Finding your new work flow: 4 steps to a healthy, adaptive workplace

Returning to the office post-COVID-19: What to consider and how to plan

By David Kahl  |  July 14, 2020
Fully Jarvis desk and Knoll ReGeneration chair in stairway home office with two peopleFully Jarvis desk and Knoll ReGeneration chair in stairway home office with two people

We’ve learned a lot of lessons in the last several months, and one is this: Work is much more than a place of employment.

Being part of and productively contributing to a team gives us satisfaction, develops our talents, provides social connectedness, shapes our identity, and helps us grow.

So “returning to work” goes beyond getting back to an office. It’s about reestablishing a place where we can express our gifts and talents as part of a group of people creating something together.

But in this uncertain moment, company leaders are being asked to re-imagine how we appropriately return to working together. How can we create a shared workplace that’s inspiring and productive, while maintaining social distancing? How do we create an agile office environment that meets our team’s needs in this rapidly changing dynamic? 

Fully has spent the last few months deeply listening to our clients, both large and small, as well as customers within the wider Knoll network, to help them think and work through their individual challenges and opportunities in returning to the office. While each situation is unique and nuanced, we’ve noticed patterns that may help you in meeting your own team’s needs in this moment. 

Working From Home is working

The number of remote workers in the workforce has grown steadily in the last decade, even exponentially. At the start of the year, an estimated 31% of global workers worked from home on a regular basis. And according to a study by Global Workplace Analytics, since the pandemic that number has jumped to 88%, with many planning to continue working from home permanently. This explosion in remote work has offered researchers an opportunity to study the work-from-home experience. Their results are encouraging for remote work advocates. 

The GWA study found that 70 percent of managers felt their teams’ work-from-home performance was as good — or better than — their performance in the office. And 71 percent of employees felt the same when evaluating their own work.

Managers felt their teams' work-from-
home performance was as good — or
better than — their performance in
the office.

There’s also an abundance of anecdotal evidence that working from home is working. Some of the largest companies in the world, including JP Morgan and Nielsen, are abandoning their office expansion plans and investing in their employees’ work-from-home set ups, offering stipends for both furniture and technology. Nielsen plans to convert its Manhattan-based workplaces into meeting spaces, with the intent of using them just once or twice a week. And major companies like Nationwide Insurance and Barclays are setting up some, if not all, employees to work from home permanently.

Fully has seen this with our clients, who have scrapped plans for major expansions in favor of prioritizing their employees’ home offices to fuel their work-from-home successes.

Work from home setup in a book nook with a person reading Work from home setup in a book nook with a person reading

People miss being together, and are hungry for structure and connection

As satisfying and productive as  the working-from-home experience can be, there are also significant reports of WFH fatigue, and even burnout, especially for people juggling roles as caregivers and homeschoolers.

A study from global architecture firm Gensler, which surveyed 2,300 workers from April 16th to May 4th, shows that 70% desire at least some time back in the office and don’t want to work from home permanently. 

70% of workers desire at least some time back in the office and don’t want to work from home permanently.

Being together lets people connect in a way that’s unachievable on Zoom or Google Meet, whether to brainstorm and creatively collaborate, or to problem-solve and deal with sensitive issues. Some people simply miss favorite coworkers and the social comradery an office provides.

This is especially true for younger workers surveyed, who feel a loss of structure, boundaries, and focus while working from home, and who miss the in-person feedback loop from supervisors. But while they miss human connection, they’re still nervous about getting sick or spreading COVID-19 if proper social distancing in the office is not established, communicated, and consistently upheld and maintained.

Woman working in an individual office space Woman working in an individual office space

Returning to the Office: 4 Steps to a Healthy, Adaptive Workplace

So how do we “Return to Work”? That question is a little misleading, because for most of us, we can’t go back to the work situation we once knew. Instead, we’re called to reimagine how we work together given all of our new realities.

Based on our own experiences at Fully and Knoll, as well as best practices emerging from health and workplace experts, we’ve created this guide to help you evaluate and plan your adaptive workplace.

  1. First, honestly evaluate your staff’s need to return to the office in order to create a plan that balances health, productivity, as well as emotional and mental wellbeing.

  2. Investigate how to best use work-from-home as long-term support.

  3. When you’re ready, craft and communicate a targeted return to a shared office. Successful plans are precise, intentional, and well-communicated.

  4. Assess, adjust, over-communicate, and repeat.

Here’s what each step looks like in more detail:

Step 1: Survey employees and assess your company's needs

For decision makers to create a workplace that fits this moment as well as their company’s unique culture, work challenges, and employee needs, company leaders must honestly assess:

  • How often do staff need to work together in person? How successful have people been working from home? What outcomes could be improved?

