Work From Anywhere. Hybrid work is here to stay, and most organizations are test driving all the different models. The workplace will increasingly be characterized by three places — each with their own attributes and advantages. Clearly the bookends of home and a version of the pre-pandemic workplace remain, but third places will take on increasing importance. We see well-outfitted neighborhood hubs closer to employees’ homes, cafes and coffee houses, even parks and schools outfitted to better support work wherever workers may be. Successful organizations are embracing this hybrid model and businesses that don’t or can’t offer this flexibility will inevitably suffer.
There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.
To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.
As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Larry Lander, a Principal with the Houston-based workplace design and consultant firm, PDR (www.pdrcorp.com). As an architect and student of the corporate workplace, he is celebrating his thirtieth year with PDR after beginning his post-graduate career with CRS and ISD. He is currently engaged with PDR clients around the globe by helping teams assess and develop forward-looking workplace strategies, particularly now in light of the impact of the pandemic. His project experience includes significant assignments for not only corporate titans like ExxonMobil, Eaton, Dominion Energy, ConocoPhillips, and Texas Instruments, but much smaller organizations — all working for the same thing: A workplace that puts a business’s people first and allows them to do be their best and do their best work.
While Larry’s forty-plus year career in workplace strategy and design has certainly given him no small amount of insight, the pandemic, the evolution of Work from Home into Work from Anywhere, and the interest organizations have in even defining what their work is, have tested that insight in ways no one might have imagined just eighteen months ago.
Larry received his Bachelor of Architecture degree from the University of Cincinnati and lives in Austin with his wife, Joyce — also an architect. Yes, they met at the office.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?
I’m a Midwesterner with, of course, whatever baggage that entails: Native Michigander, grew up in Chicago, then architecture school in Cincinnati, which I thought was way down South. Of course, when I graduated, and then moved sight unseen to Houston, I learned Southern Ohio was not as far south as I had imagined. And in spite of the heat and humidity, the achingly flat topography of the Gulf Coast, and even those often-deserved criticisms a big city attracts, I came to love Houston and stayed for forty-odd years. Houston helped me raise a family. Houston supported a newly launched professional life, and I discovered colleagues who would become friends and who were open to exploring new ideas and promoting the idea that everyone deserves a great place to work.
What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?
In our work, it’s clear that some sort of hybrid working is here to stay in one form or another. Offices will not go away, downtowns will not forever be ghost towns, but big adjustments are already evolving. While there are certainly many flavors of this hybrid model, the idea that people can choose where, when, and how to work is not really a new one. The pandemic has actually amplified an idea that was probably already a good one back in 2019. As long as workers can choose, employers will need to provide more flexibility and choice in how people work, and when their people come together. A successful organization needs to create a truly great work experience.
The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?
I’ve always felt that your priorities are misplaced if your focus is simply on the degree or how that fits with future financial security. Of course, there is a kernel of truth in there, but the opportunity to get out of your safety zone; to experience people who may not look like you, act like you, or have your background; and to learn to think critically and see the world through a broader lens is what makes a college experience so invaluable. I like to talk specifically about the value of a design education. Sure, that degree helped me get my first job, but more importantly, my architecture program made me think differently and see things in a new light: Understanding how to break down a problem into bite-sized nuggets and put them together in better way. It’s not an accident that at PDR, we value independent thinking, analytical skills, and both the ability and judgement of how and when to articulate them. I recommend everyone go to design school!
Despite the doom and gloom predictions, there are, and likely still will be, jobs available. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?
What employers are looking for hasn’t really changed: Employees that can think on their feet, employees committed to the business’s goals, employees who will amplify and contribute to not just the bottom line, but an organization’s culture. And while the tools to convey that may be different than they were when I looked for my first job, the basic building blocks remain the same: Can I articulate a clear message, can I tap into a network to differentiate or promote myself, can I convey both skills and promise to a potential employer? The overlay of the pandemic has further opened up opportunity far beyond your local community. At PDR — and I know this is true of many organizations large and small — we now have employees working productively in all time zones and at some distance from either Houston, Austin, or Dallas as our business cards would otherwise suggest.
The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?
A history of labor markets reveals a long timeline of jobs being eliminated but also many replaced by other jobs no one ever imagined. Certainly, some jobs are logical candidates for the next advances in automation or applications of AI, but I believe the capacity and need for the human brain will always be greater. Even in our work, there are certain aspects of what we do that have been absolutely transformed by software and systems: For instance, how architectural documents are prepared or how buildings are put together are two obvious examples. But now, and this is more important than ever, we need brainpower to develop strategies for organizations to be successful by helping their people be their very best. There is a great need to look for the smartest people because we work with the smartest clients.
Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?
Work From Home — more accurately, Work From Anywhere — is here to stay. Of course, we’ll see fits and starts. There are bosses who think you’re only working if they can see you. We’ll see workers who don’t have good access to a conducive work environment outside of the traditional office. But for so many, the toothpaste is out of the tube. The advantage workers get from flexibility of where, what, and how to get work done is undeniable. A hybrid model of coming together sometimes and working apart other times will increasingly be the norm. Already, many businesses are using this flexibility as a tool for attracting and retaining the best talent and others are even working to physically improve workers’ at-home set ups. In a talent-limited world, this accommodation will be an important leg up for successful organizations.
What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?
We see changes in a couple of broad areas. The connection between effective and productive work with childcare and school is undeniable and as we think about the next pandemic or the next business interruption of any kind, there’s an opportunity now for schools, building owners and developers, employers, and employees to explore new models of interdependence. And it’s hardly a jump to see that eldercare increasingly falls into a similar category. When schools are not open, we have learned of the huge burden to students, but it’s an equal hardship for workers who have to choose between a work deadline and taking care of the kids. There are plenty of anecdotal stories of workers — often women — dropping out of the workforce to focus on their families and new census data confirms it. Businesses can lead the way here: An organization that can’t tap into the brainpower and expertise of half of the workforce is a hamstrung organization.
Another piece of the puzzle is the shifting definition of what At Work really means and how technology and norms will adjust to that. No longer will be a disembodied voice on a tinny little speaker in the middle of the conference table be an acceptable solution to collaboration. Our own protocol at PDR says every meeting will have a remote participant and one who’s first language may not be English. Core working hours, truly connective technology, and interactive tools for virtual work are an increasing part of all meetings. Documents and files that live virtually, group work that happens constantly and in real time, and tools and protocols that can effectively supplant meeting at the coffee machine are making in-person vs. virtual a distinction of the past.
What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?
I sit in a unique position wearing the hat of both an employee and an employer and I think our biggest worry is the same for both: What does it mean to be together or not? The challenge of getting together was initially a function of the pandemic and employee health, but increasingly our own geographic distribution is problematic. We have to find new ways of getting together that might not include everyone sitting around the same table in quite the same way as we did in 2019. And those new ways need to support all the soft science of collaboration, socializing, and trust that in-person connections can.
It’s interesting to see that as the task part of work has become disassociated with the social part of work, many people have lost a lot of satisfaction with what they do each day. We miss each other and we didn’t realize how important that aspect of our work life was. And it’s the most difficult to recreate in a meaningful way if we can’t be together. A big part of our work revolves around how to find solutions to that vexing problem for our clients.
The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?
Work is an undeniably important part of our lives. And, as we’ve pointed out, it’s not simply the tasks that make up the work, it’s also the social glue part that keeps us figuratively stuck together. When those bonds are loosened, our attitude about work somehow changes.
The path forward starts somewhere in the realm of the business itself. If we really believe our workers are our most important resource, we need to support them and truly enable them to be their best selves. It’s not simply enough to be a manager. Coaches, mentors, networks, real colleagues are necessary to a satisfying work life. As employers, we need to nurture and support that stickiness. And if you’re lucky, some of those colleagues will turn into lifelong friends — maybe even your spouse!
But we knew these things before, and the pandemic has really just amplified them for us. It’s made us aware that while we do not know all the details of our colleagues’ lives — who has faced the pandemic in real time, who has an effective place to work at home, whose kids are a burden to that meeting you just scheduled — we can all cut each other some slack. That has to start at work.
Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
At PDR, I get to work with really smart people, and I have learned they come in all colors, shapes, sizes, and ages. I’m optimistic about our organization and the kinds of insights we can bring to others, and to their own organizations. At a very fundamental level, that’s how we are successful.
And I don’t believe some small pool of smart people work only at PDR. Since work — and working together with others — is so fundamental to human satisfaction, I’m heartened by so many good ideas and good intentions. There’s plenty to wring your hands about but dig a little deeper than the latest urgent update and you can’t help but be excited about this new awareness of how important work is and where it’s going. I often tell my younger colleagues that there has never been a more exciting time to be doing what we do. Some days I almost wish I was starting this journey anew.
Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?
We are a forward-looking business: Our clients are interested in their future and our job is to facilitate that future. A project that requires a workplace strategy today may not be completed for months or even years. And our solutions may need to last ten, twenty, or even fifty years.
Additionally, the change and disruption in a new workplace needs to be minimized. Organizations want to hit the ground running on Day One and the sooner they are up and running, the sooner the new way is being implemented — whatever that new way is. Our job, at a very foundational level, enables organizations to not simply succeed, but actually accelerate and thrive. We make it possible for organizations to bridge the gap.
Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Work From Anywhere. Hybrid work is here to stay, and most organizations are test driving all the different models. The workplace will increasingly be characterized by three places — each with their own attributes and advantages. Clearly the bookends of home and a version of the pre-pandemic workplace remain, but third places will take on increasing importance. We see well-outfitted neighborhood hubs closer to employees’ homes, cafes and coffee houses, even parks and schools outfitted to better support work wherever workers may be. Successful organizations are embracing this hybrid model and businesses that don’t or can’t offer this flexibility will inevitably suffer.
- It’s all about the experience. Work is where we want to be not where we have to be. Successful and compelling workplaces always exhibit three common characteristics — now more important than ever.
-There is Collegiality or the feeling that an employee is part of a bigger endeavor and great things are happening here. We see branded spaces — not simply a logo on the door, but a space that tells the story, workspace that conveys those stories and what we do, and offices that promote the people who work there.
-There is the Urban Vibe — a buzz, real activity, an energy that’s apparent to all. If WFA means everyone may not be in the office every day, then we see moves to create density — safely, of course — by clustering meeting and team spaces, moving to unassigned solo seats, integrating executive spaces in the middle of the action, and creating community at the very heart.
-And there is A Walk in the Park, a connection with the outdoors and acknowledgement of nature’s healing and therapeutic power. It may be the literal ability to walk across the street to the park, but even if that’s not possible, anyone can exploit the views, or create perimeter circulation so daylight is for all, or design new buildings that embrace the outdoors at the base, at the top, and in the middle.
It’s all about creating an experience that compels employees to come to the office.
- Real Workplace Flexibility. Be ready for the next pandemic. Who among us predicated the last two years? If you raised your hand, can you predict the next two? What if a workspace could react and change in real time as a business’s needs morphed and adjusted? We already see a move towards flexible environments where physical changes can be made by the users — overnight and at no cost. Modular planning strategies, including rigidly systematizing building services both above the ceiling and below the floor, like power, data, lighting, and air conditioning, keeps expensive and technical components fixed, but allows ultimate malleability for the elements that live between the carpet and the ceiling: The furniture, the walls, and the people. The place is ready for change. Bring it on.
- Experimenting. What works best is unknowable. There is a power in calling a solution an experiment and trying it out before we buy it. Fixed solutions that work forever are a thing of the past. Organizations need ultimate flexibility to keep up with change and a workplace that can evolve with the work, so businesses are embracing change relative to people, process, and place. Piloting new space before applying ideas to floors of workspace — once a tool for large complex projects — has become the norm for organizations of a variety of sizes and a chance to not only test drive new ideas on how to use space, but also new protocols and new ways of organizing teams. A solution that is 80% right may actually be perfect if it better tells our stories and makes our people their very best.
- Promote Innovation and Creativity. Workplaces are being transformed to be more fit for purpose with certainly less focus on elements like an old school sea of individual seats. More meeting spaces truly outfitted with digital and analog tools have become the norm. Small team settings with immersive technology unavailable at your kitchen table are available at a moment’s notice. Spaces can quickly adjust and morph to better serve both solo work or teamwork. And individual seats are designed for truly heads down work. No more cubicles and headphones, but truly private spaces designed for deep focus or properly outfitted for the next Zoom call. The workplace employs a variety of workspaces better tailored to the variety of workstyles. And the spaces are available for the use of all, not limited by hierarchy or org chart.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?
There is debate as to whether this is apocryphal or not, but I’ve always loved Daniel Burnham’s quote, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood . . .”
I’m a believer in the big idea. Be clear about objectives, have a concept, figure out what success looks like. It can apply to a project. It can apply to life.
Early in my career, I had the great fortune to work with Paul Kennon at CRS and he told me once that a great design was having a bold idea and then defending it against all the barnyard chickens that would try to peck it to death. I took that to heart.
BTW, from what I have read, it seems Burnham really made that quote and the whole paragraph is worth reading including: “Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us.” If you can see past his obvious nineteenth century perspective, I believe that. I’m jazzed about what’s in store for my granddaughter.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love a beer with the famous basketball player, Barack Obama. He is interesting, interested, and, maybe even in spite of his historical stature, seems like a thoughtful almost everyday guy but with his eye on the big picture. Politics aside, his ability to appear both grounded and unfazed by the hurly-burly are inspirational.
Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online?
LinkedIn does a fantastic job framing almost anyone as a thought leader: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lawrencelanderpdr/
And I still read and answer all my own email in a more or less timely manner: [email protected]
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.