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Competing for Talent: The work environment becomes a differentiator for recruiting, engaging and retaining talent

Competing for Talent: The work environment becomes a differentiator for recruiting, engaging and retaining talent Banner Image

Demand driven growth and historically low unemployment are intensifying the competition for talent. As the leverage shifts from employers to employees, organizations are finding that people are looking for work environments that promote flexibility, creativity and collaboration. The Milwaukee Business Journal recently sat down at a live event at Forrer Business Interiors with experts to talk about the challenges employers face in attracting and retaining talent, and how culture and office design helps them to achieve that.  

JONATHAN KOWALSKI (Moderator): What is one of the biggest issues you or your clients are facing as an organization? 

HEATHER TURNER LOTHTransfer of knowledge is a critical issue. We are working with a Fortune 500 firm where 50 percent of the workforce is retirement-eligible in the next three to five years. They need to determine how best to transfer knowledge across generations, as well as across business units and office locations. To navigate this knowledge-loss crisis, how to spur employee collaboration is at the forefront of many of our client’s minds today.

ELIZABETH LEWIS: There has been a significant shift in the workforce over the last several years, from a very senior to a much more generationally diverse population. That shift has caused the expected issues, like how to harvest and transfer tribal knowledge, but there is also a tangible difference in the ways people from different generations work and how they work together. It’s absolutely true that Gen Y and Gen Z work differently, think differently and use technology differently. We are focused on using the physical workplace as a catalyst to spark collaboration between generations, and create a culture that promotes connection, learning, engagement and support.

RICHARD BENOIT: Recruitment has become a huge issue for my clients and the workspace is becoming a much bigger deal in enticing someone to come to work for them. Five years ago, organizations would never have thought that a workspace would have anything to do with recruitment. Now they are starting to acknowledge that people may drive up to their building and then drive off without ever coming in. I have had a number of clients in that situation.

KOWALSKI: In addition to already very low unemployment here in Wisconsin, we are also contending with the impact of large companies entering our economy, like Foxconn and Haribo. What are some strategies for dealing with the war for talent in this environment?

BECKY FRANKIEWICZ: I grew up in a time when a company’s mission was never really thought of or was something only really known by a small group of people in the company’s leadership. Today, people buy “why you do what you do” more than “what you do.” Your mission has to be clear to candidates.

LEWIS: You have to have an employer story that is your “why.” But it also has to be real. You can’t post a neat video on social media reflecting a culture that’s not genuine. People will discover that when they walk in the door and the space doesn’t match what they saw, or the people they talk to don’t seem to align with the video. Your story has to be real and it has to be compelling.

TURNER LOTH: This is really true with Generation Z (1995-2010). Research is showing that they are more skeptical than Millennials, so authenticity is very important from the external vantage point of your website to the inside of your company’s four walls.    

KOWALSKI: What do you see as the important trends that are occurring in the workplace today in terms of evolving technology and how people are working?

BENOIT: Technology is driving change in autonomy and behavior. We used to have to sit at a computer because all of the content, all of the knowledge, was on it. Now it is in the cloud, and we have mobile devices that let us access the content from anywhere we want. Because of this increased flexibility, people expect to be able to work anywhere they want. And, giving people the flexibility they want to get the work done and trusting them to get that work done is a big shift for a lot of organizations.

TURNER LOTH: Change management is becoming an important retention tool within organizations. There is such a great deal of change happening from talent to technology to the way we are working, it is important for organizations to keep employees informed and on the same page during any change within the organization.

FRANKIEWICZ: I think the biggest change technology is driving is the decentralization of collaboration. Technology allows us to be in many different places and still collaborate. I can be anywhere in the world and still participate in weekly team meetings and continue to make an impact.

LEWIS: In the next five to 10 years we are going to see that technology and space will be inextricable from one another. Technology will be embedded within a space, instead of in or on it, and the space will be able to sense our presence and adapt to our needs. Steelcase and Microsoft have partnered to take this concept even further, designing furniture and workspaces with technology built-in to allow people to solve problems and work together better than ever before.  

TURNER LOTH: I just came back from the CoreNet Global conference where a great deal of the discussion was on smart building technologies. There was a lot of discussion about how buildings can work harder and smarter for us while improving the overall employee experience within the work environment. It’s fascinating where smart technology is heading for commercial real estate. Take simple things like facial-recognition security, which can replace the need for a security badge.

KOWALSKI: The physical environment can have an impact on people wanting to come to work and on being engaged when they are at work. What factors in the built environment impact talent attraction, development and engagement?

