Infusing hospitality into workplace experience management

When you think about the workplace experience, what comes to mind? How do workplace experience teams cater to employees, customers, and visitors alike? 

Beyond snacks and ping-pong tables, workplace experience looks at the ways space affects people. What’s hospitality got to do with it? 

In Episode 6, we chat with Flash Coughlin, Head of Workplace at Envoy. We’ll talk about why he centers hospitality within his workplace experience strategy, how he kept Twitter operating with a complex network of extension cords on the eve of their new office opening, and why peanut butter and chocolate is the perfect food.

What does it take to radically transform and disrupt our workplaces? Below is an edited transcript of Episode 1 of Envoy’s new podcast, Empowered: Envisioning Workplaces That Work, which explores what thriving, diverse, and innovative workplaces look and feel like, and what makes them tick. Spoiler alert: it’s the people. 

We engage in timely discussions about the workplace experience and celebrate those who challenge the status quo in all aspects of the contemporary workplace––through the lens of the all-important human elements. Hear workplace experience leaders, creative problem solvers, and other cultural producers reveal how they create the workplaces they want to see in the world: their wins, pain points, and all the moments in between. 

You can listen to this episode and to other full episodes on our podcast series page, or stream via your preferred streaming platform. 

How workplace experience impacts company culture  

Welcome, Flash. This is going to be our first episode with someone from Envoy! I’m excited to talk with you about all things workplace experience, all the amazing work that you do here at Envoy. Let’s start with some of the nitty gritty. When did you join Envoy and what was the number one reason that you were excited to join the workplace team here?

FC: I joined Envoy in December of 2018, about six months ago now. There are a handful of reasons why I was so excited to join. I think the biggest, of course, is that the company had a promising future of growing and scaling. And this role, specifically the head of workplace role, was going to have such an impact on the culture while it was scaling. Knowing that I would get to develop the physical space that fed into the culture while we doubled in size, meeting with leaders here, and talking about what that future looked like––that sold me right away.

So you talked about wanting to impact the culture. What does that look like? Because I think that’s different depending on the background that you’re coming from, your experience, and how you’re shaping the workplace that you want to see in the world. What does impact mean to you?

FC: Impact means the way that all of the employees here interact with this space, and how that impacts the way they feel about their work. Impact also refers to the way employees feel about the company’s work, the way they feel about our mission statement. It’s also how the core values, brand recognition, and the product get reflected in how we build physical spaces and how people interact with them.

What are some of the ways that you see the product being reflected in the space? I’ve never thought of it that way, so I’m curious.

FC: That’s a good question, because we’re still defining that. We’re going through an exercise right now. I’m working closely with our design team as we are focusing on the build out of this first floor space. We’re talking about how to reflect our product and brand guidelines in a physical space. We, of course, talked about our brand colors. The red, gray, blue, yellow, and green. But we don’t want to just walk into the space and paint a wall our brand red and paint a wall our brand gray. 

We want to know how the manifestation of physical space speaks to our brand. How is that a guideline or a starting point for an architecture or creative interior designer? We want to reflect that with our physical space.

Why the workplace experience role is popping up everywhere

I imagine that you’re working a lot with outside vendors and folks that are coming in to handle, painting the walls, installing the furniture, or putting in a kegerator for kombucha. How do you go about kind of sourcing those vendors and what’s one of your top priorities when you choose an outside partner for those?

FC: I’m definitely lucky at this point that I’ve been in the industry long enough that I have a vendor portfolio that follows me. I have vendor relations that I’ve built up over the years of people who I know that are just great at what they do. They’re there to support me when I need it and I’ve always brought them from company to company. For any workplace or facilities person, they’ll tell you that their vendor portfolio is the backbone of their entire operation. I might be one of three full-time employees on the workplace team, but the number of vendors and people that are cycling through the space for all of our operations every day. There’s an endless amount of people that are the real backbone of the operation that keep the lights on.

Is there a name for the Envoy red? Did design come up with a name? I’m thinking of the Golden Gate Bridge and how international orange is the official, bespoke rusty orange red color. 

