Experts’ Interviews: Gilles Debout; EUROPEAN INVESTMENT BANK about the workplace and the future of work

The world of Workplace is increasingly more fascinating and more complex. Through our years of practice designing and building workplaces for organisations, small, medium and large, in various industries and from around the world, we have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and insights, all thanks to our clients.

Whether we work closely with the head of Human Resources (HR), the head of Facilities Management (FM) or the head of Corporate Real Estate (CRE), one thing is clear, these roles have been coming closer together and gaining more and more overlaps over the last number of years. A new role is even emerging that blurs the boundaries between HR, FM, CRE, and even IT and Corporate Communication to name a few. We call this role ‘Workplace Professional’.

Over the last few months, we have been interviewing leading Workplace Professionals in the best companies from around the world. In this series, we engage in conversations with those at the forefront of the world of workplace, to bring you their intriguing insights, best practices, and most successful case studies. Welcome to the Workplace Experts’ Interviews series!

This week, we share the insightful conversation our CEO Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes had with Gilles Debout, head of workspace services at the European investment bank.

The European investment bank is a publicly owned international financial institution whose shareholders are the EU member states. It was established in 1958 under the Treaty of Rome as a policy-driven bank using financing operations to further EU policy goals such as European integration and social cohesion.

Gilles Debout MRICS, is a facility management and corporate real estate specialist with over 20 years of successful experience in managing building facilities and developing workspace strategy. He has an extensive international experience having worked in EMEA (covering Southern Europe and Middle East) and in Asia Pacific. He is currently based in Luxembourg, working as Head of Workspace & Logistics at the European Investment Bank.

Covid-19 Note:
While the below interview was conducted before the pandemic happened, per was kind enough to supplement the conversation with his most recent thoughts and insights related to Covid-19 and the future of work and the workplace, in a final question at the end of the interview.

Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes: Gilles Debout, welcome. Welcome to this conversation. It’s a pleasure to have you here.

Gilles Debout: Thank you.

Stephanie:Thank you for joining this new series of the Workplace Experts’ Interviews. Let’s dive right in. Would you be able to describe your role in one or two sentences?

Gilles: I’m head of workspace services & logistics at a European Investment Bank (EIB), and my job is to deliver workspace solutions that inspire EIB colleagues.

Stephanie: Could you tell us what is at the top of your agenda at the moment when it comes to employees and talent and the workplace?

Gilles: Of course. Our target is to develop a workspace strategy solution, which will be flexible enough to support the diversity of department and functions across EIB, give colleagues greater choice and control over when, where and how they would like to work and create a workplace that supports tasks performed. We are also trying to develop a workplace that will enhance communication and collaboration within and across different EIB groups at all levels. When I say at all levels, I am including clients, customers and end-users.

Stephanie: Right. And what do you think is the greatest added value you can bring to your organization in your position?

Gilles: Well, taking into account the changing dynamics of the EIB organization (within the existing space and future expansion/adaptations), the fluctuations in headcount and the evolution of working practices, we are designing spaces that will address clients needs. Our biggest challenge is our mix of generations. We have both new and older generations and it’s very difficult to answer the very different needs.

Stephanie: Yes, I can imagine. It is one of the main things that I think most companies are facing. Many companies are still tying to understand millennials and already the next generation is coming in and that’s already a whole other set of needs and requirements.

Gilles: Correct.

Stephanie: What is one thing that you are very proud of having accomplished in your organization?

Gilles: Well, we have developed since few years new ways of working concept in order to provide flexible space that reflects the type of department, division, unit within the premises in a cost effective manner, working in close collaboration with IT department.
As you may know, the work environment in a bank is very conservative, and to move to an activity-based model is very challenging. However, so far it works. We have a better grip on how people work, where and when. We are also able to monitor the space occupancy. It have been a real challenge and a great success for us.

Stephanie: That’s great. Now this was implemented two years ago. Can you share some of the highlights that you have seen, maybe some measurements or some specific things that have improved?

