How Intercom is preparing for a return to the office

As vaccination efforts soar and lockdowns ease, people are slowly leaving home and getting back to the office. But what can we do to make this transition as smooth as possible?

It’s been a while since, almost overnight, we had to pack our things and start working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But now, almost a year and a half later, the time has come to start thinking about returning to the office. And while we’re excited to see our coworkers again and we love the idea of fewer Zoom meetings, this return also comes with its own set of challenges – and potential anxieties. Can we still function in a busy office setting? Is it safe? Are we ready?

To understand a bit more about how we’re approaching these changes at Intercom, we’ve gathered some of the folks that have been working tirelessly to make sure everyone has a good experience coming back to the office. In this episode of Inside Intercom, you’ll hear from:

They discuss the process of creating a safe space for everyone – from desk arrangements to air quality – designing social experiences that bring everyone together while still maintaining all necessarily precautions, and what the future of work will look like as we adapt to the new normal.

If you enjoy our discussion, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.


Dee Reddy: Thank you all so much for joining us today on this very special episode of Inside Intercom. To kick us off, do you want to give us a bit of background on your work and what you and your team do here at Intercom?

Padraig Monks: Hi Dee, I’m Padraig, and I’m part of the Workplace Experience team based in Dublin. I’ve been with Intercom for two and a half years now. My main responsibilities are facility security, workplace technology, AV design as part of the fit-outs that we’re working on at the moment, and we’re also responsible for the day-to-day running of the Dublin office.

Dee: All very important work, Padraig. Let’s go over to Sinead next.

Sinead Rainey: I’m Sinead Rainey, Senior Workplace Experience Associate. I’m also based in Dublin, and I manage our employee events program globally, as well as our food program and our community.

Niamh Flannery: I’m Niamh Flannery. I’m the Senior Design and Construction Manager. I’ve been with Intercom for over six years and my job is to plan, design, and fit out Intercom’s workspaces. I work with over 80 people globally who are external and experts in their field. We have a really strong team behind us to help us design our workspaces. The people that we work with range from socio-spatial analysts to quantity surveyors, structural engineers, fire consultants, kitchen designers, acousticians, and everything else in between.

Designing office spaces after COVID-19

Dee: So the conversation we’re going to be having today is a really interesting one for anybody that works for Intercom, but also anyone that’s just interested in how companies are adapting their spaces and their ways of working to the world at the moment. We’ll be covering a couple of things: how to create a COVID-secure space, how to foster group and social environments post-COVID, and basically what the future of work-life will look like at Intercom and beyond. I think it’s fair to say that between your teams you’re adopting some of the best-in-class approaches to these issues, so there’s a lot that anyone could learn by hearing your expertise.

Niamh, I’d love to chat with you next, about the work that you mentioned that your team is doing – you’re adapting the Intercom offices globally for our eventual return.

“While higher occupant density is a worthwhile goal, we will never compromise our workplace to do this. We’re trying to do more with less”

Niamh: We’re working towards something called activity-based working. What that means is that people choose the space that best suits their current task. Our plan is to offer team neighborhoods with fewer workstations so that we can free up more floor space to provide easier access to more space types. And our goal is to have five different typologies available within the eyeline of each different team neighborhood or workstation. The overall workspace itself will end up hopefully having at least two more shared away desks, and a shared away desk is basically any non-workstation seats – it could be essentially a booth or a seat in a room, and these would be strategically distributed around the floor.

And then, we’re going to use new technologies for hassle-free sharing. This data will provide insight into usage trends and things like indoor environmental quality. With this data, along with the post-occupancy surveys and feedback from full-time folks on the ground, we’re going to continually fine-tune the workplace and our policies to optimize performance and support more people over time. It’s worth noting as well that while higher occupant density is a worthwhile goal, we will never compromise our workplace to do this. We’re really trying to do more with less, better.

“Our plan is to put in lots of sensors to monitor our spaces over time and then take that data to either tweak the space or inform our design for new floors”

Dee: I must say, as a podcaster, that idea that you shared there around having different spaces that are optimized for different tasks sounds really interesting to me, because obviously, in the work that I do, some could be research where you need a quiet space, and then, another time, it could be a space that’s suitable for recording. It’s lovely to hear that there’s an understanding that the type of work that people do is a little different and that you don’t always need the same type of space or the same facilities all the time. You mentioned something there around the data that you’d been using to design and to make some of these spaces.

