Rethinking Smart Workplaces in Uncertain Times

- Posted
July 2, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has brought into question the design, operation and relevance of the physical workplace. Many of our corporate customers are asking us what working from home and physical distancing mean for the future of work. Will cubical dividers or six-feet markers around workstations be essential in a post-COVID-19 world? Will work be increasingly remote? Will the office, as we knew it not long ago, exist in the future?

Leaders are asking us how they should be thinking about reopening physical workplaces and what safety measures they should be taking in the coming months. These are important questions that need immediate answers as people return to the office. But organizations also need to seize this moment to review longer-term workplace strategies and not confuse these two streams of work.

For most organizations, sustainable success will continue to require engaged employees, working both individually and together. While we create workplaces that maximize employee safety, we must also design and manage engaging, productive work environments where people feel a strong sense of community, and where co-creation—the greatest driver of innovation—can thrive.

In this article, we aim to reflect on what we are learning from the distributed working experience during COVID-19, offer near-term guiding principles for managing workplaces during this period of continued caution, and provide predictions for the future of work and ideas for adjusting your long-term workplace strategy.

Lessons From Distributed Work

Leesman, a leading workplace consultancy, recently administered an ambitious survey on employee work-from-home experiences. While this survey is still in the field, Leesman is seeing some useful takeaways in the early data.

“The ‘we’ parts of employees roles—creativity, spontaneous interactions and learning—appear to be the activities that respondents are struggling with most under these new home working conditions,” said Tim Oldman, Leesman’s CEO. “On the other hand, focused ‘me’ activities are faring much better. Arguably this will come as no surprise. But knowing exactly which groups of employees these activities are important to can be difficult.”

Wondering what demographic is struggling the most with working from home? You might be surprised. “Beware of historic stereotypes—like the digitally native Millennial yearning for more freedom and home work,” said Oldman. “This demographic appears to be the one most challenged by COVID-19 work-from-home measures. We suspect that the majority of this group is struggling to find a dedicated workspace at home. Also, based on our global database, we know that employees under the age of 35 already attach a greater importance to things like learning from others and informal social interaction. Supporting these activities remotely is clearly more challenging.”

Beware of historic stereotypes—like the digitally native Millennial yearning for more freedom and home work. This demographic appears to be the one most challenged by COVID-19 work-from-home measures.

From an enterprise perspective, the vast majority of companies we speak with say that this work-from-home period has gone better than expected. But they face challenging questions: How will we reopen our physical workplaces? How do we stagger workforce reentry? Is it possible to keep people healthy and maintain productivity? Safe, efficient return-to-workplace strategies are possible, if we focus on smart near-term tactics and holistic, long-term solutions.

Guiding Principles for Immediate Workplace Actions

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, here are some starting points that may be helpful when thinking through immediate workplace actions:

1. Prioritize holistic community measures, like limiting the number of people who have access to a location, over individual workstation decisions, like adding screens.

While it will be helpful to increase the physical space between workers (especially those with more stationary work locations) during periods of minimal to moderate transmission risk, the reality is that workplaces are very fluid. For example, we can separate desks by six feet, but we can’t stop people from walking to a restroom or getting a coffee in a break room. For this reason, holistic policies like staggering work schedules and limiting the number of employees in a location are likely to be the most effective.

Consider the overall flow of a space. People move around fluidly; they don’t just stay at individual workstations. Redesigning how people flow throughout a space can impact both the likely distance between people and the amount of time they spend in certain places, thereby improving safety.

One place to start is by using lean thinking. Visualize people’s movements (using a spaghetti chart) and then make adjustments that promote distancing and, ideally, speed up the time it takes for them to complete activities. Historically this approach has worked for retailers, such as IKEA, with high foot traffic. But we believe this thinking could be helpful to a wider range of spaces during COVID-19, from manufacturing plants to hospitals and even offices.

We can separate desks by six feet, but we can’t stop people from walking to a restroom or getting a coffee in a break room.

Technology has a role to play here too. You can use room scheduling and desk booking tools to limit access to certain areas in an effort to drive safer behaviors.

While putting up screens makes sense in certain places like checkout counters, we are concerned by headlines like “offices will never be the same” and the idea that 24-inch-high panels between workstations are solutions that will prevent the spread of disease. Recent visualizations of how cough particles behave, for example research from Aalto University,1 highlight the potential ineffectiveness of low partitions. Additionally, high partitions around desks could create working conditions that are undesirable and uncomfortable. As a furniture manufacturer, we could benefit from selling these panels, but we caution against such solutions unless they are part of a broader strategy.

