Operational Excellence

Five Real Estate and Workplace Effectiveness Questions with Sara Andersen

Written By: Joe Demski
March 14, 2023
8 min read

On the heels of a complete transformation in how work gets done, leading organizations across the globe are grappling with how their office space functions and how their employees can be most productive and engaged. At the intersection of the design of physical space and workplace effectiveness initiatives you’ll find Sara Andersen, Head of Real Estate and Workplace Effectiveness at Genentech.

Andersen’s expertise in design and aptitude for solving complex problems is exemplified in her leadership of biotech company, Genentech, and their diverse set of real estate and workplace needs. Andersen’s experience guiding the organization through safe operations in the midst of pandemic response and return to work procedures or hybrid teams can be lesson to any company examining how they can create or reengineer safer and more productive physical spaces within their real estate footprint.

Here are 5 questions from a recent podcast appearance that any business leader can take to optimize their real estate space for employee experience and workplace effectiveness.


Q: When you’re approaching making workplace effectiveness improvements organizationally, what does it take to make sure everyone’s needs are being fulfilled?

I'm not gonna say negotiation. I would say, really good human skills. You know, are we aligned? What are you really trying to achieve? When you talk about what we're trying to achieve as a business? It allows us to objectify the process. It’s less about, ‘well, I want to be on the top floor because of us are better.’ What are we trying to achieve as a business?

I love what our company does. I've got the luxury of working for a company that saves lives. And it's actually really wonderful because it's very easy to reconnect people to the mission.

For example, years ago, I received a ping from an administrative assistant. She said, “My VP needs a sit-stand in her inner office, and it was rejected by your team.” I was like, Oh, that's interesting. Okay. Do you mind if I speak with the VP? Turns out the VP had just joined us from an edtech company where they didn't have assigned offices. She didn't love being in an office. And I said, Okay, and the reason we said no was because your admin was looking at a very customized situation.

We try not to customize, because we spend three to $5 million a year customizing offices, and then when you move to another role, we’ll spend another three to $5 million that year to put it back to standard. $5 million funds 1 to 2 clinical trials. How do we want to spend that money? And she's like, I am so with you. So not only am I like, we can go the standard, but also, frankly, can you come speak to my entire staff? And just give them that stat? I was like, yeah, no problem. So I recognize that, that's the gift that we have are so mission driven, that we can connect people to the mission and make sure we're spending funds wisely.

Q: When you consider what “success” means for your real estate footprint and workplace efficiency, what measure would you say sits in the middle and means both things are operating well?

One thing I want to clarify, we think about workplace effectiveness, not efficient. It's important because in all of our conversations about why we want people to come together on campus, the utilization of our real estate has never been a focus at all. Not that we want to be irresponsible with it or anything like that. But our head of R&D said something impactful, I felt. A lot of us at home felt like we were being really productive, and we talk about that a lot as an industry—how productive we've all been at home. So, are we when we are working from home? Are we productive because we have a list of things that we want to accomplish, and we get everything done on that list? Is that productive or just efficient? And efficiency has no place in innovation.

You're probably familiar with the theory of weak ties and strong ties. During work from home period, we're working with a lot of the same people, those are strong ties. Our strong ties got stronger. The majority of our weak ties withered. Innovation comes from our weak ties and diversity of thoughts.

So, in talks about our real estate and our workplace, how do we make sure that there's buzz? How do we make sure that we're getting enough mass? What's it like to have a presence that you got some buzzy feel? You want people to feel like, frankly. It was a positive experience coming to campus today. We want people to have experiences when they come to campus that they can't have at home- On lunch with colleagues, seeing people, a spark a new idea.

Q: What did you find to be effective in making the workplace more productive and incentivizing bringing people back into the office through the pandemic?

When we had to go into shelter in place, our manufacturing teams never left. So, all of a sudden, we need to be sure we're supporting them with safe work environments, social distancing, and masking while you're on the manufacturing floor. Not all tasks allow for that. So really have a great deal of respect for business continuity teams. They kept everything going we can make in the drugs. But then we also had the pressure of getting our scientists back and back safely. I would say that for the majority of the end of 2020 and all of 2021, we were really very focused on the changing environmental conditions and keeping those who needed to be on campus safe.

We also recognized early days, I want to say it was April of 2020, that not everybody can work from home successfully. You may have a lot of roommates. You may have multiple kids. Whatever it is. So, we had a lease facility, about 10 minutes away from campus that already had shared work environments, and we opened that up as a drop in for those who needed it. That was really helpful for a lot of people, and we were able to sort of keep those who didn't have to be on campus away from those who had to be on campus, because it was really all about safety.

Then in May of 2021, we opened up a voluntary return to campus and our executive committee was the first group to come, and we did one building that was shared. We did it for two reasons. One, it was a large facility that was all shared. And two, we wanted everybody who's returning voluntarily to be in the same place to create a buzz. Then, we had our return to campus in March of ‘22.

Q: What changes came out of the rapid change to your workspace?

We started talking with the executive committee. What does the future of working really look like? This conversation started April 2020. So, we spent all of ‘21 developing future of working agreements with every functional group—the where, when and how you do your work.

What are all the different work options available to you? Is your role a full-time campus role? Is your role a role that can be ad-hoc remote a couple days a week? Is your role something that's eligible to be episodic remote for up to four weeks at a time with agreement? Can you job share?

We were trying to be really explicit, because we've always had agreements around how you operate in the shared work environment, how you want to operate as a team, but really making it much more explicit about the where, when, and how and what roles are eligible for what. But we did all that while a lot of us were home. So in March ‘22, we started coming back, and we're like, ‘Huh, no more people are here.’ Even though we called it ad-hoc remote, meaning campus-first, people started treating it as ad hoc campus. So, why should I go to campus versus campuses the default.

There were growing pains. We're getting better revisiting our agreements. We agree that we want you on campus the majority of your time. You, as a business unit, can determine whether majority is per month or is per week. And then some groups have a very good practice of anchor days, so you are making sure that you're seeing the people you want to see.

Q: What do you think is something that most organizations get wrong about making the workplace more effective?

I think the connection to the business and the co-creation with a business. Manufacturing furniture for offices is a very large industry, and they’ll say, “If you want your people to come back, you need to have this!” Whatever this is. But you need to go meet with a business unit.

For the full conversation and more insight from Sara, check out the podcast!

Joe Demski
Written By: Joe Demski

Joe Demski is an Associate Content Marketing Manager at Quickbase.