empty email box really what you want from your employees? You want to be building the culture, you want to be on-boarding people. You want to be transferring knowledge, mentoring, ideating, and growing and connecting. Those things have all suffered.

Now, that doesn’t mean that everybody has to rush back to the office. But what we have to do is openly acknowledge what is and isn’t working, and then find the compromise in the middle that allows us to get to that sweet spot.

Juggling kids and creativity: how do we utilise our work from home space?

Dan Moscrop: I think you put it really well — you pointed out that you’re not surprised people have been productive because they’re afraid of losing their jobs at the minute.

Kay Sargent: They are. I mean, working from home is not new. We’ve been doing this for 20 or 30 years. And every study has shown that people that work from home typically work 1–3 hours longer in the UK. And in Europe, it’s typically about 1-ish hour longer, because you guys have a little bit more balance and control than in the U.S.

People are working three hours a day longer because they’re just waking up at the same time, and all that commute time just rolls into work. That’s having an adverse effect on our mental and emotional health. Also our physical health, because many people are seeing stagnancy for long periods of time, in non-ergonomic settings. There is no separation from their home life and it’s just all becoming this mesh — sometimes, hybrid solutions are the worst of both.

“KIPPERs: Kids In Parents’ Pockets, Eroding Retirement.”

Kay Sargent: Have you heard of ‘kippers’? Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement?

Before COVID, 34% of millennials lived with their parents, now they’re saying that it’s mid to high 40s. So as a parent of five children, I have several ‘kippers’ living in my house.

Just because your kids aren’t little, doesn’t mean that there isn’t still some pain. With five kids and the economy and the way that it is — I swear death is going to bin my retirement, because I’m never going to be able to afford to retire. So, you’ll hear from me for a long time.

Dan Moscrop: It’s a challenge. Are you living your best life, though, with your kids at home? Surely it must have been quite an empty nest before they all came back?

Kay Sargent: They were here, but they were going to work.

There are absolutely days where it is our best life, and there’s some great balance. But there have been some very interesting discussions with all of this stuff going on. Maybe it’s because of my age that I see things more in the grey; I think my kids tend to see things more black and white. It’s either this or it’s that, you’re either on the right side of the wrong side.

Dan Moscrop: I bet, there are some interesting dynamics going on. You’re right, it’s falling down into the workplace as well. I’m sat in my office now, and the reason for that is balance. I’ve got a six-year-old and a nine-year-old at home. Homeschooling was a tragedy for us: it started off pretty good and then we were crying! So just to be able to have that division between my start and end of workday is phenomenal.

Skype-synergy: connecting the dots online

Dan Moscrop: I think one of the things we’ve noticed is that you can brief somebody, and they can work on it for a day or maybe two. Then when you catch up they’ve gone on a completely different tangent.

Little things that you take for granted — that you could walk past a laptop and go, ‘What are you doing there?’ Getting that creativity in the cultivation and collaboration stuff happening. It’s just evaporated and, as much as you try, you can’t get back what you had face to face.

“The good thing about the new way that we’re communicating … is that everybody is kind of equal.”

Kay Sargent: People talk about collaboration and being in an open environment, so that you can maybe overhear conversations. But rarely is anybody sitting at their desk saying, ‘I am working on the most amazing — ’ you know, you’re not talking about that.

I’ve worked in open design studios for a long time, and I know more about the Kardashians that I ever wanted to know. People are talking about what they’re doing half the time. But it’s when you get up and you walk around, and you see things or you see what’s on that person’s desk and you see what spread out. And that invokes the conversation.

Any successful collaboration space has something that is rarely talked about, but it’s an opportunity for information-share. The good thing about the new way that we’re communicating — this kind of zoom format world — is that everybody is kind of equal. You’re seeing everybody’s face, and it’s a little bit more egalitarian. Versus three people in a room, two people calling in, and they’re the voice at the end of the table.

“We are living on borrowed relationships that we had when we left the office.”

Kay Sargent: The bad news is that if you don’t know people, then it’s harder to communicate virtually, because you don’t understand their body language. You start questioning yourself in your own head, and then you start holding back.

We are living on borrowed relationships that we had when we left the office. If we aren’t coming back together and we’re on-boarding new people and things are shifting: it’s harder to read people and to connect in this way.

Knee-jerk reactions: are we making the best decisions for our workforce?

Dan Moscrop: I think there’s generally an erosion of culture isn’t there. Famously, Yahoo tried having a completely remote environment. They tried this remote working and then found they had to recreate a really cool, culture-heavy office to bring the culture back.

“If you’re trying to ideate or innovate or create, then that really happens when people are together.”

