“Return to work.” Many organizations are struggling to define what that will mean for physical space, for productivity, and for corporate culture in the post-pandemic world.
When office-based operations were forced to pivot to work-from-home (WFH) at the beginning of 2020, the hybrid workplace was in its infancy. It quickly became the preferred workstyle, balancing WFH and in-person office time. Offices were safer because there were fewer occupants at any given time, and social distancing was easy to maintain. WFH proved its value with increased productivity and employee satisfaction.
The hybrid office gives workers a welcome degree of flexibility they didn’t have in a traditional office setting. And yet it is an imperfect solution. Employees without assigned workspaces report feeling disconnected from the team and the organization. WFH requires technology and furnishings that may not be readily available in some workers’ homes. Less in-person time may have a negative effect on performance evaluations.
What are some of the options for space utilization and technology that will make the office workspace and the home workspace function smoothly together?
- High speed internet: Many employers are paying directly for their WFH workers’ high speed internet service. It goes without saying that productivity, whether in the office or at home, relies on fast internet speeds.
- Information accessibility: Especially in document-heavy industries, information in paper documents is less accessible than the data in digital documents. A database of searchable imaged documents provides WFH accessibility without the security risk of removing documents from the office. When workers are scheduled to be in the office, that same information is available without any time wasted searching through paper files.
- Productivity apps: From screen-break reminders, to instant-join shortcuts for virtual meetings, a host of new apps deliver productivity support for WFH and hybrid workplaces. There’s even an app that converts WFH “virtual commute time” into an opportunity for exercise or meditation, promoting employee wellness.
Physical space options:
- Smart lockers: Hybrid office workers arrive in the office with a lot of stuff, from laptops to lunches. Without assigned workspaces, they need secure personal storage. A smart locker gives them the storage they need, and it can be reserved remotely. An extra bonus: The customizable exteriors of lockers makes them an attractive design option.
- Mobile furnishings: Hybrid workers often need to collaborate with different groups on different days. With no fixed “address” in the office, collaboration or heads-down work becomes simple with modular mobile workstations which the user can wheel to the appropriate location. Some of these mobile workstations fit into home-office settings, too, for use by remote workers.
Flexible work spaces and flexible schedules are intrinsic to the hybrid workplace and a successful return to work. With such an array of technology options and office space options, hybrid offices can become the perfect solution for the post-pandemic world.
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Although the federal government has for many years urged telecommuting to ease Washington’s notorious commuter traffic, the snowstorms of 2010 were the precipitating event which created the Telework Enhancement Act, requiring federal agencies to establish telework policies. Nearly a decade later, has it made a difference?
The GSA has led the way in transitioning to telework, with almost all employees scheduling desk time via a hoteling reservation system. As reported in the New York Times, the former bureaucratic cube farm has given way to the wide open look of a Silicon Valley start-up, with collaborative teams clustered together.
Following the GSA’s lead, the Department of Homeland Security, the Patent and Trademark Office, Fish and Wildlife, and the Department of Agriculture have put telework policies into action. Now that the telework policy has been operating for several years, the Office of Personnel Management’s most recent report, surveying 89 federal agencies, shows some interesting trends:
- 42% of all federal employees, or nearly one million workers, are eligible for telework.
- Situational telework (such as working at home to concentrate on a big project) is the most common type of telework, followed by regularly-scheduled telework.
- Although many agencies do not have a way to calculate the budget impact of telework, those that do track telework costs found that telework saved $30 million annually.
- Agencies had many goals for their teleworking programs, but the most often cited was real estate cost reduction.
And the real estate cost savings have added up. The Department of Homeland Security estimates savings of $55 million in leased space. Fish and Wildlife, a smaller organization, will save $3 million in rent reduction.
Telework presents challenges for any agency. Organizational culture is re-shaped when a telework policy is instituted, and open-plan offices require a new etiquette. Physical space is also re-shaped; a lack of offices and reduced overall square footage require facilities designers and managers to get creative with office furnishings. Flexibility is fundamental to a successful telework policy, and flexible furnishings fit well into the new interiors, giving agency facilities managers a variety of options in the way they use their open-plan office space. Designers are choosing flexible, adaptive workstations, mobile filing pedestals, and modular cabinetry that can be rearranged as staff comes and goes.
Digital document management is also helping with the new telework policies. Agencies’ document conversion programs and digital document procedures permit their teleworking staff to access needed information from almost anywhere.
