Systems thinking and the future of architecture with Evelyn Lee

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Architecture has always struck me as a multidisciplinary field. It draws knowledge from all areas of STEMM into creating the spaces in which we live and work. But that's not always how this profession is perceived and this reflects in the way the industry has and needs to evolve.

Evelyn Lee is Head of Workplace Strategy and Innovation at Slack Technologies, and Founder of Practice of Architecture. Join us as we speak about the Evelyn's journey through architecture and tech, the future of architecture, and systems thinking in physical and organisational environments.

About Evelyn Lee

Evelyn Lee, FAIA, is the first-ever Global Head of Workplace Strategy and Innovation at Slack Technologies, Founder of the Practice of Architecture, and Co-Host of the Podcast, Practice Disrupted. Lee integrates her business and architecture background with a qualitative and quantitative focus to build better experiences for the organisation's employees, clients, and guests.She is widely published, wrote a monthly column for Contract magazine for over three years, and is now a frequent contributor to Architect Magazine. Evelyn has received numerous industry awards, including 2016 40 Under 40 award for Building Design + Construction and the 2014 AIA National Young Architects Award. She recently served as the first-ever female Treasurer to the AIA National Board in 2020-2021.

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  • [00:01:07] What drew Evelyn to architecture?
  • [00:03:44] How Evelyn envisaged a career in architecture.
  • [00:06:22] What does the average career in architecture look like?
  • [00:09:39] Attrition in the architecture industry.
  • [00:12:05] The need for business education as part of architecture programs.
  • [00:15:35] The culture of the industry. Having to earn your way before you are welcome.
  • [00:17:21] The sense of prestige of the profession vs the tangible value that architects offer.
  • [00:19:05] What can we change that will provide more value to the industry?
  • [00:21:46] The innovations in the architecture space.
  • [00:23:55] Evolving the role of firms and the client experience.
  • [00:26:07] Evelyn's architecture journey and the desire to stay involved with the architecture industry.
  • [00:28:23] The Practice of Architecture.
  • [00:31:59] Evelyn's journey to tech.
  • [00:33:46] Applied workplace strategy and operation processes.
  • [00:36:51] A change in space requires cultural change management as well.
  • [00:38:09] Architects are systems thinkers.
  • [00:40:07] Evelyn's future in architecture and systems thinking.
  • [00:43:50] What advice would you give someone who'd like to do what you do, and what advice should they ignore?
Michele Ong

Architecture has always struck me as a multidisciplinary field. It draws knowledge from all areas of STEM into creating the places in which we live and work. But that's not always how this profession is perceived, and this reflects in the way that the industry has and needs to evolve. Evelyn Lee is Head of Workplace Strategy and Innovation at Slack Technologies and Founder of Practice of Architecture.

Join us as we speak about Evelyn's journey through architecture and tech, the future of architecture, and systems thinking in physical and organisational environments. I'm Michele Ong, and this is STEAM Powered.

Good evening Evelyn. Thank you so much for joining me today on STEAM Powered. I'm really looking forward to speaking with you about your journey.

Evelyn Lee

Yeah. I am happy to be here, Michele, so thank you for having me on.

Michele Ong

Amazing. So, you're currently head of Workplace Strategy and Innovation at Slack, but your background is in architecture, which is fascinating to me. So, starting at the beginning, what drew you to architecture?

What drew Evelyn to architecture?

Evelyn Lee

Funny. I feel like architecture is one of those professions, right? Wherever you go into like a cocktail party or something, you know, if anyone watches Seinfeld, it's the George Costanza, you know, I was going to be an architect when I grew up, but then I was bad at math is usually I think, how that conversation tends to land, which is funny because there's actually very little math and most of it is computed by the computer these days. We're not structural engineers, we're architects.

Uh, so, uh, no, I was-- it was strange. So it, there's a few of us out there that just knew we wanted to be architects at a very young age. I fall in that category. I remember in elementary school, my fourth grade teacher asked everyone to kind of draw their dream homes. And everybody was generally working in elevation, I would say, right? Drawing the front of the house. And I immediately started and planned. So, just began drawing this expansive floor plan of what I want my dream home to be.

And I was kind of hooked after that, you know, not ever having met an architect. And then I grew up in New Mexico, which has a really unique kind of architectural vernacular to it, has a lot of adobe and flat roofs, so I was always kind of curious as to why buildings in New Mexico or the way they were versus just anywhere else that we traveled to.

Even outside of New Mexico, and the history there. So it was, it was always kind of interested in the formation of buildings and how it creates the historical relevance, and also just the, the general connection to buildings back to the community.

Michele Ong

That's very cool and it's fascinating that you did mention about the specific architectural style in New Mexico because it is one of those things that when you grow up, there's this, I don't know if it's a trope or a joke that when you ask kids to draw houses, it's like a square with four pane windows and triangular roof with a chimney and smoke coming out the stack.