Kay Sargent: There’s several companies we can name, and their famous cases: Cap One, IBM, Bank of America, Yahoo. Now, I would actually argue that their work from home programmes didn’t fail. For some of them, they were so successful that it made it so that nobody wanted to come to the office. And then when people didn’t come to the office, that started to erode the culture a little bit, and the ability to collaborate.

Within Yahoo’s case, and I think in several others, they didn’t necessarily bring people back to the office because working from home wasn’t successful. They were bringing people back to the office because they needed to innovate, and ideate, and that’s harder to do when your people are scattered to the wind.

“Companies that think they can just keep doing this haphazardly … I think we’re going to find out that they’re mistaken.”

Kay Sargent: The other thing that’s happening right now is companies are assuming that because people have survived the last several months working from home, we can just keep doing this forever. That’s not true.

What we have learned is, companies that have successful remote programmes have a well-structured process. They have policies, they know how to support their people, they know how to identify when people are struggling. Companies that think that they can just keep doing this haphazardly, and it’s going to continue to be successful, I think we’re going to find out that they’re mistaken. We’re in for a rough 18 to 36 months while people work that out.

Before COVID, a lot of organisations were really getting caught up in their silos, and their ability to innovate fast enough and to make decisions was grossly diminished. One of the things that we overlook is how quickly people had to make decisions. It was by force, but they did it.

“We’re starting to see that sometimes our own processes are stifling our ability to innovate.”

Kay Sargent: If in January, I would have gone to any company and said, ‘In the middle of March, we’re going to have everybody work from home for a month,’ they would have had committees and a task force. We didn’t have that luxury with COVID, we had to do it overnight.

I think what a lot of companies are really surprised about is how quickly they could make decisions when push came to shove. We’re starting to see that sometimes our own processes are stifling our ability to innovate.

Dan Moscrop: The positives I’ve seen come out of it, especially jobs that are live at the minute, is the speed of decision-making has massively improved. Where somebody might have been a bit hesitant about talking about remote working or having more of an agile background environment, they’re much more open to something a bit more flexible.

Kay Sargent: So there are two sides to everything. A lot of people make dumb decisions. A lot of our clients instantly were like, ‘Alright, six-foot circles around everybody and plastic shields everywhere.’

Dan Moscrop: Yeah, we’ve seen a few short term reactions. Looking across the way in the hallway, this company opposite me put cardboard dividers around everybody. I can’t think of the thinking behind it personally.

“Preparing the workplace for the re-entry of workers is far easier than preparing the workers.”

Kay Sargent: Well I’m a designer, and I’m going to tell you that if that’s the workplace you have to return to, why are you going back? Preparing the workplace for the re-entry of workers is far easier than preparing the workers for the re-entry, and I think people are grossly underestimating that. And when you’re sitting in a space that has red Xs or warning signs, that takes a toll on you.

Bottlenecks and break-out rooms: building safety into design spaces

Kay Sargent: The CDC just came out and said that this June, people that were experiencing symptoms of depression were four times higher than June of last year. Anxiety was three times higher.

We were already at a staggering high number of disengagement, burnout, stress, depression, all of those things. So this is really having an emotional mental toll on people, not just the physical toll. And we have to come to grips with that.

Dan Moscrop: Yeah, we talked a few times, one of my colleagues and I, about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I’m quite lucky. I feel like I’ve come out the other side of it now, but my mental health was at a low — I’ve had to stop drinking.

Kay Sargent: Well let’s talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for a minute, because we’ve done a lot of research over the last few years about neurodiversity. People that have ADHD, Tourette’s, double dyslexia. What do we need to do to create workplaces that are more inclusive?

“We need to have vistas, a little bit more graciousness of space.”

Kay Sargent: We now all have a heightened sensitivity to certain things — specifically touch and proximity. And if you look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the psychology 101, the very first thing is our human instinct to be safe.

There’s this thing called the ‘Savanna Effect’ that animals on the Savanna survey their surroundings, and they strategically find a spot so that they have shelter, they have exit, they have food, they have the essentials. They feel safe, and they can prospect.

Anybody that’s been through trauma needs two important things: prospect and refuge. And prospect — I guess the easiest way I can describe this is what we’re all doing right now, when we go to the grocery store. When you look down an aisle and you say, ‘There’s a guy not wearing a mask, there’s a kid running around, I’m not going down that aisle, I’ll come back to this aisle and get my things later.’ That’s prospecting, and we need to create workspaces where people can prospect. So we need to have vistas, a little bit more graciousness of space.

The refuge is areas that I can kind of sneak off to the side, feel tucked away. I can see what’s happening, but I can still shelter and protect myself. Anybody that’s been through trauma — and I’m going to argue we all have been through some trauma — need those things. That becomes a very essential element when we talk about the design of workplaces.

