As companies are preparing for the day they welcome employees back to the office, many leaders I have been talking to want to know, “should our workplace design and layout change, and what are the short and long-term modifications I should make?”
What I appreciate from these conversations is that the primary focus is around the employee. Just a few months ago, before this pandemic, businesses, particularly those in the telecommunications industry, were in a war for talent fighting to keep top performers. Now, being an employer of choice demands additional strategy around workplace safety and wellness with a heightened focus on inclusivity. When we work with clients on workplace strategy, we are looking at the alignment of people (culture) with place and technology. Now, more than ever, I believe these must work together, otherwise we will find ourselves back on the pendulum of office design. That pendulum I refer to is how workplace design over the years has shifted from workplaces filled with private offices to eliminating all offices with fully open work environments. I personally blame the pendulum of office design on the propensity for a ‘one size fits all’ solution. Culturally, no two companies are the same, and I would venture that neither are their business objectives. Why should their workplaces have the same design? Why should a return to the workplace plan be the same?
There is no simple answer when trying to gauge the “right” solution for bringing employees back to the workplace in a post-safer at home order. Ultimately, the health, wellbeing, physical and psychological security of an individual is a very personal thing, so each workplace strategy and solution should be unique to your company’s culture and business objectives, while showcasing their authentic identity. This is THE identity that current employees know and trust and that prospective employees can feel as they visit and connect to your physical environment. Future generations entering the workforce are increasingly looking at authenticity of an organization as a key factor and attribute in their decision to choose a company; this authenticity will also influence their engagement levels and ultimately loyalty to the company. Authenticity should play a big part in making decisions about a return to work strategy when it comes to your people, place and technology decisions.
When contemplating the workplace environment and the changes or enhancements you might undertake in preparing for employees returning to work, we have found five drivers connected to employee engagement levels: Safety + Security, Brand + Identity, Well-Being, Knowledge Sharing and Trust + Empowerment. Using these as guides puts focus on the employee, aiding your team in developing tactical solutions that are appropriate, and, more importantly, authentic to your organization. As you develop your plan, I would urge you to reflect on each of these drivers through the lens of People, Place and Technology:
People: What policies and behaviors shape our current culture and what new ideas might support or evolve our culture?
Place: What modes of work does our current work environment support and what actions for elevated safety and well-being should be integrated into the physical work environment?
Technology: Does our current technology enable employees to do their best and how can we remove roadblocks for them to still collaborate during the day and feel highly productive?
An exercise you could take is setting up a simple matrix in order to evaluate options for your workplace. This is a great way to engage a conversation with your Human Resources, Communications, Diversity and Inclusion, Technology and Real Estate/Facilities leadership. It brings all voices to the table and helps keep a focus around employee engagement and your individual culture. Here are examples of questions your team might ask to determine the appropriate approach for your employee return to work plan:
Safety + Security: What measures might support employees continuing to feel physically and psychologically secure in our space?
You may look to how employees have access to cleaning supplies or hand sanitizer throughout the workplace. Have you mapped out an employee’s interaction with high touch zones such as work cafes, break areas, restrooms, lobbies and collaboration / meeting spaces? What are the touch points and how might these points be avoided or altered? Are there possible modifications to promote frictionless entry and exiting at lobbies, restrooms, elevators or other high traffic doorways? To promote the psychological security, elevated transparency will help in this area; you may consider additional signage to communicate cleaning applications throughout the day and rules of engagement with spaces or areas of restriction. For any changes made or restrictions placed on spaces throughout your facility, importance should be placed on the communications strategy to inform employees as they return to the office.
Brand + Identity: How do we keep employees connected to our brand and identity through a longer work from home scenario or remote work option?
In scenarios where a staged approach is being used to bring the workforce back to the physical work environment, you may increase internal communications through your intranet or other internal communication platforms. There are opportunities to celebrate your company’s brand and identity through custom backdrops of your physical workplace or products you sell on video conferencing platforms so those who virtually connect to meetings are showcasing their company pride behind them. For employee milestones, company celebrations or updates, consider a continuation of virtual meetings – particularly to include those who may have a later return to the workplace – to bring people together around positive events. Look for new and innovative ways to encourage employees to personally express themselves and show pride, whether working in the office or remote.
Well-Being: How can we continue to support our employee’s well-being either at the workplace or from a remote work setting?
If it aligns with your culture, encourage outdoor or walking meetings with teams and colleagues. For employees working from home, there may be an allowance to enhance the wellness features of their home office via ergonomics, greenery, air or lighting enhancements. For areas that have traditionally combined wellness functions like mother or meditation/prayers rooms, moving forward these might function as separate rooms to provide clean and safe settings with continued inclusivity.
Knowledge Sharing: How are we supporting knowledge sharing between employees who are either working remote or practicing social distancing within the workplace setting?
Are there additional technology enhancements needed to support a mixed workforce of off-site and in-office employees who need to collaborate regularly? Have we reached out to departments or teams to determine which ones are most negatively affected by working from home and what changes would help support those departments/teams in continuing to be productive, both now and as they return to work?
Trust + Empowerment: Moving forward, how can we provide greater choice and control in where employees chose to effectively work?
Are we giving employees options to work where they feel most comfortable and are most efficient in their day? Is there a behavior change to support this increased mobility and if so, who is best to demonstrate that change? (Hint: most of the time this is leadership.) Have we enabled employees and the physical environment for increased mobility? Also, with the increase in mobility either on site or off, are we looking at ways to connect employees further through team and relationship building – thereby providing an ongoing space for connection.
This is a framework with questions to spark conversation with your leadership team, and aid in brainstorming and decision making as you keep employee engagement a priority in any return to work scenario. As you have these conversations, keep your company’s authenticity top of mind. What makes us unique? What sets us apart as an employer of choice? Be sure to hang on to those attributes as they are likely at the core of your culture; it is what your employees will respond to and what prospective employees will be drawn to.
This article was originally featured by C2HR Pulse's May Newsletter.
Heather Turner Loth
C2HR Pulse May Newsletter