When you walk into the new J5 Design office on the 15th floor of the Ampersand building in downtown Calgary, Alberta, the first thing you see is not a reception desk. You enter a warm, inviting café-style space where any employee — even the CEO — might swing by to say hi and take you to your meeting.

But before that, you can help yourself to a cold drink from the fridge or a cup of coffee. If you need to wait a few minutes, there’s a comfy seating area where you might encounter a J5 employee working on a plan to transform the customer experience for a local organization.

J5 is an Alberta-based strategy and experience design consultancy, and human-centered experiences are at the heart of its business. Curiosity leads its team of strategists and designers through projects that improve how customers feel when they interact with businesses and organizations, and the team is always searching for new ways to create positive social and economic impact.

When J5 needed to create a new office space that provided their own employees and customers with the best experience possible, they partnered with Holland Licensed Interior Design and PCL Construction to bring their vision to life.

In this Q&A, John Vardalos, J5’s CEO, talks about human-centered design, his collaboration experience with PCL’s Special Projects team, and why it’s important to create a workplace that gets employees excited about Monday morning.   

John Vardalos: Technology is the biggest lever and needs to be a huge consideration when companies are designing customer and employee experience. I started J5 10 years ago because I saw an opportunity to transform the employee experience and help organizations create workplaces that people would look forward to on Monday morning.

Emerging technology platforms presented a huge opportunity to think about the ways people were working. Fast forward 10 years and those technologies, such as Dropbox, social media and other cloud-based tools, have become part of our daily lives.

There's also a huge trend towards user-centricity and customer-centricity. Companies recognize that the way to address technology or change is by focusing on the person. When you discover how people are interacting with your organization, you can find new ways to deliver services to them. 

I'm in this business because I love working with people. A great workplace is a place people want to be, and that’s based on how people feel. A great workplace allows people to show up as their best selves, be vulnerable and say what they really think and feel about an idea. A great workplace allows people to make decisions together, challenge each other and build something together that will make a difference in the world.

I want to build a company of people who want to work together on important problems — that’s what motivates and excites me. Our space is so important because it’s where I get to spend time with those folks.

We thought PCL was this huge company that only did huge projects and that there was no way it would deal with a smaller company like ours. But PCL ended up being the lower cost/time proposal, which really surprised us. That created the opportunity to have a conversation with its Special Projects team, which builds meaningful housing and healthcare projects.

Values alignment was a huge part of why we selected PCL. We work on projects that make our community better, and we want to do business with a company that is excited about what our company is doing for the community.

The linchpin for PCL being able to execute as well as it did was the renderings and design that Holland created. Holland figured out how the space needed to look and feel. Then it became PCL's responsibility to make it real. When PCL started building, I was in the space every day because I was so excited to see the space start to appear from the renderings. I'll be honest, I didn’t believe that the space was going to look like the rendering, but it’s better than the rendering. They completed the project on time and on budget just like they said they would. Our experience with PCL was phenomenal.

While working with PCL, I learned the company has an employee ownership model which translates into an employee experience where people want to come to work on Monday. No great customer experience happens without a great employee experience, and that’s why these workspaces matter.

PCL had incredible people working on our project. I felt welcomed every day, and I built relationships with all the workers – the painter, the electrician, the plumber. They made me feel like I was building my home. The office is a second home for me, and I want it to be a second home for our customers and our employees.

We don’t want our customers to have a formal experience when they enter our space. We want them to feel like we're welcoming and happy to see them. They can open the fridge and make a drink or grab a coffee. Holland had this great idea of designing a cafe at our entrance and creating a gathering space where visitors and our employees can sit down and have a coffee and a conversation.

When people come into our office, they're greeted, but we didn't want a reception desk or the responsibility to welcome people to fall on one person. We wanted that to be organic. It’s everyone's job to greet people and make them feel comfortable. We’re kind and welcoming and we like to make people feel like they belong in our space. 

So much of building a project like this is about relationships and trust. Trust was strong between J5, Holland and PCL all the way through. It was a good partnership. It's important that organizations working on a project like this know how to work together. PCL was excited about working with us because they’d heard about the work that we do, and I was excited to work with the PCL Special Projects team because they work on housing projects and hospitals — the types of projects we work on in our business. Part of me wants to build another space because it was so much fun. 

I think of that saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go further, go together.”  Nothing great gets built when you do it by yourself. You've got to surround yourself with good people who believe in what you're trying to do — people who will inspire you, support you and celebrate with you.

If a PCL crew member reads an article about a community healthcare project that we worked on, or they see images of us working in our space, I hope they feel like they played a role in what we’re doing. We had a great team — it’s been amazing. The collaboration that we've had with PCL has been tremendous.