Dan Moscrop: It makes a lot of sense. I’m right in the centre of London in the city, very close to Liverpool Street. There’s so many of these amazing skyscrapers that have gone up that are so reliant on super fast lifts and moving people around the building really quickly, and that’s just fallen on its face now. You can get four people in the lift maximum. I don’t know how they’re even going to start to bring people back.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘How can I even get people to my office?’”

Kay Sargent: Well, I think that reason is one of the big reasons why we’re seeing this spoke model. A lot of people are saying, ‘How can I even get people to my office?’ First of all, they have to commute, then they have to walk on the city sidewalk. They have to get into a lobby, go through all that, then they have to get to the lifts and that could take some time. By the time I even get them to my office, they’re spent. They’ve just gone through this unbelievable gauntlet.

So maybe we should be creating outposts, because there are a lot of people that can’t work from home. There are parts of the world in Asia where the home environment isn’t set up for people to be able to work — we’ve got multiple generations and small housing.

And I think that’s why the younger generation isn’t as successful as the older generation because they aren’t as established — they don’t have that network. They might live with three or four roommates, they might live in their parents basement. The older generation probably has a bigger house, maybe a little bit more established network. We need to be able to create locations where people can work.

City versus suburbia: re-mapping our geography

Kay Sargent: If you’re a company that has a big headquarters downtown and your people can barely get there, you’re starting to look at options. This is why we’re seeing rents in downtown locations dropping and vacancies are going up. And in the suburbs, vacancy is going down and rents are staying the same, which in this day and age means they’re going up.

If I was a betting person, I would say in three or four years, people will probably be back downtown. We have short memories. We like being together, and having a disseminated workforce is difficult. But I think in the short term, people are saying this is a great solution.

Dan Moscrop: One of my friends works for Savile, the biggest estate agent in the UK, and he was saying that they’ve had a record amount of sales over the last month. What’s happening is people moving out of London to places they would never have considered before because they’re not worried about the commute. I feel that people are probably making a little bit of a mistake here, and seem to be immediately reacting to this. I mean, it’s a horrible thing, but we still don’t even understand anything about COVID yet.

“People are overestimating how successful a remote work programme permanently will be.”

Kay Sargent: Well, there were a lot of companies that very quickly made decisions to shed a lot of real estate — and those companies had that in the works before COVID. A lot of companies were looking for an excuse to get rid of stuff, they just needed the catalyst to do it. COVID gave it to them.

I think there’s a lot of people that are anticipating that work from home will take over and that will help reduce their real estate. I think that’s a risky bet. Working from home will absolutely be part of it, it may help change the way you use real estate and shift it. But I think people are overestimating how successful a remote work programme permanently will be — it’s great for some people, but there are a lot of people that it just does not work for.

Dan Moscrop: We’ve been a lot more flexible with people about whether they want to work from home or not. I never thought of myself as somebody who believed in presenteeism, but there’s that little bit of something in the back of my mind that liked everyone to be here, that it sort of opened me up, I guess, and relaxed me into seeing how people work.

Kay Sargent: Well, we’re pack animals, right? We thrive on being around people and having that energy. People don’t go work in a Starbucks because it’s quiet and want to pay $10 for a cup of coffee. They do it because they thrive on that buzz of being around other people. I think people have missed that, and that’s hard to replace when you’re at home.

Lockdown limits: are we spent?

Dan Moscrop: How is it affecting you personally? I mean, you used to live in an airport I’d imagine.

Kay Sargent: I did. In fact, I travelled probably 90% of the time before this. And I was probably one of the last people to go into quarantine. I had just come from international. I flew around the US. I went to multiple cities in early March. And I was supposed to be in Europe and Asia the entire month of March.

“My philosophy is: I didn’t stay at home for six months just to go out there and be exposed.”

Kay Sargent: However, in the six months that we’ve been in kind of quarantine and lockdown, I’ve only left my house six times. I might be one of the last people to come out, because my philosophy is: I didn’t stay at home for six months just to go out there and be exposed.

I think a lot of people right now are hitting a wall and are saying, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I’m just done. I’m going.’ And I’m kind of like, well, if I was going to take that philosophy, I would have done that day one. Why did I stay at home for six months if we were just going to go for herd immunity? I would have just done that day one, like the Swedes did. In the US, there are a lot of people that just don’t believe in wearing a mask.

Dan Moscrop: I have seen that. It’s quite surreal seeing those videos of people walk through Target going ‘No more masks!’ You’re like, ‘what are you doing?’

Kay Sargent: I have a little philosophy about this. And I hate to get political —

Dan Moscrop: Is it Darwin-based?

“We need to remind people that to maintain freedom, there are sacrifices … if all you’re doing is thinking about yourself, it’s anarchy.”

Kay Sargent: Well, I’ll let you take that one. People are saying that it’s their freedom, it’s their choice, and I think we have a whole generation of people that have forgotten that freedom isn’t free. Freedom doesn’t mean that you can go out and do whatever the hell you want to do.

