Vocon’s Debbie Donley On Balancing Professional and Personal in Office Design

And on avoiding falling for fads in a return-to-office push

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Space — the final frontier. 

These days, workers can take it or leave it. But companies, if they’re going to have office space, better have space that adds value to whatever the company’s mission is. Or why else bother?

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That’s what Vocon is all about. Vocon, a design and architectural firm specializing in thoughtful and strategic design, has its roots in the Midwest, with an office in Cleveland, and opened an office in New York City in 2010. It works with, or has worked with, leading office property owners and top tenants in the city and across the nation, including accountancy PwC, WeWork and law firm Jones Day as well as in major addresses such as One Vanderbilt and 540 Madison Avenue.

But Vocon tries to go beyond designing mere scenery. It gets involved in workers’ lifestyles and tries to make sure there’s a tie-in between the workplace and the worker.

Debbie Donley is a co-founder of Vocon and its chief experience officer. Vocon says its mission is to help bring people back to work and to create spaces people choose to work in. She talked with Commercial Observer in early January about her firm’s work and the challenging environment companies face. 

Her remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Commercial Observer: What are you hearing or seeing in terms of how the office is changing?

Debbie Donley: We have been through a lot of change with repeat tenants for a very, very long time over the last decade or, in some cases, a couple of decades: office, no office, open office, higher panels, lower panels. At the same time, we have been fortunate to work with landlords and developers. One informs the other, in our opinion.

Having a clear understanding of tenants helps us provide the product on the other side and landlords who do the repositioning process. Everything is really connected. And it’s become more evident to us over the last 18 months that, in some cases, the relationship between the tenant and the landlord was kind of rocky before COVID. And, today, we’re steaming those edges over so that we can actually work hand in glove. So that for the tenants who want creative amenities, unique amenities, but they don’t necessarily want to pay for them within the confines of their space, the landlords can appropriately react and respond by creating interesting, curated programming that supports very individualized tenant needs.

Everything we’re doing is purpose-driven. We have really smart clients who understand that space is really the physical expression of what their organization stands for. It’s very, very difficult to express your culture without that tool.

It also means you may not get it right the first time, and that experimentation is probably part of a programming exercise. And lots and lots of people are experimenting right now. That’s exciting for the people who actually are coming back to the places and the spaces.

You are a founder and a chief experience officer. What exactly is a chief experience officer?

Over the last decade or so, people started to get wise to the fact that you have to treat human beings like human beings. In our industry, people burn out like crazy. It’s a very demanding profession. And so my job is to make sure that, in each moment when I’m thinking about growth, or we’re thinking about a new service line, that we’re thinking about people as the common denominator and foundation of everything we do. It’s funny because the clients that I work with, and have worked with for so many years, they’re very similar in that regard: the culture is the foundational element of their success. And I truly believe that’s been the case for us, over the course of time.

So, as an experience officer, you are tracking employees’ at-work experiences, and to make a better fit between what people are doing for a living and what they do to have a life?

That is correct. We have intentional events on different days, for people who might be younger, who might be mothers, or fathers, or might have families. We closed our own office [between Christmas and New Year’s] because we wanted to give people a true break — because when one person is working, it means that oftentimes most are working. That was a huge benefit. It’s very curated to our specific culture.

It seems that the quality of a workspace is more important than ever, since employees need a reason to come to the office. They have to want to be there. They no longer have to be there. And it seems like what you are saying is that you try to design workspaces that make them want to come to the office.

Yes, because the lines between someone’s professional life and their personal life have been awfully blurry for the last couple of years. Being able to support that notion within the workspace setting is super important. So creating amenities that help you transition between your professional life and your personal life is really, really important. Whereas maybe five years ago, an amenity would be like a cool cafe with a specific kind of coffee.

Today, we’re programming fitness so it can be actually a part of your day. It’s not just putting in a treadmill or a small gym. It’s curated programming within the spaces. We’re designing intentional spaces with food and beverage. And that goes back to my comment about working hand in glove with landlords to make certain that those lifestyle amenities are part of a tenant’s day.

