E53 - Workspace Design for Boundless Leadership - Interview with Ilea Buffier

Ilea Buffier shares:

  • How she retired before she left high school (!)
  • Why sustainability is imperative for all businesses
  • What questions to ask when designing spaces for enhanced employee engagement


  • How an eco-system of spaces works best for all types of contemporary work demands
  • How to design for whole of person well-being by addressing physical, cognitive, and emotional needs in physical space design
  • The corner office is no longer the status symbol - choice and control, especially over use of workspace IS
  • How “You create your space and your space creates you”


Ilea Buffier runs a successful commercial furniture business for the last 14 years, representing a number of suppliers including Steelcase - the world’s largest commercial furniture manufacturer. She purchased Ninetwofive Interiors in 2003 and founded Ninetwofive Sustainability in 2005. Through these two companies, Ilea and her teams assist businesses in lowering their environmental footprint and delivering on their aspirations by creating workplaces that engage and inspire.


Speaker 1:                        Welcome to the Zoe Routh leadership podcast, your source of strategies and insights to make you a better leader, influence, improve, inspire.

Zoë Routh:                       Hi, it's Zoe and today we are here with Ilea Buffier, who is an extraordinary woman. We actually discovered we run parallel lives. We ski at the same place out of Guthega in the snowy mountains, and we have a similar pattern for bush walking. This weekend we found ourselves in the very same coastal place, which is no ... It's hard to do actually in Australia to end up in the same place. Apart from having these intersecting lives, Ilea actually runs a successful, commercial furniture business and has done so for the last 14 years. She represents a number of huge suppliers, including Steel Case, the world's largest commercial furniture manufacturer. She purchased Nine to Five Interiors in 2003, and founded Nine to Five Sustainability in 2005. Through these two companies, Ilea and her teams assist businesses in lowering their environmental footprint and delivering on their aspirations by creating works places that engage and inspire. She's also on the Board of Directors at the Australian institute of Company Directors.

                                           She's got very strong business head about her. One of the reasons I'm ... Well, there's a couple reasons why I'm so excited to bring Ilea to the conversation on the podcast is this notion of sustainability and how we build better business practices with that, and also how furniture in interior design can assist or detract from creating work places and work place cultures that are engaged or not engaged. That connection between space and furniture is a pretty critical one. I reckon it's one of those hidden barriers that keeps teams from being boundless. We're going to explore some of these ideas today. Welcome, Ilea.

Ilea Buffier:                      Thank you, Zoe. Excited to be here.

Zoë Routh:                       Good on you. Tell me ... I think it's fascinating, your story. You bought a furniture business. Then you developed a sustainability business. You're on the company directors Board. Tell us a little bit about your professional leadership journey.

Ilea Buffier:                      Well, I thought ... I wanted to learn about business, and I thought I would jump right in. At 20 years old I bought my business and I've invested in some property from the age of 17, which was how I got the capital required to do that.

Zoë Routh:                       Oh, my god. You're the most together person I ever met. Investing in property at 17. What the ...

Ilea Buffier:                      Yeah, yeah. I had four residential properties before I was 20.

Zoë Routh:                       What?

Ilea Buffier:                      I got in at exactly the right time and they all skyrocketed in value, which was ...

Zoë Routh:                       Pause for a second. I didn't know this about you. How did that happen? Did you have a strong, financial mentor in your life? Were you completely savvy from the outset?

Ilea Buffier:                      My parents were getting into it around the same time. I went to a few conferences and then the first home buyer's grant came out, and I used that to buy the first two places and then the rent from one of them, with the mortgage repayment for both of them. Then I renovated the one and then that went up in value and then bought another two and so I claim to have retired before I started working, because my passive income covered all my living expenses before I even left school.

Zoë Routh:                       Holy crap.

Ilea Buffier:                      Yeah, that's little claim to fame.

Zoë Routh:                       That's no small, little thing.

Ilea Buffier:                      And I'm going to spend it on my passive income.

Zoë Routh:                       Wow. Okay, okay. Stop the podcast now. Amazed already.

