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Getting back to business: How COVID-19 has shifted priorities in the transformed workplace

June 16, 2020

By Heather Greene

Our Workplace Transformation Survey found that 88% of respondents are eager to get back to the office. But that comes with many caveats.

This pandemic has caused us all to stop, reflect, and plan for a new world—one that we did not anticipate, and few had a game plan for. Safety, health, wellbeing, mitigating risk, and choice have become key initiatives to move forward. But how are they implemented? What are the most important things to do now? What do the long-term implications look like? These questions have been asked of us, and we expect you are asking yourselves these same questions as you begin to plan for re-entry into the office.

Research and benchmarking to make informed decisions

We have always believed in research and benchmarking to guide decision making in design, and our response to workplace design amid COVID-19 should be no different. To help guide our response, we developed a Workplace Transformation Survey that we sent to over 130 Stantec clients across a diverse section of industries.

The responses came from all regions in North America, with 48% of companies represented having over 1,000 employees. Roles of survey respondents ranged from executive and C-Suite leadership to managers in sales, marketing, communications, facility and project management, and other administrative functions. Represented industries included: banking, legal services, retail, real estate, technology, healthcare, energy, and government entities. We wanted to respond with action items directly related to our clients’ concerns, fears, and possible opportunities they believed were important to explore moving forward.

It was overwhelmingly apparent that these last couple of months had forever changed peoples’ views on remote work and that most respondents (82%) felt this would have lasting impact on the workplace in the future. Not surprisingly, top concerns in returning to work related to physical safety and social distancing, specifically proximity to other people, sanitation, safety, and security. While people are adjusting to a remote work world, the need to connect socially with people in the office and face-to-face were the top two reasons why teams want to return to work. This suggests that there may be a larger cultural shift from the office as a place to focus to the office as a place to collaborate and come together.

"We are remote work capable. Having an office is a cultural choice rather than a necessity. We need to decide going forward how important that office is to our culture." - Quote from client survey

To address the top concerns raised in the survey, we gathered a multi-disciplinary group of experts to provide a holistic checklist for re-entering the workplace. We wanted to address the most critical factors first and provide action items that specifically focus on safe at work plans, occupant safety and health, cleaning and disinfecting, and indoor air quality.

How these are implemented will depend on whether a client owns their own real estate or needs to collaborate as a tenant with their landlord or real estate consultant. Prioritizing safety is the most important factor and implementing guidelines from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) for social distancing will depend on a number of factors unique to each companies’ floorplan, density, and future remote work plans. It is also critical to note that changes in the floorplan cannot impede egress, life safety, or accessibility guidelines. Thoughtful planning will need to be implemented to balance all requirements.

Human-focused ideas for a new workplace

These are complex and interdependent issues. People want to return to work to connect. But at the present time, we must utilize social distancing to maintain public safety. So, how do we balance these competing tensions? Thoughtful, long term strategies will not just address virus mitigation alone. They really look to understand the how, when, and where of work—prioritizing the health and wellbeing of people.

We have always believed in research and benchmarking to guide decision making, and our response to workplace design amid COVID-19 should be no different.

Remote work, once seen as a perk for some, has become the new norm overnight. Employees will be apprehensive to give this privilege back and, for many companies, an integrated remote work policy can help un-densify the office in the short term and empower stronger engagement and retention in the long term. But choice is not simply “where do I sit in the office when I return”? It should be integrated into workflows and provided to all employees equitably. Will their focus work happen in the office, at home, or another location of their choosing? What we do know is employees want to come to the office for social connections. Additionally, engaging stakeholders in the process of defining their workplace in the new normal is also a key consideration employers should make. If remote work creates less demand for personally-assigned real estate, then how do workers want to use the office when they are there?

Smart buildings and technology can further empower choice and support in managing safe buildings. These tools focus on the user experience to seamlessly integrate our remote work and work in the office. We explore how digital building management tools, disaster and resiliency software, UV disinfecting robots, and wellbeing apps can be integrated into the physical place and a communication platform to stay connected, engaged, and safe.

Communicating with clarity

Keeping people engaged and safe will require thoughtful communication plans. These plans should be both tactile and digital to deliver a clear and concise message to the users. This is not the time for yellow caution tape and orange cones that trigger responses of fear in most. It’s a time to think about communication in a clear and humanized way. Can a simple red light/green light signal outside the building notify you that the entrance is very crowded so you could remain in your car to wait? Or could we utilize secondary building entrances to mitigate high traffic areas at peak morning arrival times? Additionally, do you plan to provide wellness stations or require screenings upon arrival? If so, now is the time to develop communication plans that transparently communicate the new expectations and protocols in the space.

A cure for the workplace blues

Prior to the pandemic, the National Institute of Mental Health reported that one in five adults in the US suffer from a mental illness. With many working remotely through this pandemic and cut off from social interaction, that number is expected to rise. How does the workplace support not only physical health but mental health as well?

Stantec recently sponsored experimental biophilic design research from the Healthy Building Program at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The study examined whether bringing nature indoors has a positive impact on employees’ mental health and long-term wellbeing as a business strategy. The study demonstrated a link between design and physical wellness (blood pressure, heart rate variability, and stress) as well as cognitive function (computational, creative, and innovative tasks). With a critical focus on wellness, designing to support the entire person can no longer be seen as a luxury afforded to some. It must now be looked to as the norm.

Moving forward

Through all these strategies of choice, wellbeing, technology, and resiliency, we can build a transformed workplace that thoughtfully meets the needs of its users and the companies it houses. By establishing a framework for the evolving workplace—centered around why people want to come back to work—we can meet their physical, emotional, and cognitive needs.

Instead of only mitigating risk, we can begin to think about what our teams need to thrive. While the task of preparing for the transformed workplace can seem daunting, we can design a better place for teams to come together through education, engagement, and evolution. This results in the ability to produce meaningful work and build communities we are proud to participate in.

We will see the other side of this pandemic. We will overcome the challenges together and build a new normal that may look a bit different than before. But, it will become no less important for people to come together to innovate, inspire, and create.

Take a deeper dive into the findings of our Workplace Transformation Survey by downloading our guidebook.

This is the third in a multipart blog series on how workplaces can respond and adapt to the new normal following COVID19. Catch up on the previous posts:

  • Heather Greene

    Focusing on workplace strategy, storytelling, optimization, and branding, Heather works to synergize design and strategy.

    Contact Heather
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