Arnold Levin is Director of Strategy for the Southwest Region at Gensler where he seeks to combine his experience in design strategy and organizational design to help clients solve the right problem. Mike Petrusky asks Arnold about his perspectives on the industry and how we can adapt to meet the challenges of a new decade. Arnold is not afraid to share his honest assessment about the mistakes we have made and what we need to do differently if we are to avoid becoming obsolete. This show has always been about the need to be comfortable being uncomfortable and Arnold really challenges us as we head into 2020. Mike and Arnold agree that we cannot expect to be successful if we operate in the default setting of keeping the status quo and we must not be afraid to confront some of the challenges that we all will face as we move forward in the fast-changing world of the workplace.
Connect with Arnold on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/arnold-levin-57a61610/
Learn more about Gensler: https://www.gensler.com/
Discover free resources and explore past interviews at: https://www.workplaceinnovator.com/
Connect with Mike on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mikepetrusky/
Share your thoughts with Mike via email: podcast@iOFFICECORP.com
Learn more about iOFFICE’s workplace experience solutions: https://www.iOFFICECORP.com/
Read the full transcript:
Mike Petrusky (00:02):
Hi everyone. Mike P. here, and I have two big announcements for you. First, I am thrilled to tell you that we have just launched a new website to serve as the home of this podcast. You can check it out now at www.workplaceinnovator.com. There you will find not only the latest episode of the show, but a link to our complete searchable archive of interviews. Plus the new site has available for free download research reports and white papers about the latest industry trends and available technologies.
Also, I’m excited to announce that registration is open for the annual iOFFICE User Conference. Our Summit 2020 will take place April 14th to 16th, and I really hope you will plan to join me there. We will bring the future to life with amazing speakers, educational content, and you’ll have the chance to interact with our community forward-thinking workplace leaders. So join us in Vegas, baby, Vegas, where you will be inspired to create connected workplace experiences for your organization.
Arnold Levin (01:05):
We really owe it to our clients and to the profession, which is going to be continually commodified as more and more organizations insert themselves into our world, that we need to be able to provide a level of service that goes just beyond providing physical, tangible design solutions that are visual.
Mike Petrusky (01:25):
This is the Workplace Innovator Podcast, where we talk with corporate real estate and facility management leaders about the industry trends and technologies impacting your organization. This show is powered by iOFFICE, the leading employee experience focused IWMS software that delivers real time data and mobile tools to help you intelligently manage your digital workplace.
Welcome to episode 90 of the Workplace Innovator Podcast. My name is Mike Petrusky, and I’m so glad you are here because my first guest of the new year is Arnold Levin of Gensler, and I am really excited to share our conversation with you. I picked this interview to start things off because I always say on this show, “We need to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” and Arnold really challenged me with a lot of what he had to say. And I think this discussion will challenge you also.
As we head into a new decade together, we cannot expect to be successful if we operate in the default setting of keeping the status quo. We cannot be afraid to confront some of the challenges that we will all face as we move forward in this fast changing and certainly sometimes very complicated world. And with that said, I think my interview with Arnold is a great way to kick things off in 2020, so here we go. On the Workplace Innovator hotline, calling in from Los Angeles, it’s Arnold Levin. Welcome to the show. Arnold.
Arnold Levin (02:57):
Thanks, Mike. Good to be here.
Mike Petrusky (02:58):
Great to have you. It’s been a couple months since we saw each other in Phoenix for World Workplace. That was a good time wasn’t it?
Arnold Levin (03:05):
Yeah, it was a great show, great conference.
Mike Petrusky (03:07):
And, of course, you and I like to hang out with the Workplace Evolutionaries Community. I had a chance to address that crowd, as did you, so I want to hear more about that. But before we do, let’s tell the audience more about Arnold Levin. What’s your story? Tell us who you are and what you do.
Arnold Levin (03:23):
I’m the Southwest Regional Consultant Practice Area Leader in Gensler’s Southwest region, which means that I’m responsible for design strategy across our various market platforms in all of our Southwest regional offices, which include Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, Newport Beach, and San Diego.
Mike Petrusky (03:45):
Well, excellent. And just on the small chance that someone doesn’t know who Gensler is, can you tell us a little bit about the company?
