Q&A With Corinne Murray, Founder of Agate Studio
Part One: 'How do we reevaluate productivity?'
How did you first get into your industry? Were you interested in it before you started your career? We’d love to hear about your career journey!
I got my start at CBRE, first doing market research (which was a lot of number crunching), then brokerage helping investment firms that had purchased pre-war buildings to transform the assets and make them competitive with other new developments popping up around the city (think: house flipping), then I made my way into corporate accounts – some of my clients were government, finance, entertainment, and then I settled into working with American Express as they divested from American Express Global Business Travel which was like a corporate dividing of assets as part of (an amicable) divorce. That work was really where I began to understand all the gears that made a company run and how they work with (or sometimes against) one another.
From there, I went in-house at American Express to run the global workplace program: BlueWork (a hybrid workplace program that was about 10 years before its time, hindsight being 20/20). It was my crash course of understanding the principles of user experience, activity based working (and the correlative designs), and how the workplace can be something that makes or breaks a company's culture.
Following that, I had a brief stint at Gensler where I focused on developing change management strategies for pharmaceutical, financial services, and management consulting companies as they embarked on long roads of workplace and culture transformation, focusing on how to shift from a mindset of "we'll tell you what we think you need to know" to "we'll listen to you and give you as much information as we are able". Then, I made my way to WeWork.
At WeWork where I got to dig more into the research and R&D side of what really makes a successful workplace by testing it on ourselves. And testing on yourselves is always a bit of a challenge! But at the same time, it was really hands-on: we were able to see what was successful and what wasn't in very, very quick, real time. And I was basically working on figuring out how to convert that into a consulting service within our broader Consulting Group up until 2019, when some stuff happened (!) and lots of us got laid off, including myself.
Even so, it really was such a lightning rod experience – so much of what I do today wouldn't exist, and the gumption I have around it wouldn't exist, wouldn't be as strong, and wouldn’t be as understood if it weren't for my time at WeWork.
From there, I did a little consulting during my garden leave period. And then I joined RXR, which is a big commercial landlord here in New York City and I was their first workplace hire. At RXR we were building our bespoke tenant engagement app, and at the same time figuring out what we needed to do within our portfolio to evolve and meet the moment. My translation of that was (whether they want to say it explicitly or not) that RXR wanted to WeWork-ify their portfolio, and bring the good bits of WeWork into their own practices.
And then the pandemic hit.
That turned out to be a six or seven month major triage – all the work that I thought I was coming in to do was, understandably, put on hold. And by the time we were able to start returning to it, there was so much question and insecurity about what was supposed to be done next. For example, no one was coming into the office – even now, we're two years later, and occupancy rates are nowhere near pre-pandemic rates and there’s less and less certainty that they will again…
This meant there was a lot of reticence in making any changes. So there wound up being some philosophical differences about how we approach the future. But I have a lot of compassion for the position that landlords are in: often the way that it's talked about on LinkedIn, and the way that it's sometimes positioned in the media is very antagonistic and not actually helpful, because landlords are the ones that are looking like these evil tyrants, who just want to convince people to come back to the office, because that's what *they* want.
There is some truth to that, but they want that because their success relies on the investment into real estate, and real estate investors aren't the type to say, let's spend money to experiment on some things and see if this new wacky approach might be able to yield for us. If someone's investing in real estate, they want it for stability and for continuous gradual growth. Right now, landlords can't necessarily provide that. And that's the tension and the push/pull that they're stuck in right now. And so I hope that’s one thing that we can get a little bit more comprehensive and nuanced about. Because we need landlords to be on our side for anything to change.
In October 2021 I joined a small consulting group to incubate this idea I've had around effectiveness as a service, which is really meant to be: how do we reevaluate and redefine what productivity is and what experience is? And how do we create more legitimate metrics around success that don't exclusively rely on someone's output? We can't just say things like lines of code or how many cold calls you make in a week are how we justify productivity.
We need to sink a little bit deeper and think about what a company is providing to their people as a solid foundation for them to springboard off of and produce a tremendous amount of code or develop a tremendous number of relationships or prospects. I'm really passionate about that, because to put it briefly, the way that we measure productivity is the same way we measured productivity when there were factory floors and people were hitting nails into the same spot on a toy box. So that doesn't quite work out how knowledge workers, especially, work today.
