Kay Sargent believes that “we need to slow down a little bit, be thoughtful about what we want to do, use common sense, and be mindful.” These types of wise yet seemingly obvious sentiments—that in the reality of the design community aren’t always so obvious—cropped up frequently during our conversation here, as we discussed her career path thus far, wellbeing in the workplace, and why an open office plan isn’t for everyone.
Sargent, Lend Lease’s director of workplace strategies, has been practicing interior design for 31 years, many of which were spent in Washington DC, where she worked on a plethora of government projects. “And when you do government projects,” she says, “you do everything from firing ranges to prison holding cells to evidence lockers to high-end executive’s dining rooms to press-ready rooms to military spaces.”
Today, she uses that far-reaching experience to help clients at one of the world’s leading fully integrated property and infrastructure solutions providers “rethink what they’re doing from their corporate real estate to their workplace to how they’re managing everything—ultimately the entire execution.” Sargent says she’s never come across a company that whole heartedly embraces the significance of sustainability like Lend Lease does, which is just one reason (of many) why we asked her to not only serve as this issue’s guest editor but also offer her insights to our workplace design feature.
PART 1 THE ROAD TO LEND LEASE
gb&d: It seems like, at a certain point quite far into your career, you made a shift from practicing interior design toward research, development, and strategic planning. How come?
Sargent: During my 27 years practicing at a design firm, I did a lot of teaching as well, and I absolutely loved that. I loved what I was doing, but I wanted to do a little bit more with workplaces and get more experience. Often when you’re practicing, you get so immersed in projects that you barely have a chance to lift your head and see what’s going on. So when I had an opportunity to join [furniture company] Teknion, it was a great opportunity to travel all around the US and through Canada and even abroad. I spent a lot of time in China and India seeing what’s going on, talking with clients, spreading the word, and sharing information. The sad thing today is that most architectural firms are so focused on executing work that they don’t have a lot of resources or time dedicated to doing the research and carrying on that exploratory aspect of it.
gb&d: Why do you think that’s the case?
Sargent: I really believe that unfortunately, the interior design and architectural practices are quickly becoming a commodity. And it’s unfortunate because of their amazing value. We’re living in a time where design thinking is so highly valued by businesses, and executives appreciate the fact that space designed well can be a huge asset and a business tool. But, design firms are still struggling for how they can be compensated, and everybody wants everything so fast that nobody’s letting people do the research. And I think that the evolution of thought really is important.
gb&d: Does this factor into why you joined Lend Lease?
Sargent: When I had the opportunity to join Lend Lease, I thought that it was a great opportunity to take a very holistic approach because when you’re looking at it from a development standpoint, you have an opportunity to influence things up and down the project food chain. While architects have their time in the sun, and furniture manufacturers also have theirs, when you’re at a company like Lend Lease—a huge developer, huge in project management, a huge construction company with tremendous assets—we’re really looking at how we can help our clients. We rethink what they’re doing from their corporate real estate to their workplaces to how they’re managing things and ultimately the entire execution. So we’re in it for that kind of a haul, and when you have that much of a stake in the game, you tend to think about it a little bit differently.
PART 2 IT’S ALL IN THE DNA
gb&d: What is your opinion on the health- and wellness-related changes we’ve been seeing in workplace design recently?
Sargent: I think it’s really important. Four or five years ago, we had some roundtables around the country where we talked about well-being, and no one even knew what we were talking about. And today, still, a lot of people think it’s just about putting in a fitness center. One of the biggest epiphanies for me was when I was talking to somebody who was telling me about all these wellness initiatives a few years ago, and I said, “Boy, I’d really love to see your fitness center.” And she said, “We don’t have a fitness center.” Fitness isn’t a destination; it’s a way of life. The healthiest people in the world don’t necessarily go to fitness centers. Activity is a part of their daily life. They live in environments that are designed to encourage walking. Standing is not better than sitting. The elephant in the room is that that everybody woke up and realized wow, sitting is killing us, and we need to take that seriously.
gb&d: I wanted hear more of your opinions on open office trends.
