Workplace Strategy with Helen Dennis

This story begins in a tent!

Combine an infectious sense of enthusiasm, a hunger for smart solutions, a laser-like focus and a cheeky English accent, and you’ve got Helen.

After arriving in New Zealand in 2005, Helen blew the team away at her first interview (while living in a tent in windy Wellington nonetheless!). She secured her first of many roles at Europlan and got to work in our Christchurch base.

Fast forward to 2020, Helen is the National Workplace Strategy Manager at Europlan (and has upgraded to a house!). This role requires Helen to juggle a whole lot of responsibilities at once, and we appreciate that she always does it with a smile.

On top of looking after our Tertiary and South Island clients, Helen also manages a team in Christchurch. She leads the workplace strategy consultancy workstream, working with new and existing clients to understand the culture and needs of a business and provides advice on how to bring these together in the future.

We asked Helen to share some insight into her journey to becoming a Workplace Strategist, what a typical day in the office looks like and how things have changed for the business in 2020.

I’ve spent ten of the last fourteen years learning just about everything there is to know about creating a workplace strategy that works for Kiwi businesses. That includes how to foster a sense of community in a team, where to place a rubbish bin, who gets an office (or not) and everything in between! Right now, I use this experience to help Kiwi businesses discover how to use their unique spaces to maximum effect. Working together, we aim to boost the productivity and happiness of their people and through that the success of their business which is incredibly rewarding work.

Before we can get to the rewarding bit though, I need to help clients understand what we can do for them.

Workplace Strategy might be one of the most challenging concepts to explain to someone! In fact, people may not know they need it until they know it exists. One of the most common things I hear before we get started on a Workplace Strategy is “We know the space doesn’t work, but we don’t know why!”. That means we need to proactively and organically talk to people about what we can offer. I’ve played a huge part in building our suite of services that clients can ‘pick n mix’ from, including:

  • Consultancy
  • Culture Surveys
  • Workstyle Surveys
  • Space planning
  • Procurement
  • Design thinking
  • Interior & Colour
  • Trends & Knowledge
  • Project Management
  • Analytics
  • Asset Management

Basically, you can tell us what hasn’t been working, and we’ll give you a package to suit. Many of our clients have used our consultancy services before going out to market for their new furniture, and that’s OK! We’re not here just to sell furniture (although we have some awesome stuff!), and we have never been because ultimately anyone can go buy a desk anywhere. We want to add more value than that.

Blinc Innovation – Lincoln University, Christchurch

An outline of our most popular options clients prefer when it comes to consultancy work:

  • A half-day workshop with senior leaders, to understand the context, the vision and any restrictions, like budget or appetite for change. This is when we can discuss what is happening in their industry, why things are changing. We take the team through some work style work and report back on personal and workplace culture.
  • A shorter workshop with middle management, to understand their experience, take on their feedback and ensure they feel heard. This is where we introduce the concept of hero/host leadership style to help these managers invest in meaningful conversations with their teams.
  • Two-hour user groups with staff to understand their view of the workplace culture now, explore their challenges and offer solutions based on what we’ve seen other teams do. We also explore how other businesses are working and how different people work now and why. We get nitty-gritty, understanding where teams spend their time, what they feel they need and ask them to provide feedback on the vision.
  • Finally, we report back with recommendations, anonymised feedback and suggestions. We help manage any disconnect between roles and between teams and leaders. We propose a workplace design and show why we’re recommending the things we are. Included in our report are some generic products that we know Europlan or someone else in the market could supply to get things started.

It’s so rewarding to come out of these sessions and know that I’ve helped someone voice their needs on their workplace. It’s especially cool to work with clients and see them have a real breakthrough. We recently worked with a client that was reluctant to create a cafe space for their team, because they feared it would cause a drop in productivity. They took on our recommendations anyway and have since found the cafe area to provide a pivotal role in providing a space where teams can share ideas and socialise. That in turn has had a huge impact on their workplace culture.