Arnold Levin (03:52):
Gensler is the largest architectural design practice in the world. We’ve got over 6,000 employees. We cover a range of practice areas from corporate and workplace, to higher education, and urban design, and buildings. Our consulting practice includes urban design workplace strategy and the DXD design, so there probably is not an area that the firm is not involved in the firm.
The firm, back in 2008, had 3000 some odd people, and now we’re well over 6,000. So it’s gone through incredible growth, and evolution, and maturity, and has only gotten better in the 10 years that I’ve been gone.
Mike Petrusky (04:42):
It’s been an amazing decade of growth for our industry and an exciting time to be in the world of workplace, so we’ll talk more about that. But before we get too far, I do like to find a little bit more about the personal side of my guests. So Arnold, besides all your travel, which it sounds like there’s plenty of it, what do you like to do for fun?
Arnold Levin (04:59):
For fun, I try to rest from all the travel that I do.
Mike Petrusky (05:04):
So you’re on a plane traveling to a conference or to one of your regional offices, what’s on your headphones? What are you listening to?
Arnold Levin (05:11):
What am I listening to? That gets into the dark areas of life. A lot of Leonard Cohen-
Mike Petrusky (05:18):
Arnold Levin (05:18):
…which probably says it all about my moods.
Mike Petrusky (05:24):
(singing) I don’t want to do it justice, but that’s some deep introspective stuff right there.
Arnold Levin (05:31):
Right, I definitely don’t go for the light stuff. If anybody’s looking for a enlightened, overly joyful conversation, I’m not sure this is the podcast to join.
Mike Petrusky (05:43):
Well, listen, I know you’re a serious guy and you have a very thoughtful outlook on our industry and the state of the world today, but you also have a great sense of humor. I enjoy your humor in your presentations.
Arnold Levin (05:56):
Some people call it dark.
Mike Petrusky (05:57):
Yeah, some people might call it dark, but why do you suppose that is? Do you want to get on the psychologist or psychiatrist couch here?
Arnold Levin (06:06):
Well, probably two reasons. I think the first one is age. You know, I’ve been doing this for almost 50 years now. So yeah, I think that age has given me a perspective of the industry that I think a lot of other people don’t necessarily share in terms of where we started out when I graduated undergraduate school in 1969. I think it’s given me a perspective and a view that tempers my perspective of business in the industry.
The second thing is I just think that one of the things that I’ve always been passionate about is the potential of what design can do. It started when I was in undergraduate school. I think that one piece of optimism from that I think has shaped my pessimistic view, that we haven’t gone quite as far as we tell people we have gone. I think that’s what gives my perspective a little bit of a cynicism sometimes, though I like to put in perspective that my cynicism is really trying to be the conscience of the industry in the sense that I think that we’ve got such great potential that’s often shielded with a reliance on trends and pop management culture. But I could go on that aspect for another two hours with you.
Mike Petrusky (07:34):
Well, this isn’t going to be a three hour conversation, but we could do it, I’m sure. With that said, do I dare ask you about a motivational or inspirational quote that you could share?
Arnold Levin (07:46):
Something that’s motivational? I could give you a quote from Leonard Cohen when he was accused of being a pessimist. He said that, “A pessimist was somebody who thinks it’s always going to rain and he knows that he’s soaking wet.” So I think that…
Mike Petrusky (08:03):
That works. I like that.
Arnold Levin (08:03):
Mike Petrusky (08:04):
I like that. Very cool. I want to ask you about this idea of change and the fact that we don’t seem to change very quickly, or we talk about things a lot at these conferences, and often it’s the same conversation over and over. What do you see as the biggest opportunities for change or things that maybe we’ve missed?
Arnold Levin (08:25):
Well, I think what’s missing is the fact that we rely too much on what we think is the trend of the day. We sell it as if it’s the first new thought that we’ve ever come out with. I think a lot of the predicaments that we find ourselves in, while there’s huge successes financially, in terms of what’s going on within the industry, I think that if you go to all the conferences that we all go to, whether it’s IFMA, or CoreNet, or any of the other industry events, you would think that every under the planet, or at least in the United States, is undergoing tremendous change and is working in new ways of work.
