These days, collaboration is at top of mind for many of the employees and managers who have spent much of the past year working from home.
After all, it’s one thing to complete a solo task without sharing a space with your coworkers; anything that requires true teamwork is another story.
As a result, some predict the office will shift from an environment that enables many people to work alone, together, to a center for collaboration. It’s a shift that Industrious’ Eivind Karlsen is well-equipped to realize because, in many ways, his role as VP of Product is all about collaboration. “It’s surprising how the smallest addition [to the product] can have implications for each team,” Karlsen says, noting that a key part of his job is “making sure that everyone has availability and buy-in, and gets enough notice far enough in advance to be able to plan.”
We sat down with Karlsen to learn more about how he works with teams across the company to shape Industrious’ workplaces and how COVID-19 is transforming the way we think about the office.
Tell us about yourself. What brought you to Industrious?
While I was in architecture school with the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia, I got interested in shared economy dynamics. There was an emergence of these sort of coworking, co-living models that were changing the way architecture and real estate were being discussed.
Then I went and worked for AECOM, one of the largest architecture, engineering, and construction companies in the world. A lot of the work was consulting with firms on how they could rethink their real estate or workplace experience strategy.
I wanted to get closer to an operating business that was trying to solve these problems on the ground. Industrious was in an early-stage growth mode, so I came over and ran the design team, figuring out what the product should be and how we could scale it from a couple of locations to a hundred.
After running Industrious’ design team, you became VP of Product. What does that role entail?
Product at Industrious comes down to three components: the physical space that we create, the experience or services that we layer on top of that space, and the digital tools that we employ to facilitate our customer interactions within those spaces.
My role is really cross-functional: making sure there’s alignment across teams and inspiring people to move forward in a certain direction. On a day-to-day basis it’s a lot of connecting with everyone, understanding what their needs are, and communicating priorities.
Most good product development is centered around customer experience. We identify what a set of customer needs are and where we can add value that is worth paying for. The way in which our spaces are designed, the position as a brand that we take relative to those customers, our staff within locations, and how our staff interacts with our customers are all components of the product and what makes it successful.
How has Industrious’ product changed over the past few years?
I came into this role with the sense that we could tie the product in a bow and it’d be ready to go. It’s much more of an iterative, long-haul process. We have to weed out the things we may have thought provided value but that don’t really matter to customers. For example, we used to have these secret rooms in our coworking offices. We had a speakeasy in Brooklyn, which was pretty cool, and then we had a sensory deprivation chamber in Atlanta. But folks really didn’t use them.
On the flip side, we had a lot of customer conversations this year in which we learned that it would be really valuable if we had mail-forwarding services. Then when you come into the office, you’re able to get a monitor and a mouse. So we launched Access, a suite of subscription-based memberships for folks looking to use an office once or twice a week or to have a virtual membership with a business address.
In the last few years, we’ve been developing new products that meet the needs of different customer segments. We grew our Canvas product to serve teams of 20 to 200, in which the shared dynamics that play out in a shared workplace are less relevant than having your own identity as a company, your own amenities, and your own entry.
Those are examples on the occupier side. On the landlord side, we’ve seen a lot of interest in tenant experience management. So, how do we support landlords in creating buildings that are differentiated and have a service and hospitality layer that, as an occupier, you weren’t finding 10 years ago in this industry? It all rolls up into a building that has a front-of-house identity — a human touch point — that’s about service and hospitality overall.
How is the pandemic affecting the future of the workplace?
In response to COVID-19, we’ve seen an acceleration of companies moving to a more distributed workforce, meaning there’s a hybrid work model where they’re working from home, they’re working in third places, and they’re working in the office. So part of the time, they’re working or collaborating virtually, and part of the time they’re working in-person with others.
From a productivity perspective, working from home has been relatively successful. Where it still falls apart is people wanting in-person contact, collaboration, and the culture that only happens when you’re together in a space and have shared experiences. As a result, you’re going to see offices becoming collaborative centers. [People want to] figure out what they’re doing as a team collectively and then go off into individual work settings to do their piece of the puzzle.
Offices will change to accommodate that collaboration. More coworking-type spaces that serve individual work will emerge. Some of those individual moments will be self-serve: “I’ll decide where I go to do certain types of work, knowing that I’ll come together with a larger team a few times a month or a few times a week to do more collaborative based work.” That’s where you’ll see the biggest change in the products and features that we create within our spaces.
For example, if you lived in Brooklyn and you used to commute into Manhattan everyday to your HQ, you might now do that commute twice a week, going to HQ for a collaborative session or meeting. But you still might need a solution that works for you near home. You can be in your at-home office twice a week but there’s still that one day a week where you want to go to a coffee shop, or a library, or a coworking space to get out of home but not necessarily be at HQ.
What else is changing in the industry?
Commercial real estate’s having a bit of a reckoning right now, as a result of COVID-19. How are we going to utilize the space? What are we going to do with all the offices that we built out? You’re going to see a lot of interesting business models emerge that are not traditional lease structures.
As an industry, we’ve spent years and years repeatedly building out the latest workplace fad. We’re at this moment as a society when we have an imperative to do more with less; we have to repurpose and retrofit a lot of existing things that we built out with fewer resources in part because we don’t want to go out and buy a lot of new materials and new equipment — it’s very resource intensive. So design has to change to accommodate that. The industry’s used to saying: “I have this blank slate. I’m going to build this new thing out.” Now, it’s saying: “Okay, how can we use what we have and tweak it here and there to make it effective?” That mode of thinking is relatively new for the industry.
For Industrious, the question is how do we take existing spaces and provide that service layer that customers will find valuable without knocking it all down and building it again? That’s a new mindset as we come out of COVID-19.
What do you love about what you do?
[VP of Product] is a really exciting role in any organization. What’s particularly exciting about it at Industrious is there’s a lot of product development on the digital side and there are great resources if you want to be a product manager or grow a product team.
More generally, you get to drive the new things that a company is working on and you get to work cross-functionally to figure out what those things should be then drive them forward and be the voice of that innovation. It’s exciting when you build something new and customers find it valuable.
You also get to work with everyone across the organization in some way. For me, having those diverse connections is really rewarding.