The Times—and Office Environments—Are A-Changin’

A new breed of project manager emerges

By Robin Weckesser

Over the last 10 years, we have witnessed a dramatic transformation of the workplace. This transformation continues, as cubes with high walls and private offices with minimal glass are often replaced with an open environment and a variety of work settings that support collaboration. Thanks to the untethering of the desktop, workers can now move around the office or work virtually. As the workplace evolves, studies show that open (or “hybrid”) offices typically promote creativity and productivity, improve the bottom-line, enhance the organization’s culture and brand and facilitate top talent recruitment and retention.

While the move to open offices is inexorable (over 70 percent of offices today are open environments), it is fraught with challenges. Today’s workplace often contains five generations working together, including Baby Boomers, Millennials and Gen Z—all of whom have different mindsets and skillsets. Baby Boomers and senior managers in particular often find it hard to adjust to new technology and environments that don’t cater to entitlement and privacy issues.

A New Paradigm

This shift has caused project managers (PMs), facility managers, brokers and architects to think differently about their roles.

For many years, project managers have fulfilled a critical role. In addition to overseeing the work of vendors (e.g., architects, contractors, engineers) and integrating services with commercial real estate brokers, they served as mechanics…responsible for staffing, budgeting, scheduling and implementation, including IT, AV, security, furniture and relocation management. They needed to get the job done on time and on budget. While these are mission-critical activities, PMs seldom were involved in the big picture, including visioning, strategic planning and product delivery.

Today, we need to view the role of the PM through a wider lens. Enter the Contemporary Project Manager (CPM). The optimal CPM today has the following attributes:

  • The expertise of a mechanic but also the much broader skills of a holistic engineer.
  • A true client partner and advocate, providing unbiased counsel and leadership from start to finish.
  • An experienced professional who applies lessons of sociology and psychology and is sensitive to different employee demographics.
  • One who listens and has excellent communication skills…who is passionate and inspirational.
  • One who combines strategic planning and tactical know-how.
  • One who understands infrastructure, operational systems, and permitting.
  • One who has the business acumen needed to align real estate plans with corporate objectives.
  • One who is part architect, part space planning, part interior designer…but also part visionary.
  • A coach/facilitator/leader who collaborates with staff and vendors…but is also nimble enough to overcome barriers and strong enough to push for solutions that meet the client’s best interests.

In this regard, the modern CPM transcends the traditional role of project manager and is actually a process director who understands not only design and construction but also the organization’s culture and branding. So, the background, experience, and personality of the modern CPM are paramount. At the end of the day, it’s a team effort with the CPM serving as captain—and a project’s success is often tied to the collective chemistry of all parties.

Changing Dynamics

As noted, the workplace keeps evolving, and employee demographics keep changing, with many Baby Boomers retiring and tech-savvy young professionals asserting themselves. CPMs need to address these dynamics and consider the needs of all workers—and in this light, another essential skill today is change management. This involves training, educating and engaging employees, including those who may be uncomfortable with open environments.

It’s tough enough just to get people to embrace change and face the fear of the unknown. But dealing effectively with “pushback” can make or break a workplace transformation.

As part of today’s holistic approach to project management, the ideal CPM is someone who has worked with brokers and real estate providers to provide integrated services. CPMs should be involved from the get-go in tenant improvement discussions, lease negotiations and work letters.

Whether it’s partnering with a commercial real estate firm, a tech startup, or an established law firm, today’s CPMs should have the required background. They should be able to say, “Been there, done that.” In fact, there’s no substitute for having walked in a client’s shoes, and the more CPMs understand where clients are coming from and where they want to go, the better they will be able to provide solutions.

This begs the need for organizations to be judicious about selecting a CPM. Indeed, workplace transformation isn’t an easy process, and putting together the right team and right leader is critical. It may seem daunting to find this new breed of CPM, and chances are that such an individual is not on your staff. But if you consider the enormous risks and rewards of office transformation, you will likely agree with hundreds of thousands of organizations locally and worldwide that have seen the value in this endeavor.

One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the need to cut costs and bolster the bottom-line. CPMs can help in this regard by identifying the value proposition and mapping out routes to the best return on investment.

It may be useful to think of the workplace as a tool that facilitates a process, which is often product development and delivery. The CPM is the process director. Someone driven to provide the highest level of value and keep you as competitive as possible in the marketplace.

Today, more than ever, it’s all about workplace solutions…because the workplace truly matters!

Robin Weckesser is the president and founder of a3 Workplace Strategies, a workplace consulting group based in San Jose and serving companies throughout the United States and worldwide. The firm provides a full range of project management and facilities management services, including strategic planning, change management, site selection, design, construction, and relocation oversight, space programming, and open office/collaborative environments. For more information, visit a3workplacestrategies.com or email Robin at rweckesser@a3workplace.com.