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Lessons From a Real Estate Executive's Own Office Leasing Journey

When I joined Savills Studley in 2015, my goal was to be the first choice for Atlanta’s fast-growing companies seeking real estate advisory services.

In such a promising and exciting business environment, it was critical that Atlanta’s business leaders knew the Savills Studley brand and what we bring to the table. Unfortunately, while the company had been in the Atlanta market for nearly 20 years, our awareness was relatively low. This was the most pressing issue facing our office. So, I set out to change this immediately. We had the talent, but we had to redefine our culture and put it on display to increase awareness.

Instilling our Culture

Before searching for space, we needed to establish a defined culture for our organization. One book that heavily influenced me in the area of culture and team building was, “The Ideal Team Player” by Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni’s views on team building and culture taught me, that while I needed the type-A personalities that win new business, these individual producers needed certain characteristics. They needed to be willing to work both as and with a team, while still being permitted to preserve the individuality of their work. As the book suggests, I needed people that were, “hungry, humble and smart.” So, I focused talent acquisition efforts with this vision in mind. I also decided to form a team of leaders with this mindset to search for our new space.

Searching for Space

Our existing office was similar to a traditional professional services firm composed of cubicles and large perimeter and corner offices. The office lacked collaborative space and the furniture was past its prime. Our work environment needed to be aligned with who our company is and where we were heading. As fate would have it, our existing lease was set to expire in two years, presenting a perfect opportunity for us to implement major change.

Looking for a new office space is not an easy task—it’s a full time job. The two-year window provided me a sufficient amount of time to put together a cross-functional team for the site selection and design/build-out process. I assigned one senior-level and one mid-level broker to lead the search. Having both perspectives helped me determine how the office would work for a wide range of people. To round out the team, we also included a colleague from IT, the head of project management and a behavioral scientist from workplace strategy.

The first thing we did was begin searching for locations in either Buckhead or Midtown. We narrowed our search to these areas because it's where our clients are, where our competitors are and where our existing and future employees are (or wanted to be).

Designing the Space

After identifying a 15,000-square-foot space (that happened to be across the street from our existing office), I turned my attention to engaging a sophisticated local architect. The firm I landed on, SRSS, was very well-respected in the area and had just completed the renovation of Chick-fil-A’s one million square-foot Atlanta headquarters. In fact, we incorporated many of the forward-thinking and cool ideas from that office into ours. SRSS encouraged us to have the heart of our organization on display in the front of the office. This gives visitors a clear picture of who we are the moment they enter the space. We set out to do just that.

As a result, the front of our new office was designed to have a lot of flexible, collaborative space to greet people when they arrive. A large conference room, with retractable glass walls, opens out into a living room-style seating area, coffee and wine bar with high-top tables and a row of reclining Eames chairs complete with laptop tables. I knew I wanted to host of a lot of people in this area, not just hold client meetings. So, we considered this space an ideal representation of our firm to the entire market. We now host monthly events in this space with as many as 200 people.

 

Beyond the reception and event area is a workplace strategy lab, a rolling exhibit where we test different types of furniture and office technology for a few months at a time. This not only helps familiarize our employees with new workplace concepts and configurations, but also allows clients to come in and test new innovative ways of working before committing themselves. This alone has added a whole new dimension to how we use our office, while letting us practice what we preach on how we advise others on their workplace strategy.

To further support our vision and culture, I decided to adopt a universal office layout. This meant that all office sizes would be the same - the most senior person has the same size office as the most junior person who qualifies. I wanted to do this to take the hierarchy out of our culture and to do away with the treadmill way of thinking that, “If I hit this number, then I get this...”

I also did away with the cubicle layout that most of our competitors in the area use. Instead, we created a living room-like experience by blending different workspaces to create one open environment. Employees have the option of sitting in a number of areas, including our café (with bar-height seating), the lounge area with Eames chairs and laptop tables, the kitchen area or in closed-door huddle rooms, among other spaces. In addition, nearly every wall in the office is coated in a special type of paint that allows employees to write notes on the walls. This way, our team could collaborate and draw or write out their ideas at any moment. All of the desks, when employees choose to use them, can be adjusted to be standing or sitting; almost every inch of the new office both horizontally and vertically can be utilized.

Achieving our Goal

We’ve been in our new office for several months now, so it’s still too early to draw causal conclusions about its effects. But, what I can say for sure is that it has definitely added some Red Bull to our system. The new office provides visual gratification of who we are and is giving people energy, just as we had hoped. It’s drawing positive comments from almost everyone who visits. Most importantly, collaboration and teamwork is higher than I could have ever imagined when we were in our old space.

The office is creating outward buzz as well. We’re being nominated for all types of awards we’d never been considered for before and we’ve already received a significant recruiting boost.

Learning from Our Experience

The first thing I asked myself at the beginning of this nearly two-year process was the question, “What problem am I trying to solve?” I aligned the entire two-year process around the answer to that question. In my case, I set out to solve the problem of an awareness/perception gap between our firm’s employees and visitors alike. They needed to know that Savills Studley is the smartest group of people who are working on the most sophisticated and exciting assignments in the country’s fastest growing city. This is what led me to adopt flexible space and technology that inspired employees and enabled them to collaborate while leaving a lasting impression on clients and prospects. Your organization probably has different problems to solve and that should be what guides you through this process. But if there is one thing to know, it is that there truly is no one-size-fits all option.

Having a diverse, multifunctional team with design expertise in charge of the site selection and design process was critically important. The variance in age and experience of committee members, as well as being equipped with both a behavioral science and technology advisor, were key to fine tuning the environment I set out to create. We treated ourselves as the client. Having an experienced transactor to negotiate lease terms ensured optimal financial and lease flexibility terms.

Lastly, being able to get started on this project early was critical. The two-year window provided me enough time to identify the problems I wanted to solve, put a team together, perform a diligent space search and build out the newly leased space. If I had to do this in 6-12 months, the process would have been rushed and the end result would have fallen short.

If you're a business leader either bracing for a space search or in the middle of one and are seeking some insight, feel free to drop me a line on my author page.

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