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Making the Office a Magnet for Employees

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Image: Prostock-studio - Alamy Stock Photo
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Nathan Manuel, head of workplace experience at PagerDuty, a software as a service (SaaS) company specializing in digital operations management and incident response.
As his title suggests, Manuel leads his company’s efforts around hybrid work, and he’s uniquely qualified for that role: He began his career in IT during the 1990s, working on the early technology foundations of the Internet. He then studied furniture design, gained a background in office design, and now reports through PagerDuty’s people organization. We discussed the innovative ideas PagerDuty has been experimenting with as it deploys hybrid work.
This transcript has been edited for conciseness and clarity.
EK: PagerDuty has been discussing and testing out some really unique and interesting ideas around workplace experience. Can you describe a few of these?
NM: We're clear in our opportunity to experiment and take some risks in the future of work area. We've created a larger program called “Distributed by Design,” with three different modes: Anywhere, Truly Hybrid, and In Office. The vast majority of our company is now hybrid; pre pandemic, something like 16% of employees were remote. I guarantee you that it's higher than 60% of people who are hybrid at this point.
It's our job to magnetize people to offices through different events or collaboration opportunities—by bringing leadership in to lead sessions or maybe have lunch with people. Yesterday the CEO was here in the San Francisco office having lunch with people and chatting.
PagerDuty’s stance isn't that we have a more formal return to office strategy. There’s no mandated requirement for you to be in the office for a certain amount of time, hours, or days per month. It’s here as a resource when it makes the most sense and gives employees flexibility. And so, we see teams use the space for training and collaboration sessions. We're seeing the space getting used for engineering meetups. It's great to see engineers back in this space because those are the people who are going to be the hardest to pull in or find opportunities to attract.
We’re trying several other experiments. We've also changed our physical spaces and created some neighborhoods [within the office]. In that process, we removed 3/4 of our desking from our San Francisco office, and we're now actually looking at our other offices and trying to determine, was that enough? We may remove 80 or 85% of the desks in some of our other offices.
We do have desk hoteling. You get assigned to a desk, but you could also get assigned a whole neighborhood. That neighborhood, could include a conference room, a soft seating area, and a cafe. It can also include a heads-down strategy room that has a card reader, and your team can have that strategy room booked off with the card reader. That means if you want to use whiteboards or leave things up or post things up or whatever, you can have that space locked down for a period of time. You can say, we need that for two weeks or whatever. That gives people an opportunity to have a space dedicated to them, which includes a bunch of technology. It's a hackable room too. So every piece of furniture in that room is on wheels.
EK: You referenced how you took the data to see what it was telling you. What are your sources to get data to help you with that?
NM: We have more traditional business intakes like engagement surveys, a ticketing system for internal facilities, or real estate-related tickets. We also have the hoteling room booking. We also use a room sensor software technology that allows us to understand which spaces people are using, and for how long. If someone is booking a neighborhood or hosting an event, they can also give us feedback through a survey. There are many different places where we're collecting data, both a micro per event or session and big numbers where you can understand who's coming in and what role they have.
Early in the pandemic than we are today, we decided to make the investment work with JLL's workplace team and have them do a deep assessment before we made decisions about how to actually implement or change physical space, because the dollars are so large. When you're doing construction and working with architects and making large capital expenditures, it made sense for us to go through the process of having a good understanding of what that looked like. That in-depth assessment process reviews a lot of things like meeting invites and Slack messages. But also it does some leadership interviews That assessment process took –eight to nine months, and honestly, it has paid off big.
Some things that came out of this were decisions about the neighborhood thing. But this is also where we decided to try open-air conference rooms. This is open space, but has a full Zoom kit, in the middle of the office. And you can literally come and have a Zoom meeting in the middle of office. People thought it was going to be really disruptive and wasn't going to fit into the culture of the office. But the reality is it didn't fit into the culture of the old world office, where you had people sitting around doing individual or heads-down work. In the new mode, you have people coming in and doing collaboration and walking around, engaged in different things. There isn't as much: “I'm putting my noise cancelling headphones on, and please don't disturb me.” There's a lot more, “Oh, we're engaging anyways.”
EK: Where exactly do you sit in the organization, and where has that required you to collaborate with technology, HR—what cooperative work needs to be done?
NM: We've all experienced conversion of these siloed operational teams to something more like an employee experience team. I was in the IT world for 20 years, started in desktop support, and had some key events happen in my life that transitioned to more holistic thinking. Today I report up through the people team. In my career, this is the first time I've ever reported up through the people team. Historically, I've always reported to chief financial officers (CFOs) directly because real estate and IT report to CFOs. I believe workplace teams should be report through the people team, because our goal is to provide employees with an amazing experience.
EK: Is there a formal governance structure (or even an informal one) where you and the people you collaborate with have regular meetings?
NM: There’s something called the people leadership team (PLT), which I'm sure many companies have. They have a weekly session, and there's regular cadence.
One of the big efforts I'm spending my time on is what we're calling PagerDuty popups. The idea is that we're bringing PagerDuty to our employees. We [booked] an executive boardroom at a hotel for a day. We're bringing speakers and going to have executive leadership come to them, feed them a couple of meals, tell them about things happening with the organization and give them an opportunity to have some engagement.
We have one next week in Atlanta, and I can't believe how many people are coming. We invited about 88 people, and approximately 70 people are coming. That response ratio tells us there’s a need and a desire for people to get together, especially when you have a company with a bold culture, and there are new people who haven't got to experience that or don't get to engage day-to-day.
EK: I want to close on your future-looking plan. You used a great word for the one of the rooms— that the furniture or the setup was hackable. Is the idea you'll get to a steady state, with hackable elements that then can tweak it as people need?
NM: Sure. That's absolutely one of the types of environments we want to support. But I think that the future-looking plan and strategy development is more complicated. I think the social norms start to get into play. People don't feel that comfortable coming into an open space and moving a table. I moved a whole piece of furniture yesterday on wheels in the space. People literally looked at me like I was an alien because it's unusual for a big piece of furniture to get pushed beside them. But it's why the piece of furniture is there.
I went to NeoCon, the largest furniture conference in the world, looking for people who weren't doing standard things. As far as I could tell, every furniture designer in the world is scared because they have no idea what the future furniture looks like in an office when people aren't going to go there and sit at a desk or cubicle.
All of this comes into how we create strategy for the future. What are we going to buy into? What experiments are succeeding? I can tell you right now that we are committed to hybridity. We're committed to the Distributed by Design plan. I was working on the FY2026 strategy document, and it’s getting put in there and sent to our board. It says to me that everybody's on the same page. We know that we're going to fail at some spots, and that's OK. We're going to have some things that stick and some things that don't. We have the wherewithal to take that data, be agile, and adjust in real-time when necessary.
It’s looking for those opportunities that give people a great experience, show our values through our behaviors and just commit to employees—we're here to help and support them. We're going to do whatever we have to on our side to make sure that every day, employees aren’t sitting around thinking about the workplace or how they have to do their job.