Ilea Buffier:                      My passion that I developed as I was leaving school was around helping businesses move towards an environmentally sustainable future. That was the buying the business to start with. I've been reading a lot of books, like Natural Capitalism and Cradle to Cradle. The business that I bought in '95, Interiors, which was then called Cambra Contract Furniture, then being the deal of the Steel Case. Was then Hayworth and now Steel Case, was featured really heavily in those books. It was a way to lure that business and be involved in those amazing companies, which was really exciting.

Zoë Routh:                       Wow. God. That's amazing vision. Let's backtrack a little bit. The two books, Natural Capitalism and Cradle to Cradle, those two are the main ones that you've -

Ilea Buffier:                      Yeah.

Zoë Routh:                       Okay. You read about Steel Case and that led you into the idea of maybe working in furniture to work with those kinds of companies. Did I capture that correctly?

Ilea Buffier:                      Yeah, yeah, definitely. It was ... It's a passion of moving business towards sustainability, but a way that they demonstrated in Natural Capitalism and Cradle to Cradle was the power of the supply chain and how to integrate sustainability into all areas of business. It was exciting to be involved in that and then I took it further with the other business, the sustainability business, which was more purely the sustainability part.

Zoë Routh:                       Okay, so tell us a little bit more about that particular business.

Ilea Buffier:                      Well, I invested in a company called Carbon Planet in 2005. It had a suite of services that I was the dealer for then. Then I did some other courses called SCORE, which is the Sustainability Assessment tools and things like that that were a suite of services and the green building, assessment star ratings and that thing. The Green Building Council of Australia courses. I was helping the property industry, but also any sect of business, measure their footprint, benchmark it, reduce their emissions, that type of thing. Then that developed in conjunction with Carbon Planet, which I'm an investor in, and they expanded quite rapidly, but then sadly shrunk quite rapidly after the repeal of the carbon price in Australia as well.

Zoë Routh:                       Obviously there wasn't a huge imperative to follow through on that without the support of that legislation. There's still an interest and in being sustainable in terms of reducing carbon emissions and the footprint on the planet, what kinds of businesses are interested in that on developing that level of responsibility in their business? Who is attracted to that? What's their profile generally?

Ilea Buffier:                      I think it's all business, really. If they're not, they should be. The rate that you're showing that investors are taking that seriously now and it should, yeah, be a part of every business decision and every type of business. The people that are getting left out, the smaller businesses. The large business has really geared up to fade and are measuring sustainability metrics and that type of thing. My next focus is that next level down, which is the people that don't have internal teams or can't employ the big four consulting firm to help them and focus on those companies that are getting a bit left out, but still have a lot of potential to reduce their carbon footprint.

Zoë Routh:                       What are your suggestions for those folks?

Ilea Buffier:                      I'm trying to make it easier, because I went through the whole process with Nine to Five Interiors of foot printing the business and doing everything we could to reduce, and buying green power and offsetting and all that sort of stuff. It was quite a costly experience. It was about a $2,000 for the assessment, and I was in the industry and I knew that was a good price. That was what we should be paying for, but for a small business that was still a big chunk of money. In terms of the returns, you get on that up and the feel good factor. It wasn't a lot. It was a big process to go through as well. It took months of data collection and that type of thing. I'm trying to make that easier and take the arduous, costly factors out of it and make it something that could be embedded into everything that could make it more effortless.

Zoë Routh:                       Okay, well that's great, because there's plenty of passionate business people who would love to do the right thing and then gets stopped, as you say, because of the limitations of finances. 2K is a lot in a small business. It's like, "Do I pay my staff? Do I invest in my marketing to get new business? Or do I do this side thing, which is a long-term benefit, but not an immediate one?" That's great.

Ilea Buffier:                      Yeah, and it'd be much better if that was invested in new and other energy efficiency measures other than getting the assessment done.