Niamh: It is new for us and it’s something that we feel really good and really confident about because what better way to know what to design for than to have data behind you? So, our plan is to put in lots of sensors to monitor our spaces over time – when folks are in them and when people are using them – and then take that data to either tweak the space or inform our design for new floors.

Moving back to the office

Dee: Fantastic. Let’s go over to Padraig then. Padraig, how does your team fit into this? Tell us a little bit more about that data, if you don’t mind.

Padraig: The data that Niamh’s talking about, historically, we kind of collected this information on anecdotal stories where people will describe how they would use spaces, but it was very off the top of their heads, and it was kind of like assumptions and gaps in the story. It was great to get an idea, but it wasn’t 100 percent accurate.

“Are they using desks more than collaboration spaces? If we’re providing a space that’s not being used, do we need to keep providing that space?”

What we did was we looked at the marketplace and identified three things that we wanted to capture. That was occupancy, thermal comfort, and indoor air quality. All this data is going to help us support how we work – we will learn how our spaces are being used, which teams are coming in, and what spaces they’re using. Are they using desks more than they’re using collaboration spaces? It’s going to give us a really good understanding of how our spaces and space typologies are being used or not being used. If we’re providing a space that’s not being used, do we need to keep providing that space? This is the information that we’re going to get from it.

The data that we would get from it about indoor air quality is massive. In some of our locations, we can take full advantage of it, given that we’ll be the sole tenants to our new building, or we can just use this data to support our negotiations with landlords to say, “This New York indoor air conditioning isn’t working as it should. Here’s the data to back this up. We would like to ensure that it is improved.”

We can use this information to share with staff to show them what we’re trying to achieve, to encourage them to use spaces based on indoor air quality, based on the spaces available, and also based on how busy they are. We will have a live feed for people to see that this particular space is really heavily used at the moment, and if they want a quiet space, they’ll go somewhere else. It’s making people’s experience when they come to the office that much better.

“People are coming back to an office where they haven’t been in probably 18 months. They have to learn how to come back to the office”

When we actually go back to the office, we’ve got quite a lot to factor in. The first thing is our COVID safety plan, how we manage people coming back to the office. We’ve already got phases designed for people returning to the office. We do this in a very gradual process where we’d open up socially distant desks. This was designed last year when there were no vaccines available, so we’re in a very different world this time of year now, but that’s what we’d planned to proceed with. It’s about encouraging people to come back to the office. Not everyone’s going to feel comfortable coming back straight away, so it’s kind of like easing people back into the offices and then back into the space so that they feel comfortable about coming back to work. From a workplace side of things, we’ll be using all these new tools that Niamh referred to as well, about booking a hot desk when you go into the office.

This is going to require a lot of training for people to buy into it. People are coming back to an office where they haven’t been in probably 18 months, close to two years. They have to learn how to come back to the office. You see people rush, “Let’s just come back to the office.” It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be great because people will learn this new way of working. It’s kind of an etiquette that we’d advise people to follow in relation to booking desks, how to use the space because you’re going to be sharing facilities with people. Therefore, there are going to have to be considerations involved – keep it clean, keep it tidy. It’s also how we ask people to work within the space as well. So there is a lot of that to be factored in.

We need to ensure that what we’re going to ask people to use is easy for them to use because if it’s not, they won’t use it. That’s going to go against what we’re trying to achieve. Plus, we want to make the offices an engaging place for people to be, so we need to ensure that that’s what it is, and these tools will help support that.

“We need an office designed to support people both in-office and from home so they can feel that regardless of where they are, they have an equal contribution”

The other thing that we’re looking at will be our AV design. Not everybody’s going to be in the office, so we need an office designed to support people both in-office and from home so they can feel that, regardless of where they are, they have an equal contribution to meetings. It’s not even just staff – it’s also for the recruiting teams. How are they going to manage when they’re doing interviews? Because again, people don’t have to come to the office for the interviews, they can do it remotely, but it’s about that factor, that experience, and what it’s like for people on either end. We’re looking at ways to make that experience far easier and better for people to work in.

And again, the sensors we’re trying to roll out will all support the way we work. But we need people to understand how they work, why they work. We’re not tracking you as an individual. We’re just tracking a person who was in this particular space. It’s all about education and communicating this properly with people.

