Work is changing. What used to be foundational to an office — a desk, a commute, bad coffee – is being called into question by a new generation of work spaces and employee expectations. The way we work is experiencing disruption that has us asking … what took so long? In our Work/Life series, we chat with the people who are changing the face of the modern work force and making it look really, really good.
Thanks for having us! First, can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do, and how you came to be the owner/proprietor of Werklab?
My name is Christina Disler, and I’m the founder of Werklab. In 2010 I came home early from university and never finished my undergrad. My dad was very clear: “You’re not going to have some cushion job. You can have a job in the field.” Within a week of coming home I was in a concrete dungeon at YVR Airport programming security cameras.
Being in the field piqued my interest in human resources. I started to see and understand the challenges that the employees and technicians were facing. I enrolled at BCIT, and then did the organizational coaching program at UBC to better understand how to effectively coach teams through change. I really wanted to make my dad’s company Action BMS a better place for everyone that worked there. It was during my time there that I encountered a stat that would become the spark of Werklab:
“By 2020, 40% of the workforce will be independent workers, contractors, freelancers, and sole proprietors.”
This was in 2011, and I remember thinking, “Whoa … that’s less than a decade away.” Concurrently, I was noticing the changing expectations of the employer-employee relationship. Project managers and salespeople increasingly wanted to stay as agents.
At the same time, my sister was living in Europe. She called me up to tell me about this cool co-working company called Spaces. The concept seemed especially sensible for the Vancouver market. It’s so expensive to buy or rent space here. Beyond the numbers of the business, I was very aligned with the human element. I’m passionate about people: furthering their potential, creating human connection. Once I decided to go for it, I secured a space and launched within two months.
Previously, you have said that “holding space for vulnerability” is central to Werklab. How does that affect the modern work force?
There’s a few layers to it. At WerkLab we want everyone to connect with others as people before they connect as professionals. When new members are on-boarded they fill out a form that has nothing to do with their job. It just asks “what makes you ‘you’?”. This application process makes for a really harmonious group and contributes to an overarching emotional safety in the space.
The number one thing that leads innovation is creativity and curiosity. To have those things, you also have to promote vulnerability. It’s scary to try new things, to go beyond what you know works. That’s something that is a fundamental part of our ethos, and one of the things I get super excited about. At Werklab, we explicitly tell our members that we’re going to encourage them to go through the discomfort of trying something new.
When choosing your location and furnishing the Werklab space, what directed your efforts?
Vancouver is beautiful. We have the ocean, we have the mountains; our environment is so stunning. And yet, we don’t reflect that in our workspaces. That has always boggled me.
The natural light [in the Werklab space] is so key. Installing glass in all the meeting rooms lets our workers have the connection to the outdoors no matter where they are. Even from the “living room,” (the center of the space) you can see through the offices to the mountains. I wanted to create an environment that promoted fluidity, because one of the best things to do when you’re problem solving or feeling stuck is to move. People don’t want to feel like sardines.
The space is also designed to get quieter the further in you go. Everything we did in this space had intention. If something doesn’t make sense, if there’s no reason for it, why do we have it?
What were you trying to achieve for the people that would come to work here?
My business isn’t this space, my business is this community. Every day it changes shape based on who’s working there. It’s a living, breathing organism. We live in a hyperconnected world, but our generation is craving that face-to-face connection. When I meet new members, I’m always looking for ways to connect them to other people in our space. I’ll find some little baseline, like, “Both your parents worked in Singapore.” Find that, activate it, and let them come together. When I see members hanging out as friends, it makes my heart sing.
Do you have a certain “type” or profession that gravitates towards Werklab?
We definitely see a generational delineation. Because we use an application process, we are able to really build a Werklab culture. Cultural fit is hugely important. We want everyone that’s coming into the space to lead with openness, and add value in their own special way. That’s why I always want to know what they are passionate about. It doesn’t have to be what’s paying their bills, but I can usually figure it out pretty quickly what sparks them or energizes them.
Did your experiences as an HR professional influence your decisions about opening, furnishing, and setting up this workspace?
I think there was a lot of carryover of skillset. When you’re building company culture, it’s similar to building community. I was never super passionate about the policy and procedure, but I was definitely passionate about human potential, and helping assist people reach their dreams. Even if that meant not being at our company.
I also began to understand that the 9-5 work day is no longer the default. At Werklab, we’re trying to create a working space that doesn’t make us sacrifice parts of our self-care and social lives. What are you missing now that you’re working until 9:00pm? We’re going to infuse that into your day. For example, when we’ve done yoga here, it makes me so happy when someone has never done a yoga class before and that I’ve built a safe space for them to try something new.
What is it about the modern work economy that inspires you? What do you hope your space fosters in the people that use it?
Millennials have been called the “Entitled Generation.” I love that there is a sense of autonomy that we’re creating; that we have an idea and run with it. People have been fearful for decades to try new things, and all the sudden these beautiful creative services are popping up because of our peers. The modern day workplace has to honor this. We’re emotional beings. Different spaces evoke different emotions, different states. Shifting your space can give you a whole new perspective.
Want to read about other Work/Life experiences? Check out our interview with the team at Suite Genius.