Gilles: People have started to work in different ways. They huddle to work on a project, if they have to meet one-on-one they make use of small meeting rooms available, if they have to work within a project they use a multi-functional room, if they have to just interact with people, they sit in one of the open spaces. For us, it’s a great accomplishment.

Stephanie: Yes, that’s really the essence of activity-based working. What is a pipeline dream or goal that you have not accomplished yet?

Gilles: Yes, we had a project in finance a year ago where every team was working in silos. This created problems so we decided to break the silos. So, we did a workshop with the teams and we analysed how they work including their lean management approach. So based on our findings, we have created a pilot project where we have designed the space closely matching their lean approach. We created a space that follows the flow of information and people, with several small meeting rooms, a flexible multi-functional room, and a number of other settings. It was a real success.

Stephanie: That’s very interesting. I’m sure you have faced your share of resistance and difficulties when it comes to introducing change among people. Do you have any learnings or reflections you can share with us about how to deal with change management effectively?

Gilles: I think it’s about energy and engaging people at the beginning, not only managers but also the people that are working, I mean, all the people in the pyramid. It’s also about having a very strong communication and not choosing a traditional way of communication by email, but going for a different kind of approach where you can bring with a clear vision, a very simple vision with few words, that people can connect to and be moved by. So it’s like a Start-Up, you know, as long as you have a clear vision, it is much easier to sell it and get people on board. And a project like this, for me, is like a small Start-Up and people need to really be in it and with you.

Stephanie: Right. They need to see it and then really stand behind it.

Gilles: Correct.

Stephanie: So, you upgraded your workplace a couple years ago and it’s actually working really well. If you still had things that can be improved, what might those be?

Gilles: We need to develop and promote more pilot projects in which we can involve all generation of colleagues. The idea is to share our workspace vision and explain what we are trying to achieve to foster interaction and innovation. This have to be done with the support of architects from the beginning, in order to address clear expectations in terms of space, in terms of how the space works and how people will flow in it.

Stephanie: I absolutely recognise that. As an architect myself, I recognise this challenge that I also hear from other clients. So, you’re saying that when it comes to the way of working that you want to implement, this has not been taken into account since the beginning of the architectural process. Is that correct?

Gilles: Yes exactly. The other aspect to take into consideration is time. In fact, when you are developing a construction project, the process could be between 5-10 years. During that time, a lot of changes could happen especially when it comes to technology. The mainstream architectural process is not flexible, not agile, and it is hard to update during the process. I find it very frustrating.
So, most of the time, you move forward with the building specifications as is, knowing it is not matching what we need and afterwards we’ll have to do some adaptation to match with the reality of the trend of the market.

Stephanie: That’s absolutely true and incredibly frustrating. Your building is then obsolete before it’s actually built and before you move into it. That is extremely frustrating.

Gilles: Exactly.

Gilles: Well, I would say that in 2000, buildings were connected, you had cable TV, a DSL Internet. In 2010, we have smart buildings, hooked on sensors and information from the cloud. To me, in the future, I can foresee what we call the service operating system, where we will be able to have more flexibility, small data and be able to offer smart objects, connected everywhere, so that people will not only choose their desk to work, but they will be able to work and know in real time what’s going on everywhere and have access to absolutely all services.

Stephanie: Very interesting from your perspective of workplace facilities. How do you conceive of your responsibility when it comes to the employees?

Gilles: Well, to me, we are a service to support customers. We have to listen to what our customer wants and use our technology to serve that. We also aim to listen to feedback in real time in order to be flexible and agile in the way that we would manage workspace. For me, tomorrow, in relation to workspace, we will not conceive it as workspace management but as digital workspace management. It’s really a shift in terms of competencies. It will not only be a physical workspace, but it’s also a digital one and the key is how you can interact with both.

Stephanie: Right. So, building on this vision of the future that you just shared, what would you say might be our biggest challenges in trying to get there?