Dee: For sure. You hit on something I think will resonate with a lot of people. When we do think about going back to work, we’re just like, “Oh, sure, it’ll just be the same.” And you kind of imagine that you’ll stop at the same coffee shop… But all these things will have changed. I think the etiquette is going to be a big one for your team, and your heart will possibly be broken the first couple of weeks with people just randomly turning up. Hopefully, people will get their heads around that soon enough because it sounds like a great system that can work really smoothly so long as we all buy into it as a team and see it as being the best way of working for everyone together.

Recreating social events

Dee: Sinead, I’m really curious to bring you in on the conversation now because we haven’t really touched on some of the social aspects of life at Intercom. Before we all started working from home, that was a very rich part of daily and weekly life in the company. Do you want to give us a quick reminder of what your team does and how you’ve had to adapt over the last year and a bit?

Sinead: Happy to. Our team has had to adapt in a pretty big way. Specifically about how we bring people together, how we keep people engaged, and what that looks like when everyone is working remotely. One of the most successful initiatives or programs that we’ve been running is a program called Mingle. This is an events program that basically consists of four to five live virtual events every month where folks have to sign up ahead of time. We keep the numbers small, like 20 people per event, to allow for lots of interaction and engagement.

“The idea was to recreate the interactions or the people you might bump into outside of your org, your team, or even your location”

Folks have been loving them so far. The idea was to recreate the interactions with the folks you might bump into at an in-person event or the people you might bump into outside of your org, your team, or even your location that you maybe would have bumped into like that in the canteen or having a coffee at an event. That’s one of the biggest changes we’ve made and one of the most successful, I would say.

Dee: I have to say I’m a big fan of the Mingle events. They’ve been really well organized, and you’ve done so many different ones. Do you want to share some of the classes or events that people have been able to take part in?

Sinead: We’ve been really careful with the kind of hosts that we work with for these events. We’re trying to focus on local small businesses so that we’re offering Intercom events that they haven’t seen elsewhere. A good example would be that we used Dublin Barista School for V60 coffee brewing. We’re doing a cocktail-making class next week with Mixology Events who are based in London. We’re trying to choose local hosts or organizers to build that kind of connection and keep that connection to the community as well.

“Events-wise, we’re going to want to have as many hybrid experiences as we can”

Dee: Yeah, and it’s probably helpful for the providers as well because you’re sharing them with a local audience that will be able to use their services once things go back to normal a bit more. We’ve been talking about the return to work in the physical space. Obviously, you would have used the kind of public areas in Intercom in a certain way before we all had to work from home. So, how was your thinking about how those physical spaces changed as a result of the events last year?

Sinead: If anything, the last year and a bit has shown me how important our physical spaces are, especially for my area of focus, which is really around fostering the community. This is one of the biggest challenges we’ve had while everyone has been working remotely. I think that when we return, the offices will be more of that kind of the point of contact, point of connection, even more than they were before. There’s going to be lots of change to the food and events spaces. To Padraig’s point, events-wise, we’re going to want to have as many hybrid experiences as we can. Being able to dial into an event that’s happening in an office, so we have folks who are remote and folks who aren’t, and the experience is good regardless of where you are. The AV and VC setups in our physical spaces will become even more important.

A new, smart building

Dee: And something we’ve all alluded to at various points in our conversation so far – Intercom is building this fabulous new state-of-the-art building here in Dublin.

Niamh: We are delighted that we are staying pretty close to our existing office, which is currently on St. Stephen’s Green, and we’re moving about a seven-minute stroll away, down onto Earlsfort Terrace just on the junction with Adelaide road. Because we were able to get in with the landlord very early on while they were still in the design process, we were able to work with them to make tweaks and changes so that the building really works quite well for us. That was a big advantage. There’s been lots of work going on over the last almost 18 months.

What I can tell you is that it’s 113,000 square feet. It’s over six floors with two subterranean floors. We’re taking the whole building, but of course, we won’t need it all ourselves on day one. Our plan is to sublet out a few with the lower floors. But starting bottom-up, minus two, we have a car park. Then coming up to minus one, we have a great bike parking area. We have gender-neutral changing rooms and showers and toilets. We have a gym, we have a wellness area. We have a conferencing facility. On our ground floor, we’re hoping to have a public cafe. This was something we thought about early on and worked with the landlord to give something back to the community, to create a bit of a buzz in the space and provide an amenity to local folks walking by too.

