For many of us, days at work look very different from before. Within a short period of time, new norms have arisen. From daily video conferencing, to full-time remote work policies, to compulsory mask-wearing and regular safe distancing measures – in some ways it feels that everything has changed.
At a high level, the pandemic has prompted both leaders and employees alike to rethink our usual ways, particularly with regards to the workplace. Some have even begun to wonder if the pandemic is the beginning to end of the traditional office as we know it. Despite the growing demand and adoption of remote work, our research suggests that the office is here to stay. However, the office and its fundamental purpose will likely look radically different both in the short and long term, and organizations will need to immediately rethink their workplace strategies.
To jumpstart conversations around your future thinking workplace, here are our top 3 recommendations to organizations:
People are the greatest asset of any organization, and the end-users of the spaces we design for. As organizations approach workplace strategy in the post COVID-19 world, it is imperative to prioritize your people’s needs and address their concerns in returning to the workplace. To get an insight into employee’s top of mind concerns in returning to the workplace, we spoke to 25 leaders and surveyed over 450 respondents across four APAC organizations. The top concerns that emerged were around Employee Safety, Managerial Support and Flexible Work Arrangements across all four countries.
Focusing on Employee Well-being for Workforce Resilience
In a world that is becoming increasingly uncertain, employees face a mountain of concerns every day. Many are fearful that they or their loved ones may become sick, that they may lose their job or suffer pay cuts, and remain highly concerned about the future of their industries, organization, and career trajectories. Outlining clear expectations in returning to the ‘new-normal’ is a crucial first step in easing these anxieties. To help employees navigate changes to office layouts, workplace practices, and ways of working, organizations need to clearly communicate, train, and regularly remind staff in their approach to return to work strategies. Regular check-ins between managers and their team members will help organizations to stay up to date on the concerns and questions of employees to quickly address problem areas and ensure a smooth transition to new ways of working for individuals and teams. To further support employees’ well-being during these challenging times, organizations can provide access to mental health support and wellbeing programmes that help employees manage stress and anxiety to alleviate challenges in their professional and personal life.
Design with Empathy
Safe distancing requirements and health protocols in the office will be expected in the office setting, but organizations will be challenged to make immediate adjustments and reconfigure the physical workplace to alleviate employees’ anxieties. Nevertheless, the office should be a comfortable and stress-managed environment. The necessary safety protocols could appear clinical, and if applied without empathy serves as a constant reminder of an unpleasant reality that hampers one’s return-to-office experience. The work environment should be made more pleasant by applying innovative design techniques that communicate and reinforce new ways of working, extending the back-to-office experience into tangible, meaningful encounters.
For example, colour psychology can be applied in the workplace to help designate appropriate behaviours in certain areas of the office without having to directly tell or remind. The use of colour and material choice can inform people of their personal safety space and communicate, in an intuitive manner, the norms of behaviour in different areas.
Safe circulation through and around shared spaces can be addressed through playful graphics that reinforce safe distancing guidelines with a sense of humor that helps to create a positive and pleasant work environment. For example, in Thailand, stuffed bears were placed at a Vietnamese restaurant to indicate which seats are taken to comply with distancing measures.
Visual indicators that each employee can select, such as coloured stickers or bands, can help to subtly express each person’s level of comfort in the workspace, creating a culture of mindfulness and guiding workplace practices.
Discover the Office’s New Intention
During the pandemic, many of us learned that we can work from home or remotely with the right technology. Through leadership interviews and employee surveys across APAC, we found that while the majority of people and organizations have adapted well to remote work in the short term, people have also developed a deeper appreciation and varied expectations of working in the office. 96% of survey respondents believe that the office is crucial for connecting effectively with colleagues.
“We’ve always had the capability to work remotely, but we miss those incidental conversations and the creativity that comes out of it. People’s sense of humour is lost over calls. We need to keep the energy & spark going to create motivation” – Leadership Interview, Singapore
Although suitable for individual work tasks, digital connection and tools cannot replace spontaneous conversations that spur creativity and collaboration to continue innovating. In designing the workplaces of the future, organizations should create workspaces to facilitate the types of interactions that are not achieved remotely. If the primary purpose of the office is to support collaboration, social interaction, and knowledge sharing, organizations should consider ways to revise their current workplace layout to accommodate these specific moments of interaction, and create spaces that catalyse human engagement.