BENOIT: The demand for non-traditional furniture is the fastest-growing part of our business. Organizations are recognizing that real knowledge-work is a social activity. People come to the office because of who is there, not to check their email. If they need to just work on a computer or process information, they can do that anywhere. What drives value in the office is people working with other people, so we are starting to see a shift to an environment that promotes networking. You seek to increase socialization, but you still have to balance that with areas where people can work by themselves. We are also defining spaces by features and amenities that people can share, instead of areas that people own.

TURNER LOTH: I commonly reference the 2017 Gallup survey noting that only 33 percent of US employees are engaged in their work. At EUA, we know that by focusing on key elements in the built environment that contribute to an engaged workplace, we can move that needle and increase opportunities for elevated business performance. We define an engaged workplace as the alignment of a business’s desired culture and future objectives with their people, place and technology. By taking this approach, elevated business performance can be achieved. For instance, one company we are engaged with went from a 96% to a 99% in claims satisfaction after their workplace improvements where completed. The industry standard is only 86%. They attributed this directly to the new collaboration spaces that were designed specifically to their desired culture of work that allowed them to scale ideas and best practices more rapidly among their employees.  

KOWALSKI: There has been a shift to more creative work. Are you seeing highly skilled talent wanting different environments in order to do the kind of creative work employers are seeking?

FRANKIEWICZ: What we are seeing is that people want places to learn together and opportunities to think together.

LEWIS: We have a client, a large, well-known Wisconsin manufacturer, whose goal is to disrupt the marketplace. They wanted to create spaces that would promote “radical” collaboration. They recognize that innovation drives growth, and that you can’t say to someone, “I want you to think differently, I want you to behave differently – now go back to your desk.” They did a great job creating a range of collaboration spaces that support creativity, with both analog and digital tools that are available to everyone. There are also places to work alone, which is very important. You need to have focus places with doors you can close. They did amazing job creating an environment that fosters a culture of trust, collaboration and innovation that will accelerate their speed to market.

KOWALSKI: How do you get this buy-in on collaboration, especially with a traditional workforce where people have the attitude that their experience and longevity earned them a door on their office, and who don’t want to be sitting at a round table out in the open?

BENOIT: This is where change management comes in. When organizations promote why they are making changes, people have an easier time buying into what is going on. Too many companies go about changing things without explaining the change to employees. Cultures shift because behaviors shift. But behaviors don’t shift if you don’t nudge them, encourage them or train them, and that comes from leadership.

TURNER LOTH: I think it is important to have a strong champion to foster change in the work environment; someone who will own the process. Earlier, I mentioned the company with 50 percent of its population becoming retirement eligible. Their champion brought future leadership to the table early on in their workplace strategy process, which gained consensus and provided additional champions for future changes within the workplace we were about to embark on. 

FRANKIEWICZ: A critical part of being a human is being valued. It’s natural that people may start questioning their value as skills change around them. One of the things we see companies doing is reverse mentoring – where you have the younger generation mentor the older generation. Putting some of the onus on the younger employees helps to promote collaboration.

KOWALSKI: What do you see as the biggest challenges – and opportunities – that exist for Wisconsin companies that are growing and building their workforce today?

FRANKIEWICZ: The biggest challenge is finding the people you need. You don’t have to look outside Wisconsin. We have pockets of population within our own state. As jobs grow around city centers, we need to either get people to relocate or equip them with technology so they can work where they live. That is a huge opportunity that no one is really talking about.

TURNER LOTH: I think authenticity and customization are great opportunities. A company really has to focus on the employee experiences, to set itself apart, and be the most competitive around talent attraction, engagement and retention.

LEWIS: I think the biggest challenge and opportunity is change management. The one constant we have been talking about is change – whether it is changing technology or the change in generations. You need an intentional strategy to manage that change. 

AUDIENCE QUESTION: You mentioned creativity and I think artificial intelligence is going to push everyone to be more creative. It seems like modern office design is all about collaboration and working remotely, but what about the ability to do “deep work?” What do you see in terms of workplace design and furniture options that are the equivalent of a closed door? Not for hierarchy reasons, but for functional reasons: I need to think deeply right now and I do not want people stopping by my desk.

BENOIT: We would not challenge the need for the door. We would challenge the need to own the door. You hear lots of horror stories about the open office. That’s because the real estate people heard collaboration drives innovation, so they just put everyone in one space without realizing that it is not how people work. You have to have a balance between where people can concentrate without being interrupted and spaces where they can work together collaboratively. 

TURNER LOTH: I would say the danger of following trends is the one-size-fits-all mentality does not take into account cultural differences from one organization to the next. Your built environment should reflect your culture and support the way in which you want work in your organization Just because one company has a certain office environment does not mean another company should replicate it.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: You talked about the potential candidates who drive by a potential employer but never go in because they don’t like what they see from the outside. It got me to thinking about companies that don’t even have receptionists. What are you seeing in terms of what companies are thinking they have to do to use their work environment to market their businesses?