“We’ll have team rooms, we’ll have a recording studio, a webinar space, we’ll have mothers’ rooms, a reflection space. All the good stuff”

Going up, we’re hoping to rent out some amount of the space, but we’ll determine that closer to the time we move in based on how much space we need. Working up from there, then you’ll have a micro kitchen on each floor. As I was mentioning earlier, we’ll have all of the various different space typologies: we’ll have team rooms, we’ll have a recording studio, a webinar space, we’ll have mothers’ rooms, a reflection space. All the good stuff.

On the top floor, we’re going to have our canteen. We will have a wraparound balcony up there. So, we’ll have beautiful views down to the Dublin mountains, a south-facing terrace, which is something we’re working on at the minute, and I think Sinead can tell us more because she’s been quite involved with that. It’s going to be a massive building, and working on that has been so positive and optimistic in today’s environment, so we’re really lucky to have this to look forward and get back to. Obviously, it’s been delayed a little bit, but it’ll definitely be worth the wait.

Dee: Yeah, it absolutely sounds it, and for anyone not familiar with Dublin, it’s really quite a prestigious location. It’s just down from the National Concert Hall, on a lovely corner that didn’t really have a building on it before where people could actually go in and have a look. And as you say, there’s going to be coffee facilities there for people walking by, which is amazing, because there’s quite a high footfall there. So, I feel like it has the potential to become a truly iconic Dublin corner.

A seamless office experience

Dee: Padraig, in terms of that new building, you’ve been really hands-on with the project too, as well as Sinead. What can you tell us about how the new facility will operate differently from what we have currently and what Intercomrades are used to in terms of day-to-day life?

Padraig: Well, it’s like comparing chalk and cheese. It’s going from a tricycle to a Mercedes, I would say. Stephen’s Court has its own characteristics, and again, everybody enjoys working there because of its location, but the building itself is 50 years old. It’s going to be a completely different experience for people coming in to the office. We want it to be a smart building. There isn’t a smart building in Ireland at the moment, so we’re aiming for it to be the first.

From an operational point of view, that means a lot of what we do is going to be automated, from the monitoring of all the plants and equipment to how air conditioning operates and the fresh air intakes coming into the floor plan. It’ll also be an extremely efficient building in the way that it operates itself from energy to rainwater harvesting to how we manage the floor space from the point of view of cleaning coming in. We’re going to design proper cleaning structures for the floors themselves. It’s going to be one of those places that it’ll be so streamlined that everything will be automated on it.

“The building will become more efficient over time as it learns how it operates. So the more data we collect on it, the more efficient it becomes”

The best way to put it, from a user point of view, is that when people come into the building, it will be frictionless and seamless from footpath to workstation. So that’s what we really wanted for people to feel when they come to the office. The access control systems we’re going to have will operate on a mobile phone app – you’ll wave your hand over a reader and a door will open.

I spoke a bit earlier on booking space, about how people can choose their own space when they come back to the office, but it’s going to be such a completely different experience from what we have in Stephen’s Court. It’s going to be the opposite end of the scale. We’ve set a really high benchmark for this and we really want to hit it. Is it going to be a problem for us given that we’re going to be hot desking? Will we have enough room for everybody? But what will happen is that the building will become more efficient over time as it learns how it operates. So the more data we collect on it, the more efficient it becomes.

It’s really exciting to be involved in it because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity to be involved in a project like this. It’s going to be great when people come back to the office. I’m probably not selling it enough because it really will be fantastic.

Dee: I’m actually quite curious. Do you think, in a sense, that you have been lucky on the timing of everything in that we were still in very much planning phases for this new building when everything happened? So it meant that your ability to adapt and pivot to the circumstances was probably a little bit more in your power.

Niamh: Obviously, COVID has been a really difficult time for everyone, but workplace-wise, it has accelerated something that was already happening, which was a move towards this hybrid way of working. Lots of people are really delighted about that because folks want flexibility. You’re dead right. Because of the timing, there have been delays, and again, we’ve been lucky with our landlord because we have the same landlord in our new building in Dublin as we have in the old one. So we’ve been able to work with them on timing and things. We’ve been in a kind of privileged position that way.