We need to think about productivity as more than just whatever people produce: even though it's baked into the word, we need to think about what is actually enabling productivity? What is supporting it or discouraging it in some way? Because that's how we really get to the core of the matter.
I've been banging the drum for a little while that experience is more than just the fluffy stuff, like the snacks they have, the parties they host, and the clothes you can wear to the office.The Chief People Officer, and Chief Culture Officer at WeWork would call this cultural confetti: it's the stuff that's super sweet, and you get a strong dopamine hit from it. But those aren't the things that are going to really be substantial when it comes to questions like whether you’re going to stay at or leave this company. Are you going to be able to get your work done or not? Are you able to build relationships with the people you need to build them with? So just really trying to broaden the aperture on both of those terms, so that way, we can talk about them in more comprehensive ways.
Since then, a couple of very fast moving pieces have come into play, Purposeful Intent being one, which is an event and strategy company that I'm a part of as Chief Strategist and one of the founding members. Our goal with hosting these events is getting a range of people together: heads of real estate, Chief People Officers, heads of communications and tech. And we want to show that this is a comprehensive problem that not just real estate is going to solve. We want our events to be a safe space.
We're trying to create a safe space for them, and create enough of a boundary and set strong expectations for our sponsors, to say you're here to learn and become friends and build relationships with people, because the work will come, the business will come. But we want to make sure that people feel safe enough to just really lay it all out, because we've all been to trade shows and mega conferences where that opportunity doesn’t always present itself. There’s a bit of a Goldilocks problem of how do we make it small enough that people feel comfortable and know who they're talking with, but also big enough that there's enough idea share from across different regions, across different industries and things like that.
In terms of format, we have a keynote speaker, or someone that's there to really just shake up, loosen people up, put out a bold idea for people to respond to. For bigger events, we break them out into three or four different topics, and we let people round robin. In New York, we had a topic about culture, one about experimenting with your built design, one with what kind of tools you need in order to test effectively. And then the last was taking a little bit of a zoom out, which is how do we iterate and how do we test on a portfolio? That's one that I don't think a lot of companies have quite gotten a handle on yet, because they're still so in the physical space.
In these next couple of years, we're going to start to hear more and more about companies thinking about things like: what's the composition of my portfolio? How much of it is traditional lease versus flex and/or coworking. And on a month to month basis, how much of it is a company hub and headquarters space, and how much of it is just a free address – either people are working from home or with coworking memberships.
That was really interesting because we were able to scratch the itch for a Head of Design the same way that we would with a Head of Portfolio or a Head of Workplace Tech: ultimately, our goal is to make sure that anyone from a real estate team is able to talk about their specific area of expertise. We want to be mindful that a corporate real estate team is a composition of a bunch of different types of experts, who don't always have the same priorities or same interests.
In addition to that, I've founded my own consultancy called Agate Studio. My partner and I are focused on just helping companies to figure out the testing mechanisms necessary to build their respective approaches to the future of work, so things like how do you set up experiments? How do you communicate experiments to your people? How do you get them to be engaged? And how do you create the flywheel of learning, because unfortunately, a lot of things are treated as projects which are linear, but we need things that are programmatic and cyclical and build on themselves. And that's a muscle that a lot of organizations fail to naturally have because it takes more intention and planning.
And so we're looking to really help companies figure that out, whether it's from a physical design perspective – how should I really lay out and create a physical workplace – all the way up to, we need to really reset our culture and come back to what our core principles are. We're really trying to stretch the gamut of the workplace: it’s not just about space, the workplace is about the people who are doing the work and wherever and however the work gets done.
So that's where I am right now, which is an extremely, extremely long way of saying that a lot of this happened by accident in some of the greatest ways.
One year at Thanksgiving I had just been promoted and my grandmother asked me to explain how what I was doing tied back to what I studied in college (which was Religious Studies and Philosophy). And I was like actually, I can explain that now! Companies are, in many ways, a secular version of religion – especially with startups, the more woowoo you get the more obvious it is (I mean, I did work at WeWork, after all). So for my grandmother I was able to tie in that really it’s all about people dynamics and group dynamics.
You can find Corinne Murray on LinkedIn, and check our Agate Studio here. Stay tuned for part two to hear more about lessons from the pandemic, Corinne's biggest failure, and her dream dinner party guests.
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