FC: There’s not a name that I’m aware of. It’s funny, I’m pulling up my Slack with Amy right now. I do have the paint code.

Go to the source.

FC: Yeah. I can tell you that code, but I think we should come up with a name.

Workplace experience hasn’t always been an area of focus within organizations, but I feel like it’s growing increasingly. We’re seeing these jobs come up, and it’s being talked about more. What does workplace experience mean to you and what are your observations from within the industry over the years that you’ve been involved?

FC: I break that down to workplace and facilities. And in my brain those make me think of two very different areas of what we do. When I think of facilities, I think of the physical space and all the things that run that, the electrical, the plumbing, the furniture, the paint on the walls, the janitorial, the catering, all of the backbone of the operation, so what we were just talking about. I think of that as the facilities. 

When I hear the term workplace and workplace experience, my brain immediately switches to the customer service side and the hospitality side.

You have all these elements that are running, and that you’re supporting. But how’s that making everyone here happy or more productive, more engaged, or feeling motivated? How are we affecting their experience every day? So I always lean on the hospitality world and the customer service world when I’m talking about workplace. And that leads to your experience, how you’re interacting with the space and that facilities is that technical world where we’re keeping this space running.

Behind the scenes of today’s workplace

Right, so much of the work that goes into the workplace experience happens behind the scenes. How does that hospitality show up and differ in terms of the audience, whether it’s for Envoy employees, visitors, or customers?

FC: That’s a big focus for my team right now, to define that and how we’re going to influence that. We recently did a presentation where we talked about our roadmap and that in Q2 we’re focused on how the office and the workflows in the spaces of the office impact our employees. We’re hyper-narrowed focus on employees, but overall the things that we’re doing are affecting the entire physical space and anyone’s experience in it. 

Something we want to do the next quarter is look at how that affects the visitor and candidate experience, because we do know that they have a much different experience. 

Employees don’t have to interact at the front desk. They go straight to the cafe to get coffee and to get breakfast. But when you’re a visitor, you’re coming in, off the elevator, and you might not know which, am I in the right place? Is that the door I go in? Is that the person I talk to? Do I sign in? Where do I sit? I’m thirsty, what can I do about that? Where’s the bathroom?

Those are all things that are very unique to the visitor experience and to your first impression. We have done some small things this quarter to lead towards more success in that area. Moving signage in the hallway. So when people, when the elevator opens, they know they’re on the Envoy floor.

We’ve put a little mini fridge behind the front desk where we keep cold waters for visitors and candidates.

FC: We keep bottled water in there, which we would never put in our kitchens because we have the Bevy machines for bulk water, but we keep them behind the fridge so it’s easy. That was something I noticed early on when I was sitting at the front desk filling in and playing back up, where a candidate would come in and I’d say, “Oh, do you need a drink? Need something while you wait for your host?” And if they said yes, I then went on a five minute trek to the kitchen and they’re like, “I think he just left. Like I don’t think he’s coming back.”

I don’t know if my waiter’s coming back.

FC: Yeah. So yeah, we’re doing like little things to make those little details that make the experience more comfortable.

With that in mind, how do you incorporate feedback? Do we get feedback from candidates and visitors that come in? Of course there’s employee feedback, but what’s that process look like?

FC: We have one channel for that right now. The Envoy visitors app actually has the visitors take a quick survey. They talk about the physical space and their experience, and we get a weekly report. Folks participate in the survey every week, and I get to read through it and so far it’s been very positive. 

Those are also going to include surveys that those visitors and candidates get to fill out. So that that type of feedback is anonymous visitor candidate experience surveys,

I think we’re certainly in consumer culture where if for example, you use Square to process a transaction, you get that little receipt and then there’s the smiley face kind of indicator. Like a happy sign. It’s feedback at its most basic, but it’s sort of that idea of that immediate opportunity to kind of give feedback. So, that’s cool. What’s been one of your favorite workplace innovations that you’ve developed, and or implemented, and why?

FC: We have implemented my favorite innovations, like Spoke, which is in partnership with the workplace technology team. For workplace, facilities, IT, or workplace technology, a ticketing system is so important for organizing and centralizing work, and follow up and follow through.