And that's a very specific style of home that doesn't really exist in like a heap of places, but in enough places that we get exposed to as kids.

Evelyn Lee

In, in cartoons. They exist everywhere, so, yeah. And, and Peppa Pig. I feel like, yeah. Mm-hmm.

Michele Ong

Definitely Peppa Pig. They definitely do that.

Evelyn Lee

Who's dad? Dad. Like the father was either like an architect or a contractor. I think, oddly.

Michele Ong

Uh, I think he was an, I wanna say engineer because he was inspecting concrete in one

episode.

Evelyn Lee

Okay. Architects sometimes do that, so-

Michele Ong

Okay. Maybe he was an architect.

Evelyn Lee

I don't know. I don't remember.

How Evelyn envisaged a career in architecture.

Michele Ong

Gonna have to look this up now. Yeah. So when you decided to do architecture, what did you think was gonna come out of that for you as a career and what did that look like?

Evelyn Lee

That's the funny thing because I think a lot of people don't actually know what architects do, and for the most part, I didn't actually really know. I think a lot of architects start on their journey thinking they're going to be designing these buildings. But it's really a team effort in the end, like sure there are are a lot of sole practitioners out there that do residential, but outside of the residential realm, you're really working on a team and in some firms they have two or three people that are doing the design and everyone else is just trying to execute against the design, and putting together the technical drawings to get it done.

So I, I feel like everyone enters architecture school thinking they're gonna come out and be a designer. I learned very quickly that I do not design as well as a lot of my classmates. So that changed. That changed. And I, I think even at that point I was like where is my role within architecture, frankly?

But it, it is interesting. You learn a lot when you get into school because, for instance, in the United States, it's easier to get licensed if you go to an accredited program. And there's only, not every school with drafting per se, is an accredited architecture program.

So you have to identify what schools are accredited and what aren't. And then after that it's this three legged school of education, experience, and examination. So you have to have experience in, it's an AXP, it used to be intern development program, I think it's Associate Experience Program. They changed the acronym because they didn't want to call graduates interns. But you have to get so many seat hours are so many hours doing very specific things. So, so many hours on the job site, so many hours doing construction documents, so many hours doing project management. And that on average, I think takes still five to seven years to gather. And then there's a handful of tests you have to pass. And then in California there's an extra test you have to pass that's based on California environmental codes and seismic. And it's just an another layer of testing.

So I had no idea what I was walking into, frankly, and it turned out to be a very long road in the end to actually become a licensed architect.

What does the average career in architecture look like?

Michele Ong

Amazing. So you weren't working on designing and building houses, so what does an average career in architecture end up looking like when you are ending up working in teams? And I mean the internship, sorry, the non internship programs, sound like they give you a really broad base of all the kinds of things you need to understand about the space.

Evelyn Lee

Yeah, it's interesting, it's really dependent upon the firm. I feel that you go into what type of experience you're gonna get the first two years outta school. So, you know, Michele, you and I, in preparing for this kind of talk about the attrition that's happening in the field, but there's this ongoing joke that the first two years out of school you're stuck doing bathroom details.

There's reasons why those type of jokes develop. But I would say historically, especially if you, and the larger firms are getting much better about this, but historically, when you graduate from school, depending on the school you graduate from, you either have learned to put together a technical set of construction documents or you've actually learned a lot more about design.

So depending on where you graduate, really your first couple years in a firm is kind of honing in creating a technical set of drawings and like all the different type of drawings you need to create a building and learning a lot about building assemblies. So, you know, you have to kind of draw a section through the wall and you have to be able to call out all of the materials that are encompassed, like if you were to slice a wall in half and say, you know, there's two by fours, there's gyp, if you have any exterior finishes, what is it? Is it brick veneer? Is it brick? Do you need an air gap? All of these type of things that drove me a little bit nutty.

And I was actually not interested in these type of types, technical drawings, as you can probably tell by my lack of remembering what's in a wall section. But that's what a lot of your entry into the profession looks like. So, so I think that, you know, all of these people, especially the ones that were amazing designers, are kind of immediately confronted with like doing quote unquote bathroom details or doing purely like more technical work in the field.

I think that that's a big change, sometimes an ego check as well when you kind of enter the profession.

Michele Ong

Hmm. That's quite interesting too, because you know what you've described, it's one of those things where you have to understand what's underneath to be able to correctly and safely do what's on top. But if you've sort of got this idea in your head of what the profession looks like, doing this kind of guts work is definitely a wake up call for how you've glorified it in your head. And some of the work is necessary, like, you do have to understand what's going on under the hood to be able to, you know, get good at your job. but at the same time it sounds like it can get extremely tedious.

