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An Interview with Phil La Duke

Implementing open environments: Many years ago, PepsiCo World Headquarters in Purchase, New York forever changed the persona of corporate campuses by nestling a major building complex into the natural landscape. Part corporate campus, part lifestyle and part education, the creative interplay between woodlands, hardscape and gardens results in a series of outdoor living rooms of blended courtyards, informal meadows and an outdoor sculpture garden that improved the health and well-being of employees. This site has received numerous accolades for retaining its original design integrity and 20+ year positive contribution to the public realm of the community.

There have been major disruptions in recent years that promise to change the very nature of work. From the ongoing shifts caused by the COVID19 pandemic, the impacts caused by automation, and other possible disruptions to the status quo, many wonder what the future holds in terms of employment. For example, a report by the McKinsey Global Institute that estimated automation will eliminate 73 million jobs by 2030.

To address this open question, we reached out to successful leaders in business, government, and labor, as well as thought leaders about the future of work to glean their insights and predictions on the future of work and the workplace.

As a part of this interview series called “Preparing For The Future Of Work”, we had the pleasure to interview Scott LaMont, CEO at EDSA, a planning, urban design and landscape architecture firm.

Scott joined EDSA in 1996 and has been a driving force in the firm’s practice and strategic growth since. Before being named CEO, he was a Studio Leader and Principal, instilling the firm’s ethos with a design sensibility and comprehensive approach to projects while fostering long term client relationships. Scott is focused on the big picture tenets of people, client service and vision while leading the firm towards inspirational design with enthusiasm, devotion, creativity and humility. He is committed to the exploration of sustainable, modern ideals and fostering values which positively personify humanity. His broad range of global experience spans large scale planning assignments to mixed-use residential, hospitality and urban works that have strengthened EDSA’s reputation as a design leader.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

I was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida, and while it may sound cliché, my proximity to Disney greatly impacted my career choice. I remember being captivated by the construction of EPCOT and the energy and excitement around it. I was intrigued by the narrative of it all — built with the intention of creating memorable experiences for guests and the subtle detailing of an entire theme park that transports people to other places and spaces in time. The opportunity to play a part in creating meaningful spaces — that inspired me to become a designer.

As I was nearing my time to enroll in college, I put my intentions into actions and pursued a degree in landscape architecture at the University of Florida. And shortly after graduation, I accepted an opportunity with EDSA and essentially have grown up along with the firm.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some major players in the industry — many of whom were leaders in our firm. Through mentorship, I learned the intricacies of the field, how we operate as a business and what it means to be an astute designer. But the most impactful lesson has been understanding the power of ‘we’. I realized early on that success comes from effectively collaborating with others, whether that’s clients or colleagues. And that’s an EDSA tradition that still resonates with every person in the firm today.

What do you expect to be the major disruptions for employers in the next 10–15 years? How should employers pivot to adapt to these disruptions?

We’re coming out of a major disruption, so it’s important to reflect on the challenges that came about as a result of the pandemic and learn from them.

COVID forced companies across every industry to fast track the adoption of trends they were previously just skimming. For example, the adoption of digital collaboration tools and decentralized practices were moving slowly, but that quickly changed once employers shifted to a remote work setting. The reality is that technology was at the core of keeping businesses afloat during this tumultuous period and showed all of us that work could be done from anywhere. Specifically, in our field and business, leveraging digital platforms has been transformational. It shifted the way we work as studios and allowed us to staff projects more effectively by creating teams based on experience rather than physical location of individuals. What we’re experiencing now is the pre-cursor of how we’ll be operating in the future, and we’re learning as we go.

The choice as to whether or not a young person should pursue a college degree was once a “no-brainer”. But with the existence of many high-profile millionaires (and billionaires) who did not earn degrees, as well as the fact that many graduates are saddled with crushing student loan debt and unable to find jobs it has become a much more complex question. What advice would you give to young adults considering whether or not to go to college?