Zoë Routh:                       Yeah, yeah. Okay. All right, so this idea ... We've gone from higher level sustainability principles, which in itself is really attractive and engaging for staff, I think, because a lot of the research around employee engagements is that employees really want to work for organisations that are purpose driven, value spaced. Sustainability is well, it's a key benefit and a key value, which should be a key benefit and value for all of us. It's an attractive proposition for people. Coming back to your specific work around furniture though, and what you put in your bio about creating workplace, that workplaces that engage, inspire. How do you do that through your work?

Ilea Buffier:                      I think you need to start with two things: One, like you said, the purpose of the organisation, but then two is designing for the individual, so taking the time to figure out how they think as people. The workplace has changed to where creativity is not an optional extra, or the realm of the interior design isn't ... And graphic design, it's a business imperative now. Asking questions of the employees of what type of problem solver you are and where you do your thesis thinking, are some of the ways it's got to impact the requirements. You have your individual star. Then you can create the workplaces around your business purpose and how your people work. That really helps to lift the engagement and develop the skills and places they need to express their authentic self and create alignment with that purpose.

Zoë Routh:                       Wow, okay. It captured one of them. So asking employees: What is their deepest thinking? There was another one that you mentioned in terms of profiling the individual workers. What was that one?

Ilea Buffier:                      Asking them what type of problem solver they think they are.

Zoë Routh:                       Oh. What kinds of problem solvers are there?

Ilea Buffier:                      There's ... I'm not sure of all the data on that. They've got a whole ... Steel Case has a list of questionnaires that can go out to help people unpack these problems. It's not your standard, four criteria. It's like a whole matrix and actually have cool, little badges and stuff that give a visual picture of what type of problem solver you are. Yeah, it's a complex analysis.

Zoë Routh:                       Wow. Okay, I never really thought of that as being part of understanding how people show up at work is what kind of problem solving they did, but it totally makes sense. And when you ask people what kind of, where you do your deepest thinking, is there a range of answers to that? What kinds of things do people answer?

Ilea Buffier:                      A lot of it comes back to nature. I think incorporating plants and things inside the environment and having good access to views and outside light and that type of thing. It's all really important to feel that relaxed connection, and quiet spaces. There's a lot of open plan offices and how horrible they are to work in, because you can never get that quiet space. They're having time to go and sit somewhere quietly and recharge and not be interrupted. I think all those things are really important.

Zoë Routh:                       Yeah, I think that's an interesting point, that we've had some push-back on open plan concept and it was meant to dismantle hierarchy and to build collaboration and creative thinking, and as you said there's been some sort of ... People are saying, "I can't concentrate. I can't do my deep thinking." Is there a balance between the two where ... I get a sense that open space, sharing piece is important. I could be wrong. You can tell me. And that quiet, reflective, focused type of space. Tell me about what you have seen your work around that.

Ilea Buffier:                      Steel Case has done a lot of research. They are a massive company and they've developed what I call the ecosystem of spaces. It's designed around having a palliative of spaces that you can go to that have a variety of movement, the posture, which is a variety of movement, and they can move around and sit in different positions and lounge and stand, and all that sort of thing. Then a variety of presence, which is more the digital and analogue, physical and virtual. Those spaces allow interactions with teams as well as a couple of colleagues sitting together. That could be a couple of colleagues on the other side of the world at the moment. We've got a lot of distributed teams and working across globally, in different time zones and all that thing. Then the option of privacy, so either focus or rejuvenation, having places to be able to go as well as interact. It's having the variety of spaces is what's really important to create that ecosystem, which is what you really need in all areas of the work environment.

Zoë Routh:                       I love that concept, ecosystem of spaces. That's really super cool. It makes sense too, because gone are the days when ... Well, sitting in cubical land is not natural. It's taking the factory concept where we stand in a line and produce stuff, and applying it to the office space. Cubical nation has been ... I walk into some of those spaces these days and it's like, "Oh my god." It's so depressing.

Ilea Buffier:                      Yeah. You're about to think about something amazing and then someone interrupts you and you have to take 20 minutes to get back to where you were.

Zoë Routh:                       Yeah, yeah. Okay, cool. I know ... You sent me a little bit of stuff on Steel Case. One of the things they do is ... Their ecosystem of spaces is one of their design principles. The other one was designing for physical, cognitive, and emotional well being. Tell me how they do that. Physical, emotion, and cognitive well being. What does that look like?