FRANKIEWICZ: There are simple things you can do, like have someone meet potential talent when they walk in the door. The landscape has changed. The field of play now favors the employees more than the employers.

LEWIS: Another thing you can do is walk into your office and look at things from the perspective of a potential employee. Does it reflect your brand and culture? Is it inviting and engaging? Are people friendly? It should feel like a place where people want to be.

BENOIT: You have to remember that the people coming into your office know much more about you than they ever did before because of the Internet and Glassdoor.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: There are Baby Boomers who are willing to work but cannot find work because they are 50-plus. They have extensive experience and are specialized like engineers and CFOs. What can they do?

FRANKIEWICZ: Employers need to look for pockets of opportunity. Our Baby Boomer population wants to work, yet can still face unconscious bias in the screening process. I will tell you that there is such a demand for talent that the companies you want to work for are the companies that look at your skillset and capabilities and not your age.

Companies Grappling with Rapid Change Caused by Technology and Increasing Demand for Hard and Soft Skills

The American workforce is in the throes of dramatic change that will transform both employers and employees, according to Becky Frankiewicz, president of ManpowerGroup North America, who recently spoke at a forum on the changing work environment sponsored by Forrer Business Interiors.

“Digitization will impact every industry in the U.S. creating new jobs that require different skills,” she says. “That will have a significant impact on how we work, where we work and the way we work.”

Disruptive technology, low unemployment and an exploding demand for workers will force employees to be agile and embrace learnability - the desire and ability to quickly grow and adapt one’s skill set. Employers will have to create work environments that are flexible and engaging. And they will have to find ways to adapt the skills necessary for existing jobs to the new skills required for emerging jobs.

“The workforce is changing at the pace of technology,” Frankiewicz says. This requires that American employers shift from being consumers of labor to creators of talent. 

Demographics are also changing. By the year 2022, almost a third of people ages 64 to 75 will be working, which is up from 18 percent today. “People are working longer and retiring later,” Frankiewicz says. It is not just Baby Boomers. Half of Millennials say they plan to work past age 65, and 30 percent will work past the age of 70, according to ManpowerGroup research.

Frankiewicz also noted that:

  • Job security is being replaced by career security; Millennials believe in lifelong learning, because they want to future-proof their skills and capabilities
  • Employers are seeing increased value in soft skills. Sixty-one percent of employers say employees with communication skills are both the most needed and the most difficult to find; management and leadership skills are now considered less important.
  • Successful employers will invest in learning and development for their current employees, go to the market to attract talent that cannot be built in house, create a culture that provides flexibility and work-life balance, and find ways to adapt skills for their changing business models

“As the birth rates continue to slow in our country, there will be fewer people coming through the pipeline, so companies will need to reskill the talent they have,” Frankiewicz says. “Companies will need to assess the skills they will need and then retrain people with similar skills that can be adapted.”


Richard Benoit is a Consultant with over 30 years of experience working at Steelcase, the global leader in office furniture, interior architecture and space solutions for offices, hospitals and classrooms. Rich uses his expertise leveraging research and insights conducted by Steelcase to help clients create a highly effective workplace that aligns with their culture and business strategies. Currently based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Rich applies the elements of design thinking in his engagements to inform the creation of a responsive and purposeful workplace.

Becky Frankiewicz joined ManpowerGroup in July 2017 as the President of ManpowerGroup North America, bringing passion and compassion coupled with strong P&L experience from experience at large and complex global businesses. Becky is committed to building a rightly-skilled talent supply to meet the increasing job demand across America. It’s her firm belief that helping people find meaningful and sustainable work benefits individuals, families and communities.

Forrer Business Interiors
Elizabeth Lewis is VP of Marketing and Business Development at Forrer Business Interiors. Her ambition is to create great employee experiences for Forrer employees and customers, by focusing on how culture, technology and the physical environment together help organizations attract and engage talent, grow and innovate. Elizabeth is also certified by ProSci as a Change Management Practitioner and is passionate about helping clients manage “the people side of change” to achieve better outcomes and improve business results.

Eppstein Uhen Architects
Heather Turner Loth has over 20 years of experience across the A/E/C industry in construction management, project management and business development.  At Eppstein Uhen Architects, she leads Workplace Strategy for the firm. Heather’s true passion is her ability to understand her client’s vision and translate that vision into a strategy that aligns their business goals with their people, place and technology, thereby resulting in an elevated business performance. 


Jonathan Kowalski, JD is the senior director of development at MSOE and is responsible for the development and implementation of university-wide fundraising activities. He joined the MSOE staff in 2008 and has been instrumental in securing several large donations for the university and scholarships to support students. Having served as the interim Vice President of Development from 2015-2017, Kowalski works very closely with internal and external constituents to secure philanthropic support for the development of campus wide priorities.

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