Here, Liz and Vanessa talk candidly to each other about their experiences designing for flexibility, how they’ve managed business growth and their reality as working women.
Vanessa Cullen founded Forward Thinking Design 16 years ago as a “small foray into paid work” while at university. Growth came quickly, and she soon added more clients, projects and people. Today, it is one of Australia’s most awarded branding, user experience, fitout design and project management studios.
As CEO, Liz Jones leads Lotus an Australian manufacturer of adaptable space solutions. She’s overseen significant business transformation, and continues striving to create spaces where people thrive – through the products Lotus makes, and her workplace’s culture.
Shaping spaces for work and learning – creating people-first places
Vanessa: Hi Liz, how are you?
Liz: Good, how are you?
The employee benefits of flexibility
Vanessa: We're both business women, so I would like to know how much emphasis you put on flexibility in the workplace? And what this means for your team?
Liz: In my leadership team of seven, there are four women and three men. I think we’ve been successful at attracting women into leadership roles within the business. But that's not been a deliberate strategy of mine.
My view is that both men and women need flexibility. As women grow their careers it's putting a greater responsibility back on the men in their lives. I've got a member on my leadership team whose wife is in a very senior role. He is quite balanced in his approach to making sure that he can support her career, while keeping in mind the needs of the three children. I'm very supportive of that.
"My approach is not: because you're the mum you somehow get some preferential treatment. But if you're the dad and you've got a wife, you need to share responsibility."Liz Jones, CEO Lotus
Vanessa: I really agree with what you're saying there. I feel like when we say that women specifically need the flexibility, we're almost supporting those traditional gender roles. What we're saying is women need more flexibility so that they can be at work and look after the kids and look after the home. That begs the question: why does she need to balance all those things, you know?
Liz: It needs to be shared.
How to design for flexibility
Vanessa: I’m interested to know more about the design of spaces. Have you done anything in your physical work environment to change how the teams relate with each other, and have you seen anything that's worked in other businesses as well?
Liz: Ironically, there is an interconnection: what we're trying to achieve for our customers is what we actually want to achieve for ourselves. We attend a lot of seminars about workplace design, and the general theme is connection, emotional connection.
"It's important that people come to the office to connect to a purpose and connect to a person – they're the two things that they can't achieve at home on their own. "Liz Jones, CEO Lotus
Current thinking about how spaces are being designed is around allowing those connections to occur, and allowing for people to get a sense of wellbeing, and to get a sense of purpose from the environment that they work in.
We’re a manufacturing business and we’re doing it ourselves. We've started to create different spaces for meeting rooms. We’re trying to remain authentic to where the business has been and how it's transitioning. We are absolutely focussed on that, but doing it quite slowly.
The big companies don’t always get it right
Vanessa: One hundred per cent right. A Google approach doesn't necessarily suit everyone. It's really about engaging the people in the workplace to talk about what they need to do their jobs, because I think we need to remember individuals are very different, too. Some people work better in open-plan spaces, and other people work better if they've got their own desk. Some people might have different requirements depending on the time of day or the season.
You go to a seminar and they'll show you lots of photos of the big tech giants and their wonderful offices, but I wonder how that applies to small and medium businesses. I think with a very small business, it's easier for the spaces to be more homely, have better connections with the outdoors, and allow people to create their own spaces almost organically.
Particularly in medium-sized businesses, people can have a tendency to get quite lost. These businesses tend to be the ones that have grown without too much regard for the built environment as well. They're leasing spaces where they don't really have a lot of control over air-conditioning systems or the lighting, and this makes it hard to adjust the spaces that they've got.
The products that you manufacture help a lot of other businesses create flexible spaces. Where do you see that heading?
Liz: Visual connection has become more important over the past three to four years. The use of glass has grown. That ability to have visual connection is huge. The other shift in design of spaces is toward being able to adapt quickly and simply for the activity of the moment, whether that's a quick meeting or bringing a group of four kids together in a classroom.