This is a timely question as my daughter will be attending college next year. First and foremost, each individual needs to envision their future and then ask themselves: “What do I need to get there?” Get the information you need to make the most informed decision for you. If you’re asking me, my personal yes or no preference — Yes. I believe everyone who has attended college will agree that earning a degree is much more than the certificate. It’s learning from the experiences, challenges and relationships that come with it. I would not trade mine for anything.

Despite the doom and gloom predictions there are, and likely still will be. How do you see job seekers having to change their approaches to finding not only employment, but employment that fits their talents and interests?

My suggestion is to engage, do your homework and be informed. Everyone always says it, but professional relationships are and will always be key. It’s more important now more than ever to forge them. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone.

At EDSA, we facilitate having real conversations and raise awareness by reaching out to several universities to participate in recruitment fairs, volunteer as guest lecturers and invite students and faculty to tour our offices. Whether they come to work for us or not, we’re forming connections that matter.

The statistics of artificial intelligence and automation eliminating millions of jobs, appears frightening to some. For example, Walmart aims to eliminate cashiers altogether and Dominos is instituting pizza delivery via driverless vehicles. How should people plan their careers such that they can hedge their bets against being replaced by automation or robots?

It’s important for organizations to invest in technology and learn how to best leverage emerging applications to maximize productivity and efficiency. But, as designers we view technology as a tool in support of solutions-based thinking and not a replacement for the creative spark. Integrated into our process, intelligent modeling helps analyze data and alternatives, but it does not replace the emotional exploration of ideas or creative expression.

Technological advances and pandemic restrictions hastened the move to working from home. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?

Yes, but to a certain extent. Many businesses now have the flexibility to scale operations up or down and have realized that employees can be just as productive working remotely as they are being in the office. As we’re seeing now, businesses are testing out the hybrid model in which employees are incorporating a mixture of in-office and remote work. For us, at EDSA, we still value the ability to collaborate in a room together and provide hands-on mentorship, but also recognize certain aspects of our job can be done just as well or better working from home.

What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support the fundamental changes to work?

Taking center stage is work-life balance, and it for sure means different things to different people. Throughout the pandemic, we witnessed the burden working parents had to carry as they juggled their own work demands and school responsibilities for their children. Likewise, the needs for people to be outdoors and form healthy connections with nature increased in lifestyle value.

Going forward, employers will be pressured to continue with a hybrid work model that offers flexibility and support. And as a society, we must come to terms that being a dedicated employee and desiring an ‘out-of-office’ balance are not mutually exclusive but rather essential to an employee’s health and well-being.

What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employers to accept? What changes do you think will be the most difficult for employees to accept?

The most difficult thing for both employers and employees to accept is that work will never be quite the same, and there’s a learning curve that comes with it. We are rapidly deviating away from the traditional nine to five work model and entering a new era in which employees have the ability to set their own schedules. This new autonomy is certainly positive but will take some time for both parties to fully navigate.

The COVID-19 pandemic helped highlight the inadequate social safety net that many workers at all pay levels have. Is this something that you think should be addressed? In your opinion how should this be addressed?

It all begins with personal responsibility. During this difficult period, our society acted as nimbly as they could. The financial challenges individuals and businesses faced throughout this pandemic showed us that we must better prepare and have plans in place to stay afloat during circumstances like this. What is clear is that as a community we are resilient — and that gives me hope.

Despite all that we have said earlier, what is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?

My greatest source of optimism is the renewed focus on collaboration and sense of community. The pandemic showed us that no matter where we are in the world, we can come together as colleagues and friends and maximize our efforts to solve complex problems.

Historically, major disruptions to the status quo in employment, particularly disruptions that result in fewer jobs, are temporary with new jobs replacing the jobs lost. Unfortunately, there has often been a gap between the job losses and the growth of new jobs. What do you think we can do to reduce the length of this gap?