I’ve never worked with a ticketing system that involves AI and a knowledge base, so the rollout of this ticketing system here has gotten a lot of attention.

How is it affecting your role specifically? Is it making things easier? Is it optimizing it or streamlining requests?

FC: It’s definitely streamlining the workflows. We’re still working on the back end teaching AI how people speak, how the tickets get routed from there, where they end up, and who they end up with. We start to learn what the questions that people ask a lot are so we can just put them into a knowledge base, an article that goes back to them and says, “Does this help? Does this answer your question?”

That has been huge. I don’t think we’re quite at the place where we want with that, but that’s going to take a while to build.

So we’re able to up front, ask a handful of questions that are going to take us through that first step. Before, when we got that initial ticket, we’d post the questions back, and you’d answer them. Now the first step is going to the user. They’re telling us what they need, they’re telling us the information we need to know. So we’re already one step ahead by the time we’re opening that ticket.

Moving Twitter’s offices in a weekend

And the follow-up can be the most laborious and arduous part, from both ends. I would love to hear about a challenge that you have worked though in terms workplace experience that you navigated.

FC: My favorite workplace horror story was from my Twitter days. When we moved into our headquarters at 1355 Market Street, we were overflowing. I think we were close to 900 employees, and we were so anxious to get into this office. It had been a long time in its build process and design process and we’re moving a thousand people over from two offices in south of market. That’s one of those workplace weekends where the move starts at 5:00 PM Thursday night and then ends at 8:00 PM on Sunday night. We’re there 16 hours a day. You go home, you sleep, you come back at 7:00 AM, you drink lots of coffee at the end of the night, you drink lots of beer and wine. It’s one of those insane weekends.

FC: One of my first experiences with an insanely huge move. Sunday night, I think it’s about six o’clock, seven o’clock, we’re doing basically or final clean. The move is completed. Everyone’s stuff is where it needs to be. We’re checking all our boxes and all of a sudden our cleaning crew comes over and says, “None of the outlets are working on this side of the floor.” We’re moving into three floors, 80,000 square feet each.

Outlet after outlet isn’t working. Moments later, we get a notification from the building and from our security staff that there was basically a fire in the basement, in the parking garage, that the main electrical duct into the building had exploded. It was, so it was a small electrical fire. It had blown out half of the power to the building. So one half of the building, no power at all. Other half of the building. Fine. It’s 7:00 PM Sunday night and we have a thousand people showing up for work the next day.

Wow. And no one knows that this stuff happens.

FC: No. So it’s a freak out moment. I mean, none of these desks have power. The conference rooms don’t have power. Of course, we had our hour freak out, but we jumped to it and as far as the desks and some lighting, we basically ran extension cords from the half of the floor. There was power all the way through the areas where there wasn’t power. This probably isn’t fire safe. I hope the San Francisco fire inspector doesn’t listen to this podcast. We ran electrical cords and all these surge protectors all the way down through all the floors, all the way through the floors and so the people had power at their desks. Luckily lighting didn’t end up being too much of an issue. This was May or June, so most of the working day there was natural light.

We had lots of windows. Some areas, some conference rooms were a little darker than we wanted them to be, but everyone who is dead tired, chipped in, spent hours and hours just running these cords, getting power set up and we were still able to open the next day. I think it took about three days for the building to fix the main electrical lines into the building. And then we had to do a switchover of power the next weekend where we shut everything down again and brought it back up. But, we opened, everyone put it in the last 10% of energy they had and it was an experience.

There’s so much that goes on behind the scenes when the staff, crew, and visitors aren’t even there, and you’re just praying that the next day, it works. I think that’s kind of part of the magic too, is you make it  seamless. You don’t even know that it’s there working, you know? But it just does. And that’s where that hospitality mindset comes in.

What’s an area of the workplace that matters the most to you for your workplace experience?