Evelyn Lee

Yeah, I mean, there are people that love waterproofing details. I am not one of those people. But waterproofing is essential to kind of the longevity of the building, so.

Michele Ong

Kind of needed a little bit.

Evelyn Lee

Yes.

Attrition in the architecture industry.

Michele Ong

So, you also mentioned that there is attrition in this industry, so what's causing that kind of attrition that's worth mentioning and worth concern?

Evelyn Lee

Um, oh my goodness. So many different things. I think there is this really hard transition and I, I am of the component that we should teach design in schools. I feel like design and design thinking and systems thinking and what you learn in schools is where you begin to hone a lot of those skills that are transferable to other careers and different opportunities after you graduate from architecture school.

But there is this kind of hard, I don't know if I would call it a reset, but you know, just as we discussed, like the reality of what happens in a firm is very different than the academic setting. So there is a bit of a wake up there. I think there is also, generally the architecture business model hasn't changed in years and a lot of it is fee for service or some type of hourly rate.

And every time a recession happens, architects are willing to cut their fees to kind of make ends meet and to get a project. So it's a little bit of this artist's syndrome where they're willing to kind of sacrifice their own time for the good of the project.

And what that ultimately is, is a trickle down effect, right? So, if you look at architecture, the wages for people entering the profession, especially given the amount of time they spend at - in school, it's is relatively, the ratio is really low. Especially for what's considered a professional degree.

So because we tend to undervalue or, and have undercut our services and have not been able to figure out a way to fully communicate our value and actually have them properly valued, we're in this horrible cycle where clients pay us less, we pay our people less, yet we still need them to do all the work that they needed to do.

In particular, there's a movement right now that's becoming very loud in the UK that during the pandemic there was a lot of people that were working overtime and they weren't getting paid for their overtime, they aren't even getting paid a livable wage after graduation.

The need for business education as part of architecture programs.

Evelyn Lee

So I, I think at the heart of it, like that is the attrition, but it also just has to do with the lack of business and entrepreneurship education going into the profession and there's so much education and learning and professional development around the project work. So, I mean, there are so many waterproofing CEUs, I don't wanna keep making fun of waterproofing, but there's so many like continuing education credits out there around projects and building sustainable buildings, sustainable materials, new materials that are coming together.

There is a very little education or incentive within your firm to go out and seek out anything business related. So business development, marketing, and in that accredited program, I think there's only like one hour of seminar courses called professional practice. And in that handbook, I remember my professional practice class you like had to make a logo for your firm and you had to learn how to read a contract, but you didn't really fully learn anything about running a business.

So you have these people that are running a business that are kind of with the starving artist syndrome. Overall, it's put a lot of downward pressure on the profession, especially as technology is evolving. VC is investing more in the AEC industries, so AEC being architecture, engineering, and construction industry because they see a huge opportunity to change that industry. And architects aren't evolving to meet those challenges.

Michele Ong

Yeah, there is an awful lot to unpack there.

Evelyn Lee

Yeah, a lot.

Michele Ong

Yeah. 'cause I mean, on one hand, you know, my first thought is the fact that you're coming out as graduates with this idea that you kinda get broken of fairly quickly, suggests that maybe the problem needs to be brought back through from the education level because you need to start incorporating business management and all of that kind of thing early on.

And, talking more about waterproofing and getting the students to understand this is the kind of work that you need to do. Get the material side of it a bit earlier on, not just, you know, the nice stuff that we all wanna do. And yeah, just making that a little bit more holistic in terms of what an architecture education actually involves for people who will be going out into the workplace and not just working for other people to look after that side of things.

And, you know, it's fascinating because it, it's such an old profession and it's, I don't know, when I first think of architecture, there is this sense of, like you, you elevate these kinds of professions because like, oh, you're an architect. You know, you must do some amazing things.

You must build all these skyscrapers. You must do all these things. And they're kind of grand and fantastic and cool. And it's almost as though the way that they carry that forward is they're kind of riding that wave of the reputation rather than the actual work. So, you can kind of see why there might not be so much innovation in the business end of things because they're just expecting that people go, well, buildings need to be designed anyway, so we're kind of never gonna be out of a job.

The culture of the industry. Having to earn your way before you are welcome.

Evelyn Lee

Yeah, I think there's, I mean, yes. Yes to so many things that you just said. So there's definitely schools that I would say prepare you better for the real world. And this is a constant struggle between academics and practitioners. This is not a new conversation there. But I would say, again, for me personally anyways, learning the design side was really, it was more about learning a specific way of thinking.