I think that we are self delusional to a certain degree that we go to these conferences and we give the pep talks. We look at the bright side of things as if that’s what the reality is. I think that we need to take a step back. I don’t think that we are as imbued in the world of organizations as well as we should do. I think that we live in a cocoon in our own industry. And even though our industry gets involved outwardly with clients, it’s a very client focused business.
I think that we tend to think that the world that we speak about is the world that everybody’s living in. I think that too often we’re not living in that world. I think that we would like too much on trends to be able to promote and talk about what the potential of design is all about. Whether that trend was 10 years ago with so-called open plan, which has gotten a bad rap recently, as we all know, to every other trend that comes about the industry has jumped on.
I think it’s done a great disservice to the industry to a certain degree and our credibility. But it also means that every time we talk about something, we’re all talking about the same thing. The current trend today is experience.
Mike Petrusky (10:24):
Arnold Levin (10:26):
I’ve got problems with the focus on things like that as a trend, as opposed to really looking at what it really means and what it’s all about. If we are talking about a certain trend, what does it mean? Where does it come from? What are its implications for the future? I think that there’s not enough of that kind of introspection within our industry. One of the things that we’ve never done as an industry is to be able to look back over the past 15 years and really say, “Have we really accomplished what we say we have accomplished?”
We rely on surveys to a certain degree in terms of employee satisfaction surveys. Then we tout that as proof of purchase, so to speak, that we’ve been successful. But there’s really has been no great industry research that’s really address the issue: Have we accomplished and succeeded at really doing what we say we are doing?
Mike Petrusky (11:21):
I like this. Arnold, I’ve challenged myself, as we head into this new year, 2020, a new opportunity for all of us to reflect on the past, but also look to the future and how we can do things better. On this podcast, I often talk about the industry trends and I like what you’re doing here. You’re challenging me to think deeper about what it’s all about, what all the conversation is about? How can we do this better, Arnold?
Arnold Levin (11:47):
I think we can stop talking about trends. I get requests multiple times a day from clients that talk about, “What’s the latest trends?” If we were relying on trends, then we don’t change because trends only tell us what’s been done in the past and not what we need to do in the future.
This reliance on trends and the fact that the industry has been based on trends, not only is disturbing for me as a practitioner, but I think it doesn’t do the industry any great service because we’re relying on trends to help solve client’s problems. And that’s not how you solve problems. You solve client’s problems by critically looking at what the issues are and developing solutions that are hopefully unique in some regards to who those clients are and what their needs are.
I often talk to clients about what we do well is, if we do it well, is we solve the right problem and not the wrong problem. Trends don’t necessarily mean that you’ve solved the right problem. I think that whether it’s trends that are promoted in conferences, whether it’s trends that we talk about when we give presentations about the latest trend in workplace design is X. I think it’s a disservice to a way of thinking and a problem solving process that is really the heart and soul of what design is all about.
Mike Petrusky (13:08):
Yeah. And you know, that actually gives me some encouragement because I think we haven’t been doing it all wrong here on this show. I’ve had some very bright people give their opinions about the industry and where we are, but also they talk strategy. They talk about a holistic view of the workplace, and they talk about what you just described, this idea of investigation and understanding the needs of an organization before even beginning a conversation about design or workplace strategy. It’s about recognizing that each and every company is unique, and every culture is different, and every mission is in need of a solution that fits them. It’s very customized, right?
Arnold Levin (13:49):
Hopefully, if it’s done correctly. But let me just, if I can add one more concern about trends?
Mike Petrusky (13:57):
Arnold Levin (13:57):
I think that one of the things that the industry has continually bemoaned about itself is the lack of respect that we have in the world of professions in terms of fees, for instance. Why are fees no better today than they were 10 years ago? Why do clients not necessarily appreciate the value of what one design firm offers versus another and is willing to pay for what that really takes to do?
Part of the reason is because we’re an industry that has based itself on trends. If you went to a doctor and hope to solve your medical problem through trends, you definitely would not be willing to pay that physician the amount of money that they’re charging you in order to do that.