Freedom actually means you have a greater responsibility for the social good of everybody. In this country, there are a lot of people that equate freedom to, ‘I can do whatever the hell I want and you can’t stop me.’ That is a very dangerous concept and a very dangerous mindset, because that’s anarchy. That’s not freedom. I think people have forgotten that.

We need to remind people that to maintain freedom, there are sacrifices, and you have to think of the greater good. If all you’re doing is thinking about yourself, it’s anarchy.

Dan Moscrop: I heard a theory a little while ago called the ‘Shopping Cart Theory.’ I don’t know if you’ve heard before. But over in the UK, you’ve got to put a pound in so you can pull a shopping cart away — so that it makes sure you bring it back. The idea was that the people who wouldn’t have brought it back without the pound should not belong in society. So if you’re a good enough person to take your shopping cart back without needing a pound to incentivise you, then you’re a good person and you should belong in society.

It’s the people that are out there demanding not to wear a mask that have forgotten, it’s not about them. It’s about infecting that person’s elderly grandparent or something like that. It’s this knock on effect and it just drives me a bit mad.

But again, back to this sort of short termism of human instinct and memory. We’ve been travelling on the overground train here. And for the first couple of weeks, there’s been this gap for every seat, there’s always somebody got space around and people sort of sparsely sort of standing around. Going in this morning, in the space of about a week and a half, everyone’s just stacked on top of each other again.

“We have been stretched, there will be a snapback. The question is, to what degree?”

Kay Sargent: We have short memories, right? In the US after September 11, nobody was going to be in a high rise, nobody was going to be in New York City. We have a rubber band theory: we have been stretched, there will be a snapback. The question is, to what degree will we snap back and when and how hard?

Dan Moscrop: Are you starting to see people coming back yourself? We were expecting a massive load of people to come back in September, but it’s looking more like January.

“I think people are just kind of saying … ‘instead of kicking the can slow down the road, let’s just chuck it.’”

Kay Sargent: I think in the U.S., many people are anticipating the end of the year, but there are now companies that have said July of 2021. I think the reason for that is people like yourself that have young kids, everything is up in the air. You can’t make arrangements, you can’t plan your life, and so they’ve put a stake far enough out there.

The end of the year is the winter here in the U.S., and the height of cold season. Everybody would have just gone through Thanksgiving and Christmas, which will be mass exposure events. Sorry to say that, but it’s true. And you’ll probably have huge spikes after both of those holidays. So I think people are just saying, ‘Look, instead of kicking the can slowly down the road, let’s just chuck it down the road and commit to something.’

Looking forward: can COVID19 be our modern revolution?

Dan Moscrop: So, just to change the subject a little, what have you seen out there that’s exciting you?

Kay Sargent: In December before COVID, we wrote an article basically saying, ‘Is this our industry’s Kodak moment? Are there forces of change that we know are on the horizon that we are ignoring? Does anybody think the way we lease, design, deliver space is the most effective way of doing it?’ I don’t think anybody could say yes to that. And I think it’s antiquated and every other industry has been rocked by disruption. It’s time for our industry to be rocked by disruption.

“There were things that weren’t working before … COVID could be an accelerator that really forces us forward.”

Kay Sargent: COVID is an accelerator: it will either force you backwards or it will force you forward. There were things that weren’t working before COVID. We weren’t really addressing climate change, stress, burnout, work-life balance, any of those things. We weren’t effectively, holistically, really addressing those as much as we should. We’re way behind in the workplace on where technology could take us.

COVID could be an accelerator that really forces us forward, and makes us address those things. We have to change the way that we’re hiring people, and there has to be more balance in this. We have to retrain people. If we don’t embrace those things that are on the horizon, we’re going to miss the opportunity. Because right now, we are at a really pivotal moment.

“This will absolutely be our Kodak moment.”

Kay Sargent: I have been a designer and in this profession for 35 years. In that 35 year career, there have only been two times where people have really stopped, and there has been an event or an advancement that was significant enough that rocked the industry. September 11, and the security needs and all of those things was one specifically in this country. All the dot bomb and the dot bust and the global recessions was the other.

The entire world right now is saying, ‘What is the future of work?’ We have the world’s attention. If all we do is address the things that are immediate at hand, and we ignore the things that weren’t working before… this absolutely will be our Kodak moment. We have the options and the ability to see that — to embrace it and to make some fundamental pivotal shifts in the way we work, in the way we deliver space, and the way we think about it.

So I implore everybody to think big, to think beyond just the immediate crisis at hand. Don’t be reactive, but really, truly address all of those things that we need to be to move us forward as an industry.

Dan Moscrop: I think that’s a perfect thing to end on, that’s a great call to arms. Always a pleasure to catch up with you, thank you so much for your time.