I think there is, there is still a disconnect between that and the realities of kind of where you're inserted into the firm. I also think that we could make it easier on people entering the profession if there's, there's kind of a, it's not so much gatekeeping, but it's, it's--

I feel like my experience in tech anyway is like, you know, you graduated, you are smart, you have a degree. Welcome to tech. We want your ideas. You see some things from a new perspective. I feel like architecture is very much a, you have to do X, Y, and Z to earn credentials and the mindset is you have to walk before you can run.

So, so it's an, there's an intentional level of gatekeeping that happens in a way, you know, when I ever I went into an architecture firm, it's like, I had to actively be that voice that is constantly asking, can I go to the site visit? Can I go be a part of the project management meetings? I had to kind of invite myself along to those things. And usually it was I have to earn my way to talk to a client, right? So there's, there's definitely the struggle between education and the profession.

The sense of prestige of the profession vs the tangible value that architects offer.

Evelyn Lee

And then I do think the interesting thing that comes with prestige is also a lack of understanding of where architects can deliver, and the fact that they think we are so expensive that they just actually don't want to use architects, too.

I worked for a nonprofit organisation that has since gone away. It was called Public Architecture, and I ran a program where we asked architecture firms to give 1% of their billable hours towards pro bono, towards the public good. But we found that we had a lot of architects volunteering at the time, it was right before the great recession, they had a lot of work, but they were having a huge difficulty finding pro bono clients because the clients were like, we don't need a new building, we don't need to do design, and I'm here trying to talk to them and tell them about, well, if you just rearrange your space, you might be able to run things a little bit more efficiently or do a little bit more in the space that you already have, and architects can help with that.

Or if you spruce up your space a little bit, your potential donors might take you a little bit more seriously, you know, and be willing to put up more funds. So things like, even little things like that, they didn't understand that architects could contribute to that, that vision. And you don't have a ground up building or like a whole new building that needs to be designed.

Michele Ong

The idea of the perception from both ends is fascinating because yeah, people have no idea what it is that architects can do, and architects aren't seemingly able to communicate that very well.

Evelyn Lee

Yes.

What can we change that will provide more value to the industry?

Michele Ong

Fascinating problem. So, all these issues floating around and it sounds like there are a lot of people who trying to make some headway in getting the education side and the industry side and the public communication side going. But what's missing? What are the missing pieces here that would help create a better understanding of what architecture can do for us?

Evelyn Lee

I think the industry has the most to gain from learning like basic business skills, right? That'll enable them to kind of help architects talk about themselves. So I volunteer a lot with the AIA, which is the American Institute of Architects. And the AIA can pay a lot of money to run ads where we think potential clients will, you know, hear them most, but really, at the end of the day, they need to go out and find an architecture firm.

So I feel like we need to help those firm owners be better at delivering their business and teaching them how to be successful. I also think that architects need to think about different business models to kind of support what they're doing. There's so much new technology, automation, AI that is coming on board that can help architects take care of the mundane things.

One thing that architects are notorious for doing is kind of making every project brand new from the ground up. Even if the wall section is similar on another project. Sometimes they just wanna redesign the wall section just for the sake of redesigning the wall section. It doesn't have to be done though. We like, we don't need to spend time on that and our greatest value is not, is not spent every day.

So, how do we take all of this new technology to shorten the construction document process, which is actually where we spend a lot of our time, and put more of that value into the design, which is where our value I think really comes into play.

And figure out a business model that supports that in a meaningful way. I think that is ultimately what we need to figure out for the profession moving forward.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. But yeah that kind of shakeup would definitely change perceptions of the way that people value the work that you do. And you don't want to devalue work, but you also don't want people to think that it's outside the scope of their budgets and out of their reach.

Evelyn Lee

Right.

The innovations in the architecture space.

Michele Ong

So you mentioned that VCs are starting to look into innovations here in this space.

What sort of things have you seen that look like they might have legs, basically?

Evelyn Lee

So there's so many different things. There's this one company called, TestFit, which their primary client is actually not architects, they're developers, but I'm gonna butcher what they do now, but they essentially have this algorithm where they make it really easy.

They started off with storage buildings and parking lots. If you can imagine like an architect way back in the day before CAD, trying to like, draw every single parking space. And then even in CAD, having to copy paste the dimensions of a parking space out. So they, they have an algorithm built up that you can essentially, you just draw a window, you can drag corners of the window or of the polygon to optimise the parking space solutions. And they've moved on to like apartment buildings or buildings with repeatable parts, essentially. So if you're wanting to optimise now units in a building, they can do that.

The, the interesting thing there is architects can still make decisions about the design and the overall look and feel. It makes iterating against multiple options so much quicker, right.

There is a company called Cottage out there that is based in Northern California, and it was started by a person in tech who had a horrible experience building an ADU or an accessory dwelling unit for their parents. And they said essentially, there's gotta be a better way to do this. They didn't necessarily change the model of how things are built, but they made it very efficient for the customer and the customer experience.

