Over the last six weeks many of the long-held notions of workplace have shifted dramatically. Work is – now, more obviously than ever before – what you do, not where you are. We’ve seen the “way we’ve always done things” turned on its head in record time as industry the world over has evolved their practices to meet this moment. For corporate America, the day-to-day looks quite different now than it did a few short weeks ago and many are asking: “is this just who we are now?”
There are plenty of think pieces to go around, many of them a dystopian perspective posturing that a return to offices is simply unnecessary; that working from home is the way forward. What’s been proven – in our firm and in companies everywhere – is that the ability to work from home is critical. Now, and well into the future. But we firmly believe – and research gathered from our teams has supported – a return to the office in some form or fashion is inevitable.
As humans we crave the obvious and not-so-obvious ways in which we are enriched – emotionally, creatively, spiritually, and physically – by the routines and interactions of commuting, arriving and working together. Our workspaces are communities, and as humans we are hardwired for the social relationships and bonds of that community. The sense of belonging, and sense of place, derived from it are critical ways in which we define ourselves, and it’s become abundantly clear that the physical office is revered for the human connections that happen, purposefully or accidentally, in those spaces.
A year from now, five years from now, will it all go back to the way it was? Maybe, though it’s likely some of the adjustments we make today are here to stay. So how can we adapt our workplaces to meet the physical, mental, and emotional needs of our employees today, and tomorrow? We explore a few key ideas.
Policy Meets Practicality
If your firm didn’t have a remote work or work-from-home policy in place before; you’ll need one now. And if you did have one, it likely needs some revising. Why? The far-reaching impacts of the COVID era have created (and will create) unique personal situations, many of which will necessitate greater support and flexibility in the months and years to come. For companies with a multi-national or multi-state workforce – where regulations may differ from location to location for the foreseeable future – having a strong remote work policy that covers your entire workforce will be critical to maintaining overall efficiency.
All indications point to the fact that some percentage of your office workforce will likely prefer to remain working remotely for some part of their week for potentially … ever. And some, depending on those unique personal situations we mentioned above, will need to. When polled, nearly 90% of our staff (reporting from various locations across the globe), said they’d like the opportunity to work from home for approximately 20-60% of their week moving forward. If your office is anything like ours, this means the number of people in the office day-to-day will change and change dramatically.
Your physical environment, once designed for X amount of people, now actually needs to function for Y. And don’t forget social distancing. While policies and best practices are still evolving, it’s clear some level of physical separation will be with us for a while yet to come; density needs to take a back seat to well-being. So, how do you adjust?
- Conference room and shared seating areas are the low-hanging fruit. Removing half of the seating in each designated area provides for appropriately-distanced gathering for those working collaboratively. Have a great 20-person conference room? It’ll now function perfectly for 10.
- Expanding workstations into social or amenity spaces is another way to create greater spacing, even if just temporarily. While your employee café or game rooms weren’t necessarily designed with this in mind, these spaces were always meant to flex, and the additional square footage they provide are ripe for exploration.
- Desking in the open office environment is the greater challenge. In our spaces, we’re considering a few different options to enable appropriate distancing for those working in the office. Reorienting individual desks to reduce face-to-face exposure is one tactic, as is removing alternating seats – especially in benching scenarios. Understanding personnel scheduling will be critical – especially if removing seating is part of the plan. Our teams largely felt more comfortable with assigned desks vs. shared hoteling options, at least in our initial return to our offices, to limit germ share. To achieve this plus appropriate spacing, some level of work-from-home is required, so here’s where strong policy (and all that it covers) comes into play.
- Considerations for mental well-being are more important than ever before. Employees returning to the office aren’t the same as when they left – numerous reports indicate the burdens of stress related to economic and health concerns, isolation and distancing, and the associated unknowns are wide-reaching. How can your space help to support the emotional and mental health of your team? The benefits of biophilic design are well-proven; consider adding larger live green plants to your space not only for their mood-lifting properties but the added air purification they provide. Enhancing employee access to natural light, widely prized for its measurable health benefits is also recommended.
Crafting an environment where your employees feel safe and effective is only half the battle. The longer-term implications are largely on the operational side of the business, impacting everything from visitor policies, to protocols for interpersonal engagement, and much (much!) more. Of the many things to consider, these space-centric ones should be high on the list:
- How does the reception / front desk area adapt to create a sense of welcome and security, while at the same time supporting potential enforcement of safety guidelines such as temperature checks, mask wearing, hand sanitizing and more? How is this clearly communicated in its design?
- Wall-mounted hand sanitizer stations – long a mainstay of healthcare facilities – are the most straightforward addition. Placement just inside your entry, in all shared areas (including kitchens, coffee stations, printer areas, conference and huddle rooms, etc.), and at designated areas throughout your office should be prioritized.
- Not all materials are created equally. Some are inherently more resistant to bacteria and other microorganisms and stand up better to continual disinfecting. Our substantial work in healthcare and hospitality means we are familiar with, and have utilized, several excellent products that are both aesthetically pleasing and operationally effective. Assess the potential benefits of replacing any FF&E that might be a challenge to keep clean or may not fare well with the daily disinfecting procedures advised by the CDC.
- To limit germ spread, consider adding sanitizing dishwashers anywhere you have a sink, if possible.
- With a greater percentage of your firm working remotely, how are your communication tools supporting your firm’s culture and brand across all platforms? Consider using monitors in shared spaces as communication platforms providing information, education, and virtual connection to remote employees and all offices – especially as guidelines and policies are changing.
The Long Game
Maybe you are somewhere in the first two-thirds of a lease term, or perhaps within a few years of the end of one. Regardless, the dynamic conditions of the coming months can be the best time to reevaluate how effectively your space is being used. What square footage is necessary acknowledging that, in many cases, remote work can be a highly effective alternative for your team? How much meeting and collaboration space is needed now and how does it need to function; what’s the best way to create productive work station areas for staff? In the past, economic downturns dictated correctional shifts in corporate real estate. Now is the time to be having thoughtful discussions around “what-if” and “why not” to bring about responsible, forward-thinking solutions. Necessity is truly the mother of invention.
Looking for guidance or design direction in adapting your workplace for its next act? Reach out to our Workspace team to strategize on short- and long-term adjustments to support your workforce, your business, and your bottom line.