With such significant cost savings as reported by the OPM, teleworking is here to stay for federal agencies. As more and more agencies adopt teleworking policies, adaptive furnishings are a valuable solution in real estate right-sizing.
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Remember those carefree college days, hanging out in the stairwells, meeting on the quad, studying in the library, the cafeteria, the student lounge, wherever? Then you began your career and all that spatial freedom was suddenly gone, and you had to be in one place. At one desk. All day. Every day. Five days a week. It was a tough transition.
And now that newly-graduated millennials are driving the hiring market, campus-style spatial freedom is being incorporated into offices designed to attract the recent graduates. NCR’s new Atlanta headquarters is one example; it touts its “technology and tools to support the changing nature of how, when and where work is done.” Located adjacent to the Georgia Tech campus, NCR hopes to use the headquarters’ college-like environment to capture the brightest and best new graduates, with such familiar features as dining options, coffee bar, gym, informal spaces, and a large lecture hall.
Formaspace discusses how office designers and facilities managers can learn a few lessons from college campuses, including:
- Natural light and outdoor work areas – Large windows and park-like campuses are features of colleges that enhance mental health and performance; businesses too can benefit.
- “Work neighborhoods” – Colleges offer a range of options, from lounge chairs to lab workbenches to library carrels to coffeehouse tables; these can be emulated within corporate settings.
- Serendipity – College campuses provide countless opportunities to run into people who share common interests; offices with casual collaboration areas can profit from the synergy of serendipity.
- Quiet zones – College libraries are famous for their inviolable quiet; the notoriously loud open office plan should incorporate quiet spaces for focused tasks.
We would add a fifth lesson: Flexible space utilization. Colleges have perfected the concept of flex spaces that are a classroom one day, a lab the next day, and a meeting room the day after that. As businesses start to incorporate collegiate design into the workplace, the ability to experiment with space utilization is essential; what may have worked as a lounge now needs to be a quiet area, or vice versa.
Adaptive furniture and modular cabinetry make this kind of flexibility possibility. For example, adaptive-furnishings manufacturer Swiftspace offers desks that combine into semi-private “huddle spaces” or change into extended tables or workbenches.
Empowering staff to adapt the workspace as needed is another holdover from college days, and it’s one more feature that can attract sought-after millennial employees. No hiring manager wants to hear this quote, reported by design researchers speaking to a newly-hired graduate: “The thing that keeps me up at night is going to sit in my cubicle farm on Monday.”
Of course not every business workstyle can incorporate college campus features into the workplace. But for those in a competitive hiring market, a collegiate environment could be the perfect recruitment tool. Consult with your design professional about bringing some college spirit to your offices.
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Trust – we all agree it’s fundamental to any organization. Employees have to trust their bosses, managers have to trust their staff, customers have to trust the business. And it’s far easier said than done. How do you create a work environment that reinforces trust and builds the loyalty necessary for a strong, successful organization?
In the Harvard Business Review, Carolyn O’Hara lists trust-building behaviors:
- Get to know your employees and find common ground, to demonstrate that your goals align with their goals.
- Be truthful and transparent; when you trust your staff with information, they will trust you back.
- Take responsibility for the mistakes, and share in the credit for successes. Integrity reinforces trust.
- Show competence, update your skills, and when you don’t know something, seek out an expert. Your employees will trust in your authority, and your own competence will raise their competence levels.
Autonomy and empowerment also demonstrate your trust in your team. Giving employees a clearly-defined goal, then letting them decide how to achieve it within given parameters, shows that you trust them to get the job done. Your workplace policies, too, can underscore autonomy and empowerment. Flex hours and telecommuting say you have faith in your team’s decision-making for the good of the organization.
Trusting your employees to make their own decisions about when and where to work can present a challenge for facilities management, however. Businesses may find their offices half empty on many days, and they’re paying rent for an excess of space. Hoteling-style open office plans may “right-size” the space, but not allow enough sound control for collaborative meetings and conversations.
Solving the space utilization challenge is a golden opportunity to build trust. Marie Puybaraud, writing in Entrepreneur, recommends including staff in the design process. Not only will they feel trusted (and will trust you in return), but they will be very invested in the success of the design. With innovative products like adaptive furnishings and modular cabinetry, office space can be used with maximum flexibility. The ability to rearrange work areas on the fly increases workers’ autonomy, and the circle of trust gets stronger.
Forbes Magazine terms trust a critical success factor for businesses, “the fabric that holds everything together.” Shape your workplace to show you trust your team, and they will reward you with loyalty and dedication. Those are results you can trust.
