By Elizabeth Hyde - 19th September, 2020
Over the past several months, PLASTARC has hosted a series of webinars based on their 10-step roadmap to navigating the future office, exploring questions that are top of mind for employers and employees as we navigate COVID-19 and its impact on the way we work. In our most recent installment, we gathered four experts from across North America to envision a longer-term view of the current landscape. The rich discourse that ensued revealed strategies for leveraging teleworking more sustainably while also prompting predictions as to how supporting dispersed teams might permanently alter workplace ecosystems. Unable to resist an opportunity for real-time data-collection and insights, we drew our audience into the conversation with survey polls and chat features, inviting the panel to address the issues of greatest significance to our participants.
Our moderator, PLASTARC Sociospatial Designer Amy Rosen, captured the prevailing theme of the discussion by asking, “How can we use this global distributed work experiment to assess how technology and cultural norms need to change, and how can we start to create policies and training models that reflect those changes?”
The first to speak was Sara Escobar, Director of Workplace Experience at Netflix. She shared the familiar story of operating within a corporate structure that emphasized being present in the office—and thus was relatively resistant to remote alternatives—pre-COVID. It was only after being forced to send everyone home one day in March and make an overnight switch to virtual communications that underlying assumptions had to be closely examined. Half a year later, we collectively understand that this kind of major reconfiguring, however cursory at the time, represents a transformation from a societal-based workplace expectation to one that will very much be options-oriented going forward. In her words, “We’ve learned that the workplace is not just this space we maintain anymore. Workplace is really anywhere. So, we need to be asking, ‘How do we help people make those choices in how to choose the best workplace for them?’”
Andrea Pelland, Operations Manager at EcoAmmo Sustainable Consulting, connected this re-evaluation of the once homogenous view of what work must look like to other critical dialogues simultaneously taking place today—specifically those around diversity, equity, and inclusion. “We tried to make people work in the same way, in the same place, and that happened for a very long time,” she stated. “What we’re asking for at the end of the day is for people to have this mindset shift of embracing and valuing difference.” Pelland explained that this cultural reckoning will have to go far beyond updates to an HR manual and instead hinges on employees feeling safe to openly and honestly express their individual needs and preferences around how they can do their best work, even when the office opens back up.
This distinction between solving for pressing concerns in the midst of a public health crisis and envisioning a thriving and enduring hybrid workforce (the title of the webinar, after all!), is an important one. Jake Arlein, Sustainability Consultant and Partner at stok, suggested we think about the two subjects separately when considering the legacy of this ordeal. He reminded listeners that, “The pandemic will end, and we won’t have outside influences and social distancing requirements impacting how we design and run our buildings forever. Even so, we should take the positive lessons learned and apply them to the future.” Arlein speculated that there would be more forethought given to the reason for going into the office, determined by activity typologies, proximity, and the mode of work at hand. For instance, we might eventually see a rise in physical spaces dedicated to collaboration because employees want to gather in-person precisely for the creative and productive benefits of doing so—not because it is 10 am on a Tuesday and the large conference room is the one that is available in the only location they ought to be.
Angela Spangler, Director of Market Development at the International WELL Building Institute, summarized the unique challenges and silver linings of this moment as follows: “On these Zoom calls, we’re really bringing our whole selves to work. We’ve got kids popping up, dogs and cats on the screens, distractions, and so many things to consider. It can no longer be about people sitting behind their keyboards, typing away, and continuously generating output.” She called on leaders to recognize that even amidst this temporary chaos, they have hired other adults who have been trusted to fulfil specific duties up to this point. Those employees now need to be provided with the flexibility and autonomy to produce deliverables in their own environments, taking into account varying demands on their schedules and resources and how those can be accommodated.
The webinar itself was a testament to this more compassionate, transparent vision of what work could be. We had surprise pet appearances, brief lapses in WIFI, and the background noise of neighbors trailing by. Rather than being treated as a source of disruption or embarrassment, these occurrences were accepted as a matter of course, paling in comparison to the value each of our contributors brought to the (makeshift) table.