To Bring People Back, Your Office Must Change: Here’s How
We are in the midst of nothing less than a talent revolution and the war for talent is on. You’ll need to work harder now to differentiate your organization—to attract, retain and engage people. And unless you’re one of the minority of businesses going fully remote, your office is a key part of the value equation you offer employees.
Getting people back to the office will be especially important so you can engage people, encourage a sense of shared purpose and create the conditions for people to love your company—and commit to it. But unfortunately, your office may not be ready for the great return, and you may need to make some changes so it’s as safe and compelling as it needs to be.
We’ve always known the office must be a magnet and a destination. And now it must compete with the home office to a greater extent as well. It must motivate people to cross the threshold, leave their homes and make the commute. As one CEO said recently, “This is like destination on steroids.” Exactly. To bring people back, the office will need to be refreshed, reinvigorated and maybe even reinvented.
The changes you make don’t need to be big or expensive. And they should involve a mix of both physical shifts as well as updates to policies and practices. These will work in conjunction with the place to create your culture which sets you apart. Regardless of the nature and scale of the changes you’ll make, give conscious thought and planning to the experiences you’ll create.
People Have New Demands
Safe and Compelling Spaces
Your office may not be safe (enough). It’s likely your office has always been safe and clean, but with new attention to cleanliness and germ transmission, your office may not measure up anymore based on new (and lasting) employee demands and expectations. In addition, if you’ve done make-shift changes for safety reasons, the office may be a bit off-putting. If people return to caution tape across off-limits seats or workstations set every which-way for distancing, it won’t create a welcoming vibe. It may be time to make more long-lasting safety changes—shifting layouts, adding beautiful boundary elements and changing circulation patterns. Add needed safety features, but also create a place that feels comfortable, navigable and hospitable.
Your office may lack energy. Plenty of employers are adopting hybrid work approaches, but one of the downsides of increased choice for employees is a potential lack of buzz in the office. When significant numbers of people are working away from the workplace, the empty work café or the deserted workstations may sap energy—feeling to those in the office like they’ve shown up to the wrong party. Consider ways to make the office more compelling and interesting. Color, light, art and places where people can connect with colleagues are smart ideas. Also consider practices to bring more people into the office on similar days. Teams may choose the days where their processes will most benefit from being face-to-face or team members may share their schedules and coordinate time in the office so they can connect in person. One company is setting “alone together office hours” where they invite everyone who is in the office to work in the atrium during certain days and times. They get to feel like they’re in good company—and buzzy—even if they’re working alone in a shared space.
Your office may not be stimulating or inspiring. Research from Steelcase found when people experience space as stimulating or inspiring they tend to have a greater sense of community which contributes to greater engagement, productivity, innovation and retention. If people weren’t thrilled with your offices before the pandemic, chances are they may be even less excited about them now—since people have increased their expectations for a great work experience. Create places that are interesting and foster creativity—places people want to be. Give people plenty of choice and variety in the space—so they can do their work in the place that serves them best. Keep the space fresh and updated so it doesn’t become stagnant. Encourage people to work in your on-site work café or coffee bar so they have access to new people who can stimulate conversation and new ideas.
Work And Wellbeing
Your office may not support the right kind of work. Previously, your office may have been set up to emphasize individual, focused work at workstations, and if you’re like most companies, people didn’t feel they had enough conference rooms for collaborative work. Going forward, if more work happens in a hybrid manner and if people are able to do more of their individual work at home (with children back at school and in child care), employees may be more likely to come in for collaboration, connection and co-creation. You may need to shift the proportions of your space, so people have more places in which to connect with teammates. They will certainly still need space to focus in the office, so don’t eliminate that, but do consider putting more of your spatial resources into places that support collaboration and group learning.
Your office may not be geared for wellbeing. Through the pandemic, mental health issues have been rife. It is a rare week where another study doesn’t demonstrate the negative effects of the pandemic and the resulting depression, anxiety, social isolation or reduced wellbeing. In a new study, Gallup demonstrates wellbeing and engagement are reciprocal—influencing each other—and the deterioration of wellbeing is correlated with more work from home and social isolation. The implication: An office that fosters wellbeing will also be good for mental health and engagement. For this reason, overall wellbeing has become a primary concern for employees and employers. People will need space that supports their wellbeing and you may need to consider adding settings where people can rejuvenate, reset and reinvigorate during the day. This could include providing access to daylight and views, biophilic or natural elements or wellness rooms for obtaining emotional support or time away. There are plenty of options, and you may need to increase their availability to ensure the appropriate focus on wellbeing as you attract people back.
Development And Leadership
Your office may not support development, mentoring or the growth of social capital. Chief among the reasons people say they want to come back to the office is so they can regain a sense of belonging, improve their network and nurture relationships. Younger generations and new hires, especially, are craving this because of the distance over the previous year. It’s possible your office hasn’t emphasized this kind of support in the past and now, you may need to provide more places where people can connect in one-on-ones and small groups. You can also draw people in by creating opportunities for people to connect in informal and unplanned ways: work cafes, atriums and casual seating areas foster these kinds of opportunities.
Your office may not give people adequate access to leaders. People want access to leaders, and this has always been at a premium since leaders are often in meetings and can be tough to see even if they are in the office. Ironically, people may have had greater access to leaders working remote, because of the ability to connect on camera—and this has elevated their expectations. If your return includes hybrid work models, issues of access may be exacerbated because leaders may be in the office even less than they were before. Yet, people seeing leaders and running into them is critical. Employees want to feel proximity to leaders, ask questions and feel like leaders are tuned in to the business and their day-to-day experience. Your office will need to provide more contact with leaders. You may accomplish this through practices where leaders make it a habit to eat in the cafeteria or frequent the same coffee bar as everyone else. You can also make leader spaces more open and transparent so people can see leaders, even when they are having private calls or video conferences. You can also consider placing drop-in workstations close to leader neighborhoods, so people are able to work adjacent to leaders.
There are plenty of design solutions for the future of work and you’ll find the ones that are right for you. The biggest mistake will be to assume that what you had before is adequate to take you forward. Chances are you don’t already have what you need—and you can improve your office so it’s a place people want to be, where they are happy and fulfilled and in which they can do their best work.
Renato Santosuosso: 514-333-4473 — firstname.lastname@example.org