Find your space

Our Global CHRO discusses what your workplace is telling employees and candidates

Allow Mary Bilbrey to give you a tour of the 70th floor of Chicago's Aon Center, and you'll get a lesson in modern recruitment tactics. The space is a template for creating a positive employee experience.

“I’m a lifer for human resources, but a relative newcomer to commercial real estate,” said Bilbrey, JLL’s Global Chief Human Resources Officer. “But I have always known that workplace strategy aligns with talent strategy. When you have a seat at the table shaping the human experience of your office, you have the biggest opportunity for creating a positive experience for your talent.”

Positive experience is the basis for the recent redevelopment of Aon Center’s amenity floor, which is now the largest in Chicago. It’s a place where the building’s tenants can focus on — or escape from their work. The space, redeveloped by JLL, blends together a 16,000 square foot gym, coffee bar, and workspaces with panoramic views of the city, as well as shuffleboard and pool. The space caters to the needs of today’s workers.

“People want flexibility,” Bilbrey said. “Sometimes that means a coffee bar, and for others it's a place for a quick game of shuffleboard. It’s ultimately about choice.”

It’s a lesson that was enforced quickly for Bilbrey after her arrival at the firm in 2016. JLL was finishing the first phase of its corporate headquarters redevelopment, which included six floors in the Aon Center. Using employee surveys, JLL identified the elements needed to make the office work for five generations of workers. Bilbrey immediately saw the potential for human resources in shaping the workplace conversation.

“I came into this organization starting with talent strategy and trying to weave that into corporate real estate,” said Bilbrey, who previously held senior HR leadership roles for HSBC. “But my colleagues at JLL were coming at it from the other direction. When both sides work together, you have something very powerful to drive impact for our employees and clients.”

We discuss the factors that shape human experience in the workplace with our CHRO.

Learn how office space can engage your employees

Q: What effect does physical workspace have on talent strategy?

A: It’s one of the key assets in shaping the employee experience, and if you aren’t creating positive experiences for your people, then you’re going to lose them. It’s that simple. Your organization can have all of the other talent drivers, including company culture, but if you don’t shape your office space around what your talent needs to do their jobs, your business is going to be challenged.

Q: What is the key challenge for today’s HR professional?

A: It’s one of the hottest job markets ever, so recruiting, retaining, engaging and developing talent has never been more important or competitive. Not only is the job market challenging for human resources professionals, but we’re also recruiting for new skillsets. Right now, we look for people who have artificial intelligence, machine-based learning, or virtual reality experience. Technology is changing how companies do business, and it also reshapes the people we’re pursuing. That means our strategy has to evolve, and there will be candidates who are hearing from you or your industry for the very first time. Having a strong employer brand is critically important.

Q: How does the work environment keep pace?

A: No one knows what it takes to do the job better than the people already doing it. You have to talk to your employees, survey them and ask detailed questions about the space that they need. That’s what we did at the Aon Center, and it paid off. That’s what our workforce consulting practice advises our clients to do — and employee voices are more instrumental in real estate decisions than ever before. If you want to create an experience for your talent, you also need to understand what the experience of the workplace is like for them. What do they need to get their work done?

Q: What do you typically find that employees are asking for in an office space?

A: There’s not necessarily one consistent feature, but all employees want choice and flexibility — and to be more specific — mobility, the latest in technology and amenities. This can include special coffee and tea selections, unique places to sit, stand, and collaborate, as well as health and fitness opportunities. Our people want to work the way they live. One of our clients recently said the new mantra is not ‘work from home’ but instead ‘home from work.’

Q: How would you advise other HR leaders trying to find their place in the workplace conversation?

A: You should always consider the data you have available. The time to fill jobs, the cost of turnover and the cost of health and wellness benefits. Your workplace strategy has a role in keeping your talent, increasing employee engagement and productivity as well as their health and well-being. You’re responsible for programs that make a direct impact on the success of your business, so don’t wait on an invitation, meet your peers at the table. It is essential that you find your place, and bringing data into the conversation will open those opportunities. Our Head of Global Research for Corporate Solutions, Dr. Marie Puybaraud, has been internationally recognized for her human experience research. She says real estate is no longer about bricks and mortar — it’s about creating experiences that facilitate happiness and fulfillment. The role of an HR professional has never been so broad, and these are exciting times to have far-reaching impact and influence.

Mary Bilbrey is the Global Chief Human Resources Officer for JLL. She can be reached at

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