  • What part of our work is best accomplished in person? Who would benefit from being together? Which teams need to meet together in a given week, for how long, and how often?

  • What technology and tools do we need in order to support employees in the office and working remotely?

Understanding begins by listening to your people. If you ask people to come back to the office before they're ready, it can compromise morale, culture, and company values.

As you’ve no doubt found, when you begin by soliciting everyone’s input, actively listening, and incorporating their feedback into your plan, employees know that you value them. This builds trust and raises comfort levels by offering a feeling of safety and control in the middle of a chaotic time.

Survey Monkey and Gallup both offer survey templates, which can be supplemented by one-on-one phone or video conversations with department leaders, as well as employees who are influencers: high-performers and people with many social connections within the company.

Ask and listen:

  • Do they believe a safe return is possible?
    Assess mental and emotional needs as well as concerns about health safety. Feeling unsafe is a big concern, but so is feeling isolated, unsupported, and feeling socially disconnected.

  • Who needs the office environment for success?
    Ask if they feel successful working from home, and who needs the office structure and proximity to others to do their best work. Which of their work outcomes would improve through proximity?

  • What’s happening in their lives that could prevent them a return to the office?
    Who needs to continue caring for children and other family members? Who has a health condition or a family member or roommate with health conditions, that require higher levels of safety and limited exposure?

  • Can they get to work safely?
    Understand transportation demands—who has to take public transit or rideshare to get to work? Do you have adequate bike and individual car parking?

  • What changes need to be made at the office so that people feel safe?
    Employees are paying attention to how other companies are handling social distancing office design. What specific precautions and safety measures are important to them? Are they willing to commit to the safety protocols, such as wearing a mask and physically distancing?

Beyond crisis moments, companies that consistently invest in listening to employees strengthen their culture, productivity, and resilience, as well as overall joy in the workplace.

Woman sitting alone on soft seating in an open office Woman sitting alone on soft seating in an open office

When you begin by soliciting everyone’s input, actively listening, and incorporating their feedback, employees know that you value them.

Step 2: Make sure every employee is empowered to do their best work from home

The CDC recommends that all employees who can do their jobs from home should continue doing so. But even for companies planning a return to a shared office, every worker should have a home office that supports them doing their best work.

Experts agree that for the foreseeable future, no more than 30 to 50 percent of employees should be in the office at one time to allow for proper physical distancing.

And with daycare, schools and summer programs still closed or open in limited capacity, some employees have no choice but to work from home in the short term.

So whether for part-time, contingency, or working from home permanently, companies are making sure every employee is supported with a smart, healthy home office that helps them feel and do their best. Global leaders like Google and Shopify have set up home office reimbursement programs that combine employee discounts with a company-sponsored stipend. (Click here to learn more about these programs.)

Even for companies planning a return to a shared office, every worker should have a home office that supports them doing their best work.

Companies are also supporting remote workers’ wellbeing and success with wellness stipends, digital workout programs, access to mental health experts, and flexible policies like allowing employees to adjust hours to work around their family members.

Here are some helpful guides on how to support your staff as they set up a healthy home office:

Airy home office in dining room with Cooper desk converterAiry home office in dining room with Cooper desk converter
Flexible office design Flexible office design

Flexible work design: solving what the open office couldn’t accomplish. Learn more

Re-prioritize your office for important collaborative work, and let employees do their individual and “focus” work from home.

Step 3: When you’re ready, craft and communicate a targeted plan for a safe return to the office

Since a healthy, adaptive workplace blends time in the office along with remote working, it’s important to be strategic about how to use your shared space. Experts suggest prioritizing your office for collaborative work, and encouraging employees to continue doing their individual and “focus” work from home.

Most modern offices – 70 percent – have an open floor plan which can be easily adapted to flexible usage with social distancing office design. Prioritize functions, activities, and teams that would most benefit from sharing space. Create dedicated places for each function and activity, designed with proper physical distancing built in, which naturally encourages employees to adopt safe practices.

A safe and successful return to the office relies not only on smart social distancing workplace design and safe practices, but clearly communicating the plan and getting buy-in from every person who will use the space. Giving each person time to understand and digest the plan, ask questions, and understand their responsibilities before the date of return can ease tensions and calm fears.

Distributing written guidelines with clear, outlined protocols not only prepare people for the act of returning, but for the ongoing work that goes into staying in the office.

