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Designing a Functional Workspace at Earnest, Inc.

Emily Vance is the Facilities Manager at Earnest, Inc., a merit-based lender that empowers people with the financial capital they need to live better lives. Together they use technology, data, and design to build more affordable and responsible loan products for over 100,000 consumers.

Managing Earnest’s facilities operations for over a year and a half, Emily has grown to love the unexpected and demanding nature of her role. She walked us through her latest office design project, a slow but collaborative process that gave her employees the space they needed to do their best work.

As the Facilities Manager, you’re responsible for facilities operations across two locations. How do you stay on track remotely?

I think many people can relate when I say there is no typical day in the facilities world, but it’s one of my favorite parts of the job. I am constantly being pushed—managing two offices in completely different locations has its challenges, but I’ve had the opportunity to learn so much more this way.

Within my first week at Earnest I was sent out to our Salt Lake office. I got the chance to put a face to my name and make sure that, even though I may sit in the San Francisco office, I am always there to help their team. Building these strong relationships between both offices early on set me up for success. That and knowing when and how to use the right tools, what kind of problems require what solutions, and what can be handled over Slack/email/phone versus me going to the office.

You recently celebrated your latest design project. What sparked the idea for this project? What were your goals?

When we moved into the office back in November 2017, our priority was to find a space big enough for our team before our lease expired. We found our current space though a sublease and purchased much of the leftover furniture hoping to repurpose it. We made do with what we had for a long time, but no one stepped up to do much with it. Fast forward to January 2019, the new CEO and leadership team decided we needed to make the office feel like ours and add design elements that speak to our brand.

We had more space than we were effectively using, so we decided to consolidate our workspaces and buy furniture that would be better utilized. We worked with team leads to rearrange seating (including desks), and hired MGWest, our design firm, to come weekly and plan an office layout that better suited our needs. They helped us craft spaces that were more conducive to causal meetings, break out meetings, or one-on-ones and fill in the dead spaces.

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Briefly outline your office design process—from idea generating to cutting the ribbon.

When I started we were about one month away from moving our Salt Lake team into an office space which was a completely blank slate. We hired MGWest and that project was completed at the end of August. The response from employees in SLC made it clear how much customizing the space changes how people work—and that our home office could benefit from a refresh as well. As soon as I was back, the leadership team worked on a budget to redesign the new office.

In January we hired our general contractor and outlined what we had in mind. To get a proper quote we had to hire an architect to build the design for us. We hired the building architect thinking we might get building approval quicker if we used someone they were familiar with. Once we decided on the plan, we had to bring the plans to our master tenant to get approval for the work. We also needed to ensure the building would allow these tenant improvements. Let me stress here, this process was slow and required lots and lots of back and forth.

Construction went to plan. I’ve found that when you hire the right general contractor they manage all the vendors and take a lot of work off your plate. We had weekly meetings to keep everyone in the loop and to build relationships with the vendors if they ever had questions or requests, but after the approval process this was smooth sailing.

I kept the executive team informed on progress and we were able to schedule a ribbon cutting and celebration as construction wrapped up. I was really happy to see people start to use the space right away. I also wanted to keep the arrangement of furniture flexible to see how people actually used the space, or what needed to be fixed to fit our needs. One of the benefits to meeting the vendors during construction was knowing who I needed to contact if anything wasn’t working properly. I wasn’t a stranger and it saved everyone time.

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How did you determine which changes would be beneficial, and ensure the new design would speak to your company values and culture?

We really tried to make sure this was a collaborative process. We included one person from every department to be a part of all of our design meetings and offer input. I got final write off from the EA and CEO when we would decide on a design. I would present all of the new and upcoming changes in All-Hands and explain how they would affect everyone. There were no surprises, everyone had a say, we asked for feedback the whole way, and no one person ever led the design process.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during the redesign, and how did you get past it?

Major unexpected project changes and the cost of such large projects. Money is always going to be a pain point, but to help relieve the shock, we reminded everyone along the way why we had put aside this budget for the space and the benefits of doing so. I also made sure that I kept people in the loop about the budget and gave them updates if we were ever concerned about large changes. Also making sure to find potential problems early on and addressing them as soon as possible.

Office construction can be distracting. How did you ensure your employees were still happy and productive while the space was being renovated?

If I knew the work would be disruptive, I always asked if we could schedule it to be done in “off hours.” For example, all construction was done from 4am-1pm. The majority of our employees come in around 9, leaving only four hours of noise. We also set up hotel desks far away from the noise if it was too distracting. We saved a couple thousand dollars by not doing the work on the weekends but getting the work done in the early morning. Finally, we sound proofed the small conference rooms before we started construction to make sure employees had quiet spaces on louder days. 

Change can be hard, so we made sure we never forgot about the employees. We constantly offered surprises. For example, we brought in a Bevi machine one morning as a new addition to our snack program. The morning of the final reveal we surprised employees with a fancy latte machine in our new kitchen.

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It’s been a few weeks now since the project was completed. How has the new design improved your workspace?

The easiest way to know that what you did made an impact is to see employees use the new space. I see employees booking the new conference rooms and utilizing the larger kitchen more. We even hosted our annual Thanksgiving dinner in the new space with the whole company. Sometimes the best compliment is no complaints, then I know I’ve done something right!

If you’re redesigning your space but are working with a tight budget, what should you prioritize?

I would start with re-arranging the current furniture you have. Find ways for it to be better utilized or put it in new areas with more demand. Find pre-owned furniture at a discount and add it to your current space. I found old frames in our storage closet and bought really cheap artwork from Art.com to give our one-on-one rooms a whole new vibe. Use out of season swag items to bring nostalgia—something you cannot buy!

What strategies, skills, or tools do you use to balance your day-to-day responsibilities with these larger scale projects?

It really helps that I am hyper organized—I thrive on creating order in chaos. I love using Google calendar and creating alerts. I carry a notebook with me pretty much everywhere or I use Google Keep to take notes on the fly for later reference. Apps like Boomerang, which can return emails at a specified date and can pause my inbox, have been a game changer.

Is there anything we missed? Tell us!

At times it feels very overwhelming and like you’ll never finish these bigger projects, but honestly, the final result is always worth it. I’ve never finished a project and felt it wasn’t worth all the late nights and long weekends. I live for that ‘wow’ moment, when everyone finally gets to see what I’ve been working on behind the scenes. Everyone in facilities knows it can sometimes be a thankless role, but seeing everyone light up when they see the new space or even a small project completed is very grounding.

Photos provided by Earnest, Inc.

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