But we need to draw a line in the sand sometime, and we have had a long runway to ensure that we’re designing the right thing. Sometimes the runway can be too long and you can make a lot of tweaks and changes along the way, but I think our timing has been bang on with this. So we’re in a position now where we feel confident moving forward with the design we have.

Dee: That’s great to hear. Sinead, surely the new building has some really exciting features that the Workplace Experience team probably can’t wait to get their mitts on and will use to create the best environment for employees. What can you tell us about this?

Sinead: Oh, so many, so many exciting features, and I’m just feeling so lucky that our team is going to have this space. One of the things that Niamh mentioned is the top floor, the sixth floor, having views out to the Dublin mountains, huge terraces, and huge windows. And that’s going to be our events space and our canteen, it’s going to be where we come together. I think what I’m most excited about up there is that we’re going to have a full kitchen, which we don’t have at the moment. And it’s really going to let us really up our food game in terms of what we provide. So that’s one thing that I’m super excited about.

Also, the lower ground floor conference facilities are going to be amazing for teams internally as well for onsites and offsites and things like that. There’s a variety of outdoor spaces, which we don’t currently have, and there are terraces on the lower floors. So yeah, lots of really exciting features.

The future of work

Dee: Amazing. Lastly, folks, with all these exciting developments happening while, to put it mildly, the world goes through a period of intense and sometimes scary change. What do you think the future of work at Intercom will look like, or even, the future of work?

Niamh: I’m obviously really excited about the future of this, and I’m obviously severely biased, but I believe, for Intercom, we’ve designed our workspaces in such a way that they’ll be high energy with more varied and dynamic spaces and fewer vacant pockets of space and less empty workstations. It’s something we suffered from in some of our offices and was definitely something that we wanted to nail and get right going forward. So when folks come back to the office, they can expect high energy, lots of people around.

“We’re creating spaces that are beautiful and functional, but we’re also offering people the flexibility to work remotely as and when it suits them”

People will have better options to control their workspace as well, and we’ll offer people privacy and space to avoid distractions. So, hopefully, people will have flexible options if they want to work at home or come into the office. Something we’ve really been trying to achieve is to pay greater attention to things like sustainability and accessibility and wellbeing, such as improved air quality, and lighting and acoustics, and ergonomics. We’ve really been paying a lot of attention to those kinds of things.

Dee: Fantastic. Sinead, what’s your take on that?

Sinead: Yeah, I think I would just kind of echo and agree with everything that Niamh said. I think the future for work at Intercom is very bright. I think we’re creating spaces that are beautiful and functional, but we’re also offering people the flexibility to work remotely as and when it suits them. I think that people will have the best of both worlds and spaces that are inclusive and accessible and functional, but also the control to be there as and when they would like to be.

Dee: Brilliant. And Padraig, let’s wrap up with your thoughts.

Padraig: I think it’s going to be great going forward. What I do think is that this flexible way of working is really going to suit people. I think it’s going to be a game-changer for how people work and the work-life balance, as well. The office that we’re going to create will make people want to come to the office. They will have to control their own spaces to book whatever space they want to be in.

 

“When you’re talking about people having the option to work flexibly, it doesn’t mean there won’t be opportunities for everyone to come together”

Also, the events that Sinead runs are really going to bring people to the office. People are really going to have the best of all worlds. If anything positive has come with COVID, this is probably it. It’s probably brought it forward by a couple of years because it was definitely on the roadmap for most companies, but this has really kind of sped the process up. I do think it’s a positive change for Intercom, and it’s going to really help people grow and enjoy working at Intercom even more.

Dee: Fantastic. I love that idea of giving people the freedom to work from home, but a reason to come to the office. Sinead, did you have something more to offer?

Sinead: Yeah, just as Padraig was speaking, I was thinking about the opportunity we’re going to create for everyone to come in. Whether it’s a certain day in the month or the quarter, we’re still going to have a real focus on bringing everyone in and making those days super special and super impactful for folks.

Dee: Yeah. And when you’re talking about people having the option to work flexibly, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be opportunities for everyone to come together because it’s such an important thing to share with your colleagues, that feeling and spirit of togetherness and working on something together. But it sounds like you have designed the optimum space to do just that. So congratulations to you all, and thanks so much for joining me today.

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