Gilles: There are several challenges. First, it is the human challenges and this transition can be done only if you have a very strong change management in place because it will affect the way that people are doing their job, commuting to their work, when they will work and how they will work. You will need to have HR aligned in this transformation. The second challenge concerns how you will design your building. Again, you need to think the building as a whole and not as a workspace.

Stephanie: Great. So, it’s really about the psychology and the architecture going hand in hand.

Gilles: Correct.

Stephanie: So, you mentioned that you’re not looking at work management only and not looking at it as a physical thing, but more as a service, aim to support people. So how would you describe the ideal workplace? What benefits would it create to support people?

Gilles: For me, it’s about creating a workplace where we will take into consideration the changing dynamics of the business organization, such as fluctuation of headcount and the evolution of working practices, including social change in the workplace and new technology.

Stephanie: Can you describe a recent time where the workplace has really been problematic for the people’s performance in the workplace?

Gilles: Yes, we had a project in finance a year ago where every team was working in silos. This created problems so we decided to break the silos. So, we did a workshop with the teams and we analysed how they work including their lean management approach. So based on our findings, we have created a pilot project where we have designed the space closely matching their lean approach. We created a space that follows the flow of information and people, with several small meeting rooms, a flexible multi-functional room, and a number of other settings. It was a real success.

Stephanie: That’s very interesting. I’m sure you have faced your share of resistance and difficulties when it comes to introducing change among people. Do you have any learnings or reflections you can share with us about how to deal with change management effectively?

Gilles: I think it’s about energy and engaging people at the beginning, not only managers but also the people that are working, I mean, all the people in the pyramid. It’s also about having a very strong communication and not choosing a traditional way of communication by email, but going for a different kind of approach where you can bring with a clear vision, a very simple vision with few words, that people can connect to and be moved by. So it’s like a Start-Up, you know, as long as you have a clear vision, it is much easier to sell it and get people on board. And a project like this, for me, is like a small Start-Up and people need to really be in it and with you.

Stephanie: Right. They need to see it and then really stand behind it.

Gilles: Correct.

Stephanie: So, you upgraded your workplace a couple years ago and it’s actually working really well. If you still had things that can be improved, what might those be?

Gilles: We need to develop and promote more pilot projects in which we can involve all generation of colleagues. The idea is to share our workspace vision and explain what we are trying to achieve to foster interaction and innovation. This have to be done with the support of architects from the beginning, in order to address clear expectations in terms of space, in terms of how the space works and how people will flow in it.

Stephanie: I absolutely recognise that. As an architect myself, I recognise this challenge that I also hear from other clients. So, you’re saying that when it comes to the way of working that you want to implement, this has not been taken into account since the beginning of the architectural process. Is that correct?

Gilles: Yes exactly. The other aspect to take into consideration is time. In fact, when you are developing a construction project, the process could be between 5-10 years. During that time, a lot of changes could happen especially when it comes to technology. The mainstream architectural process is not flexible, not agile, and it is hard to update during the process. I find it very frustrating.
So, most of the time, you move forward with the building specifications as is, knowing it is not matching what we need and afterwards we’ll have to do some adaptation to match with the reality of the trend of the market.

Stephanie: That’s absolutely true and incredibly frustrating. Your building is then obsolete before it’s actually built and before you move into it. That is extremely frustrating.

Gilles: Exactly.

Stephanie: And it’s a fundamental flaw in how mainstream architecture works. It’s a profession that is, of course, supposed to be creative, but it’s run in the most uncreative of ways. And, it hasn’t been really innovated in so long. The way the process is run is still run the way it was decades ago. The way it’s been built was OK for a time when change was so slow to happen. However, these days, the process still takes quite a long time. And in the meantime, reality has changed and people have moved on. And this is exactly why we actually have founded AKKA. AKKA was created to champion a new vision and new process. As you may know, we have created a last phase in our process called adapting exactly for that problem. And what’s been really interesting in the last few years is that sometimes we are hired just for that phase, on a project that is brand new, done by another architect and that already doesn’t fit the needs of its people. And we have to come in and be aware that at this stage, the company has spent quite a bit on the building, so the budgets are depleted. The morale is low because you already know it doesn’t work. And what we focus on is two things, on one hand upgrading the design to ensure it matches and supports its inhabitants’ needs and on the other hand we also build a process of engaging people, so they continue to adapt their own space in the future. And this is of course very dependent on all teams and departments working together. You already mentioned above the importance of the role of HR. What is your vision on the way the different departments of HR, IT, Facility Management and even Corporate Real Estate work and the collaboration that is needed between them?