Sargent: There is no one solution. Companies are different, and I believe that each company has their own DNA. And I believe that that DNA is made up of six elements, and if a company varies in any one of those elements from any other company, then they can have a totally different workplace solution. Open offices are part of the solution, but they are rarely the sole solution for anybody. One of the hardest things to know is to know yourself and to really understand how you work. So if you can understand your organizational structure and your DNA, then you can figure out what the right solution is, and it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.
gb&d: And what are the six elements?
Sargent: Those six things are: 1.) What industry are you in? The way that law firms should be designed should be different than a healthcare or a high-tech business. 2.) What’s your organizational structure? Anybody who assumes that the world is flat today—the bottom line is that the world isn’t flat. Hierarchy exists, and it exists for a reason, and it’s not a bad thing. If your company is very hierarchical, [an open office] is going to be problematic for you, because there’s a misunderstanding that’s happening there. 3.) Your demographics. If you’re designing for people who are coming right out of college, you’re going to have a different type of space than if you’re designing for PhD’s who’ve been in the military for 20 years who are in their 50s. And demographics doesn’t just mean age; it’s your gender, ethnic group, etc. 4.) Your working styles. If you’re doing sales and consulting work, and you’re in the office, you’re not making money. So those offices need to be designed for a high degree of mobility. If you’re in the creative field, they want you in the office every single day and they want you to live, eat, and sleep with your coworkers so that you get this synergy and you can finish each other’s sentences and that speeds innovation in a group. So depending on what type of work you’re doing, the solutions will vary. 5.) Regional influences. If your office is in downtown Manhattan versus Austin versus Denver, you’re going to have different challenges, so you need to design the office according to that because that’s going to have an impact.
gb&d: And the final element?
Sargent: 6.) Culture. This is a big one. What is your corporate culture? Are you very entrepreneurial and empowering everybody, or are you very controlled, regulated, and strict? Different cultures are going to have different elements and if the workplace does not reflect all six of those key elements successfully then it will be a problem and it will be a challenge. To design the right solution, you have to know who you are and design to it, which means that if everybody is just giving everybody open plans, then they’re guessing, and they’re missing the boat. Unless you can articulate why you’re doing that based on those elements and show that it’s the right solution for who you are and where you are it’s a shot in the dark, and it shouldn’t be. But I believe that workplace designers and strategists are very good at understanding that and helping their clients come to the right solutions.
PART 3 BREAKING GENERATIONAL BOUNDARIES
gb&d: I know you’ve written extensively about work-life balance and how important it is to employees today. Does this apply exclusively to young people/millennials? And how does it factor into design?
Sargent: We have talked about the differences in the generations. But I think a lot of the differences are lifecycle differences and not purely generational differences. Studies have shown that the differences between the generations aren’t as extreme as they’re often portrayed, and I think the millennials are judged right now by where they are right now in their young 20s. And frankly, I wouldn’t want to be judged by how I was in my young 20s. I think the interesting thing right now is the generation that’s coming after that because anybody that’s designing anything today, in five years Generation Z will be in the workforce.
gb&d: Do you think this is a cyclical problem?
Sargent: There’s this great thing called the archetypes that talks about how there’s a 75-year turn upon which things repeat themselves. We go through this cycle of heroes, artists, prophets, and nomads. The last great hero generation was the World War II generation. There was a major crisis, and everybody rallied together for a common cause. The last artist generation was the silent generation, and the last prophet generation was the baby boomers. They questioned everything, and that led to societal changes that led into a new era. And the Gen X-ers became the nomads. We are living in a time of crisis right now, so if you follow the archetypes, the millennials are scheduled to be the next hero generation.
gb&d: What do you think this means for the future?
Sargent: Change isn’t made by people who accept the status quo and have low expectations. Change is made by people who have high expectations, but also by people who put their money where there mouth is and I think millennials have proven this. I have faith that they are going to do great things. This means that Gen Z is slated to be the next artist generation. Now there’s a massive movement towards the maker movement and genuine products. And there’s the fact that there’s onshore manufacturing again and 3D printing, which could bear out to be a hugely significant organic maker/artist movement. That’s who, if you’re designing space, is going to come in in five years. And we’re already seeing a shift towards those values. So people need to stop thinking about the past and start thinking about what’s coming and how to prepare for that and how to get ahead of the curve. I think a lifestyle-work-play balance is going to be really important. We need to be creating environments and communities and spaces that not only support environmental and human sustainability, but support communities and connect people back together again.