Ilea Buffier:                      Yeah, that's the intersection of all three that's where the well being fits. Physical, being healthier, which is really the only one that's being considered in traditional offices, which is getting up and moving, healthy postures, a good, ergonomic chair, and staying comfortable and energized. That's really the only one people have given any thought to. The other two are cognitive and emotional. Thinking better, and that's where the rejuvenation spaces and the thinking spaces and quiet spaces come into it, but also team building spaces and places that two people can go and knock out an idea together. It's having those spaces that make you be able to do your best thinking. Then the emotional, which comes back to the nature in the workplace and bringing a sense of belonging and connection between the people in the organisation, but also the organisation itself. How to, yeah, how to make them feel included and they're happy being there. So the physical, cognitive, and emotional are the ... Yeah, the intersection of those is what you for to create a full, holistic well being of the individual in your organisation, which ultimately leads to benefits for the whole organisation.

Zoë Routh:                       Absolutely. If people are feeling well, mentally, physically, and emotionally, then they could bring their whole selves to work and feel like they're achieving and being successful and that's where they belong. Totally makes sense to me. Question. This sounds fabulous if you have very deep pockets and you could start from scratch and you can design it perfectly from scratch. What about organisations that don't necessarily have a lot of money? Can you take existing buildings and play with what they've got to create some of this stuff? What's your experience with that?

Ilea Buffier:                      Totally, totally. All this is showing that you can potentially reduce your footprint by 50%. Obviously a building that you don't build is the cheapest one and the most environmentally friendly. People aren't ... The status symbol nowadays doesn't revolve around the corner office. It revolves around what Steel Case has found is that it revolves around choice and control. That's becoming the new status symbol for today's workers. They don't want the big office where they're isolated from the team, that they have to sit in it all day and stay there until 8:00 at night to be seen to doing anything. They want to be able to work at home, work at the café, work in a lounge and still be seen to be productive and valued as a part of the organisation. It's not a big cost thing, really. It's about designing well. I believe that with everything you do, it doesn't necessarily have to cost more. It's about putting the thought into it and designing well from the start that gives you the best outcome.

Zoë Routh:                       That is so cool. I love that. I had no idea. That's really new concept for me, that status is no longer about the corner office, but about choice and control. That's really cool insight. This idea of reducing your footprint by 50%, so not building a building, not ... Don't bulldozing and reconstructing. What do you mean? Was there something else apart from not doing that that would reduce your footprint by 50%?

Ilea Buffier:                      Well, it's the fact that having the choice and control means you don't necessarily have to give everyone the desk. Everyone doesn't have to have a big footprint in a big office. If they can have small desks and then they can have a lounge area and then they have a break out area. Most people aren't at work all day, every day and there's lots of people on leave and holidays. Having unidentified space can be an answer to reduce that down and give you that flexibility to reduce cost and size and all that thing. It doesn't work for every organisation, but getting it right for that organisation can unlock you to potential.

Zoë Routh:                       Okay, so I get it now. Reducing floor space can reduce your footprint as well. Got it now. That makes a lot of sense and I love that it doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg to do that. How does your furniture fit into this design? I'm curious about that?

Ilea Buffier:                      Well, I think furniture really defines the space. It tells you what you're going to do in it. The building doesn't change much, but we believe that place matters, and the way that people have been working has changed dramatically over the last ten, 25 years. It's all extremely different and that thing that's changing is the furniture. Yeah, creating spaces and elements of nature and all the new, advance technology that we are now integrating into furniture, like every couch you sit on nowadays has a power and data plug to be able to plug your computer into and you've got rooms with video conferencing and virtual reality. It's pretty amazing what you can do. I would consider all of that furniture. I don't know if you count the nature as furniture, but I do. Yes, it's all about creating the spaces and finding where people can work best. That, I think that really does come down to the furniture.

Zoë Routh:                       That's really cool. Have you got many clients who are using virtual reality in their offices?