FC: I love the fun things like food and kegerators with beer, and wine, and Kombucha, and cold brew. I also love the opportunities that I had building out the food services at Twitter and my time at Blue Bottle, interacting with the whole experience around a cup of coffee or a plate of food, and the community it creates. That’s one of my favorite aspects. I’d say the aspect that I find myself in more of my manager role, pushing more, is the customer service side. I’m always working a lot with my workplace teams to understand what good customer service is, what does it look like? Why is it important to us? Because it can be difficult being in a workplace role, you can get a lot of crap thrown your way.

You can deal with a lot of entitlement. But knowing how to navigate that, and how to keep a customer service mindset, is always the most important part for me.

Like when people ask for peanut butter cups? I won’t name names, it might’ve been me.

FC: Those peanut butter cups are really good.

They’re so good.

FC: I hope they’ll come back. We just have to change the format of our snack program. The old format wasn’t sustainable. I’m building a program for when there’s 250 people in this building.

Are there any trends that you’re excited about experimenting with here? What are some things that you’re going to try with the expansion of Envoy?

FC: I don’t think we have yet dIve into how exactly we plan to innovate in this space. We’re seeing how it’s going to hit certain periods of scale for us, like how long is it going to sustain our growth, but I think you’ll probably getting the same answer from Matt if you speak with him. The thing that him and I are probably most aligned on as far as innovation and trend is how we’re utilizing space with the natural flow of employees, remote employees, employees who only come in a couple of days a week. Space utilization of desks and open space, and conference rooms.

We wonder how we can understand our utilization rates and how we can change the way that we assign space and build space, so that utilization rates are higher. if you’re building a space for 500 people, because you have 500 employees in that city or that locale, but you really only see 300 come to the office on any given day, if you can build a space for 300, you’re going to save a lot of money. That’s going to make your CFO and your finance team very happy with you

I don’t doubt it.

FC: So it’s finding out how we measure utilization and this is something I feel that workplace folks have been trying to nail down for a long time. With occupancy sensors.

Occupancy. There it is.

FC: Occupancy. Tough word. Occupancy sensors, cameras––so many different things that we’ve tried to measure in terms of utilization of space and I don’t think anyone has really nailed it yet.

Maybe that’s the answer to this next talking point, but is there an area that you feel gets overlooked when it comes to the workplace experience? Is it space utilization? Is it occupancy?

FC: The one conversation that I find myself having over and over again would be just around cost. I don’t think that most employees outside of the workplace world understand how cost focused we need to be. Normally a workplace or facilities team is right behind salaries as far as the most expensive part of running a company, the leases that we’re tied to, the builds that we do, the operations that we run. There’s a lot of eyes on us, on the finance side. So we’re a really important part of cost savings and part of the idea of having revenue versus being profitable. We need to keep a close eye on that. And that’s something that a lot of folks don’t understand. 

Creating company culture and community

I also wanted to return to this idea of accommodation. You mentioned thinking specifically about  the build out of the first floor of Envoy, the expansion down to the first floor. What are some other accommodations that you are thinking about? 

FC: The overarching thing that we look at is how do our spaces create community? I think a lot of that speaks to another debate that you could probably do a whole podcast on: the open floor plan versus the non-open floor plan.

That’s a very hot topic right now. A contested topic.

I think the first thing we do is create a community where you can feel belonging. I think we’ve done a really good job with that here, with the open floor plan, a very open floor plan. Keeping visibility across the floor as much as we can with our open table with our long, community-style tables is good. You’re supposed to sit down next to the last person who sat down, no matter who they are or what team they’re on to have that sort of interaction.

I think going deeper into that, we think about the sort of accommodations that workplace teams can make, and that grows from anywhere from ADA accommodations to gender neutral restrooms, to spaces like our meditation room and wellness rooms where people can step out of the community open floor plan and focus on themselves and their personal wellness. Those are just some of the small steps we’re taking now. But, there’s a lot more we can do.

Whether it be the ping pong table or the beer on tap, those just seem to be sort of stock standard issue, but not everybody necessarily utilizes those things or wants those things, and that caters to a very specific kind of person. So yeah, I’m interested in the ways that workplace experience can expand what it means to include people and make people feel like a part of community, because there’s lots of different communities orbiting within one workplace. 