Connetics Workplace Strategy Case Study

Something else we had discovered in our workshops was the disconnect between some senior leadership and their team. The leaders couldn’t understand why people didn’t come talk to them and share their ideas more. When it became clear that the only thing holding their team back from doing so was the door to the leader’s office remaining closed all the time, a light bulb went off. That same senior leader now has a regular time slot where they would work from that same cafe area. Now their staff know they can come and have a coffee or a chat in an environment where they feel comfortable doing so. No more knocking on the door to a private office and being beckoned in!

That company has seen an increase in results for these three metrics since their workplace strategy was implemented:

  • Reduction in emails as people are now talking to each other more
  • Increased collaboration which has facilitated an environment for innovative ideas and to enable things to happen quicker within their business
  • Closer and more integrated team due to layout and social spaces
  • Overall employee happiness, wellness & productivity increased

Results like that speak to the elements of an engaged and successful workforce that mean so much to me. We’re improving teams’ wellness, community and even a business’s sustainability practices through well-considered design.

A lot of the experience I draw on for our clients has come from my own journey and learning. As Europlan has evolved, my roles have too. After taking a break and going ‘out to industry’, when I returned to Europlan, things started to progress really quickly. I came back and kicked off work to promote our partnership with Haworth and got elbow-deep in our first fit-out. I also got involved in designing, setting up and working in our first Christchurch based coworking location Shift Culture. When we opened the doors, I couldn’t help but feel like we had finally ‘made it’ and we were making our mark in the industry.

Designing, creating and working out of a coworking space wasn’t something I had ever really expected to do when I started with Europlan. Still, it’s been one of the highlights in my career. The experience of creating and using coworking spaces gives me a lot of hands-on experience for so many of our clients, but especially our tertiary clients. They continue to need to create campuses that students want to spend time in and there are a lot of similarities that we can draw between the two. I was also overwhelmed to learn, back in 2018, that a project I led with the coworking space BizDojo was submitted in the inaugural Proactive Property Awards. As a finalist, we were invited to present at the awards, one of my most intimidating experiences yet, but also something I’m super proud of too!

BizDojo Ponsonby

Given that our team works in a coworking environment, and that I have so many projects on the go at any one time, a typical day never looks the same twice. I can be working with different people in our offices, meeting clients, hosting workshops, or sharing our beautiful products with interested passersby. Really, there is no typical day, but I love the variety this brings!

I always try to start my day with a plan, although even the best-laid plans are sometimes messed up! In 2020 I’ve started practicing time blocking. This allows me to focus my time and attention on specific projects, tasks and clients in a way that works for my team and me. I’ve learnt that I don’t need to be everything to everyone all the time and communicating that to the team helps them get the best out of me too. I’m a self-confessed magpie – I can’t help getting involved in the new shiny things or interesting sounding projects! I’m working on training myself to both be a bit more focused and allowing my team to tackle the projects and challenges that they’re working on without me getting involved. I love being able to watch them succeed in solving challenging problems and blowing our clients away time and time again.

2020 hasn’t only opened up the world of time blocking for me either. With COVID-19 making an appearance, we had to reconsider how Europlan, and our clients, manage our work while in lockdown. At first, it was all about creating safe and engaging work-from-home setups. It also gave us a chance to re-engage with our clients, and our team to get an idea of how their spaces were working for them, much like our experience after the Christchurch earthquakes.

Catching up for a video-chat-vino, and the intimacy that a lot of us felt in being introduced to our clients’ homes, pets and kids has been a really special part of building such a great community both within Europlan and with our clients. The work isn’t done yet, either. As we move between alert levels, and as more businesses explore working from home for their teams, we know that strategic workplace design is going to become more and more important. I am so excited to explore new ways of making this work.

If you’d like to learn more about how a workplace strategy consultation works, want tips on pitching a sturdy tent in windy Wellington, or you’re keen to learn about our commercial fit-outs for businesses and tertiary providers, please drop me a line. If you’re around in Christchurch, pop into the Saltworks and say ‘Hi’.

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