Collaborator in Chief: Q&A with Time Warner’s Joel Brenner
Designer. Listener. Interpreter. Collaborator. Those are a just a few of the roles Joel Brenner brings to the table as the vice president of global project management for Time Warner. Structure Tone is working with Brenner and his team to build Time Warner’s 1.5 M sf New York headquarters in Hudson Yards, which will bring together over 5,000 employees across four company brands. Here Brenner shares what he sees as the keys to teamwork and managing such a colossal project.
You started your career on the design side. What made you want to switch to managing corporate real estate?
When I started my own practice as an architect, I worked on large, exclusive residential buildings on Long Island. I learned many lessons through those experiences about being an architect and the responsibilities that come with it. I eventually came back to New York City and joined Gensler, where I quickly learned how to be part of a big company and what goes into corporate workplace projects.
Goldman Sachs then asked me to join them as a project manager on loan from Gensler. I found the work to be much more fulfilling on the client side since, in a sense, I had more opportunity to influence design. I also learned a lot more about what is required to manage project work, manage a budget, see how decisions are implemented, etc. I was exposed to much more about a project than I would have as the architect, and I loved it. Eventually that led me to a whole new career path on the corporate real estate side.
I still hold my architecture license and registration, however. I won’t let that go. It’s an important credential that I worked hard for and I see myself as an architect regardless of the functional role that I play. It gives me added insight and credibility that I do think benefits my work.
You’re known to be a great collaborator. How did that become a central focus of the way you do business?
I’ve experienced working for all types of managers—those who work through fear, those who work as mentors, those who are collaborators. I have found collaboration is the best approach because it doesn’t suggest that any one person runs everything. Yes, I might be the project executive on a building, but thousands of people contributed to that project. The best ideas come from pushing the envelope and challenging each other to find the best solutions. And that comes out of exchange, and discussion, and getting great people together to do great things. That’s really the way I look at projects, especially those of the scale of our new Hudson Yards office.
How has collaboration come into play in designing and building the new office?
This project brings together four very distinctly branded divisions: HBO, CNN, Warner Bros. and Time Warner. We had to find a way in the workplace strategy, color schemes, branding and the rest to provide a certain level of independence. But for efficiency, we also had to have some commonality. So we created a kit of parts—from the architectural elements, to the furniture, to the color palettes. Everything we did required enough diversity to satisfy the bandwidth of our divisions and their sense of individuality while at the same time create something reasonable, rational and manageable across 1.5 M sf.
To help us do that, we set aside 10,000sf of space to test and model different furniture settings and configurations, types, colors, carpets, lighting, etc. We brought different groups in from throughout Time Warner to get their opinions on what works given how they see the future of our workplace and the flexibility we need going forward as a company. They put sticky notes on what they wanted to see in various areas of the office. While we couldn’t accommodate every idea, we were able to deduce some general themes: they wanted the office to be healthy, to give them a sense of being taken care of and to be an open environment that also has private spaces, quiet work spaces and group space.
That ultra-collaborative process helped us understand what was most important to our people. It also meant that there won’t be any big surprises when we move in. They all had a voice in the decisions and won’t walk in surprised from mandates from above.
How do you balance having an overall, consistent approach to managing real estate projects with the specific needs of each group?
We listen. You have to be a good listener and really hear what people are looking for. Then you can interpret it into a solution. We put together everything we hear to come up with a strategy that responds to it. It’s a difficult way to go about design and it takes longer to do it that way, but it results in the best end product.
At our new Hudson Yards space, it’s not just office space. Out of the 1.5 M sf, probably 800,000 is office space and the rest is for technical equipment, screening rooms, amenities, studios and the like. I’m no expert in broadcast spaces, but one thing that helped is at the beginning of the project, I went to one of our other broadcast facilities under construction so I could see what went into it. And I found who I should talk to in the various departments and teams that will be working in these spaces. We have experts who work in studios day in and day out. So we bring them in and stretch deep into the organization to find that skill set and engage them in the team.
How do you identify the value that individual team members bring to such a collaborative approach?
That’s a tough question. There’s a diversity of skill sets that everyone brings to the table, from the designers and engineers, to the builders, to the vendors and their distinct skills. I don’t pretend to know all of it. But being surrounded by that group of experts with those skill sets is what creates return on investment. When you bring a company like Structure Tone onto your team, you can now execute a design that’s cutting-edge and have the expertise to do so under constraints like a tight budget and timeframe. We push each other and use everyone’s strengths so that, at the end of the day, we have the best product we could create.
What are the next challenges facing workplace design, in your opinion?
The biggest challenge is where technology goes and how it changes the way an office looks and feels. We obviously have to go more mobile and be more flexible. But we don’t even know what the limits of flexibility are.
We have integrated smart building technology into our new building far beyond what we’ve done in any of our other buildings. We’re breaking new ground for our company in integrating technology into buildings, from building management, to lighting, to conferencing. What comes of that and how it influences how we operate our buildings will also change. It’s exciting to be a part of it.