At a high level, this will involve a fundamental shift in the ratio of workspaces for most organizations to reduce the number of individual fixed desks in favour of more shared spaces for collaboration, and high-activity social areas such as work cafes. Design elements like open spaces, atriums, shared workspaces in common areas, staircases with seating, and outdoor workspaces can also help to create an environment that encourages people to work together by locating desirable amenities in diverse locations, and facilitating “casual collisions” throughout the workday to promote teamwork and increased collaboration.
BUILD NIMBLE, PURPOSEFUL WORKSPACES
“Resilience” is the word of the year 2020, and organizations are placing more importance on building resilience into their physical workspace, allowing them to nimbly adapt in periods of crisis and change. More than ever, businesses are considering their real estate differently, thinking beyond space and planning for workplace strategies that enable flexibility to make the work environment as productive as possible as circumstances evolve.
Reimagine Your Spaces to do More
In India, Paperspace has conceptualized a “Hive Concept” that incorporates movable partitions to redesign the space in a way that fits the company’s work activities. This configuration enables the work settings to be quickly and regularly adjusted as needs change.
In Thailand, our client has allocated an entire floor of their office space as a ‘hackable’ workspace to test new layouts before incorporating successful experimental designs to the rest of the workplace. In Singapore, organizations are moving away from fixed desks in favour of more shared collaboration spaces to allow for more flexibility as the work-from-office capacity is expected to fluctuate within the short-mid term.
By building resiliency into physical workspaces, organizations will have to adopt an agile workplace strategy that allows continual learning, development and adaptation for the future.
DEVELOP A CULTURE OF EXPERIMENTATION
Pre-pandemic, we had a fixed idea of what the typical office looked like – a mixture of private offices, meeting rooms, shared amenities, and a pantry or dining area. While offices have advanced in some ways over the past decade, they will be completely reimagined in the post COVID-19 world to reflect the changes in how we live and work today. For example, many organizations today are adopting hybrid workplace models – a combination of a virtual and physical set up. You will have employees working from home, in the office, in the field, or on an off-site location. This approach requires organizations to accelerate their digital transformation journey, and readily adopt new technologies and processes to connect a workforce that is becoming increasingly fragmented.
With so many companies globally undertaking this journey of workplace transformation at the same time, it may be tempting for organizations to plan their transformation around what other successful companies have done. However, every company is unique, and there will be no one-size fits all to the future of work.
In Thailand, the workforce patterns that developed during the COVID-19 lockdown were evaluated and the workspace quickly reconfigured to meet employees’ new ways of working
Organizations will need to work diligently to quickly identify opportunities for change, test solutions, evaluate the results, and reiterate as needed to find the best strategy that brings out the best results for their business and people. To inform workplace strategy, thorough research and reliable data about what employees need and how they work best will be required. Leading organizations are piloting their workplace strategies by transforming their office space in stages and using each experiment as a learning experience that continuously informs the next transformation. Some are creating agile workspaces fit for a short-mid term organization response by allocating one office building of an entire portfolio or even consolidating two floors of a building into one for piloting design strategies and changes before making bigger firm-wide decisions.
The future of the world (and the workplace) remains uncertain. In planning their future-thinking workplace, businesses must not only respond to short-term needs but also the long road ahead as the world works to define a new normal. The purpose of the workplace in the long term will be radically redefined to create productive, collaborative, and rewarding work environments. As the demand for remote work grows and hybrid workforce strategies become the norm, resilience must be built into the physical workspace to thrive in uncertain environments. Nimble, purposeful spaces that allow flexibility will propel any organization to quickly adapt to any scenario, and continuously embrace a culture of experimentation.
In our upcoming articles, we’ll address hybrid workplace strategies in depth to help organizations better understand the needs of their teams that will inform design, both remotely and in the workplace. To stay tuned, sign up below to receive the latest research and insights from Paperspace Asia.
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Paperspace is a collective of experienced strategists, designers, and change activists based in Singapore, Bangkok, Manila and India with expertise in Change Management, Design, and Workplace Strategy