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Designing for the Hybrid Workforce

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The Importance of Well-being, Community, Effectiveness, Adaptability and Inclusivity

As the world starts returning to normal, the office experience, and in turn the real estate portfolio, will look different; the reality is the office has been evolving for years as corporations experimented with remote work at varying levels. Enter a global pandemic, a disruptor and catalyst that overnight made working remote an immediate reality; and while it proved to be possible, it simultaneously revealed challenges.

Many studies are trying to gauge worker productivity and engagement with heightened remote work and predictions about future work models. A recent McKinsey study on the Future of Work shows that for many task-based employees, productivity is at an all-time high, but on the opposite spectrum there are activities like coaching, counseling, providing advice and giving feedback that are more effectively done in person.[1] In addition, collaboration, social interaction and knowledge sharing; critical factors to employee engagement took a hit with the full remote workforce.

Productivity and engagement are both critical factors to a business; productivity is an important element in an employee’s performance, and engagement correlates to longevity and a desire to stay with an organization. Moving forward, how will organizations, and specifically the office setting, support employee productivity and engagement?

Enter the Hybrid Work Environment

Many organizations are now considering a hybrid approach, where employees are based on-site and off-site for certain days of week to support balance.

A common assumption is that a hybrid work environment equates to less people on-site, and therefore the need for less space; but it is a different paradigm. While some companies are freeing up large swaths of real estate by shifting entire departments to remote, for many others the transition to hybrid, does not equal reduction but rather a reallocation from individual to shared spaces. In recent years, we already saw a trend towards employee choice and flexibility within the work environment; future workplace design will continue to provide this with increased options and real estate allocation for touchdown, co-working, third space and free address work settings.

Every organization has a unique business function, client base, work modes and culture, requiring an individualized approach to a hybrid environment. The office remains an integral piece of the puzzle. It’s not a one-size-fits all program, it starts with assessing the varying job functions and identifying the associated and desirable mobility profiles to support the hybrid worker. Gathering data to assemble a framework of mobility, work and technology requirements by department or role will help shape potential sharing ratios and space typologies. This framework supported by graphical data will help guide discussions with leaders on needs and the next generation of workspace. A thoughtful and balanced approach to the hybrid work environment can enhance employee satisfaction and business outcomes.

The Role the Office Plays in Employee Engagement

Engagement can be intangible and difficult to quantify, but there is no denying that it is critical to the success of an organization. A recent Gallup study stated that an engaged employee is involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.[2] When employees are engaged, performance follows suit. Highly engaged workplaces can claim lower absenteeism, fewer quality defects and higher profitability.[3] Moving forward, many organizations will utilize office space to capitalize on high energy, amenity rich, collaborative co-working. Employers can focus on the following people-centric areas in their office design to boost engagement: well-being, community, effectiveness, adaptability and inclusivity.

Well-being was often considered optional in the past, but the pandemic has reminded us that meeting primary needs is the first step to increasing focus and engagement. The concept of well-being in the workplace applies to operations as well as facility design and space ergonomics. At its simplest form, well-being enables people to support their overall comfort and happiness in the work setting. Allowing access to nature, natural light and views to the outside is a common approach to supporting well-being in the workplace. Social interaction and relationship building also play significant roles in an employee’s overall happiness level. Purposeful touchdown zones such as water stations can help foster spontaneous interaction and small moments to build trust and rapport in the work setting.

In a people-centric workplace, community matters – it is our connectedness to our team and the organization as a whole, and it tops the reasons why people are eager to return to the office. From a cultural standpoint, it is also a key factor in productivity, engagement, innovation and retention.[4] Establishing internal connections that promote social capital remains critical for employee well-being and happiness. Team connectedness and knowledge transfer can be supported by the environment through proximity, visibility and destinations. Co-located and open collaboration spaces in appropriate public areas allows employees to connect, see what others are working on, build excitement and introduce different perspectives that may lead to innovation. Technology integration within these spaces can elevate the connection to teams that are virtual, via video or digital white boards and when not in use, be used to build brand awareness.

To support employee effectiveness, it’s essential to provide balance by removing roadblocks and encouraging physical and mental flow through individual and team processes. The physical environment can craft spaces that support neighborhoods of cultural and neurodiversity infused with technology, tools and resources to provide employees with variety and choice – be it for focus activities, virtual meetings or small group interactions.

Understanding that employees are more mobile, business initiatives are more agile, and leases may be shorter, how can the workspace endure? It must be adaptable. Employees require activity zones that support both collaborative teamwork and individual focused work to maximize their effectiveness.  Successful workspaces provide choice for employees to select their location based on task and workflow, utilizing their environment to increase their personal productivity. Adaptive planning approaches, such as dual-purpose spaces, universal planning, and free address or sharing ratios, can support flexibility so space can shift for evolving business initiatives. 

