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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Explores the Role of Culture and Behavior in the Workplace

Seattle, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Steelcase, King County, economic activity, workplace strategies, change management
Image courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

By Jack Stubbs

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has long had a wide-ranging economic and community impact on Seattle and the surrounding Puget Sound region.

And the world’s largest charitable Foundation—which in 2015 generated nearly $550 million in total direct economic activity within the Greater Seattle region of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties—has plans in the works to expand its reach and influence in the city even further, having announced its plans for a new third building at its current headquarters in downtown Seattle in mid-June.

The Foundation is also taking a closer look at the role that culture and behavior continue to play in the workplace. On Wednesday, September 12th, at a CoreNet Global event called “Impatient Optimism: How Culture, Strategy, and Place are Changing the World,” four panelists discussed the Foundation’s continued efforts in Seattle and the Puget Sound region to reinvent its workplace and how these workplace strategies remain central to the work that the Foundation looks to accomplish.

The panelists at the event held at Palace Ballroom in downtown Seattle were Sharon Loveland, workplace strategy manager with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Slade Bedford, senior manager for global facilities at the Foundation; moderator Sarah Hagan, research manager of the people analytic’s team at the Foundation; and Dr. Tracy Brower, principal with the applied research and consulting group for Steelcase, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s partner.

The Foundation, who gives away approximately $4.3 billion per year in grants across 28 different operating strategies and employs approximately 1,600 employees across 8 offices, is already thinking differently about how it can collaborate across its human resources, operational development and commercial real estate business leaders to encourage experimentation, risk taking and innovation in its creation of new workplaces. “A lot of the people at the Foundation are starting to think about how space can be a lever for how behavior can allow them to work better together and being okay with experimentation, where we don’t have to get it right on the first time,” said Loveland. “The whole Foundation is about to embark on a journey of discovery as we start to think about the third building.”

The company in mid-June 2018 announced its plans for a third building at their current $500 million headquarters in downtown Seattle (where the company Foundation currently employs approximately 1,200 employees), which is comprised of two buildings located at 500 Fifth Ave. N. across from the Space Needle. The Foundation will once again partner with NBBJ and Sellen Construction, with whom the organization worked on the original 1.1 million square foot campus that was completed in 2011.

The Foundation plans to break ground on the new 6-story, approximately 385,000 square foot building in Fall of 2019 with completion expected in Spring of 2022. The third new boomerang-shaped building marks the latest chapter for the original million campus completed in 2011 and will include the opportunities for an up to an additional 800 seats for employees, as well as flexible meeting and community spaces.

And while the most recent addition to the Seattle campus was announced in mid-2018, the Foundation has for some time now been thinking about how it could optimize its workplace environment for its employee base, according to Bedford. “This journey started back in early 2017; we had an employee survey which really started shedding some light on how different things could impact space. There were a lot of silos in the organization where people are working within little groups and not really talking to each other,” he said. In early 2017, the Foundation began its dialogue with its HR department and the Gates 2025 Group, which looks to outline a long-term vision for how the Foundation might evolve over time.

At around the same time, the Foundation began taking a deeper look at how the spatial organization of its current campus was impacting the behavior and workplace strategies of its employees. “Right around the same time, several things happened that made us start to think about all this…when you surround yourself with people who think exactly like you, you’ll never have innovation,” Loveland said. “And you can’t think about space without thinking about behaviors.” The Gates Foundation hired interior design firm IDO to discuss what the company might want its future trajectory to look like by examining the relationship between space and behavior.

From a programmatic perspective, workplace design and optimization has always been a priority of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. After the organization moved into its new 1.1 million square foot campus in 2011, it invited architect NBBJ to conduct a post-occupancy evaluation (POE) to assess how the new space was working, according to NBBJ’s web site. The objective of the POE was to help the Foundation determine to what degree the new campus would allow it to achieve its workplace goals and optimize its workplace strategy. In the longer-term, the evaluation conducted by NBBJ helped the Foundation to understand the strategies and tactics it would need to deploy to leverage and inform the future design of the campus.

And while the existing campus is suitable for the current needs of the Foundation, the organization is looking to more thoroughly take into account the evolving needs of its employee base. “Our campus here is stunningly beautiful, it has access to natural light and landscaping and can often feel perfect,” Loveland said. “[But] we’ve heard from a number of people that this perfection can make you feel like you can’t not be perfect. We want to create a space where people feel like they can experiment.”

The Foundation is looking at how it can leverage the lessons learned from the original campus to create the optimal workplace environment in its third headquarters building, according to Brower. “We’re going to apply these learnings throughout our campuses across the world and on our third campus building…the idea that these ideas are being implemented with the third building and for the Foundation in general is pretty exciting when space makes that much of a difference,” she said. In the interim period of time and as the plans for the third building continue to take shape, the Foundation plans to conduct a variety of workshops, focus groups and surveys to solicit feedback from its employees and HR department.

In the bigger picture and in terms of the continued evolution of the Foundation over time, greater consideration is also being given to design-thinking as it relates to behavior, according to Brower. “We also subscribe to design-thinking very deeply and how might we leverage space to accelerate growth and impact…if we set a message that the space is scrappy and experimental, we can get people to a point where they can roll up their sleeves and take risks,” she said. “We saw it as an opportunity to get the senior leadership and staff on board to be more visible…it really started a conversation,” Bedford added.

The Foundation also met with members from its Maternal, Newborn and Child Health program to facilitate more dialogue about what the optimal orientation of the space might be, ultimately opting for a more experimental, flexible layout. “We created a physical space with unassigned seating, used bright energetic offices and opened up the ceiling to make it look experimental,” Loveland said.

Furthermore, although the Foundation is giving greater consideration to how to successfully program the interior of their buildings to encourage optimal collaboration and transparency, an increased focus is made on the needs of their employees as well, according to Brower. “With this emphasis on the discovery process, there is something about deeply understanding the user. We did a lot of focus groups, interviews and workshops to really engage people,” she said. “The space in some ways is the easy part; the harder part is determining who people are and what they want to achieve.”

In the broader context of how the organization might look to evolve over time, change management—the effective management of development within an organization over time—will continue to play an increasingly important role especially as the Foundation continues to grow, according to Bedford. “We’ve had some challenges around change management…some people see this as a moment where money is going out there door that could be used for [other purposes]…but we see it differently. We want to bring people along with the Foundation and help them realize that space can help them,” he said.

As the Foundation continues to grow—both within the Puget Sound region and globally—it will need to strike a balance between increased density in the workplace and continuing to meet the evolving behavior-related needs of its employees. “We are going to get more dense; that’s part of what we’re learning in this experiment, and one of our goals is to increase the density but also provide more focused quiet spaces,” Loveland said.

Ultimately, the Foundation’s goals around how to most effectively program its regional locations will extend beyond the walls of the physical workplace environments. “There’s an opportunity to shift the conversation from space as a cost versus space as an investment,” Bower said. “When we do the right things for people, we get amazing outcomes for the organization, and space is one of the levers we can pull to create the right experience for people.”