So their technology is really honing in on the customer experience, making financing for the ADUs really easy. And they hire a lot of designers, I believe, on a 1099 or a contract basis to kind of support the design of their projects coming through.

Evolving the role of firms and the client experience.

Evelyn Lee

That in and of itself is an interesting models of like where firms could evolve. This idea of the traditional architecture firm, now you're working as a contractor for essentially a tech company that's building small accessory dwelling units. And while they're starting with ADU, I believe they have like bigger ideas for growth on the horizon.

So things like that I think is coming in and really beginning to disrupt not only how we deliver services with the TestFit side and our potential to change how we deliver the services, but also really actually changing the model and competing against the traditional architecture firm by providing a better all-in-one client portal and client experience.

Michele Ong

Yeah. And that's really important as well because anyone who's tried to build a house can kind of tell you about the experience. And there's definitely a workflow involved, but it's not exactly the nicest way of experiencing the process because there's just so much complexity involved.

And there is some technical stuff and if you don't understand the technical stuff, then you're gonna miss things. And there's a lot of assumed knowledge on both sides. So yeah, definitely at a consumer level, being able to adjust those touch points would create so much more value, even if it's just intrinsic value in this relationship with architecture and architects in general.

Evelyn Lee

Yeah, I think we often forget that this is what we do day in and day out on the architecture side. And we often forget that for our clients, this is probably the only time that they've worked with an architect or they've interacted with an architect, the only time they're going to be remodeling their house.

And then if you're lucky, you actually get a client that has worked with an architect before and kind of understands that process. But I feel like we don't step back enough to take into consideration that this is the first time a client's going through this. So we need to take the time to give them what they need to make the project successful on their side, too.

Michele Ong

So many communication things that need to be worked on.

Evelyn Lee

Yes, absolutely.

Evelyn's architecture journey and the desire to stay involved with the architecture industry.

Michele Ong

Yeah. So you've since moved on to working in tech, and we'll get to that shortly. But even though you've made that shift, what has kept you so closely involved with the architecture industry?

Evelyn Lee

Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, my shift to tech was- it's all encompassing, right? So we talked about when I worked at Public Architecture and this idea that I was trying to communicate our value to nonprofit organisations. What I ultimately also realised is that I was just missing a language set.

Architects have this archi-speak language that they develop. And I didn't know enough business to kind of really communicate in a way that potential clients could better understand the value. So I went back to school and I got my MBA and my MPA and I, at that point in my time, I had worked at a handful of firms. I had just finished my license and I was kind of questioning my role in architecture and I really wanted to take that opportunity to step back and step away from architecture.

So I stopped doing things with the AIA. I refused to join any real estate green building club that was in the MBA, and I like really actively tried to pursue everything and anything else like entertainment management, consulting, marketing, like looking at CPGs, consumer product goods. I wanted to kind of test it all out and see like, is there a better fit for me somewhere else?

And by taking that step back I realised that ultimately I missed, not only architecture, but really the people in architecture. So that's, I think, why I stepped back into kind of a role adjacent to architecture and continue to be actively involved in the AIA even though I am pursuing this alternative career in tech.

I want the profession to succeed. I am a licensed architect. I believe the world needs more licensed building architects out in it even if I am not actively practicing. And I want that industry to succeed. And I think unless it changes, it's gonna have a hard time doing that.

The Practice of Architecture.

Michele Ong

Yeah. So is that why you started Practice of Architecture, your side business?

Evelyn Lee

It is. It- The Practice of Architecture, with any good business, continues to pivot for it itself to remain relevant. So it started off as I was purely curating content that I was reading in business school, thinking like, oh, this would actually be really great content for architects to hear.

So it was really just about like, what are, what am I learning outside of the profession that the architects can then take and apply to practice? And that's where it started out as. And then of course, I got interested and everything that was happening with VCs and accelerators and all of that. And the goal has been, and I think will still remain to some extent for Practice of Architecture to be an accelerator and an incubator of new ideas coming out of architecture firms and helping them really develop and launch those ideas in a sustainable way, creating additional products and services that expands the scope of architects, so they remain relevant.

But then it shifted again a little bit during the pandemic. So what I realised is that architects are so heads down focused on project work and what they have in the pipeline, and especially right now they're still feeling even with everything going on in tech, the architecture profession is still very much feeling the results of the great resignation and the she-cession and losing people during previous recessions and not having them come back.

So there's whole generations of architects that are kind of missing from practice. So they're really struggling with their pipeline right now. So, right now it's focused on helping small and medium sized firms be better at business operations just so that they can have the brain space to begin to think about what other type of products and services they can be offering.

