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The misaligned workplace: What COVID-19 taught us

January 13, 2021

By Mary Sorensen

A global pilot project during the pandemic uncovers an imbalance that needs attention when we go back to work

This article first appeared as “Misalignment” in the Stantec Design Quarterly, Issue 11.

No aspect of modern life has been as upended by the pandemic so much as the workplace. What’s the future of the workplace in a world where we don’t need to go into the office to work? What trends are going to shape the office as we attempt to go back to work? What adaptations will be necessary to keep us safe?

Prior to the pandemic, the office was already evolving, but now expectations for change have accelerated and intensified. In fact, 42% of our clients surveyed expect a contraction in the commercial real estate market. Now, our clients are asking questions about the office with more urgency. To answer these questions, we must look at where the workplace was headed pre-pandemic and what this global work-from-home pilot project has illuminated about the future. 

Confidential technology client in Madison, Wisconsin.

Pandemic accelerated existing workplace trends

Due to the availability of technology and the evolving nature of work, remote work was already an option for many before COVID-19 hit. But now, businesses that were reticent to enable employees to work outside the office have been forced by necessity to experiment with it. By and large, they have seen success. Now they have experience to support that they can still get work done without sitting at an office desk. In fact, Stantec’s Workplace Transformation Survey found that of clients with an opinion, 54% felt that productivity has been positively impacted by working from home.

On the user side, many employees are experiencing a kind of relief. There was already simmering demand for more flexibility and choice in the workplace. Pre-pandemic, in the knowledge worker arena, I saw data that showed 74% would quit their jobs to go to a company that would allow work from home. Enabling choice for employees is one of the most influential, non-monetary benefits companies can provide to enhance satisfaction and improve retention.

There was already an evolution taking place in how we define the role of the office. The pandemic and work-from-home orders have accelerated it and showed us that, for many, the role of the office has changed.

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The Tennyson in Plano, Texas.

Economic pressures must be balanced against people-centered design

From a business perspective, there are always economic pressures to reengineer and find greater efficiencies. That often means reexamining the real estate portfolio. Since employees can be productive working elsewhere, the question is: “Why can’t we just shed that space and save some money?”

But before we throw the baby out with the bath water, it’s imperative to remember that organizational effectiveness requires more than individual efforts. High-performing workplaces enhance and promote the sharing of ideas through collaboration and interpersonal connections. They promote a sense of community and reflect a culture to connect an individual’s efforts to something greater than themselves. Engagement is a critical measure of employee satisfaction. Employers would do well to see the workplace as a strategic investment to optimize the value of their human capital.

Engagement, connection, sense of belonging, and mission are all elements of well-being, critical to organizational effectiveness where the physical workplace plays a strategic role.

Getting back to work, safely

In the near term, clients want to know about reopening the office they have. Addressing health and safety is a primary concern. We have already helped clients modify existing furniture and layouts to reinforce social distancing and assess circulation and traffic flow. Employers are implementing new protocols for sanitation, along with new signage and wayfinding strategies. Providing obvious visual cues serves as not only a reminder of individual responsibility but it communicates and reinforces that the company is invested in employee safety.

Download Stantec’s Getting Back to Business guide

Less visible, but equally important adaptations to communicate, are the engineering modifications of the space. We are working with clients on interventions such as touchless controls, modifications to MEP systems, including enhanced air filtration.

Even upgrades to lighting systems can be employed to provide passive disinfection. These COVID-related adaptations will become commonplace, as many are being evaluated as updates to building-code requirements or industry standards such as ASHRAE.

Today’s misaligned office

Technology has taken us a long way, but it doesn’t change the fact that we are human beings that seek connection in spontaneous, chance encounters with others. These serendipitous interactions are key to sparking new ideas and creating a sense of shared purpose.

People want to be in the office but not necessarily back at their desk. They want to engage with their colleagues, face-to-face. Stantec’s Workplace Transformation Survey indicates people want to come back to the office for collaboration/togetherness, but our benchmarking data shows that 56% of office space is dedicated to desks or individual/focus space with just 16% assigned to collaboration. There’s a misalignment between needs and what offices offer. 

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Confidential technology client in Madison, Wisconsin.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the future workplace

To optimize the workplace, we need a deep understanding of how work gets done, at all levels, starting with individuals. Then, we can design workplace solutions that are aligned to the strategic objectives and priorities of the organization. We have created an online tool to help illustrate a variety of workplace types. Each type is a generalization, or what an office might look like, for different types of organizations—from those heavily dependent on on-site employees, to those who need the office for short-term, “all-hands” team engagements.

The office will no longer be measured solely on its ability to support focus or collaboration. If individuals can focus elsewhere, the strategic workplace will provide what home and coffee shops cannot—community, connection, culture, and social engagement. This is not to suggest that we start building playgrounds. This is still about getting work done.

Engagement, connection, sense of belonging, and mission are all elements of well-being, critical to organizational effectiveness where the physical workplace plays a strategic role.

In re-envisioning the workplace, we ask what aspects of work do we set the stage for, that are not well supported in a virtual way? It seems that the scale is tipping, and the future workplace is where people come to work as teams, not as individuals. Employers will prioritize spaces that support being together. The high-performing workplace of the future will be a magnet, not just for employees. It will also bring together clients and partners, and for all these occupants it must visually and experientially communicate a company’s culture and brand.

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  • Mary Sorensen

    With a design career spanning two decades, Mary has worked in the workplace, technology, higher education, healthcare, and public utilities sectors.

    Contact Mary
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