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The Future Model of Work to Fuel Growth: An Interview with CEO Andrew Graff of Allen & Gerritsen
May 25, 2023

KG: What’s your vision for the future workspace that’s driving you right now?

AG: Our vision, coming out of the pandemic was to design and build the workplace of the future. A workplace that promotes collaboration, inspiration, engagement, relationship building, community, and creativity, and through this, maximizes productivity and togetherness.

KG: What was your expectation for people to be in the office before the pandemic, and how has that changed?

AG: Our pre-pandemic office environment expectation was full-time in-office work, with few exceptions. Like most companies in March 2020, we immediately shifted into a remote workforce. Today's expectation is two days per week in the office, and three days per week of your choice, with exceptions. However, neither of these models is sustainable for long-term work, and we need to determine the right model to fuel future growth.

KG: Was it challenging to get people to come back into the office after working from home for so long?

AG: I was not surprised that it was a challenge. People had created new daily schedule habits and were not eager to commute. The bigger challenge was that our employees know we have experienced year-over-year growth and remained profitable, so they are not convinced of the need to be physically together.

KG: How did you choose to work with this?

AG: We needed to embrace "flexibility" and understand what it means for our business in a time when talent is scarce and people have more options. We decided to make it clear that we were leaving behind the old model, beliefs, and behaviors so that we can fully embrace our new model of work, enabling productivity and creativity. We will only move forward; we will not revert to the old ways.

KG: What does "only forward" look like in your organization?

AG: Some companies have shifted to a 100% virtual workforce, while others emphasize the importance of everyone being together all the time. We don't believe either end of that spectrum is right for our future. We believe in a model that combines intentional togetherness with the flexibility to work from outside our walls. As we envision the future, we recognize that being physically together is indeed important for the success of our business, but we also believe that flexibility will enhance overall agency productivity, employee well-being, and engagement.

KG: Has this changed how you've set up your office and how people are using it?

AG: Yes, it has. For starters we have retired the word “office.” We were not interested in “returning to the office” and continuing the old ways and habits of the past. Instead of a focus on solitary offices and desks, we focus on maximizing shared spaces to think, create and make together. We are calling these places to work collaboratively Third Spaces. 

KG: How did you land on the word Third Space? 

AG: The concept is inspired by “third places,” a term coined by Ray Oldenburg in his 1989 book The Great Good Place, and further elaborated upon in his 2001 book Celebrating the Third Place. Oldenburg describes the concept as “public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work.”  In our case, they are designed to be places where people gather, dream and innovate in comfortable surroundings to create conversation, ideas and inclusion. 

KG: Can you describe in more detail how you’ve designed the spaces for this purpose? What do they look like and how do team members get access?

AG: Third Spaces feature living room style settings and seek to minimize the formality associated with the traditional pre-pandemic office. We are forgoing assigned seating and eliminating the word “desk” from our vocabulary. The workplaces instead are filled with seats that can be booked and changed daily through our scheduling software. And gathering spots are named for popular real life third places — Barber Shop, Ferry, Hookah Lounge, Bodega, Nook, Boardwalk, Speakeasy, Taqueria and more. We encourage employees to book seats based on interests and commonalities. 

KG: With this new way of working, how are you communicating with your team?

AG: We have made it clear that our decisions and strategies are based on what we believe is best for us as a collective whole, rather than any one specific individual. We acknowledge that there will be things we try that won't work, but we have expressed our commitment to mutual flexibility as we navigate through this new environment. To ensure clarity and consistency, we have clearly outlined expectations for which activities and meetings should be conducted in person versus virtually. Furthermore, we are investing in our management team to equip them with the skills needed to lead in this new environment.

KG: It sounds like your approach goes beyond where people work. What else are you doing to adapt and fuel growth?

AG: Our approach to this type of workforce has also led us to rethink how leaders lead and manage a different staffing structure, including goal setting. Our CFO, along with our talent team, is reevaluating more holistic and transparent compensation structures, career pathing, benefits, PTO, parental leave, 401K, and learning and development opportunities.

Curious to see Third Space? Click here to view some images.

Andrew Graff, CEO of Allen & Gerristen, a Boston and Philadelphia independent creative agency, is a member of Katahdin Group's CEO Collective. 

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