What is key here is to be more proactive. For example, at EDSA, we were aware of the challenges our economy was facing, but also realized that once recovery efforts were put in place there was going to be an urgent need to recruit candidates to meet immediate business needs. As leaders, we need to be brave and be a source of optimism — lean forward and take a leap of faith.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Trends to Watch In the Future of Work?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

The pandemic has certainly expedited our path to the “future of work” and with that came a transformation of the work environment in terms of physical space and culture, such as:

1. Maximizing technology: EDSA designed the KPMG Lakehouse campus to ensure continuous access to learning, enrichment and development opportunities with a design that connects employees and professionals to an inclusive and innovative setting. Integrating wired power poles throughout the outdoor campuses provides speedy Wi-Fi and easy to access outlets for people working outdoors. Power poles near furniture groupings are moveable to allow for ‘al fresco’ collaboration sessions while cabana setups provide shade and added wall elements to hang a monitor for outdoor meetings.

2. Encouraging work/life balance: At the Lake Mary Office Park, tenants had long enjoyed a suite of interior amenities including a grab-and-go café and complimentary fitness center. When analyzing possible upgrades to the property, the owners looked inward before realizing that renovating those amenities alone wouldn’t satisfy employees that had gotten used to working remotely. Instead, the owner’s focus shifted beyond the walls to providing experiential outdoor environments that encourage people to come back to work and enjoy themselves while they’re there. This included a bocce ball court as well as all-weather tables and chairs for an outdoor seating area adjacent to the café. A ground-level, elevation change between a building and public roadway allowed for the creation of an amphitheater-like setting for meetings and events, as well as a dedicated area for food trucks to offer dining possibilities.

3. Places to collaborate: We all need to balance the ‘zoom’ world with personal interactions. Set against an emerging metropolitan backdrop, the Food, Arts and Technology (FAT) Village has programmed spaces for scheduled activities or social exchanges that are safe and meaningful. Interlocking office buildings, residential towers and boutique hotels breathe life into the local community while cuisines from incubator restaurants infuse the district with international aromas. Globally inspired but organically-grown, the existing spirited art scene combines with a refined, walkable neighborhood to foster those magical moments — moments when we get to see each other in person, exchange in conversations, learn from each other and build relationships.

4. Implementing open environments: Many years ago, PepsiCo World Headquarters in Purchase, New York forever changed the persona of corporate campuses by nestling a major building complex into the natural landscape. Part corporate campus, part lifestyle and part education, the creative interplay between woodlands, hardscape and gardens results in a series of outdoor living rooms of blended courtyards, informal meadows and an outdoor sculpture garden that improved the health and well-being of employees. This site has received numerous accolades for retaining its original design integrity and 20+ year positive contribution to the public realm of the community.

5. Carbon offset: For more traditional urban environments, Brickell World Plaza in Miami, Florida shines as a smaller scale green oasis and park-like experience in the heart of downtown. Nearly 40,000 square feet of landscape is anchored by preserved large Oaks, Poinciana and Gumbo Limbos trees. These natural shading structures filter street noise and produce a multi-functional urban ecosystem that offer respite for nearby employees. By reconfiguring surface parking, the design reestablishes the site as an open-air destination while vehicular traffic is directed upwards through an adjoining 12-story parking garage with connectivity to the office tower.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how this quote has shaped your perspective?
“Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

For me, this quote underscores the importance of being passionate about what you do and pursuing a career that fulfills one’s personal and professional goals. I’ve always found that loving what you do translates to professional success in the long-term.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in business, VC funding, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

It might sound cliché, but I would be interested in chatting with Elon Musk. He’s an individual that continues to innovate and push the boundaries of what is possible.

Our readers often like to follow our interview subjects’ careers. How can they further follow your work online? I would say the best way to follow my work is to follow EDSA!

Website: www.edsaplan.com

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/edsaplan

Instagram: www.instagram.com/edsaplan

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success and good health.