FC: Every workplace manager should be thinking about how they create the spaces that do feed the different needs of the different types of employees you have. 

And of course, we have a pretty cool pet pet policy here.

FC: We do.

Does that make your life harder to have, what is it, 15 dogs running around?

FC: It hasn’t yet. There was some navigating to it when I first started. That’s the first policy that I wrote here. it was more that the first week someone was like, you’re going to write the dog policy. I ran with it. And workplace should own it. The previous policies were very, very loose. So that was one  of the first things that I did here. I think the big step that that policy took that helped myself and a lot of other people was just the idea around supervision for your animal.

Because previous to this policy, it was like they could kind of just run around and be unleashed.

And join meetings.

FC: And their owner could be in meetings for hours without them. So creating that aspect of it, that you’re responsible all day and not just certain hours of the day when you’re free, that helped a lot.

Is there an office you have always wanted to tour or visit? 

FC: There’s a couple really influential design firms that I can think of, like Studio OA.

Okay, I haven’t heard of them.

FC: They take a very influential role in the creative experience side and they partner with architects. So if they’re listening, I’d have to come see her office.

Let’s arrange that.

FC: Because I’d like to see how they are supporting all of these tech companies, and all their builds, and creating all this framework around experience and creativity, and culture. I’d wonder how that reflects in their own space. So a lot of the creatives, I’d love to see their office. I recently read through an architectural digest article about the new Big office in, I think it’s in Williamsburg. It’s in Brooklyn. They just built out a new office in Brooklyn.

They were in Manhattan previously and they built up this new office and they’re just one of the most influential architecture firms in the world right now. I’d love to see their space. I’m trying to think of some other local tech-related companies that I want to get into their office, because I know there’s a handful in the back of my brain somewhere.

That would be really cool to organize a workplace experience tour where you could walk to all the different workplaces, and of course we would be a stop on it.

FC: Yes. Yeah, we should work on that at some point. That could be a fun project.

On a related note, is there someone who works in workplace experience that you’re really inspired by that you feel is really challenging the status quo of workplace experience and workplace design?

FC: The first thing that comes to mind is actually outside of workplace, or office, or facility world, Danny Meyer is from the Union Square Restaurant Group. They did Union Square cafe, Gramercy Tavern, I think he was a partial owner of 11 Madison Park. He’s written a lot of books on hospitality. One in particular that I’m currently chipping away at is called Setting the Table.

So I’ve been leaning on him for more of an influence and his work for that customer service in the hospitality side. On the workplace experience side. I’m very impressed with the Twitter construction and design team. I’m going back to my past employer here, but I’m still very much in touch with the team there and go to visit when they open new floors and new spaces there, and I, of course, I follow all of them on Twitter and they tweet out all the new cafes and floors that they opened. And the way that they’re reinventing space that I was part of the build of six, seven years ago, has been really impressive.

Because you’re walking into a blank slate versus walking into a fully built out office and then re-imagining that. There’s a lot more staring at you when you’re doing that. There’s a lot more influence of the past and they’ve recreated spaces and the way that they’ve integrated art and community spaces. The senior director over there’s Tracy Hawkins, and she’s wonderful, and very much respect her work.

I would love to see us get some art in here.

FC: Yes, me too. I think you could be an influential partner on that.

Careful what you wish for!

FC: Let’s get a budget first.

Yes, we can have a rotating gallery wall with local artists. Oh, alright. That’s for another time. Well, thank you so much. Thanks for all the work you do here at Envoy to make the workplace experience better. I sure do appreciate it.

FC: It’s a fantastic place to be. Thank you.

Peanut butter cups and all.

They will be back. Peanut butter and chocolate is the perfect food.

We all have a story to tell about our working lives: how we got there, what we experience, and what we can do to make it better. Find more information on this episode of Empowered in the episode show notes. For more details on how to get involved, listen to full episodes and discover more about how to challenge the status quo in your workplace, check out the Empowered series page. You can also read episode recaps right here on the Envoy blog