If you build it, they will come. For two decades that hasn't just been a go-to movie reference for Darcey Estes, it's been her daily drumbeat. As T-Mobile's VP of Corporate Real Estate and Facilities, Estes has traveled all over the country helping the company build spaces that innovate and evolve the way it works.
"I feel really proud that I've been given the opportunity to make a difference in the workplace environment," says Estes. "What I get to do is reimagine and redesign and modernize our workplaces. I could not have a more fun job."
After the company’s merger with Sprint in 2020, T-Mobile continued the exciting process of an ambitious renovation of both its original headquarters in Bellevue, Wash. and its new HQ2 campus in Overland Park, Kan. It's the kind of opportunity that was literally 20 years in the making for Estes.
But what if you build it, and suddenly people can't come?
“As someone who’s been dedicated to creating the best workplace environment possible for our employees and our offices nationwide, when the pandemic began, making the difficult decisions to close our offices and have our people work fully remote was quite a transition.”
On Monday, April 12, for a fourth year in a row and fifth time overall, T-Mobile was named to FORTUNE’s annual list of 100 Best Companies to Work For, a highly coveted list created in conjunction with Great Place to Work based on employee feedback. Because the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everyone’s lives, this year’s list heavily emphasized how companies responded. How Estes and her team pivoted and updated T-Mobile’s extensive renovation plans and ponder innovative ways to solve new challenges in our new normal is one such shining example.
Starting in February 2020 and continuing even today, Estes and her team have adjusted in real time even as renovations were well underway, putting employee safety first and foremost. After helping to coordinate a shipment of some 40,000 masks to all back-office employees in the Spring of 2020, she got to work searching for ways to mesh her goal of creating inspiring spaces that promote productivity and wellbeing with the new responsibility of creating the safest environments possible.
After finalizing original plans of incredible new co-work spaces, high tech conference rooms, creative social spaces and top of the line amenities, Estes says her team then had to make further enhancements to integrate essential COVID-19 health safety features. Even the simple new normals like social distancing signage, capacity limits, sanitation stations, contactless building features and intensified cleanings were enormous tasks unto themselves.
Then there's the HVAC systems that were upgraded to maximize fresh air exchange rates, and MERV 13 filters were installed (considered hospital-grade filtration) that meet or exceed industry standards and utilize high-tech wizardry, like a solution called needlepoint bi-polar ionization to eradicate air particles (google it and have your mind blown).
“I’m really proud of all of the investments we have made to keep our employees safe,” says Estes. “All of our offices, care centers and retail stores will be certified by the International WELL Building Institute with the WELL Health-Safety rating which basically says T-Mobile meets the highest standards possible for our safety operations inside all of our facilities. And so when people do come back, we’re ready.”
Here Darcey Estes walks us through a bit more of the incredible redesign of T-Mobile’s headquarters in Bellevue, Wash. and Overland Park, Kan., highlights of her own 20-plus-year career at the company and, of course, why the Un-carrier is a truly great place to work.
You've had an incredible history with T-Mobile. What's been the evolution of the company's spaces since you came on board?
I've been with T-Mobile for over 20 years. It was my first job out of college, and I started in the network engineering operations division of the company. I moved several times, from coast to coast, and always had really exciting assignments and worked with great people. Five years ago I moved to the Bellevue area to take over responsibility for the Corporate Real Estate Facilities Team. It was an exciting time to see our company shift focus to developing a long-term strategy for the workplace and reinvent our offices for employees. We decided to consider the overall workplace environment. We wanted our workplaces to be modern, full of technology and spaces that support our company culture, where our employees can celebrate and socialize and collaborate and innovate. We wanted our design to bring in lots of natural light and have ergonomic furniture and have a variety of places for people to work because everyone has different working styles, whether that's heads-down work or collaboration with other teammates. We also wanted to make sure our workplace design was inclusive. We created a lot of areas that support our diverse workforce, from mothers' rooms to multifaith rooms, wellness rooms, all-gender restrooms - and improving the overall accessibility across our campuses.
For the fifth time, and fourth year in a row, T-Mobile has been named one of FORTUNE’s 100 Best Companies to Work For. How does it feel knowing you’re someone whose work directly impacts employees on a daily basis?
It's really important to me that our employees have a place when they come to work that supports how they work so that they're most productive and that the overall workplace environment is one that's fun and reflects our culture and our brand. Our culture, for those who are outside of T-Mobile, is fun and inclusive. We have a lot of camaraderie and celebrations, but we also work really hard. We love coming together to innovate and ideate and I think we've made magic when you think about some of our Un-carrier history.
As someone whose career has been dedicated to creating innovative and impactful work environments, what was it like to suddenly be involved in the initiatives to, in a sense, not have a work environment, and to move employees from HQ in Bellevue and Overland Park to full remote at the start of the pandemic?
I’m proud to say as a company we did a really good job. Our focus was on keeping our employees safe and that’s remained a priority for us at T-Mobile. Since last year, we began welcoming small numbers of people back on a 100 percent voluntary basis, and our offices are safer than ever. I’m really proud of all of the investments we have made. We’ve upgraded our HVAC and air filtration systems to hospital grade. We’ve implemented extensive cleaning protocols and social distancing markers. We even sent masks to employees nationwide who are working from home. All of our offices, care centers and retail stores will be certified by the International WELL Building Institute with the WELL Health-Safety rating which say T-Mobile meets the highest standards possible for our safety operations inside all of our facilities. And so when people do come back, we are ready and our offices are safer than they’ve ever been.
What do you believe the renovation will do for T-Mobile employees once people begin to return to the offices? How does it help with productivity, collaboration, safety and overall employee wellbeing?
We are really proud that the workplace design that we planned for the renovation at our headquarters both in Bellevue and Overland Park really supports things that employees want most in their workplace. They want to be able to come together as a team to collaborate and innovate and we've created a variety of spaces to do that from small, medium and large conference rooms; virtual conferencing spaces; fun and casual amenity floors, as well as beautiful spaces outdoors. Giving people access to fresh air and natural light is part of a great workplace environment. We have robust technology all throughout our spaces. We're expanding our onsite food offerings and created a space for people to come together and safely socialize as well as do the amazing innovative work that's we've been known for.
How do you envision the workplace will continue to change in the future?
I definitely think the workplace will continue to evolve. When we come back, it's important that we continue to listen to our employees about what they need most and want most from the workplace. I think the next couple of years will really be important for us to continue to experiment with new ways of working and how we design the spaces and the amenities that employees value. It's important to observe and figure out what is or is not working and then continue to adapt and respond to employee feedback.