Valerie Garrett, director of workplace design for Fifth Third Bank, knows that design must be about people, not just the bottom line. As she leads the architectural, interior, and environmental branding design effort for a massive workplace transition that will enhance the look, feel, and effectiveness of Fifth Third Bank’s entire real estate footprint, user experience is the driving force.
In June of 2017, Garrett arrived at Fifth Third to lead the redesign for offices from Orange County to New York. She brings decades of experience in workplace strategy, master planning of multisite campuses, and working with product development teams. She has also led key projects, design and facilities process development, and strategic change efforts. Her process starts with defining principal standards. “Before specifics like furniture, fit, and finish, you have to articulate a compelling vision for the workplace plan,” Garrett says. The plan hinges on three ideas: variety, choice, and flexibility.
When you navigate the typical employee’s workday, she explains, you will see that they engage in a multitude of tasks: meetings, coffee, post-meeting chats, hanging their coat, connecting with people, solo work, collaborating around technology, and exchanging ideas face-to-face. All these behaviors should be supported with different types of spaces—an environment that teems with variety. Garrett highlights post-meeting interaction as a critical opportunity to support a universal workplace behavior. Fifth Third is creating informal spaces to support “meeting-after-the-meeting” conversations.
Valerie collaborates with her internal team and external partners to integrate design that focuses on people, incorporating human workplace experience into design strategy, with the awareness that providing a choice of work spaces is an attribute of company culture. Her interest in the use of employee-directed space is demonstrated by putting in equal value between work done in flexible soft seating, huddle rooms, and socialization space, as well as traditional desk work and individual work settings. “Work is work,” Garrett says. It comes down to personal preference that will enhance productivity.
Following the mantra, “Light is a right,” she feels no employee should be denied the ability to see outside, so formal offices have been moved to the interior and coveted perimeter spaces are shared. Similarly, people do not like their backs to doors, and they do not work well near high-traffic paths. If boundaries between individual work spaces and collaborative, noisier, open workplaces are lacking, the spaces will not be usable. Garrett and her team design around these realities.
The Fifth Third design also focuses on social responsibility, play, and well-being. To achieve these goals, Garrett collaborates with the culture team and corporate storyteller. They identify and articulate clear ideas around mission and values. “I have the good fortune of working with brilliant people including Donna Burnell, Thomas Neltner, and Curtis Bodison,” Garrett says, “who lead with one mission: To be trusted strategic partners that deliver and support efficient, effective, and innovative work environments that inspire employees and enrich customer experiences.”
Garrett employs design thinking to turn these principles into actual offices honed to Fifth Third’s needs. For example, when creating spaces to support agile teams, she engaged employees in visioning/voting exercises to help communicate their ideas on work effectiveness and experience. Fifth Third now has an easily modified kit of parts to support design for agile teams, and it is developing a full kit of parts to create consistency in workplace and retail projects. This effort ergonomically supports all aspects of collaborative and individual work, from everyone-at-one-table work and stand-up meetings to adaptable individual work settings.
Along with bank employees, Garrett gleans expertise from external A/E partners to improve user experience. She leverages an integrated team-based process to quickly and consistently offer new solutions to various offices. Based on urban design principles, she creates spaces that are intuitive to navigate, providing clear paths, nodes, and neighborhoods that bring people together. She is especially proud of the new Cincinnati headquarters, with new projects that will accommodate a commons area where everyone can come together in a centrally located coworking space for a wide variety of meetings and presentations essential to the bank.
Not content to simply assume that her designs work, Garrett tests them with ethnographic observation studies, leader reports, and key experience surveys that ascertain employee pride and perception of productivity. Her findings tend to support her theories. “As work has changed, so too have our real estate needs,” she says. Garrett sees that, through becoming more tech-enabled and supporting varied work behaviors, companies can often shrink their footprint. This is especially true as spaces become more open and communal, creating connections between employees.
While she spends a great deal of time testing with collaborators and reviewing schematics, Garrett’s passion for design finds another outlet as she takes on the task of explaining the science behind the art to employees in the midst of a transition. She strives to demystify what designers do and demonstrates the intersection of sciences and art in great design. Because change is hard and there is power in empathy, Garrett views the communication as part of this artful science. “I love to talk with fellow employees about the purpose behind the design,” she says. “They understand that we are designing with their experience in mind, and answering their concerns lets them know that we want to walk with them through the change.”
These employee talks are getting easier—as Fifth Third phases in new design, Garrett’s storytelling illustrates how integrating ideas of those impacted by design decisions helps improve the work environment in surprising and insightful ways. As workplace trends spread, others are beginning to understand the same tactics that Garrett uses. “After 20 years doing this, I know that the change will be good and will help transform our culture, enabling key work process and behaviors in the environment.”
Current projects include a new community and corporate lobby, 19 floors of the corporate headquarters, and 14 offices throughout the US and London that are undergoing transition to support the new approach. Critiquing offices that have already opened, Garrett says, “These spaces are finished spaces. The details are considered. When you walk through you see indicators of who we are. Employees report that they like to be at work; this is high praise for our team.” Through clear principals for workplace design integrated with a new experiential branding, Fifth Third’s new environment is designed to be a place, Garrett says, “that lives and breathes and embodies the essence of who we are and who we aspire to be.”
APG Office Furnishings congratulates Valerie Garrett of Fifth Third Bank for being a champion of innovative workplace settings and design. We are honored to be her partner in creating spaces that propel her team forward. By dreaming big, acting with purpose, and believing in better, APG helps organizations create space for success.
BDG Architects appreciates the opportunity to partner with Valerie Garrett and Fifth Third Bank as they recreate the workplace for their employees to provide an environment that utilizes the latest in technology and promotes collaboration and wellness.
Philip Kennedy, COO – BDG Architects