Experts’ Interviews: Jesper Ambrosius; LEGO about the world of the workplace

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 fantastic insights-packed conversation our CEO Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes had with Jesper Ambrosius, Director & Head of LEGO Workplace Experience at The LEGO Group.

The LEGO Group is a privately help company based in Billund in Denmark. The company is still owned by the Kirk Kristiansen family who founded it in 1932. While LEGO does not need an introduction, we will say this. The name ‘LEGO’ is an abbreviation of the two Danish words “leg godt”, meaning “play well”. “It’s our name and it’s our ideal”.

Jesper Ambrosius since graduating with a Master’s in Economics, Jesper have been working within primarily two areas: high-level strategy at CXO-level and leadership. This has led him to his current role at the LEGO Group where he heads up “LEGO Workplace Experience”. His aim is to create workplace experiences that enable LEGO employees to be and do their best at work, attract and retain world class talents, and bring them closer to the LEGO values.

Jesper Ambrosius about the world of workplace

Covid-19 Note:
While the below interview was conducted before the pandemic happened, Jesper 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, towards the end of the interview.

Stephanie Akkaoui Hughes: Jesper Ambrosius, welcome! Thank you for joining this series of interviews with the world’s best Workplace Experts.

Jesper Ambrosius: Great, I’m looking forward to it.

Stephanie: Me too. Let’s start with a simple description of your role in one or two sentences?

Jesper: What I’m striving towards is making the Lego Group the best workplace it can be. I believe we have a huge potential given our history, our values, our brand and aspiration, and of course, also given the resources that are available to us.

Stephanie: Fantastic. Could you elaborate a bit more about the vision of workplace experience you have at Lego?

Jesper: Yeah, that’s an interesting one. My team and I have already defined our vision. I should say here that we are a new team. We haven’t even existed a year yet. Therefore, we’re still trying to find our way in all of this. And looking at workplace experiences, it is a new thing to Lego as well. So, it’s really up to us to define it. The way we describe Lego workplace experiences so far is in four buckets. One is to inspire. Another one is to be fun and playful. The third one is to adapt to our diverse needs. And the fourth one is to provide what we call a caring home-like feel. So that’s how we would like to see the workplace develop.

Stephanie: Right.  And what would you say would be the greatest added value that this vision of workplace experience can bring to the organization?

Jesper: I think one of the biggest added values would be to bring the Lego brand closer to the workplace. We would like to give the brand promise we offer to our customers to our employees as well. We know much more about our consumers and customers than we know about our employees. We want to get close to the employees and understand their needs and their aspirations even better, so we can actually adapt the workplace and make Lego as an employer brand more malleable and hopefully attract and retain the right talents that we need. That’s one of the most important added value that we can bring to the organisation.

Stephanie: With the concept of play being at the centre of the Lego brand, how do you see that translated into the employee experience?

Jesper: I see that translating in many ways potentially. And that’s also actually what we’re working very much on. I think the whole playfulness is one of the values that really separates Lego from a lot from other companies and brands. So, one thing is actually looking at the whole environment, the design of our workplace, and then building that in a playful way. Basically, we like to see the world through the eyes of a child. Another area would be how we interact with each other in the workplace and how we can make our ways of working more playful? As an example, if I were to look ahead three years from now, I would love to be in a place where if I were to, let’s say, facilitate a workshop and I invited a bunch of people in for this, I would feel that it’s my obligation to actually come up with a playful way of facilitating this workshop because it’s been so ingrained in how we work and how we see playfulness as part of our methodology. Research has shown that playfulness in work causes people’s attention to go up and hopefully the meeting outcome will be better based on that. So, we hope to start from a design and environmental point of view and complement it with a culture point of view.

Stephanie: Absolutely fascinating. You know, you’re touching the core of my own belief about how the workplace design can help interactions at work. You already mentioned the idea that the physical design can help the employee experience through the branding that it embodies and is able to communicate it to employees. And the additional question is how do you design your environment in a way that it actively enables people to behave in certain ways?

Jesper: There’s definitely that interdependency between ways of working, the cultural aspect and the physical space. So, it makes sense that those areas belong together. We like to look at the workplace experience as holistically as possible because we believe there’s a lot of elements to it to really make it work.