Vanessa: That's a great idea.
Spaces shaped by business growth
Liz: We’ve been going through a change process. I've brought a new leadership team in with very diverse thinking, capability and gender, and we're all working collectively to take Lotus where we want to go. We want to work with our architects and we want to work with our builders.
"To transform the way people live, work, learn and play: that's our brand prophecy."Liz Jones, CEO Lotus
Vanessa: I can certainly sympathise with that point where the customers and the business are taking off faster than the staff can handle, reaching that point where people are burning out, and you're losing the culture and the values. That's really where we've been to, so that's why we're in this consolidation phase at the moment of coming back to who we are. Because we're both in the business of creating these environments that are better for people, I think if your own business isn't creating that environment, how can you do it for someone else?
Liz: Yeah, look, and it's really tough. People don't cope well with change. And employment engagement at Lotus was quite low when I started.
Vanessa: Yeah. Certainly, engagement and re-engagement of people is a difficult one. We do a lot of work in co-design in the spaces and organisations that we work with. I think quite a lot of design firms might take a brief from management, and then just run with that. I'm a real believer in sitting down with as many people within the business or organisation as possible, and co-designing with them in order to give them engagement so they feel like they own it.
How to change company culture
Liz: The other issue we've had is knowledge sharing. We've had a culture where people have held and retained knowledge because knowledge was considered powerful. We couldn't actually scale because the knowledge was held in the minds of a small number of people. Getting people to lean into a learning culture, and to be able to think more laterally about the power of collective thought has been a challenge. Developing the culture of the company has actually been the hardest stuff in this role.
"I think the business stuff you can navigate through, but the people stuff is the most challenging."Liz Jones, CEO Lotus
Vanessa: Have you come up with any strategies for valuing the individuals within the business to counter that or are you still working on it?
Liz: Stay calm and stay focussed on the higher goal and the purpose of what you're trying to do. You’ll get as many there as you can, and some you'll lose. It's about getting the majority there and then acting in the interests of the 150 to 160 people in our business, not a handful.
Vanessa: I find sometimes those people who are quite difficult to move will suddenly really get it and actually become activists for the cause. They’ll bring everyone else along with them.
The power of collective thought
Liz: Do you have a mentor that you use to help guide some of your business decisions?
Vanessa: I've worked with a few different business mentors over the years. They're people I've met through various organisations like the CEO Institute or TEC and we’ve really hit it off with. Either they've offered to help me out or I've asked them. That's been incredibly helpful over the years, both in my own business and then looking at board roles and leadership positions, because they helped me to trust my gut.
I was going to ask you the same thing. Being a woman who did want to pursue leadership, have you had mentors or champions that have helped you to get onto advisory boards and into leadership positions as well?
Liz: Yeah, I have, and I think the intuition aspect is really important. I think that it does go to confidence. I think my intuition is very strong.
"The more you back your intuition, the stronger it gets. Sometimes I can just get a feeling when something's not right."Liz Jones, CEO Lotus
I've used different mentors. I've had different people I've worked with, and my partner's a great mentor. I think it is great just to have that sounding board, because I do think women lead very differently to men.
Vanessa: Women tend to agree with you more, whereas I find that male mentors have challenged me. It's great to have someone agree with you and pat you on the back, and sympathise with you when you need it, but it's also sometimes really good to have someone who cuts straight to the chase and puts you on the spot, and makes you think and dig deep. I think it's good to have both.
It’s business, unfiltered.
Liz: Listen, it was so lovely to talk to you.
Vanessa: Likewise, very much so.
For more Unfiltered Conversations, join Telstra Business Women’s Award Judge and founder of Carman’s Fine Food, Carolyn Creswell, and 2019 Telstra Queensland Business Woman of the Year and CEO of NewDirection Care, Natasha Chadwick, for their take on happiness, resilience and work-life balance.Find out more