Please describe your role
My job is a balancing act of three key areas: clients, team and business development. I ensure our clients’ expectations are met, this means working with the team to understand our clients’ brief and where we can challenge them to think about their problem differently. Then I need to make sure my team is happy, that the work is engaging, they have the right tools, etc. All the while, I am mentoring and guiding them along the way. The third– and probably the most important – thing I do is business development talking to clients and letting them know what we can do for them. So my job can involve anything from a team member having too much sun on their PC screen to working with a client on how they can consolidate 650,000 square feet into 500,000 square feet. It’s a mixed bag everyday, but it’s what I like about my job.
The question ‘why’ has really been fundamental to driving me to the position I’m in today
How did you get where you are today?
When I graduated in Illinois in 1993 you couldn’t get a job in architecture to save your life! There was a huge recession on, and maybe that was a blessing, because I got a job in an interiors firm. I thought I’d go back to school and get my architecture history PHD, but I ended up falling in love with interiors. The scale was different, it was so much more personal – it felt like you were really touching peoples’ lives because they were living in or working in space you actually created.
After thirteen years at the Chicago arm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, I started to think more about design strategy. I felt design-wise I was able to make something beautiful, but I didn’t feel like my work was actually getting to the core of our client’s needs. Clients were no longer worried about creating a big interior building to house staff, they wanted something that was going to increase productivity, engagement and morale. There was this real shift in where the interior design profession was going. It was a subtle shift, something that starting as a trickle, but then it started to gain more momentum everywhere.
I’ve always been really interested in the ‘why?’ behind the buildings and the work that I do. When I studied architecture, I always wanted to understand why a building looks the way it does and why it’s in the location it’s in. The question ‘why?’ has really been fundamental to driving me to the position I’m in today where I do a lot of work-based strategy. I really want to know why we’re doing something, what’s the end product and what is the client trying to get out of it?
How do you find out the ‘why?’ in workplace design?
Our design process is rooted in research behind the question why? Whether our client is considering developing a new high-rise tower, or considering a relocation of a 10,000 sqft office, we begin by undertaking research on our client’s drivers and aspirations. What sets this project apart? What are they trying to achieve? What will be the success factors? Basically the question ‘why?’
There is a lot of focus on the ‘why?’ in the realm of corporate office interiors. We typically develop a workplace strategy for our clients that can include senior leadership interviews, workshops, web surveys, utilisation surveys, onsite observation and camera journaling. These tools help us to get a clearer picture of what is happening behind the scene. It helps us develop tailored designs for our clients, enabling them to achieve quantifiable results.
What’s the most memorable project you’ve done?
We just celebrated completion of a 165,000 square foot work place strategy and interior design project for Deloitte’s regional headquarters in Montreal. They moved in during September and it’s gotten a lot of publicity. It’s a beautiful project and in that space you sense the pride that everybody has there and how much it helps improve connections and the sharing of knowledge. – there’s a real buzz. It’s a building where you actually feel like the building’s alive.
Define ambition and what fuels yours?
Ambition has got to be a blend of knowing where you’re going and how you’re going to implement that, but it’s also important to think about where you’ve been at the same time. When I was younger I think I just worked all the time and I just felt like I was on a treadmill without really poking my head up to see that I was going in the right direction. As I’ve gotten (slightly) older, I’m more apt to stop and fundamentally question if I or the organisation is heading in the right direction.
Find a place that challenges you, allows you to grow, and is entrepreneurial.
Ever had a career dip and what was the life lesson / takeaway?
Years ago, I sent an email I probably shouldn’t have sent. It was to a furniture dealer who was recommending furniture without us knowing to one of our clients. I was a young designer, perhaps overly confident, perhaps acting like I knew everything, so I wrote her a really stroppy email saying with sort of unpolite ways of saying we didn’t appreciate what she was doing. But, I didn’t realise she was was a trusted advisor of our client and a personal friend having supplied them with furniture for many years! I got into a lot of trouble and was taken off the project. I learnt a lot about being more respectful, because I was completely out of line. That was a learning experience – I’m a lot more partner-centric on those type of things nowadays.
Biggest fear for the industry?
I’d hate to see strategy become devoid of the design side. In London and the States there’s a growing faction of consultants doing just workplace strategy and we’ve seen what happens… there’s no thought about design and how design is important in solving problems and pulling all the other streams of the workplace (eg real estate, technology and HR) into a cohesive whole.
Then there’s the question of whether we’ll actually need office space in twenty years. If you can work from everywhere and you’ve got great connectivity tools, then do you really need to come into an office to do your job? We work on residential and leisure projects too, so a future without offices is not a major worry, but it is an interesting question to ask.
What advice do you have for others looking to do something similar?
Find a place that challenges you, allows you to grow, and that is entrepreneurial. Avoid environments that aren’t open to ideas from everyone, otherwise it can really hold you back no matter how hard you work. I’ve seen it in some firms where only partners say how things should be and that’s not a recipe for success – on either side. Last thing is to remember to have fun. You will do your job better when you enjoy what you are doing.
Thank you Matthew for inspiring others to craft their own career story.