Interview with Natalie Slessor, Lendlease
“A product design mindset has not been in the property sector in the past. It is one of the few sectors where the customer was not at the table when designing the product.”
Jack Sallabank: What does your role mean in the context of the workplaces that Lendlease creates?
Natalie Slessor: I help some of our biggest corporate customers get the most out of the workspaces they lease from us. I have a team of people who run a process to help businesses to use their workplace as a tool to communicate their culture and strategy rather than just talking about accommodation. While doing that we learn a lot about the businesses we work with, and we collate that information to help us design our next development and ensure it responds to what people want. That is the first rule of product design: make something that people want and need. In property it’s too easy to do something that you have done before
JS: I’m interested to hear you use the word ‘product design’. That way of thinking is a big shift for the property sector.
NS: I agree. A product design mindset has not been in the property sector in the past. It is one of the few sectors where the customer was not at the table when designing the product.
These are not disposable products, and they should stand for a long, long time. Yet too often they are developed without input from end users. We are currently developing the tallest building in Sydney, and during the design process we decided to create a pitch deck and present it to some potential customers and ask them to tell us what we have missed. It was incredibly insightful for us. It was the first time I’ve seen building design done in an iterative way like that, and it is long overdue.
JS: From a product design point of view, it seems to be very difficult for the property sector to do minimum viable products (MVP) to test and learn.
NS: I want to challenge the idea that we can’t do MVP. We should be able to test and experiment more than we do; we just haven’t found a way to do it yet. We need to get more of an innovative mindset into the sector, and that is something Lendlease feels like we can do.
JS: What is the role of the architect in this context?
NS: It’s an interesting question. Our responsibility is to create exciting and vision-led briefs of what we want our buildings to do, and that means we need to do the work to understand our customer. A great architect can then take that brief and help us understand how we can do what we want to do.
JS: Does your approach resonant with the market in Sydney?
NS: I think this is where Sydney and London are different markets. In Sydney we have a market that’s very aware that the workplace is a powerful tool for your business. The workplace is the body language of a business – it speaks without words about what you stand for and how you do what you do. In Australia it is a progressive market; people are not frightened to fail.
JS: I’m intrigued as to why Sydney has a market that enables it to be more innovative?
NS: I think we have a lesser sense of formality here. Most businesses pride themselves on more of a flat structure with less hierarchy. You can have very quick and honest conversations here, and I think there is something in that. There is also less of a hang-up about status symbols, which can often be a barrier to change.
JS: The workplace has changed significantly over the last ten years. What do you think are the drivers of that change?
NS: I would suggest it is about attracting talent and being able to engage people in your brand proposition. I know we have always had a war for talent, but this is a really unusual time, because for the first time we have different businesses from different sectors competing for the same people. We all want digital talent, complex problem-solvers and design thinkers. The property sector, tech sector, banks, insurance companies all want the same people.
JS: What do you think we will see next in workplace design?
NS: We have almost evolved into the next generation of the workplace. Activity-based working and shared workspace was the order of the day, but we are now moving on as a sector to the next generation. The era of open spaces and shared workspaces in Australia is finishing.
The workplaces that are now being delivered are about providing sanctuary for people. People need spaces where they can do complex thinking. That doesn’t mean that cellular offices are flooding back, but we are now solving for the new ways of giving people private space.
The other change is the simplification of the workplace. If you go to an activity-based workplace or a co-working space, they are not especially intuitive in terms of how you use different spaces within them. We want people to walk in and have it be pretty bloody obvious what you’re supposed to do. That means you offer two or three choices for workspaces but not the volume that you have in an activity-based workspace.
Natalie Slessor joined Lendlease in 2012 and is the General Manager, Workplace & Change. She is one of Australia’s very few environmental psychologists. Natalie has over 15 years of experience in property strategy and managing design processes. She has specific expertise on workplace design of the future and is considered a ‘place user experience’ expert. Prior to joining Lendlease, Natalie was the Director of Consulting, Australia at Woods Bagot.
This article featured in Exchange Issue No. 1, which explores the future of the workplace sector with architectural discussions, developer interviews, industry expert essays, design case studies and more.Read more