I think that there’s a whole host of issues that this whole reliance on trends has begat on the industry itself and we’re not viewed at the level of consultancy and problem solving as much as we say we are, that we should be. When you compare our industry to other consulting type of endeavors, if you’re a business consultancy, whether you’re Accenture or Boston Consulting Group with Deloitte, clients see the value in that in terms of being willing to pay for those services at a much higher level than they’re willing to pay for design and architecture services. Because we’ve become a commodity, and we’ve become a commodity in part because of this reliance on this conversation and narrative around trends.
Mike Petrusky (15:34):
That makes sense, and it’s very interesting. Let’s start fresh, Arnold. If we’re going to go into a room and we’ve got an audience here of workplace leaders who are interested in being better at what they do and communicating the value of their business proposition. And those listening also are the buyers of these types of services, consultative, design, expertise along the lines that we’re discussing here, what do you want to say to them? How should we approach things differently than we have in the past?
Arnold Levin (16:02):
Well, I think we need to change the perspective of how we talk about what design is and what the value of design is, and really how we redefine the profession. I think that we’re very good at going into clients, organizations, and enterprises, and addressing the potential changes and disruptions that are going on within their industries. We rely on a lot of that in order to come up with so-called innovative design solutions.
But I think what we fail to do is recognize that those same disruptions that are facing all of our clients, whether you’re a Ford motor company and being disrupted by Google with autonomous vehicles, or whether you’re in the healthcare industry and being disrupted by technology again, and how that’s going to influence the delivery of healthcare.
As a profession, we need to stop looking at so-called design solutions purely as physical or tangible solutions. I think that’s also leading to the commodification of our industry. I think that we need to be able to look at design solutions in a much broader sense in terms of what kinds of solutions that we’re helping clients with.
The physical aspect of that, the tangible piece of that is a piece of it, but it’s been the reliance of our industry. And now, I think that’s being disrupted as well. We need to be able to look at organizations and be able to say that part of our analysis and part of our approach is to understand how our organizations designed as enterprises.
Sometimes those solutions to a so-called design problem may be physical, but it may not be physical. It may be an organizational problem. We talk about culture and changing culture, but again, there’s a certain hubris attached to the fact too often designers think that you design a space in a certain way in terms of being able to provide a lot of collaborative spaces. And that’s going to automatically enable that client and/or organization to be collaborative culturally. I think that’s a very narrow view of how organizations change and what they need to change.
I think the real potential of what design is, is to say, yes, the physical aspect of what we do is a piece of that, but it’s not the only piece of the types of services that we should be providing in terms of design solutions. That’s one of the reasons why many years ago, I went back to business school to really understand if I had made a decision at a younger age to go into business consultancy, what are some of those tools and methodologies that business consultants use that we should be looking at to understand who our clients are, and to be able to offer solutions that really connect to a client’s business beyond just the typical, “Describe your culture to us,” and the client then says, “Oh, well, we’re collaborative.” Then we give them a bunch of coffee bars as a design solution.
So again, not to be too cynical about this, but I think that we really owe it to our clients and to the profession, which is going to be continually commodified as more and more organizations take over and insert themselves into our world, that we need to be able to provide a level of service that goes just beyond providing physical, tangible design solutions that are visual.
Mike Petrusky (19:28):
I wasn’t kidding folks. Arnold Levin of Gensler is not afraid to share his honest and sometimes cynical perspective on our industry. He makes some great points about the challenges we face and what we must do if we hope to keep up in today’s marketplace.
There’s more to come with Arnold. We talked for over an hour and I just couldn’t fit it in one episode. I really want you to hear what he has to say about the impact of technology and what we can learn from other industries as we look to adapt in our own organizations.
I did ask Arnold to discuss his presentation from IFMA’s World Workplace about agile workplace strategies. At the very end, he does offer some really practical advice that I know you will find useful, so please join me again next week for part two of my discussion with Arnold Levin. I promise I did my best to wrap things up on a positive, hopeful note that will be encouraging to you because you know my goal here, it’s always to inspire you to be a workplace innovator. Peace out.
You’ve been listening to the Workplace Innovator Podcast. I hope you found this discussion beneficial as we work together to build partnerships that lead to innovative workplace solutions. For more information about how iOFFICE can help you create an employee centric workspace by delivering digital technology that enhances the employee experience, visit iOFFICEcorp.com.