But right now they just don't have the bandwidth to even think about what's next. So I'm just trying to help get them there before I get to the incubator and the accelerator phase.

Michele Ong

And that's such a great initiative as well because it's giving them an avenue to explore these ideas and getting to think outside of the box because it, it sounds like it's a kind of space that has been very conservative in the way that they operate. So giving them opportunities and resources to be able to look at how they can apply all these external skills and opportunities to their own workflows is, you know, it's such a great thing to be able to offer them as a service and as a community.

Evelyn Lee

Yeah.

Michele Ong

Yeah.

Evelyn Lee

So that's what I do on the side. That's what I do on the side.

Michele Ong

On the side. You know, you're only changing an industry, that's all.

Evelyn Lee

One, you have to start somewhere. I mean, surprisingly, I have my own podcast Practice Disrupted too, and I write a lot. And I think what ultimately keeps me going and my podcast host going is like when we hear back from people, right? That they, they listen to us constantly because they, they get it. And they want to create change, too. So yes, but I, I'm not alone. I'm not alone in this, which is like the most exciting thing.

Michele Ong

And it is such a good thing that other people are thinking in the same way and just trying to innovate and explore all these other options.

Evelyn's journey to tech.

Michele Ong

So, heading from that, how, how did you get into tech? It, it seems like quite a deviation from what an architect does and knows in terms of their skillset.

Evelyn Lee

So the biggest misconception about tech, I think is people immediately go to programming, like programmers, right? And they immediately go to, to ux, ui designers. And then they realise, oh, somebody has to sell the product. So then you can begin to talk about customer success and account executives and the sales team, which is like the largest team, I think, frankly at Salesforce by the engineers.

But also when a company hits a certain size, there is the individuals that support the employees and create a better employee experience. And that's- that's the side of tech that I sit on. How do we attract and retain incredible employees is ultimately the world that I function in.

And how I got there was I, when I graduated from business school and I knew I, I wanted to have something architectural adjacent, but I didn't want to do what was considered traditional practice, I found my way to this small firm called MK Think, and they had a strategy group that like, the strategy group's whole reason for being was to expand architectural services on both ends of the spectrum. So get into clients, talk to clients about their overall physical strategy, real estate strategy before they even know about an architect. And then on the flip side, how do we help them operationalise their buildings better and manage their real estate portfolio better?

Applied workplace strategy and operation processes.

Evelyn Lee

So I was doing that on both ends. And part of that work was what essentially falls in this category of workplace strategy. So helping organisations like the Nature Conservancy grow without growing their real estate footprint. And a lot of that back in the day was like, okay, you have offices, we need to take you out of the offices.

We need to give more room to creating space for hosting events for fundraisers. So redoing the space, but also in doing so, you're changing a culture of an organisation from one that was all in offices to one that is now hoteling and what are the new operations processes and policies around how they work together to still get the job done in this new way of working.

So I, I feel like even pre pandemic, I was developing new ways of working for organisations and that's ultimately how I found my way internal to Slack. I left MK Think and I went on to the consulting side of brokerage. So Savills Studley, I guess now Savills and Newmark, where I did a lot of different workplace strategy projects with companies from all sorts of different industries. And then I ultimately landed myself in-house at Slack.

Michele Ong

That's very, very cool. And all that you said about the kind of the work that you were doing before in trying to get all your pro bono clients to understand, you know, how they can make their work more efficient and organising their space. And that's pretty much what you've transferred to what you're doing here in working in workplace strategy and it seems now that you've said it, a perfect transition, like it makes perfect sense.

Evelyn Lee

Yeah. And I would say what I'm doing right now probably falls a little bit outside of workplace strategy is more focused on like purely operations process and policies and thinking about what does the office mean for a company like Slack or a company like at Salesforce going forward, right?

As we're all figuring out how to work in this new reality, where I feel like people are really thinking, rethinking their priorities around family and work and putting health and mental health and wellness first in a way like they never have before. And what that really means to how, how people work and team and brainstorm, and do it all in a distributed fashion now.

Michele Ong

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And it makes sense because all of the stuff that you're doing, like the building isn't just the building, the building's the people. So making sure that all of that can work efficiently, that all of that is structured efficiently, is gonna involve process and policy. Like, that's just the fact of it.

How how you use the space and how the people interact with the space is such an important part of strategy and making things work in a business.

A change in space requires cultural change management as well.

Evelyn Lee

Yeah, it's actually, it's funny 'cause I feel like more architects actually wanna do this type of work. I don't know how many architects I've talked to where they're like, we designed this building because a client told us to design it a certain way. And it was really a vision on how they wanted to work, but not how they're actually working right now.

But then people moved in and they reverted back to the old way. So a pre-pandemic example of this would be a set of architects came in and dropped in a whole bunch of collaborative space into a new office. And then my team was brought in because they were really frustrated because they couldn't understand why anyone wasn't using the collaborative space.