Gilles: Well, I would love to see a kind of digital workspace department emerge where you can have all the competency skills and that would own the collaboration and the bringing together of HR, IT, Facility Management, Corporate Real Estate and others as needed.

Stephanie: I would totally agree. Now, let’s zoom out and look at the big picture. If you contemplate the future of work in general, what would you say are the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity in that future?

Gilles: From my perspective right now, the challenge is to create a digital workplace with a sustainable approach. Tomorrow our vision is to be greener, in our procurement, in our way of sourcing furniture, in the way we will work. So, the opportunity would be to have both the digital workspace and supply mentor environment or system ability. And I think for us, a challenge as workspace management professionals is just to be aware of all the things that are going on. It’s like a process where you have to adapt yourself and be always aware of what’s going on in the market, which is difficult sometimes.

Stephanie: And I would add, there are so many experiments happening which sound exciting and at first sight might actually be successful. But we also haven’t spent the time seeing the consequences or unintended effects, five or ten years down the line.

Gilles: Yes, it’s true.

Stephanie: Which is also quite a good incentive to avoid literally or blindly copying and pasting other companies’ experiments.

Gilles: Yes exactly.

Covid-19 Note:
While the interview above was conducted before the pandemic happened, Gilles was kind enough to supplement the conversation with his most recent thoughts and insights related to Covid-19 and the future of work and the workplace. So, we asked him two more questions.

Stephanie: How do you think Covid-19 has and might continue to affect our ways of working and our workplace?

Gilles: When today’s workplace models were developed (e.g. closed offices, open space), we lived in a time where life cycles were five to ten years. Now life cycles can be a year, or even a month, a pace of change that would terrify a 1970s’ executive. With Covid-19, we experimented a brutal, quick change in less than a week and when a big change initiative comes along, the first job for a real estate leader is to challenge people’s thinking and develop new ways of working. What we achieve to face this crisis is to discuss with our colleagues at all levels about their feelings, and have deep conversations about what their worries are. This helps us address their concern about changing the way we work and about the future of our workplace. As a result, a massive teleworking initiative has been implemented. Today, we are driving by the need to continue the business and provide a safe and healthy workplace when staff will return. Nevertheless, there will be no more return to normal but a concept of “new normal” in which teleworking will become a norm.  The new workspace will be designed on choice-based environment allowing people to work where, when, and how they wish to complete their tasks fostering interaction and innovation.

Stephanie: What would you say is the most important thing to focus on right now, to ensure a successful recovery for our, workplaces, employees, and organisations?

Gilles: “We may need to solve problems, not by removing the cause but by designing the way forward even if the cause remains in place.” Edward de Bono. According to me, the focus should be on developing a “new normal” built on lessons learnt about teleworking, commuting, workspace needs and climate impact. Today, we have become too preoccupied with repairing damage when our focus should be on building a new workplace environment allowing organisations to cope with their business needs in term of space and occupation.

Stephanie: Wonderful Gilles, I’m going to thank you for this conversation and fantastic insights. A lot of food for thought.

Gilles: It was a pleasure. So, thank you again.

To find out how optimising your workplace can help you retain your employees by fostering better social interactions, download here AKKA’s Innovative Workplace Expert guide, which contains the full version of one of our case studies and more practical examples of other projects that show you how AKKA has increased team engagement and boost productivity over and over again for small, medium and large organisations, in a variety of industries and countries from around the world.

Use your workplace as a strategic tool to attract and retain the best talent.

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