Interview with Octavian Lebert, CEO and Founder of forwaerds gmbh
- Future of Work
- 28 Sep 2023
- 8 min
For the fifth installment in our office series, “What Does the Office Space Mean to You?”, Setting sat down with Octavian Lebert, CEO and Founder of forwaerds gmbh. forwaerds has been active in the project management of corporate real estate, construction on projects, and technical services for 10 years.
Q: Good afternoon, Octavian! Let’s get right into it. What does the office space mean to you?
Octavian Lebert (O.L): It's a bit like the concept of heimat in German, a sense of home. And it's also about belonging, which can evolve over time. Ultimately, it's where your roots lie. I believe it's essential to have a space where people feel at home, and this could be a fixed office. But even in a globally distributed company, there should be a place where they gather, perhaps once a week even if it changes, say, every month. It’s where we have our bonfire, where we come together, where we see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we know that at some point, we'll meet there. It's a feeling of freedom.
Q: You’re a very unique person to interview. You obviously work with office spaces, helping companies find, design, and transform them. Over the 10 years, how has this idea of the office space changed?
O.L.: Over the course of a decade or more, my perspective has shifted tremendously—particularly regarding startup offices—because I've observed a significant ongoing transformation. It might seem impossible to imagine, but even corporate offices and government offices are changing. I can see the shift happening across all sectors. Certainly, in the past, it was acceptable to place 20 IKEA tables in a room for a startup, and no one complained.
However, people have learned, often through social media, about what's possible. It can often be demanding for employers. I've experienced this from both sides. For many years, I helped managers find the balance between investing a substantial amount of money, maintaining flexibility and stability, and ensuring employee satisfaction.
Also, I noticed that at some point, there was no stopping it: people started demanding more and more. On the flip side, as someone who spends time in co-working spaces these days, I've realized how much work goes into maintaining such spaces. There are many positive aspects, but with that comes demands. Someone might say, "Where's the AC?" or "The coffee cup is empty. Where’s the machine?” People get accustomed to this level of expectation almost unintentionally. Sometimes, I'm unsure if it's also related to the German attitude or mentality. People may not realize the effort required to provide excellent services!
Q: There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s take a couple of steps back. So you're the founder of forwaerds. Can you tell me a bit about the office history, both with you, as a founder, and for the company? Where did it start?
O.L.: My journey in the workspace development business began roughly 11 or 12 years ago. Back then, I started as an intern and later took on the role of a project assistant at Groupon, a company often remembered as one of the first mature startups in Berlin. We were deeply involved in a project that spanned almost two years, aimed at creating a Groupon campus for 800 employees. It marked the first significant office space project in Berlin with a substantial budget and a highly sophisticated fit-out. This experience served as my introduction to corporate real estate.
Following that, I continued to work in roles related to front office management, involving tasks such as administration, overseeing property rentals, negotiating with landlords, managing changes, and ensuring maintenance. These responsibilities were carried out while I was an employee!
Later on, I had the opportunity to connect with the founder of GetYourGuide, Johannes Reck. During my visits to the Groupon office, which GetYourGuide was considering taking over, Johannes and his HR manager approached me with an intriguing proposition: "Would you like to work with us? We're in need of someone with your expertise." That's how I transitioned into freelancing and eventually found my path as a consultant in this field.
At a certain point, my colleagues approached me and said, "Why don't you assemble your own team and hire architects who understand our unique situation? You're familiar with how things work here, including the occasional need to revisit plans just weeks after they're finalized due to changing circumstances. You have the understanding we need and won't hinder our progress." That's when I decided to establish a company and hire a team, and thus, Forwards was born.
Q: At that point, what was your relationship to the office space?
O.L.: In the beginning, we primarily operated from our clients' offices. However, after about two and a half years, we recognized the importance of having a dedicated workspace for our own employees—a place that truly felt like our home base. It was during this period that we made the decision to adopt a hybrid model. This model entailed splitting our time between our office and our clients' locations. We did this to capture the essence of both environments, as there were common requirements across various companies, yet there were also unique aspects that needed attention.
Q: That's an intriguing use of the term "hybrid." Even before the pandemic, you were, in a sense, already hybrid. Did the pandemic further impact how your organization was structured?
O.L.: Fortunately for us, or at least for me, our work continued to require our physical presence, whether it was at our office or on construction sites. That's because we also handle aspects like power and lighting management at these sites. So we often found ourselves either at construction sites or in vacant offices where we were operating. It was indeed an interesting experience.
Of course, the pandemic prompted us to adapt and learn. We realized the need for enhanced digital collaboration, which pushed us to engage more with our clients and within our own organization. It was a period of significant development and evolution, certainly!
However, even after the pandemic, we retained our core identity. We aren't a fully digital company; in fact, we are primarily analog because our work involves physical construction. You can't replace that with webcams.
Q: You must have accumulated a lot of official learnings over the years working for different clients. How did you enact those at your own offices over the years?
O.L.: It hasn't always been easy for us, given all the accumulated knowledge and learnings. We had to consider our approach carefully. We couldn't just rely on having the perfect offers to showcase. Instead, we found ourselves in a situation where budget constraints played a significant role, and we couldn't accurately predict how many years we would need the office space for. So, we had to find a middle ground.
That middle ground meant that, while we had already established a proven business model, we couldn't predict if we would need a new office in three years or maybe just one year.
So we created a requirement list differentiating between what was a must-have and what would be nice to have. I believe this approach is the key to all office searches and decisions because there are no absolute limits in this process.
Q: What were some of the key factors that were particularly important to you when you were searching for your first office space? Was it primarily location, or were there other factors at play?
O.L.: Location was definitely a top priority for us. We wanted to remain in the same neighborhood or have an office in the same area. Budget was also a crucial consideration. At the time, finding office space in Berlin wasn't easy due to limited availability. The clock was ticking, and we needed to secure a space within a few months. We realized that options could quickly disappear as others rented them out, so we had to make some compromises.
In a way, it didn't make sense to delve into highly detailed office options that would require a significant amount of effort and resources post-decision. It's a draining process that consumes energy, and we learned over the years that humans have limited energy and motivation to do things repeatedly. The first time around, everything might seem exciting, but if you have to repeat it three, four, or five times, it becomes quite tiring!
Q: That's actually a really good segue into one of the ideas behind the series. We're really interested in the way that people, founders, and employees are emotionally connected to their spaces. Given your in-depth experience in the commercial real estate market, I'm curious to know how you view this, both with your clients and your own team.
O.L.: I absolutely have an emotional connection to office spaces because I'm passionate about creating environments that host and inspire people to energize the ecosystem. I'm always intrigued by revisiting projects we've completed to see what we can learn for the next one, and where improvements can be made. It's incredibly satisfying to engage with people, gather ideas, and ensure that everything runs smoothly, although planning doesn't always account for every variable.
As for the people I've worked with, I've observed that many do develop a strong emotional connection to their office spaces over time. It's a natural consequence of spending a significant portion of one's life in a particular environment, experiencing its evolution, and contributing to its character and culture.
In the real world, things don't always go as planned and demands change. Offices undergo reorganizations, restructuring, and companies evolve. In the day-to-day operations within offices, it's nearly impossible to achieve perfection right from the start. Instead, it's an adoption process, a journey of customization to make people feel that they belong in that space. It allows them to influence it, express their wishes, and navigate the adaptive process to create that feeling of being at home!
This is the fifth interview in our “What Does the Office Space Mean To You” series. Stay tuned for more exciting stories about the office space over the next couple of months!
We’d love to hear your office story. Drop us a line at [email protected] if you’re interested in sharing your office experience.
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