And what they failed to acknowledge was that they had this culture where if you weren't at your desk, then you weren't being seen as productive. So no one wanted to leave their desk and use the collaborative space. And they also felt the collaborative space was like a disruption to the people that were wanting to work heads down at their desk.

So, so the architects designed for the intention of like, what the owners of the company wanted, which was more collaboration for their teams, but then, you know, they kind of missed out on the change management and, and really the cultural change that it takes to activate those types of spaces.

Architects are systems thinkers.

Michele Ong

And yeah, the culture plays such a massive part in the way that people will interact with their space. And, you know, it brings in the importance of systems thinking in all of this when you're actually looking at design for workplaces. Ah, so fascinating. Like systems thinking is amazing and applicable in so many ways, in so many places that a lot of people aren't aware of.

Evelyn Lee

Yes, absolutely. And that's what I, I'm actually trying to get architects to talk to about when they're talking and using a different vocabulary. I was like, you need to talk about how you're system thinkers and how you're bringing together, even when you design a building, you know, you have so many different, like, well, especially buildings nowadays, I think as they get more technical and advanced, you're coordinating a whole bunch of different consultants and their schedules and knowing when things need to be on site when, and when you need to bring certain people to the table in addition to the relationship that you have with your clients.

So I was like, you guys need to talk about systems thinking, because other people understand this idea around systems thinking. But we don't express what we do

Michele Ong

Yeah, exactly. And when you look at systems thinking in terms of people, you know, you look at civil engineers and town planning, all of that is, you know, massive systems thinking in terms of a community and a wider external space. And you know, you're talking about logistics and the way that people will move around the city in order to be able to ensure the infrastructure is in the correct place.

Same thing applies within an organisation and within buildings as well. And it's just communicating to people that that's just this in a different scale and a different sort of environment, but it's still the same level of systems thinking involved to make it as efficient or as optimal a space to operate in as possible.

Evelyn Lee

Right.

Michele Ong

Very cool. got me thinking about all these things now. It's very exciting.

Evelyn's future in architecture and systems thinking.

Michele Ong

Cool. So

going forward, because we can see how it's all connected here for you, what is the future for you in terms of architecture and systems thinking?

Evelyn Lee

I'm kind of very excited about the work that I'm doing at Slack. So, you know, what's interesting is what most people fail to acknowledge is that Slack was like any other company pre pandemic. 3% maybe up to 5% of the company was designated as remote.

Everyone else had an assigned desk and lived near one of our office buildings. And whether or not we had any rules about it, there was an expectation that you would show up to the office regularly to occupy the desk that has been assigned to you. I can throw out a whole bunch of other statistics as to like why or facts and as to, to why people, I think people would be surprised about our occupancy and utilisation rates pre pandemic.

And, and what a big waste of space that was even pre pandemic. But that's neither here nor there. But I think what is a surprise is that we were like every other company. So as we're looking at what does return to office look like, as we're looking at how do we provide greater flexibility for individuals so that we attract and retain the best talent.

We are developing new ways of working and prototyping new ways of working all the time, and that's really exciting for me. And we have a research group called The Future Forum, in consortium with other research groups like BCG and another leadership research group who I can't remember, but if you go to futureforum.com, they have a lot of really interesting facts and figures about how people's sentiments have changed over time during the pandemic and the last quarter, they've actually felt and seen that.

So they do a survey every quarter of over 11,000 desk workers. And they can see how sentiments have changed over time during the pandemic. And like right now, burnout is at a all time high. So the conversation internally within Slack is how do we begin to combat burnout and especially how do we support our middle managers that are struggling the most right now?

And those are the conversations I, I would love to see other companies having and even architecture firms about like, growing that pipeline and kind of building a better workplace culture going forward. So I'm still very much excited about that. Practice of Architecture continues to grow and I feel gain more traction as we roll out podcasts. I am developing a partnership to write more articles with Architizer in the future. So, that will still continue to grow. So I feel like that still feeds my architecture interests. And then I am continuing to actively volunteer in AIA. So, I don't know, I guess the long answer to your question is much of the same for the foreseeable future 'cause I'm all really excited about it.

Michele Ong

Yeah, it sounds like there is so much scope and so much room for innovation in the way that architecture is managed as an industry, and that's actually really exciting.

Evelyn Lee

It is, I think there's a ton of opportunity if you can just convince people to open their mind to opportunities. Absolutely.

Michele Ong

Absolutely. Yeah. So this has been an absolutely amazing kind of chat About architecture and systems, and you know how all of this translates into other spaces like tech, but might wrap up with a question I always ask all of my guests.

