13. Orchestrating space to create competitive advantage


Listen to this episode to learn how space can create a genuine employee experience and increase purpose and well-being.   (20:50)

First a quick introduction: Guillaume Alvarez is Senior V.P Europe, Middle-East & Africa of Steelcase. He is also President at the European Executive Council and a member of the Peter Drucker Society Europe Board. Steelcase has researched the evolving workplace on a global scale. They surveyed 32,000 people and analyzed more than 8,000 floor plans to understand what is happening in organizations and what is changing.


  • The serendipity of encounters that generate ideas and build trust

  • Different spaces for different purposes

  • Space lets you create a genuine employee experience

  • Words don’t work as well as in the past

  • Orchestrating space to put leadership in the flow

  • Well-crafted spaces make people feel more productive and believe in what they are doing

  • Space enhances three types of well-being: physical, emotional, cognitive

What follows are key phrases from our conversation, edited, sometimes adapted, and is not an actual transcript.

The serendipity of encounters that generate ideas and build trust

Over the past 16 months, it is clear that working from home is possible.

From the employer standpoint, there was a moment of recognition that it might let them decrease their real estate holding improve their bottom line.

Then there was the phase when reality settled in and people got tired of working alone from home.

The challenge now is how to get the right balance to benefit from the value of being in the office and the serendipity of the relationships and encounters that create information sharing, idea generation and trust building.

Different spaces for different purposes

A building needs different work spaces that serve different purposes.

People can go to the space that they need for the type of work that they’re doing, whether it’s an intimate conversation with one or two people or a larger meeting, or private thinking time, or virtual communication with people around the world.

Space lets you create a genuine employee experience

Words don’t work as well as in the past

The problem is that words don’t really work as well as in the past.

Why? Because everything’s been said. On corporate websites the messages are “Our people are our most important assets.” “We protect the environment.” “We’re a very innovative company.”

“Words have to take shape in the mind of the employees through experiences that people have. So if you want the people to have choice and control, if you want them to develop trust in each other and trust leadership, space becomes one of the most effective tools at your disposal to create an experience that employees will live every day.”

Example: leadership being in the flow

“We’ve always put leadership in the middle of the action between the entrance and a good cup of coffee, because that’s where everyone is walking by. It creates leadership being in the flow.”

“Space is a fantastic opportunity to create an experience that will shape the belief of the employees, because they see that what is being said is actually translated into their everyday experience at work.”

It takes time for people to see they can really talk to management.

Space helps build culture,  a competitive advantage

What tools do we have at our disposal to create and reinforce culture?

  • Processes (important)
  • Programs (also important)
  • Words (much less important than before)
  • Experiences that you leave every day in the office (very important)

People need a sense of purpose

“It’s important to understand what you do is useful, that you’re actually solving a real problem. If people are in work spaces where they want to be, they feel more productive and can actually believe that they’re doing something useful for their employers, for their teammates and also for the community.”

Well-being and employee engagement

Three types of well-being:

Physical: Good lighting, good air, good temperature, good posture, etc.

Emotional: People like cozy living rooms and beautiful gardens and the version of that in the office is greenery and warm materials. Spaces where you feel you can concentrate and you like being there.

Cognitive: Understanding what is going on around you. Are you in the flow? Are you in the know? Are you being recognized?

The space can create a lot of positive, cognitive well-being through transparency. Allowing people to see what is going on in the office through open floors around a courtyard area and lighting from the ceiling.

People walking around can see if the teams are happy or if they’re concerned about something. This provides a feeling of solid community well-being through the design of the space.

To future leaders: bring out the untapped potential

I asked Guillaume what message he recommend that I share in my graduation speech to the Executive MBA program at the Berlin Creative School. His response:

“Leaders need to pay attention to the people they are working with. They need to realize that for the most part, these people have untapped potential. So I think successful leaders are the ones that are able to unlock the potential that is hidden in to people that sometimes would like to come out and would like to be expressed. But the weight of the traditional management side and office layouts and company protocols actually sometimes prevents that tremendous potential from coming out.”

Great leaders work at unlocking the potential of the people they work with. not just their direct collaborators, but the people actually through all the organization that depend on their leadership.

Leaders need people skills as well as business skills

I wish that MBAs would spend more time around psychology and sociology. These are disciplines that are as important as finance and legal expertise and strategy development.”

First published Sept 8, 2021.

You can reach Guillaume on LinkedIn

Here’s the link to Steelcase.

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