Ilea Buffier:                      Yeah, definitely. We've done a lot with a few, big government departments, which I'm not allowed to name, but they have offices all around Australia and we have video conferencing facilities where they can share screens and everyone can throw off their screen of their computer, so they can actually get that real collaboration between different teams, instead of having a video conference where one person has control of what everyone sees and everyone looks. It's much more participatory and inclusive, so you can start to break down those physical barriers between locations. Steel Case, for example, they had a wormhole, live video feed constantly in their office, so in Sydney they had a team of 20 people and then in Guadeloupe they had a team of 50 people. Then they collaborated those teams together, so that they could isolate ... In Guadeloupe they would do all the pricing and drawing, and then the Sydney team would be more the consultancy part of it. They worked seamlessly together even though they're in different time zones and continents.

Zoë Routh:                       Oh, that's so cool. Awesome. I have to ask about this, because it's a hot topic also, when it comes to furniture and the standing desk. Can you put your desk up to standing or sitting? Walking desks, cycling desks. I even seen reclining desks. Have you seen those where people recline in their chair?

Ilea Buffier:                      Oh, yeah, we have lots of them.

Zoë Routh:                       Oh, my god.

Ilea Buffier:                      Totally, we sell them. They're great.

Zoë Routh:                       Do people actually do that? They're lying like they're in a lounge recliner and they're computer is that eye level, but tilted with you. It's like a dentist chair with a thing in front of you.

Ilea Buffier:                      Yeah, yeah. It's not something you would do 24 hours a day, eight hours a day. It's having that choice, so you can go from one place to the other and you might sit in it for an hour when you need to focus and not be distracted, and that gives you that visual prompt of, "I'm in a little booth and I don't want to be distracted." That's where it's really valuable. It's the same for ... Well, the cycling desks and walking desks, where you put them, but it may be a recharge time out space in a room where you want to go and sit on the treadmill and read some reports or something like that, and you don't want to be interrupted. It's that visual break, but it's ... None of those ones are something that you would ever use full-time. It's if you're in a big organisation and you have that variety, then it's fun to go and use them. The stand-up desks though, I think that's ... Well, it is becoming standard across all the fit-outs that we're doing. The big pipeline in Sydney is the new, because we're all living such extremely sedentary lifestyles and a little bit of standing up each day can do so much health wise, and you lose 50 calories an hour by standing versus sitting.

Zoë Routh:                       Hee-haw.

Ilea Buffier:                      Yeah. It's once again not something you can do all the time. That's why the sitting versus standing is so important to be able to move effortlessly between the two. Yeah, so I think that's a really important trend. The rest are nice to have, but the sitting, standing option is a really valuable one, and there's a lot of new technology at the moment that's coming out that can link your desk to your phone or your computer, so you can be going to any desk. You plug your computer in or sync your phone to it, and it will automatically tell you if you're meeting your standing goals for that day and if it's time to stand up or sit down, know what height you like your desk at. You click, "Okay," on your phone and it automatically takes the desk to the height you want and you can click another button and it takes it back up to standing height. It's all adjusted specifically for you, so that you don't have one tall person and one short person all trying to stand at different heights. Yes, it's really amazing what they can do now with the technology integration to the desks.

Zoë Routh:                       That's really cool. Your team and everybody has their app on their phone and they move around to that particular desk, key in, and the desk goes ... And sorts it out. We have that facility in our car, actually. You can program in each drivers preferences, so it's similar thing I guess. This is the advent of internet of things, really, so that connectivity.

Ilea Buffier:                      Exactly.

Zoë Routh:                       Highly personalized. I have a standing desk and I've had it for a couple of years. I love it. I think it's great. It's adjustable too. You do have ... This is the misnomer of a standing desk, I think is people think that you stand in the same place all day. That's actually not true at all.

Ilea Buffier:                      Yeah, it's about movement. You have to keep moving.

Zoë Routh:                       It's great. I love the fact that you pointed out all these different spaces and for different type of thinking. Lately, because the weather's improving, because I have a home office, I work all over the place in my home. Last week I took a coaching call outside in my garden. I sat in the sun. It was lovely. The birds were going off.