Stephanie: Absolutely. So, what are your forefronts challenges in achieving this?

Jesper: Well one of my dreams is to build enough understanding through different kinds of data. This is also to be able to convince the right stakeholders that workplace experiences are a fundamental factor in building the employer brand and in recruiting talent and then retaining them. When it comes to the challenges, I think the main one we are facing is we don’t have enough data or evidence and therefore we struggle with telling the right story based on data. I do believe this might even be an industry wide challenge.
I think a related challenge is really to get that executive backing or support to actually make it work. I mean, I’m curious to see if, for example we had a decline in growth, whether the same focus which we are spending now on employee experience would still be there.

Stephanie: It’s very interesting you mention that. I was reading in a certain publication about the tendency of companies, when business is bad to cut down on marketing. And this is exactly where you need to invest specifically when business is bad. And when you consider employee experience being your internal marketing, then investing in employee experience becomes crucial, especially in declining times. Even things as a barista at the office, which are often considered luxury. The question is do you look at the short cycle or the long cycle? This is the difference between considering the barista too expensive to have or too expensive not to have. It’s kind of how large do you tolerate the circle of your return on investment to be. How many steps are you willing to be patient about money in and money out, such as investing employees, employees being happier,, performing better and then improving the bottom line of the company.

Jesper: You’re fully right. There are areas that we cannot quantify and we should base on values we want our employees to feel. For instance, we have an ambition to make people feel safe and you do it because it’s a value. It’s something that you want the company to stand for. I do think, that there’s also still a big opportunity for us to do more for our employees of what we would do towards our customers.

Stephanie: Yes, its kind of has to be an iterative process of trying, learning, adapting, retrying, etc. And what would you say are some of your main goals of creating workplace experience?

Jesper: We are looking at three areas. It’s to attract and retain what we call World-Class Talent. So that’s basically tied directly into our HR. Then we also want to create a workplace that basically brings Lego employees closer to the Lego values. That’s the second part. And the third part is that we want to create a workplace where people can be themselves and do their best at work. So that’s the idea behind what we’re doing. If we’re not able to positively influence those three areas, I believe we haven’t done enough, or we haven’t succeeded with our mission. That’s a lot of the purpose that is behind what we do.

Jesper Ambrosius about the world of workplace

Stephanie: Right. And if we look at the tools and resources, you’re using to achieve that. We mentioned the physical space as one of them, what are some of the other pillars you might be using to achieve those goals of employee experience.

Jesper: One of the biggest one is ways of working, how do you expand the options and most importantly how you handle the whole change process in terms of changing the ways of working whether that is going from fixed seating to activity-based working, or even introducing new coffee in the workplace. For example, in our Singapore headquarters, people were complaining about the coffee. So, we invited everybody for a coffee tasting, we invited all different vendors with five different types of coffee. And then people got to decide themselves what coffee they wanted. So that was our way of bringing the employees together to make workplace decisions and creating a bit of excitement around it.

Stephanie: That’s fantastic. I love the example of the coffee, it really captures the idea of how employees can be involved in a process of engagement, and a way to get them heard. In that sense, of course, other things may not be as easily tackled, but the principle is there.

Jesper Exactly.

Stephanie: So what are your thoughts about how you engage employees to figure out what their needs are?

Jesper: As an example, we are right now building our new headquarters in Billund, Denmark. We are still building but we have opened parts of the building already. In this process, we have adopted a phased approach. We started with relocating 500 people, the next phase is relocating 500 more and then the final phase will be a thousand more. So, we’ll end up being two thousand in our headquarters. And we’re seeing each phase as a learning opportunity, because there is a difference between how the change looks on paper, how it might work and how the space is really being used. And of course, we also try to make sure that we embrace two different points of view: the users and the experts. We have some experts on the team, that are quite skillful in terms of e.g. design and psychology. So, we aim to balance bottom-up input with experts’ input as best as possible. There are sometimes aspects that people are not even aware of as possible or useful or even harmful. So, we also need to make sure there’s room for the overview scientific or expert perspective.

