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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Investigate how to best use work-from-home as long-term support.
When you’re ready, craft and communicate a targeted return to a shared office. Successful plans are precise, intentional, and well-communicated.
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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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:
“Help your teams get back to work safely” from Knoll
“How COVID-19 spreads” from the CDC
“A common sense guide for returning to the post COVID-19 workplace” from Work Design Magazine