What advice would you give someone who'd like to do what you do, and what advice should they ignore?

Michele Ong

What advice would you give someone who'd like to do what you do, and what advice should they ignore?

Evelyn Lee

I've been actually posting a lot on LinkedIn about this recently. But my biggest struggle with the architecture profession is that we, we go through school and we have our professors telling you, like, essentially you can do a lot with a degree in architecture.

And then I think we have this self-limiting mindset when we enter practice because it's this notion that you need to get licensed and then the career path after that is, you have to become a partner or a principal of a firm, and you have to own your own firm. So I would say an architecture education offers a really, really great education.

But once you get out it may be that the firm route is absolutely what you are interested in. If you wanna go that route, if you wanna go firm and licensure route, make sure that you find mentors that are supportive and can help you in that route.

If you are interested in kind of taking a step back, I always say it's okay to have multiple mentors in your life, you know, you have to rely on their strengths as well. So if you find yourself in a position where you're interested in looking at other things, then it might be a time to seek out a new mentor who, who's open to having those conversations about you stepping away from the path, which is, I found it very isolating when I began having those conversations, especially with my mentors and the AIA who were so excited about me getting licensed and then they couldn't imagine why anyone would dare try anything else after spending so much time getting licensed. So it made the transition a lot harder for me.

Michele Ong

Yeah. So how would you go about finding a mentor like that in this space?

Evelyn Lee

I have a good friend who loves to look on things like LinkedIn and do a deep dive into people's backgrounds. So I think it's easy enough to go and look at and see who graduated from what architecture school and then begin to follow their career path to different things. I don't know the numbers, but I think it's like less, it's definitely less than 50% of architecture graduates actually like, have a degree in, or have a license in architecture.

So that means that that 50% is either doing something different in a firm where they don't think they need to be licensed or they're doing something different altogether. So for me, kind of LinkedIn stalking and looking at that timeline is a really good bet in terms of figuring out who else has stepped away from the path.

And then I'm always happy, you can reach out to me directly on LinkedIn. I'm always happy to give some of my time away to people that are seeking their own path whenever I have the time to help them as well.

Michele Ong

That's amazing and such a generous offer of your time as well. But yeah, a lot of people, I guess, will think that they need to find mentors out of their own direct networks, but that's not the case. Like as you said, that you can look outside and see if there are others who might be not directly connected to you, who have a path that resembles what you're looking for.

Evelyn Lee

Yeah, and I think the biggest thing I learned, and one of the biggest things I learned in business school that they don't teach you in architecture school is the value of an informational interview. I think it's very easy to ask people for 10 to 15 minutes of their time. To talk about themselves, and you have to learn how to reach out to those individuals in the right way.

But I often found that those 10 to 15 conversations, and the worst they can tell you is no, or they can never respond to you. But I did find that when I did get a response some of those people have turned into mentors or even good friends over time. So you really have, have nothing to lose and everything to gain from just having conversations about people that pursued paths that you may or may not be interested in pursuing yourself.

Michele Ong

Yeah, definitely extremely valuable conversations that you can have from that, because what you see on a CV or on a LinkedIn kind of history doesn't always reflect what the thought process might be. And those are the things that you need to ask about and find out more about.

Evelyn Lee

How they got to where they are.

Michele Ong

Exactly. Very cool. Okay, well, thank you so much, Evelyn. This has been a really incredible conversation. So much insightful information about the industry and your path, and what we can look for going forward in this entire space. So if people would like to know more about your work and Practice of Architecture, where can they go?

Evelyn Lee

You can follow me on LinkedIn. I think I'm backslash Evelyn Lee. You can visit me evelynlee.com. You can also go to practiceofarchitecture.com and listen to our podcast Practice Disrupted. But if you don't listen to our podcast, I'm not gonna, um, I, I it's, it's a, it's a niche of a niche, right? It's, it's forward thinking architects. But, but we do talk about a lot of business and culture and the future of work there too. So, so maybe that is of interest to non architects.

Michele Ong

I mean, it's always worth looking. I mean, you're drawing from experiences from outside architecture

to be able to help grow your own architecture community. So there's no reason why someone can't get something out of what you're sharing too.

Evelyn Lee

Yeah. I think my, my mom has only listened to one of our a hundred episodes and I know for a fact that my husband has never listened to an episode. So, so that's totally okay too.

Michele Ong

That's okay. They're not your audience.

Evelyn Lee

That is true.

Michele Ong

It's all good.

Evelyn Lee

That is true.

Michele Ong

Well, thank you again, Evelyn. This has been absolutely amazing. I really appreciate your time and yeah, hope you have a great rest of your evening.

Evelyn Lee

Yeah. And thank you so much, Michele, for having me on STEAM Powered.

Michele Ong

Amazing. Thank you.

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