Stephanie: Absolutely. And I think having people engaged in the process, gives them a certain level of satisfaction that comes from simply being engaged and heard, almost regardless of the result in that sense. And people will understand that balancing was needed and that the experts’ input is valuable and grounded, even when it seems to go against bottom up ideas.

Jesper: Exactly.

Stephanie: Jesper, if you had three wishes that your workplace could help with, what would those be?

Jesper: That’s a difficult one. First and foremost, I would love us to be more playful both in terms of how we work in the space, but also how the space is being shaped and designed. I think it’s an area where we can really differentiate and make something truly unique at Lego. Another one would be for us to diversify the workplace opportunities more and also to grab them more easily. It’s still somewhat a struggle to get people to play, for instance, ping-pong even though it’s easily available. And I do believe this comes down to a mindset, where play – even literally – is not fully integrated and a fear that it might be frowned upon. I would like people to be a braver and use what’s available more. I would like to see more role models in our workplace living the ideals of the Lego ways of working and also exploring the space more. And I know that I myself need to do better there.

Stephanie: Brilliant. And I think, going back to data, more and more research is backing up the fact that play is an essential component of learning. So a lot of momentum is building going forward. And speaking of going forward, and looking at the world of work globally, what would you say are the biggest challenges, but also the biggest opportunities for the future of work?

Jesper: I think one of the challenges I see is, going back to what I said earlier, the risk that in a situation of declining growth, organisations globally stop investing in the workplace and workplace experience. Will that be just as important then as it is now? On the other hand, in terms of opportunities, I do feel, what you said earlier as well as Stephanie, that the area of workplace experience is getting more and more momentum. You can say we’re having more and more focus on this, globally. And many companies are quite serious about it. So hopefully this comes with even more good data and knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. And then we can be just as knowledgeable about our own employees as we are our customers. So, I think that’s a huge opportunity. So, I’m very happy about working in this space and hopefully contributing to more going forward.

Stephanie: Fantastic and I’m sure, you know, being Lego, there is a kind of pioneering role that you are able to play compared to other companies around the world. You know, as you just said before, if Lego can’t be playful, then who can?

Jesper: Exactly. And that’s what we hope for and are working towards.

Covid-19 Note:
While the interview above was conducted before the pandemic happened, Jesper 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?

Jesper: This is a big question! Fundamentally, I think it will accelerate a development that was already underway with more people working from home (or elsewhere outside of the “formal” workplace) and experiencing the benefits of that. In many ways, it can suit a particular lifestyle and, when utilised correctly, it can really be an employee benefit that organisations can use strategically to improve the employer brand by increasing motivation and satisfaction. It goes without saying that the home office needs to have the right equipment to also be a healthy workplace and that not all kinds of work is suited for the home office but, in balance, I believe it has the potential to become a big asset for (especially) knowledge companies. Also considering the fact that it’s much cheaper to have peopling working from home than expanding the current real estate footprint so COVID-19 will also likely affect areas such as real estate strategies, attraction and retention, ways of working, IT security etc.

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?

Jesper: In a situation with great uncertainty, where we do not know what will happen and where the data is seriously lacking (due to the novelty of the virus and systemic risks), I am a big believer of the “precautionary principle” and I think this should be applied in the workplaces as well. That means, rather be on the cautious side and be wrong than be too risky. People need to feel safe and they need to know that the workplace is a safe place to be – otherwise, it cannot compete with the home office, which might be the safest place of all (especially in bigger cities where people commute by train, tube, and bus). Moreover, I think organisations must develop working-from-home policies and use it strategically to increase the workplace experience. Thinking “workplace experience” more holistically will also be a big challenge for organisations but a challenge that they will have to overcome to retain and attract the right talents. People’s expectations regarding workplaces will change – if they haven’t already – and understanding those changes will be key. As an example, with more people working from home and given the option to do so, how can the “formal” workplace legitimise itself when it is not the default option? If you suddenly have options to choose from, what are the benefits of going to the workplace rather than staying at home or going to the local café?

Stephanie: Well, Jesper, this has been extremely fascinating. I want to thank you for the time and the wonderful insights. You shared a lot of food for thought.

Jesper: Absolutely. Thank you very much for having me on the series.

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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