Workplace trends from the city that never sleeps

WORKTECH’s latest New York conference veered from a traditional focus on efficiency to explore issues of culture and experience as corporate America weighs up its options in the hybrid era

Corporate America is ‘getting on with things’ but with a growing focus on culture and experience rather than traditional efficiencies.

This was the conclusion from WORKTECH’s annual New York conference, held at Accenture’s One Manhattan West space on 22 September 2022. Coming close on the heels of Labour Day, the data indicates that even the most conservative players are likely in for a hybrid long haul and this was reflected in the discussions raised at the event.

The great reset

The conference opened with a session from Philip Ross, founder and CEO of Unwork and WORKTECH, calling for nothing less than an unlearning of what we think work is about. Responding to the seismic workplace changes of the last few years, Ross argued that this reckoning can only be met starting from zero. Introducing concepts from a new book titled Unworking, co-authored with WORKTECH Academy director Professor Jeremy Myerson , Ross presented a vision of work that was fluid rather than formal, enabled by data and powered by experience – all driven by HR, IT and real estate teams working hand in hand.

The idea of rethinking and resetting the workplace to enable hybrid working was a recurring theme. Chris Moss, Vice President and Sales CTO at Poly, argued for a reset of the workplace shaped around purpose. Sharing data from Poly’s research into workstyles and preferences, Moss highlighted a new role for the office in a hybrid work environment, based on minimising friction, providing equitable experiences and using data to constantly monitor and adjust – there’s no final answer.

Betsy Kehoe, Head of User Experience at Sanofi, and Tina Smith, Business Development Director at Vecos, shared a case study on doing just that, with the consolidation of eight Sanofi locations onto a single campus designed around fostering collaboration in a ‘hybrid and fully dynamic’ model.

From dumb to digital

The use of data and digital tools to inform design, decision-making and experience was a central theme. In a panel on emerging technology trends, speakers from Freespace, Sony Nimway and Infogrid discussed some of the key concerns raised by organisations in the return to office.

Although there is less specific concern about safety from the virus than a year ago, using data and smart building technology to understand and manage a healthy and sustainable internal environment is a strong area of focus. Facilitating more personalised technology experiences and enabling people to locate colleagues seamlessly were also key areas for innovation, with AI seen as playing a central role in future developments.

‘PwC sensor data found that people were spending 80 per cent of their time in the office working alone…’

Steve Adams of PwC walked the audience through their implementation of a large-scale sensor installation, concluding that he wouldn’t want to make real estate acquisition or design decisions without the detailed data that this provided. One of PWC findings highlighted the importance of data over assumption – contrary to expectation, the sensor data found that people were spending 80 per cent of their time in the office working alone which is leading to a rethink about how they approach their office estate.

Drew Brennan of Coty also shared a case study of how Coty uses data to manage and evolve its  workplaces in a hybrid world. With global travel back in play, Coty has implemented a single global solution that enables people to use space seamlessly – and the real estate team to truly understand how their spaces are being used.

In a ‘one year on’ review of the One Manhattan West project, Michael Przytula from Accenture shared insights into how data is being used to evolve their spaces. Przytula also revealed some of the broader digital innovation being explored by Accenture, including a digital human concierge service, delivering building services using robots, more personalisation of smart screen technology and continuing innovation in the metaverse.

One key learning that he identified was the potential risk in using leading edge technology of having vendors either pivot or not survive longer term – Przytula anticipates eventual consolidation in the market.

Doubling down on culture

Culture and experience as key components in bringing people back to the office were a common thread. A session by Rom Eizenberg, Chief Revenue Officer at, aimed to reframe smart building technologies away from pure operating efficiencies and towards human experience. Larry Gadea, CEO of Envoy, set out a vision for building culture and community in multi-tenanted buildings, arguing that the physical space still has a central role to play in strengthening culture – and that property managers can support their tenants in achieving this goal.

‘Envoy set out a vision for building culture and community in multi-tenanted buildings…’

Gadea proposed new digital tools that would enable the development of a building ecosystem that leverages proximity, for example a tenant marketplace, carpooling across organisations, or the ability to easily sub-let surplus space to other tenants.

Culture and experience were a particular focus for an expert panel discussing what’s next in hybrid workplace integration in which moderator Peter Miscovich from JLL was joined by panellists from Adobe, Metlife and Bristol Myers Squibb. The conversation quickly turned to talent attraction and retention as a key consideration for organisations, with culture-building driven by the delivery of consistent, high-quality and impactful experiences a core component of achieving these goals.

With people often working in distributed teams, hospitality experiences now have to be hybrid – Adobe has been using services like Doordash to ensure that remote participants still feel part of the experience. Meanwhile, in the office, community ambassadors, space for onsite offsites, more persona-based neighbourhood building and bringing in the comfort and conveniences of home were all core considerations.

Human factors to the fore

While New York has historically been known for a strong focus on performance efficiencies, this year’s event continued 2021’s lean towards more human factors – even when it comes to future technologies. Accenture’s H. James Wilson opened on the theme with a positive vision of Artificial Intelligence in a ‘radically human’ age.

Wilson argued that the shortcoming of technology based only on deep learning is a lack of sense of cause and effect, time or the social concepts that human beings naturally have. In response, pioneering research in multiple fields is developing machines with more human-like reasoning ability that foreground trust and empathy as key attributes. It’s not about replacing humans, but about multiplying value by working together. In summary: ‘AI will not replace chemists, but chemists who do not use AI will be replaced by those who do.’

Diversity and inclusion

An expert panel led by JLL’s Vijay Jesrani did a deep dive into diversity and inclusion for a hybrid world. Panellists from the Schack Institute of Real Estate, MWBE Unite and Two Sigma highlighted increasing diversity, equity and inclusion as business imperatives.

Key aspects of achieving this goal were working collaboratively to understand who products, services and spaces were being designed for, humanising the workplace so that everyone feels that they have a home, and pipelining the intake of more diverse talent to improve representation in the industry.

The panel also argued for better training for people managers as remote working shines a light on leadership abilities, and for increasing diversity in leadership roles to ensure that both empathy and lived experience are reflected in decision making.

Having a laugh

Steve Cody and David Horning of Peppercomm raised some laughs in a session focused on the enjoyment of humour in business. With a University of Maryland study finding that laughing together can improve creative problem solving, the pair set out a manifesto for the value of humour at work. It builds common ground and trust and requires empathy and vulnerability from leaders who are authentic and open about when they fail.

‘Laughing together can improve creative problem solving – a manifesto for the value of humour at work’

The theme of empathy was revisited by Dr Anna Tavis of New York University. With a revisionist view of the role of empathy in business history, Tavis argued against the rationalist view that empathy is simply not the most efficient way to achieve business goals. One of her core lessons was based on Frank Chimero’s quote that ‘people ignore design that ignores people’.

The ultimate conclusion from WORKTECH New York 2022 was that the successful businesses of the 21st century are going to be the more empathic ones. This will require curiosity, creativity and caring – but meanwhile the New York workplace community is also taking care of business.

Visit the WORKTECH New York 2022 site here.
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