That’s oftentimes a distinguishing characteristic when somebody’s looking at building A versus building B. And the competition for tenants is fierce right now, and we are doing all sorts of unique amenities to really differentiate landlords’ products, one from the other. So it really attracts certain kinds of tenancy.

Is there a point beyond which this doesn’t work, where high design proves ineffective in luring workers back to the office? Where people say, “I would just as soon be home?” I’m curious if you have found that line, or does that line even exist?

It’s interesting. Some of the IT professionals, they’re remote anyway so why do they have to come into an office? There was a group of professionals that we had a particular eye on, who were considered 100 percent remote, I think. We were in the middle of COVID, so we thought, “OK, it’s cool, everybody’s going to work from home.” But what you realize quickly is that most do not benefit from a lack of collegiality and coming together and connecting.

The way to differentiate an organization is through relationships, and the power of relationships really happens on a one-to-one basis when you’re with human beings. And that has become evident more and more the further we get away from what I would consider the COVID period.

So relationships really define what a company is. What changes can be attributed to the past couple of years, the COVID years, and what changes preceded that? From your perspective what has COVID changed and what was changing anyway?

A company we worked with before the pandemic, their space was used 50 percent of the time. And, now, post-pandemic, it’s really 40 percent utilization.That’s a global thing. With people traveling and coming and going, we were experimenting with lots of mobility already.

Now a big firm is already deeply committed to some level of mobility and a reduction of space, right? So, before COVID, we were already starting to realize that lifestyle for the next generation is way up there on their list, with economics. And you need to be able to offer that flexibility to employees and that level of trust that maybe didn’t exist five years ago. But I do think we were moving in that direction already. 

It’ll be very interesting to see, as we continue to come out of this, a lot of the younger generation  choosing to go into the office because they think they’re missing mentorship, they’re missing those connections, their work friends that they didn’t have for two years, which was always the after model.

To summarize, from a space perspective, I think we are seeing a reduction of space, to some degree, but not enough, certainly not an elimination of space. Space has to do more, to accept more of that balance of personal and professional life.

So we’re getting to a point where people may be overshooting the whole idea of change. They’re beginning to say you really need to have offices, you can’t just run a company from home and get the same bang as you did in the old days. We’re seeing in retail people want to get out of the house, touch the merchandise, and they don’t want to just shop on their phones. That might be happening in office as well.

I believe that your space is a beacon of your brands. Without it, it’s very, very difficult to authentically explain who you are, and, more importantly, what you stand for. And that’s not even industry-specific. It’s across the board.

We are dialed in to experiences. When you walk into an organization, an impression is created within 15 seconds. What do I feel about this organization? Do I trust this organization, do I want to be part of it? And it is critical that we are intentional and purposeful with the social spaces we design, the community spaces we design, even down to the focus groups and the type of technology we offer.

Bottom line, there is a future for companies like Vocon. Office isn’t going away. It’s just changing, basically.

Our industry is changing too. I’ve been in this industry a long time. But, you know, our industry is ripe for disruption, and for change. And I really believe that when our clients call, they’re looking for holistic advice. That involves experience, that involves space. We need to be at that intersection between our global clients and what these leading landlords are looking to provide. That’s so we don’t waste time.

This is an area where there has been a lot of fads. A few years ago, everyone had to have an open office. Then everybody began to understand the value of personal space, having privacy, and that got lost in the rush to open office. First of all, do you agree with that? Second, how do you do what you do, without getting caught up in what is a fad, and what is of a more timeless value?

We have to be the best of listeners. There’s not a one-size-fits-all. If you exist that way, you’re probably not going to be in business very long. As a strategy, we listen. And then we capture the essence of the different types of stages that need to go into a specific culture. I think that that’s where the magic happens. In a law firm setting, for example, focus space is required. So what you do is you provide people a choice.

It’s a lot of really, really focused responses, and combinations of private spaces, casual intimate spaces, large community assembly spaces. It’s creating that variety and diversity of choices.