Social distancing in the workplace: design and layout

6 expert tips, guidelines, and solutions

Desks designated for A and B groupsDesks designated for A and B groups

1. Move people and teams back gradually.

With offices only able to safely support 30-50% of your employees at once, consider establishing teams into A/B groups, and have each group come in on specific days or shifts. 

2. Limit individual desks

Reduce the number of desks in the space to match the number of employees returning to the office at one time, add felt or acrylic partitions, and arrange desks to create 6-foot buffers.

If you’re tight on space, consider creating neighborhood desk pods, assigning every other desk to groups coming in on separate days.

Add cubbies or lockers where staff can store personal items, including their own keyboard, mouse or chargers. This keeps items from home contained and makes cleaning quicker and easier.

Desks spaced at least 6 feet apart and staggered desks to maintain distanceDesks spaced at least 6 feet apart and staggered desks to maintain distance
Maintain social distancing in conference room and casual meeting spotsMaintain social distancing in conference room and casual meeting spots

3. Get meetings out into the open

To maintain social distancing, you’ll likely need to limit the number of people allowed in conference rooms. Instead, utilize your open spaces for collaborative work by adding moveable partitions (like rolling white boards that can do double duty), bookshelves, storage cubbies, console tables and plant walls to help create designated meeting spaces. These elements not only create the flexibility you need to adjust your space on the fly, but help add elements of warmth that energize employees and boost feelings of safety and security. 

Utilize large conference tables and even living room environments (with sofas and other soft seating) that allow people to get comfortable and working together safely, even if “together” happens from 6 feet apart. 

4. Create a safe "flow" and use signage + visual cues

Use visual cues and wayfinding methods to help people flow through the space while maintaining physical distancing. This can include arrows to indicate flow of traffic, X’s or 6-foot circles to assist in creating healthy ‘together-while-apart’ space, signage to remind people of hand washing and sanitizing practices, and labels to identify desks for specific work shifts.

Diagram showing safe flow and directional guides in an office space Diagram showing safe flow and directional guides in an office space
Diagram showing open windows and various cleaning and disinfecting products Diagram showing open windows and various cleaning and disinfecting products

5. Establish visible cleaning protocols and access to products

Not only do you need to ensure the office is cleaner than ever, employees need to see that cleaning is happening in order to feel safe and confident about their return to the office. The CDC has established clear guidelines on which cleaning solutions to use, and how often to use them.

  • Designating company leaders to disinfect desktops, kitchens, bathrooms and other common areas throughout the day demonstrates that health and safety are prioritized at the leadership level.

  • Set up caddies or cleaning stations with cleaning products at desk pods so employees can disinfect their own work stations.

  • Look to furniture manufacturers for how to safely clean their products without damaging them. Fully created a guide here for how to clean our tabletops and privacy panels.

6. Don’t forget joy

It’s not enough to check off the boxes. Your space should not only feel safe, but should reflect your values and inspire those who are bravely returning to feel their best. Give them a well-designed space that acts as a conduit for creative flow, and don’t forget the importance of natural elements like plants, wood, and lots of light.

Step 4: Assess, adjust, over-communicate, and repeat.

We’re doing our best to navigate unchartered territory while new evidence-based recommendations and best practices continue to emerge. That’s why it’s important to regularly evaluate how your return to the office plan is working, and commit to making changes in service to your employees:

  • Assess how your initial plan is working day-to-day, and remember that as more time passes, people will relax and need reminders to follow protocols.

  • Survey employees at regular intervals to understand their comfort levels, safety concerns, and any changing external factors (childcare, illness, etc.).

  • Evaluate new recommendations for office safety in real-time, and understand their implications on your company. Remember that just because something is now “allowed” doesn’t mean your office is ready for it.

  • Commit to making changes quickly as needed, and repeating this process often.

  • Over-communicate those changes in email, signage, in meetings; whatever it takes to help people adjust and stick to the plan.

Overall, ease into it and be flexible. Stay true to your values and your commitments to employees, and above all, give everyone some grace and patience as they learn a new way of working. And while you’re at it, give yourself the same grace, too. 

Overall, ease into it and be flexible. Stay true to your values and your commitments to employees, and above all, give everyone some grace and patience as they learn a new way of working. And while you’re at it, give yourself the same grace, too. 

Different work environments: one man working in an office environment and another man working from home on his porch Different work environments: one man working in an office environment and another man working from home on his porch
Working from home parent and childWorking from home parent and child

Need some help?

If you want help with setting up a stipend program for your staff working from home, establishing social distancing space planning, integrating new furniture for moving meetings into the open, and setting protocols, we're here for you. Learn more here.

Additional resources you may find helpful as you consider your own team’s return to the office: