Knowledge & Insights

INTERVIEW SERIES: Conversations with VOOU - John Corbett

Visions of Renewal with John Corbett: Workplace & Real Estate Strategist – Cisco, Australia

In this collection of conversations with business leaders, entrepreneurs, educators and creatives from around the globe you will hear from some of the best and brightest, and weird and wonderful sharing their thoughts, ideas and insights on industry trends and opportunities as we journey through 2021 and beyond, and provide us with some short advice on how to lead, learn, and live and love.


John Corbett is a passionate and inspiring Workplace & Real Estate Strategist for Cisco based in Sydney, Australia.

I met John back in 2017 when he was spearheading the APJP Workplace Resources Team. Since then he's transitioned into the Cisco Workplace Technology team, where he continues his pioneering of technology-enabled workplace strategies, working with Cisco customers to enable them with similar success.

I've always been mesmerized by John's knowledge and pure passion for workplace - namely the role of meeting rooms!

I could actually talk with John forever. Even this conversation, which was scheduled for one hour, went on for two hours plus over two days! Here is a summarized version of that conversation. Have a read! It's a good one...

What three business trends Do you believe COVID-19 has accelerated in your industry, for 2021 and beyond?

I think we've learned a little bit of what survival looks like. A lot of these things that we thought were very important and significant, at some point we've realized that really not that important, and we really only need to use the basics of survival.

So with that mentality, I think business processes, and some of our mechanisms and the adoption of new technologies have really started to change the landscape of what, how and why we do things.

So that's the first thing. The second part is I think business resiliency has become a big item now. That sort of feeds off the first aspect, but this has come up a lot where, because we've containerized our productivity within certain vehicles, and many of these are physical vehicles, like warehouses and buildings and transportation hubs and stuff like that, with COVID coming along, we've had to think a little bit differently in that respect in order to remain relevant.

I also think things like cloud adoption, which is a very cheap way of dispersing your competency in a secure way, where I think a lot of people may not have been as open to that, you're going to start to see more people open to that because there will need to be able to de-link the physical environment from their productivity.

The third one… I believe that we're going to start to see people tapping into talent far more broadly than within your immediate geography. And why that's significant is because here in Australia, we’re at the ass-end of nowhere, and for us, it's a pain to connect with anybody. I found that many Australians are normally quite good at working across different time zones because we're so used to it. And we've had to get far more creative on how to do that.

In the Americas and parts of Europe as well, for the first time, they've had this physical separation, and have had to learn new skills. And as a result of learning these new skills that appeared out of survival, the unbelieving adult, they started to learn how to work remotely and how to continue workflows using technology so to create an organizational stickiness, that's technology-driven versus physically driven.

How people work remotely and the adoption of the tricks of the trade is proving to be a bit more difficult than people thought. The technology is one piece. The difficulty is the mental piece - how to turn yourself off - when does your day actually end? Our infrastructure and our buildings are all governed around 9 to 5, Monday to Friday guardrails which have now fallen away, which is great, but now it's a bit murkier. This “New complexity” has found its way in there.

And for somebody like me, who’s used to working across different geographies, I’ve kind of learned how to manage that new complexity a long time ago. And a lot of people have now had to force themselves to learn that. I think as a result of that there's a strong suggestion of a continuance of that. And people will then start to employ beyond the immediate geographies. It’s the time zones are the biggest animal. The time zones really kill you. And it's very difficult to maintain productivity across time zones - it's extremely difficult to create stickiness between time zones. Stickiness between people is one thing, but time zones is really tough. And again, because we're in Australia, we have it really hard.

In finding ways to manage it, I’ve found it was better to partner with a person in different time zones – say U.S. and London. I would focus on partnering with one individual who then would be my sort of be my gatekeepers into the theaters. But again, this is where the technology comes into play, which you couldn't do in the traditional emails because there's no continuance.

Or a meeting. You set up a meeting for next Tuesday, let’s say, but then you won't talk to this person between now and Tuesday because I've had a meeting with you on Tuesday. So basically, we’ve stopped communicating in anticipation of the upcoming meeting. Why don’t we continue the dialogue between meetings? How do we put a lot of effort into creating stickiness between contact events? That's where things tend to break down. And we have now gotten to a point where we are scheduling to have conversations. And so that's why we have shitloads of meetings. And that's not healthy.

By forcing myself to learn new tools to be able to connect across those confines much more comfortably, and by changing my patterns, I’ve made it much easier on myself. I'm assuming that there's a potential that a lot of people will learn these new skills, and then that will start to accelerate interconnectivity between organizations.

What opportunities lie ahead as a result of the pandemic situation?

If you look at real estate in these containers that we use to deliver productivity, which started at the Industrial Revolution, you have everyone's sitting in that same place because they needed you to be there to get work done. And now it’s on-demand - whenever you need to do the work, from anywhere, versus a specific place, that's not timebound.

Our productivity optics were traditionally around fixed environments where we pulled everything together and centralized everything - even the way we purchased and our retailing habits were all centralized. And now, you've got this complete separation. Regarding the workplace, when you have highly dynamic activity being conducted in a static environment you're going to end up with lots of dead space.

This is why I study meetings because you learn a lot from meetings because meetings are a shared resource. And every time we talk to people about meetings they'll always come up with this business around never having enough meeting rooms. It's always a drama. Why? Because meeting rooms a shared resource. Companies are starting to think about how to reduce real estate because they're not using as much – supply and demand (prior to the pandemic as well).

I believe most companies will want to write off their real estate. And everyone’s talking about it. But when you start to work out how you start to get rid of it you start to realize that you need to unearth the air bubbles.

The guardrails of Monday – Friday were helpful because when I went to the office, I knew who and where I would find people. And now your ability to connect with people, time and resources are far more complicated. There's "new complexity." Our automatic response is to gain control.

Going back to meeting rooms: you’ve got the average person thinking “Okay, so I'm very important. So, I need to control the asset.” They’re thinking that even though it's a shared meeting room, in case I want to use it (to gain control), I'm going to book the crap out of that thing - trying to control of this thing because it's so fluid. Why? Because, again, we work dynamically on demand. But when it comes to the full environment, we become static.

I like to measure meeting room utilization (it’s a large portion of corporate real estate). At Cisco, I worked out that 80% of these meeting rooms were not getting utilized. Why? First of all, the meetings are getting smaller – people don’t turn up or connect from other places via video or dial-in. But we’re still building rooms for 10 people when 75% of our meetings are only 1-4 people. And of that 1-4, 80% was one to two people.

I’ve looked at how we meet versus how we build to meet. Only 17% of the meeting rooms were designed for 1-4 people. 51% were 5-10, and 36% were for 10 and above. So, the rooms are two to three times the size of the number of people in the room on any given day. And the average attendance rate for a meeting was 30 to 40%. So that means 40% of the time the meeting rooms are being used, and of 40% of the time only half the rooms being used, that effectively means only 20% of the room is being used, that means 80% of it is redundant. What I'm trying to demonstrate is there's the influence of time and control over a shared environment. And that's what creates these air pockets. In fact, that worked out that for every two meetings that were booked, anyone was being attended.