Ilea Buffier:                      Awesome.

Zoë Routh:                       I was speaking highly focused with my client, which was all good until my phone overheated in the sun.

Ilea Buffier:                      Oh my.

Zoë Routh:                       I had to go inside. That is one risk. I'm like, "Oh, I need to manage that better next time."

Ilea Buffier:                      But it was probably really relaxing for the people listening to you to hear the birds chirping in the background and everything like that, a bit of more nature integration.

Zoë Routh:                       It was, except for the baby magpie. That was not so relaxing. That was more like ... I had to go shew it away. Other birds were much better. Okay, so coming back to this idea of employee engagement and workplace environment. It seems to me if you design for variety and keeping these things in place, cognitive, emotional, and physical well being, it seems to me, it seems like an obviously towards employee engagement. Is that your experience in the businesses that you've worked with? You fix the space and people are automatically more engaged, or is there something else in the mix? What do you think?

Ilea Buffier:                      It is, but it's that constant adjustment and reassessment, so you might have put a little meeting booth a little bit too far away and people aren't using it, or the space isn't quite working the way you wanted it to and you're not getting that level of engagement. I think it's really important to continue the process after you move into a new space to say, "Are you getting the engagement? Is everyone happy? Are they thinking the way they want to? Have they got the space to go to?" Then constantly adjusting that and tweaking it. That could change for the same organisation over a year. It might be great when you move in, and then things change and you need to keep adjusting it. I think it's that constant awareness of how your people are going with well being and then how the space can enhance that and maximize it, being aware of it and doing regular check-inspection to make sure it's all still working.

Zoë Routh:                       I think that's a useful principle across the whole idea around culture as well. It's not just physical space. It's all about touchpoints and tribe development, that sense of community. Those aspects, I think, also contribute to healthy culture and engagement. Like monitoring space use and whether it's working or not, you have to monitor those things too. That constant monitoring adjustment.

Ilea Buffier:                      And say, "Done."

Zoë Routh:                       Yeah, that's right. That culture, culture plan. Done. It's beginning. No one has people leaving, people arrive, and they've got a new work style, and people have to adjust around that. It's a constantly shifting thing. I think that's a useful comment to make that it's not, "Do your renovations, then it's done." People are fixed and now engaged. Good leadership is about paying attention to those health signals or lack of health signals and being able to adjust accordingly. I love this concept of space being supportive of employee engagement, employee performance, staff engagement and staff belonging, a sense of inspiration and deep work. I think it's one of the most profound things that we can do in terms of, as leaders creating environments that create outstanding results for people, so that people can have outstanding results for themselves. Actually, this whole idea of environmental design is something I learnt about as a broad concept about 15 years ago from Thomas Leonard, who was the founder of Couch Phil and Coach You.

                                           He had this concept, and I'm curious to flag it with you as my last question for you. He had this concept of, "Well, things are always evolving or adapting to their space. As human, we actually have the capacity to craft environments that can cause evolution, whereas other animals respond to their environment and evolve that way. Polar bears have white fur so they can be camouflaged and warm, as an example, or chameleons have the capacity to shift their colouring to adapt their environment. Humans can actually create their environment and evolve with it. What do you think about that? Do you think that our designing spaces and our use of furniture is causing human evolution?

Ilea Buffier:                      I don't know about the whole evolution, but I'm definitely a firm believer in you create your space and when you'll see that space creates you. I built a new house and I feel like I'm now the best person I can be, whereas before my old house was bringing me down and suffocating me. I think that's so true in your own home, but also in office environments. It really does bring you up or pull you down, and you can work with that and get the most out of the space to get the most out of you.

Zoë Routh:                       That's fabulous. I love that. You create your space. Your space creates you. What a fabulous way to end our podcast. Ilea, you are amazing, and I love your contributions and I think -

Ilea Buffier:                      Well, thank you.

Zoë Routh:                       You're a remarkable business person and a lovely person. Thank you so much for coming on the call. It's been fabulous.

Ilea Buffier:                      My pleasure. Lovely to talk to you. Thank you.