How are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Primo Orpilla: I think we’re doing as well as we can. Because we’re in the Bay Area, we’re under strict lockdown. We’re very careful about wearing masks. Thank goodness we haven’t opened up too quickly. We haven’t gone back to the office yet—that is a move that makes total sense to me. In the long term, we’ll be fine. In the short term, it doesn’t seem easy. It seems like harsh medicine, but it’s necessary.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded O+A.
Primo Orpilla: The genesis of O+A was the beginning of early tech in a part of the country, rural Northern California, that was in transition. There were still farm fields on North First Street in San Jose when I got started. That’s how young tech was—Apple was there, but so were apple orchards. It was still around 75% farming, and the tech that was there wasn’t business tech. It was satellites and missiles, defense contractors. I think we felt there was an opportunity with the way people were being treated at work, that there were inequities in the workplace, corner office, name on the door, private parking—just a whole assortment of things that didn’t seem like they were the future of work. California has a great tradition of listening to progressives and working them into the mainstream. I think companies were eager to learn what this new work model was. Because it was driven by startup culture and by young, smart people, they realized if this generation is going to work for us, they’re going to work differently. They’re going to need a different kind of environment. So we were part of that period in workplace design that transitioned from hard wall to cube, from cube to open plan from open plan to agile work to what it is going to be in the next couple of decades. I think it will be about belonging, health, and well-being—all the things you might expect from your city’s government. These services are now being directly developed or supported by companies.
How does O+A innovate?
Primo Orpilla: We’ve always had the point of view that an idea has a shelf life, and we’re very conscious of that shelf life. We know that if we don’t innovate and think about the next thing, that’s a very easy way to be left behind. Your work becomes jaded or formulaic. The last thing we want to be is formulaic. It’s people and the way they interact that are critical to our design thinking. Each design really follows deep research and a process of development before we lay down any lines. We don’t design until we’re thoroughly convinced that we’ve got a good concept, a narrative if you will, and then, yes, we’ll go through the programming and figure out we need this many desks and that many conference rooms and the practical side, but we always start from a concept. We start with a story.
How did coronavirus affect your business, and how are you coping?
Primo Orpilla: I think we became more efficient because of the lockdown. We had to. But we also realized that this is not the easiest way to design. We can do it. But can we do it for the rest of our lives? No, I don’t think so. (Laughs). I think it works for aspects of the process, but not for the whole thing. It’s hard to interact in a Zoom meeting. The sketching and the banter and all the back and forth is an important part of the design. And we don’t have as much of that as we would like because we are in this very one-way, one-directional conversation via Zoom. So we need to develop a hybrid. But we’ve successfully developed a concept for a company headquarters in Japan during this period. That seems to be working fine, and that’s across the Pacific Ocean. We’re great listeners. We have great tools to draw people out—it’s almost like the Rorschach test of design. You carefully put things in front of people, and they have different reactions. So the process we developed over the years established tools that allow us to work in this fashion now.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Primo Orpilla: You know this is not our first recession. We’ve lived through enough downturns to make decisions calmly and do the things you need to do in order to survive. I think we’ve done that. When we couldn’t get everyone on a project, we created projects internally so people would feel connected and a part of the company. Our Toolkit, O+A’s guide to the workplace in the COVID era, was intended to bring benefit to the rest of humanity but also to give our staff a piece they could feel personally responsible for. The tool that we’re using the most now is that every piece, the Toolkit, and everybody on staff can feel they contributed to it. From the start, we knew we needed to learn everything we could about the virus and how it was going to impact the workplace. You can’t come in trying to consult on this subject with only a topical understanding of the issues around COVID design. You’ve got to run your knowledge through a filter. That was the Toolkit project’s point—to run what we were thinking through a filter of experts and then digest and synthesize into our point of view.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and O+A in the future?
Primo Orpilla: I purposely don’t watch a lot of news. I read an article about this woman who was in one of Italy’s hardest-hit parts in the early days of the pandemic, and as they were beginning to come out of it, she had several recommendations. One of them was not to watch the news. I have to hunker down and focus on my highest and best purpose—leading the company and figuring out what we need to do as a team. If my mind is all caught up in what Trump is doing today—it has no relevance. To the extent that we control our narrative, it is based on the work and the decisions we make. We try to lead by example at our practice.
Who are your competitors, and how do you plan to say in the game?
Primo Orpilla: Our competitors are the big national real estate and architecture firms. International. We were just on a call today with a company from Canada. We have a very rigorous design process, and we do it at a high level. The message here is to give us a problem—it doesn’t have to be a workplace problem—give us any design problem and let us run it through our process and see what we come up with.
Your final thoughts?
Primo Orpilla: I think this is a great opportunity for us to re-imagine work-life balance. What can we do to create more balance, create more equity, more inclusion, more belonging? People don’t just occupy the spaces we design; they experience them. What we try to do is create the best setting for those experiences to happen. All of those things you do at work—the conversations that grow into something fantastic, the discoveries, the creative collisions, the moments of respite —we want to create those moments that help you get through the day. Particularly now, as people are preparing to go back to the office, we want those experiences to be as good as they can be.
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