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Industry leaders share what you need to know about the post-pandemic workplace

September 27, 2021
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The Return to Office Playbook

Industry leaders share what you need to know about the post-pandemic workplace

September 27, 2021
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Over the last 18 months, tumultuous changes have forced companies to rethink every aspect of the employee experience. The RETHINK Office Conference brought together top industry leaders to discuss the changing landscape of the post-pandemic office and what it looks like for them.

Key takeaways:

  • Hybrid work is here to stay. The office is now a place for collaborative and activity-based work, and remote locations are for individual, focused work.
  • Employers realize the importance of creating equitable hybrid work experiences and are still working to find the best solution.
  • Companies are charting new courses right now. Collecting data and employee feedback is essential to see what's working and what isn't.
  • Sensor technology is helping companies improve the employee experience and ensure safety without compromising privacy.

Bringing people back to the office

To successfully reintegrate the office into employees' work lives, companies have to focus on the entire end-to-end employee experience. Michael Davidson, Global Head of Corporate Real Estate, J.P. Morgan Chase, points out that it's essential to understand what it really means for employees to come back to the office. "When it comes to how to entice people back, I talk a lot about empathy. You know, people don't beam themselves to offices. Commuting costs money; buying lunch costs money. You have to respect that."

Respecting the effort and cost of coming back into the office means that the workplace now has to serve a specific purpose. Linda Foggie of Turner & Townsend says, "People don't want to leave their homes and come to the office just to come to the office." The office has to be "highly functional for the type of work they do" to motivate them to come in. In service of that, Amanda Quinton, Senior Director of Workplace Solutions at Walgreens, suggests asking, "What are those moments when we are going to be more effective and more productive to be back working together?"

What are those moments when we are going to be more effective and more productive to be back working together?

The post-pandemic office needs to provide a unique environment that facilitates activity-based work and collaboration in a way that we can't replicate remotely. Working with others in person inspires spontaneous collaboration, socialization, and innovation that simply doesn't happen on a scheduled Zoom meeting. The office is integral to these dynamic interactions.

As companies consider how to bring people back to the office, they need to recognize that they're charting brand new courses with the post-pandemic workplace. Success requires checking in with employees to see what's working and what isn't. Joanne Wright of IBM explains the importance of humility in this situation: "We've learned so much that we didn't know and that we still don't know. We're going to have to listen a lot and learn."

Turner & Townsend has embraced this approach. Foggie says, "It's really important to collect good data, to actually test it out and ask people,' Are we doing this right?' One of the things we've done in our firm is simply increase the frequency of our employee engagement surveys. We do it every three months now instead of once a year."

In addition to making offices fit for purpose, employers are also dedicated to creating spaces that support the health and wellness of employees. Over 75% of employees feel that it's their company's responsibility to make the workplace safe for them to return. Employers use all the resources available to make that happen, from air quality sensors to innovative office design.  

Supporting health and wellness with innovative office layouts

Before COVID-19 upended the world of work, there was a slow-moving trend toward creating activity-based work environments to enhance collaboration. Companies were beginning to realize that densely packed offices weren't the most productive use of their square footage. The pandemic forced these plans for updated office spaces to be put into practice much sooner than expected.

Emmanuel Daniel, Director of Smart Buildings & Campuses at Microsoft, agrees. The evolution of the workplace is happening now. He says, "In the past, we always thought office space was not reconfigurable in a dynamic way, but today the need for us to reconfigure physical space in a dynamic setting has become critical."

At Sprinklr, they're taking a "human-centered approach" to reconfiguring office layouts. Tony Vargas, Global Head of Workplace, says, "One of the things made clear by the pandemic is that … the intrinsic purpose of these workplaces is to unify people."  

The intrinsic purpose of workplaces is to unify people.

This human-centered approach has inspired a variety of new office layouts. Diageo is introducing a technology lab to support whiteboarding, collaboration, and engagement. At Vocon, they are "completely redefining what the term 'hoteling' means … We're rebalancing shared and individual spaces," says Megan Spinos, Principal & Strategy Director. The importance of where someone sits has become secondary to what they are there to accomplish. The hoteling model also keeps employees safe and healthy by allowing more distance between work areas and controlling how many people are in a space at once.

With all the focus now on collaborative spaces rather than 1:1 seating, should companies downsize their footprints?  

Kate Davis, Director – Commercial Interiors at HKS, says no. "We'll focus on the space in the office to be the collaboration time, to check in and have team meetings. I don't see us going down in space, but how we use that space will be radically different from pre-COVID."

Providing equitable hybrid experiences

Companies have been using data combined with simple trial and error to find practical solutions to support remote and hybrid work. When everyone was working remotely at the start of the pandemic, employers quickly realized that there wasn't an equitable distribution of work-from-home resources. There's a big discrepancy between what's available to a CEO and what an entry-level worker has access to. For employees with limited resources or in areas that lack sufficient broadband, successfully working from home was difficult, if not impossible.  

Diageo addressed this inequitable distribution of resources by providing a work-from-home tool kit and an allowance to help employees get what they needed to create a suitable home office environment. At Sprinklr, rather than a blanket approach, they focused on individual needs. "We asked people to speak to their managers to help us understand and meet their specific needs," says Vargas.

Another equity issue that panel members touched on was how to create better experiences between virtual and in-office workers. Peter Babigian of Cerami says that "the meeting after the meeting" when people are casually talking is where culture is built. Remote workers don't get to participate in those "unintentional collisions" that foster a positive culture and innovative ideas.

"I do think the experience is going to be better, at least at the outset, for those who are physically present," says Spinos."We really need to focus on making sure the people that are remote can see and engage with others. We're still navigating our way through that." Michelle Myer of Oracle agrees that there is still work to be done in this area. She says, "There's still a lot more change management that's needed in how we link people from a physical environment to that virtual environment."

Using technology to create more functional workspaces

At the start of "Getting Digital: Where New Technology & Innovations are Saving the Day," Emmanuel Daniel of Microsoft poses an important question: "Why are we building real estate when a person can work anywhere?

Daniel believes the reason lies in "the values of productivity, engagement, team dynamics, and innovation [which] are spurred when people come together. "Companies worldwide are embracing new technologies to help them create these dynamic workspaces. Sensor technology was lauded as a must-have by many panel members for its ability to track occupancy, noise levels, air quality, and space usage.

Sensors also collect valuable data that allows employers to provide flexible spaces and more amenities to improve the overall employee experience. For example, if your office gets noisy and you need a quiet space to work, sensor technology can direct you to the perfect spot.

Francisco Ruiz of Oracle says that they use badging data, occupancy sensors, and people-counting technology to "put convenience at the fingertips of our employees" and "ensure that our spaces are utilized and designed correctly."

Desk booking is another technology that is proving useful. Many employers have moved to a hoteling model that allows the office to be much more flexible. Bruce MacAffer, Head of Group Real Estate at WPP, says the booking systems provide "incredibly rich data about when people are coming in, who they are grouping with. It gives us really good utilization data about different departments and how they're using space."

Maintaining privacy in the technology-driven office

This influx of data allows companies to make smarter decisions about the spaces they create, but privacy concerns always come up when implementing new technologies. Matt Harris, Workplace Technologies Product Manager at Okta, has simple advice to help preserve employee privacy: "Start by choosing technologies that are privacy-first and privacy-focused. Until you determine that you need the ability to bring in identifiable data or track an individual, don't do it."

Until you determine that you need the ability to bring in identifiable data or track an individual, don't do it.

It's also imperative to be transparent about how you collect and use data. For a successful "smart" office, you have to build trust with employees. You have to give assurances that you're not going to use the data you collect for anything other than your stated purpose.

"The question we always get is, 'Are you looking at me? Are you tracking me?' No, we're not," Daniel says. "It's the choice that we give to [employers], to process the services and data at the edge. So people feel comfortable that we're not using that data for anything other than the sole goal of delighting them."

Summary

The panel of experts at the RETHINK Office Conference provided valuable insights into the evolving workplace and what it looks like for their companies. Employers are forging new paths, and they're using office technologies such as sensors and desk-booking systems to collect data that will inform their future office design choices.

Employee privacy and wellness are top of mind for each company, as is creating equitable hybrid work experiences. Company representatives were transparent about not having all the answers yet. They are relying on data and frequent check-ins with employees to determine the best direction for the post-pandemic office.

Watch this, and every other webinar from the RETHINK conference, here.

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