The topic of Inclusivity has become an increasingly important contributor to a successful built environment. Supporting an employee’s individuality, as well as their comfort to express it, is a major driver for engagement. A recent Cigna study about the Loneliness and its impact on the American Workplace cited that 50% of Gen Z workers feel they must hide their true selves at work.[5] This feeling can be detrimental to building trust with team members and leadership. Given this, it’s essential that programs and the resulting design support initiatives around diversity, equity and inclusion. Employees that are more comfortable and have built social capital are more engaged, thus willing to raise new ideas or processes.

A Case Study on Implementing Design that Supports a Hybrid Workspace

We’ve hit on the value that engagement brings for the individual employee, but how can collaborative space effectively support the hybrid workspace model? Supporting employees whose needs and activities change throughout the workday is paramount. Next, we will explore how collaborative space enhances employee engagement.

Using a case study of a replacement amenity building for a corporate headquarters, we begin to realize the importance that collaborative space can have on a post pandemic, hybrid employee population and the valuable asset this physical space contributes to the overall business. This 155,000 sq ft amenity building functions as the gateway to campus headquarters, relaying an important message to visitors and employees alike that collaborating and socializing is recognized as an essential goal of the organization.

The new design features collaborative rooms to aid in employee effectiveness, by supporting mixed reality sessions, catering to both in person and remote participants. State-of-the art technology is infused throughout, allowing employees the freedom to choose a destination that meets work mode requirements. Select rooms with operable partitions offer a scalable experience to meet a variety of needs. Adaptability is realized through an auditorium that offers almost triple the capacity from the prior building, with a 500-seat telescopic platform where seating can be automatically stacked and stowed, favoring a large, unobstructed collaborative space. The building supports employee well-being and social connection throughout the day by offering multiple satellite food and beverage areas, in addition to the central campus kitchen and dining area, functioning as a magnet for socialization opportunities. A sense of community is built through an entire top floor that hosts an open flex space, complete with a fireplace, bar and access to a rooftop terrace where employees are encouraged to work or gather while surrounded by views of the city.

Designed with an inclusive mindset, the building provides an equitable experience for a diverse employee and customer base. Required restroom fixture counts have not only been exceeded but are also supplemented by all gender restrooms and wellness rooms on each floor. Automatic door operators are located at building entries, as well as the rooftop terrace and restroom entries. In the auditorium, three different seat width options are provided, while the stage offers two accessible means of egress.  Code minimums are exceeded through higher elevator cab counts and an area of refuge per floor. Special attention was paid to flooring thicknesses as a means of eliminating dimensional thresholds. Acknowledging employee neurodiversity and sensitivity, special consideration was given to the implementation of large-scale graphics, lighting features and video walls.

Although a new amenity building may not be a practical next endeavor for your business, beginning to evaluate your approach to collaborative space and employee-drawing amenities can be. Here are some things to consider: What types of collaborative spaces does your organization currently offer? Are they enclosed, open, scalable, flexible in nature, pleasant to occupy or user friendly? Do they encourage idea generation, exchange, innovation or recalibration? Do they offer mixed reality settings for both virtual and in person meetings? Do they accommodate a diverse variety of physical and cognitive needs?

Navigating the Hybrid Approach
As we return to the workplace, not every organization will pursue a drastic change or shift to a hybrid approach. But for those that do, there will be opportunities to re-assess what their office means in their employee value equation and its ability to draw and attract employees into the physical work setting.

We find many of our clients are embracing a more tailored, people-centric, adaptable, activity-based approach to hybrid planning. In our experience, the most successful implementations of this approach are by organizations who engage teams through a strong cultural communication strategy during the design process and whose executives embrace the plan or path forward. Understanding the roles of well-being, community, effectiveness, adaptability and inclusivity will provide a solid foundation for the design team to set up hybrid employee profiles for an organization, as well as the best space solutions to support them.

Regardless of what the future holds, providing space where employees can feel safe to come together, establish rapport, build trust and engage with those physically and virtually around them will be key to maintaining a stimulating culture, elevating productivity and bolstering innovation as we move forward.

About the authors

Renee Riviere and Jennifer Herr are both Senior Interior Designers at EUA.

This article originally published on CoreNet Global Leader

[1] The future of remote work: An analysis of 2,000 tasks, 800 jobs, and 9 countries | McKinsey

[2] Gallup, What is Employee engagement, 2021. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/285674/improve-employee-engagement-workplace.aspx#:~:text=Gallup%20defines%20engaged%20employees%20as,to%20their%20work%20and%20workplace.

[3] Gallup, Is working remotely Effective?  Gallup Research Says Yes, 2020. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/283985/working-remotely-effective-gallup-research-says-yes.aspx?version=print

[4] Steelcase, Work Better, Work Experience Diagnostic Study, 2020. https://www.steelcase.com/research/articles/topics/work-better/work-better/?pdf=1

[5] Cigna, Loneliness and its impact on the American workplace, 2020. https://www.cigna.com/static/www-cigna-com/docs/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/loneliness-and-its-impact-on-the-american-workplace.pdf

Renee Riviere, NCIDQ, IIDA, WRID + Jennifer Herr, NCIDQ, LEED AP ID+C
CoreNet Global Leader

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