2. Use data to make informed decisions on who goes back first.

Based on what we have learned from studying distributed teams and early COVID-19 data, we believe this decision should be made by teams across three key dimensions:

  1. How much in-person interaction is required for a team to be successful (e.g., document editors versus scrum masters)?
  2. How well are teams and their work processes enabled from a remote technology perspective (e.g., a developer with a laptop versus a receptionist with a desktop)?
  3. How likely is it that team members will have challenges working from home (e.g., the single parent juggling homeschool duties and work obligations)?

We recommend administering an anonymous survey that provides answers to these questions and can be sorted by team averages. Based on such data, you can determine which teams require the most in-person interaction, are least enabled by technology and have the most challenges at home. Prioritize helping these teams return to the workplace first.

Finally, don’t overlook relevant utilization data that you may have gathered with sensors, via a smart office system. Pre-COVID-19 space usage trends can help you determine which teams use the office most, as well as periods of peak space utilization. These insights will be useful when designing your team reintroduction and staggering strategy.

3. Provide support for teams working remotely.

Consider adopting agile practices for these teams, including more frequent stand-up meetings and clearer key performance indicators (or even objectives and key results), to help them deal with challenges of remote environments.

Be sure to provide the ergonomic furnishings and integrated technology platforms people need to be comfortable and productive while working from home. Then, outfit your physical office with the right furniture and tools to enhance collaboration with remote colleagues.

4. Overcommunicate.

During any crisis or period of above-average change, organizations need to embrace overcommunication. Consider Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Great Depression and World War II. These informal radio updates brought people comfort and boosted confidence during a time of great crisis.

At Herman Miller, we have an internal social network, which is our key internal news feed. Having such a platform is especially critical during these times because it allows you to efficiently broadcast leadership videos on key change management topics. It also gives employees a chance to respond with any feedback.

This is also a period where anonymous change management “pulse check” surveys are important because not everyone feels comfortable raising their hand in a public forum. In these surveys, you can ask questions like “How do you feel about the measures being taken during your return to work?” and “What additional ideas do you have to help us ensure the safety of the team?”

5. “Nudge” employees to make the right personal decisions.

Don’t just equip employees with masks and sanitizer; nudge them as well to encourage desired behaviors. Julia Dhar, the head of Boston Consulting Group’s Behavioral Economics and Insights Initiative, suggests something as simple as giving employees high-end soap to encourage handwashing.

video call

Adjusting Long-term Strategies for the Future of Work

1. With more cross-functional decisions about people, consider creating a true people team.

Whether you are trying to decide “Who goes back to work first?” or “How can we better equip distributed teams?” one insight is becoming self-evident: never before have the decisions of facilities, HR and IT been so interdependent. Is it time for these disparate functions to come together under the umbrella of a true Chief People Officer? At a minimum, we recommend organizations create stronger coordination between these teams as the interdependency of these functions accelerates post-COVID-19.

2. Safety and serendipity don’t need to be mutually exclusive. Embrace physical workplace design changes that increase the safety of your space without impacting interaction.

Creating great workplaces that improve team connectivity will continue to be one of the most powerful levers an organization can use to achieve improved productivity and to attract and keep top talent. Herman Miller partnered with Leesman to study the impact of workplace design on employee experience. Aggregated employee survey results after a redesign showed a 25-percent increase in agreement with the statement “My workplace helps me be more productive,” and a 28-percent increase agreement with the statement “My workplace gives me a sense of community.” This dynamic has survived crises in the past (think Hong Kong post-SARS), and we believe it will continue to be true once our communities begin to reconnect in-person.

Rather than focusing on dividers, successful future workplaces will better weave in safety features that don’t compromise workplace comfort and connectivity. Examples include:

  • Improved air quality and ventilation.
  • Increased cleanability through simplified design and antimicrobials (in certain instances).
  • Reduced physical contact through gesture and voice control technologies.

3. There will be more video calls. Continue to evolve your workplace design to make these easy for everyone.

Coming out of this crisis, your organization may decide that it makes sense to keep some teams working remotely. This will result in fewer in-person meetings and more video calls.

The agile way we are taking video calls from our laptops will continue. Many will be one-on-one and will not always require the dedicated video conferencing rooms many of us currently have. Rather, we will need to increase the availability of private phone booths, or havens as we call them at Herman Miller. These are areas with acoustic and visual privacy where people can take a quick video call away from their desk.

4. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that the world can change very quickly. Use this time as a catalyst to embolden and expedite your workplace strategy.

There is a meme currently circulating online that says, “Who led the digital strategy of your company? a) CEO, b) CTO, c) COVID-19.” Can you guess which answer was circled? COVID-19 is teaching all of us how to be more agile. As Bill George, former CEO and Harvard Business School professor, recently said, “If you were planning changes over the next three years, try and make them in the next three months.”

While this period will (and should) necessitate changes to workplace strategies, we believe the physical workplace will continue to play a critical role coming out of this crisis. In a period that will be characterized by very rapid social and technological innovation, we will need to be proactive—and human-centered—in our approach to workplace strategy