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Businesses have bought in to the open office plan in a big way. It’s a definite money-saver, requiring 50%-75% fewer square feet per employee than enclosed offices or cubicles. And compared to “cubicle farms,” an open office is a visually welcoming environment that encourages communication and collaboration. Approximately 70% of American offices were open plan in 2017, according to The Chicago Tribune. The GSA, too, is strongly pitching open offices to federal agencies.
However, the open office plan is not one-size-fits-all, and a significant number of organizations are finding that open offices are creating more problems than they are solving. The Tribune report enumerates the problems created by open offices: distracting noise levels, reduced work-life balance, lack of privacy for everything from confidential emails to moments of personal stress. Some workers at prominent corporations, particularly highly-focused introverts, have threatened to quit when their workplace was redesigned in an open style.
Nevertheless, the positive aspects of the open office still make it very appealing to many organizations. In-demand younger professionals show a definite preference for open offices, and the cross-pollination between teams is an undeniable benefit, in addition to build-out and space utilization savings. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, organizational researchers Brandi Pearce and Pamela Hinds point to “place identity” as an essential component of a well-functioning open office plan. Place identity is similar to the notion of taking ownership of one’s work; the place where you work aligns with your perception that your work is meaningful and valuable, and a reflection of your best self.
To achieve place identity, Pearce and Hinds emphasize the need for leaders to be enthusiastic about the open office design, and to share the plan and the enthusiasm with their teams before any changes are made. Equally important: Employees are encouraged to adapt the space to their needs. Pearce and Hinds found that workers routinely rearranged their desks as their need for collaboration or privacy changed.
Rearranging work spaces on an ad hoc basis calls for highly adaptive furnishings. Designers are choosing furnishings with wheels for easy mobility, and hinged panels and tool-free set-up for quick reconfigurations. Manufacturer Swiftspace has led the way with its mobile reconfigurable workstations that morph from semi-private desks to collaborative conference tables and work benches. This kind of easy adaptivity and control over personal space is the essence of place identity.
Like so many things, the open office plan ceases to function well if taken to an extreme. No one wants to go back to cube farms, however. To find the right balance between enclosed spaces and open offices, enlist the expertise of a workspace strategy consultant and put place identity at the center of your office design decisions.
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Coworking is the new normal, claims Cecilia Amador in AllWork.space, the flexible workspace newsletter. Amador points to statistics from Cushman & Wakefield, Emergent Research, and others that show the extraordinary growth of coworking: 20% annual growth in major U.S. cities such as New York and Chicago; 40+% growth in other locales; 27 million square feet of coworking office space in the U.S. alone.
Until recently, start-ups and freelancers were the typical coworking clientele. Now larger organizations are getting on the coworking bandwagon. As reported in Entrepreneur, coworking leader WeWork saw a 90% rise in the number of enterprise corporation clients between June 2016 and June 2017. Tech companies like IBM and Microsoft are finding coworking spaces to be a valuable source of innovation and talent that they can partner with. The coworking spaces are essentially incubators where these tech giants can spot potential disruptive technologies and identify potential acquisition targets.
The coworking trend is not confined to the tech industry, however. Entrepreneur lists a broad range of corporations that are now making use of coworking spaces: Verizon, McKinsey & Co., Merck, and American Express are among the major organizations signing on for coworking.
The driving force behind this corporate real estate trend is agility. Agility is not often associated with large businesses and institutions, but coworking spaces allow big companies to scale up quickly with minimal logistics, as a small, agile business would do. New geographic markets can be explored without committing to a 5-year lease. One-off projects can be undertaken without major overhead costs.
Coworking’s agile advantage is supported in part by similarly agile furnishings. Adaptive workstations and modular cabinetry are the underpinnings of flexible coworking spaces. Furnishings like Swiftspace’s benching systems and individual workstations can be rearranged on the fly as occupants’ activities change during the day, then collapsed down and wheeled into storage when not in use. As interior walls come and go, modular cabinetry is reconfigured and re-used – a “green” bonus appreciated by the environmentally-conscious and the cost-conscious alike.
Organizations large and small recognize the benefits agility can bring to their businesses. The “Agile Manifesto,” created in 2001, advocates self-organizing teams, simplicity, sustainability, and continuous attention to improvement. Those values sound a lot like what we see in today’s coworking spaces. Small wonder, then, that big businesses are looking to coworking spaces to improve their agility.
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