Event Recap
PLASTARC Webinar: Optimizing the Distributed Work Experience

13 Jul 2023
Event Organizer: PLASTARC
Event Link
Tagged as: Organizing virtual

By Bennett Kirschner - 4th August, 2023

To Foster a Sense of Inclusion, Practice Clear Communication

PLASTARC’s most recent webinar, “Optimizing the Distributed Workplace: Lessons from the Covid Era,” featured a lively discussion about the measures that organizations can take to inspire collaboration and socialization in a hybrid work environment. Though many of the relevant adjustments and updates are rooted in spatial reorganization, the panelists focused on policy and technology, which are essential tools for facilitating connection and boosting performance. By committing to a practice of organizational transparency and inviting employees to take part in the reimagining of work, employers can ensure that every implemented change is tailored to the specific needs and demographics of its unique workforce.

The discussion was facilitated by Amy Rosen, PLASTARC’s Sociospatial Designer, and featured insights from Yiselle Santos Rivera, who serves as medical planner, Principal and Global Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at HKS, an international architecture firm, along with Blake de Jourdan, who works as Director of Portfolio Enablement at ATB Financial. In dialogue, the three demonstrated how the prioritization of empathy, trust, and agility at every stage of workplace evolution can foster a more inclusive and productive workplace.

In her work at HKS, Rivera has found ways to instill a sense of empathy amongst employees who no longer share physical space everyday. “Even though right now we're all virtual,” Rivera pointed out, “and we're all connecting together in this space, my experience is still going to be very different [from] all of your experiences.” Companies that encourage acknowledgment of those differences and leave space for personal transparency give employees a chance to traverse the physical limitations of remote work and build a sense of community. This, in turn, can inform a company culture that’s more personalized and amenable to input from everyone. Rivera used her own work experience as an example – instead of being asked what time of day she’ll be coming into the office, she prefers to consider “what time of day I thrive the most.” This framework centers her needs and daily habits, and in the process exemplifies a workplace that’s designed in service of its employees.

These sentiments resonated with de Jourdan’s work at ATB Financial, which has been implementing new technologies and policies to ensure that all employees feel accommodated, no matter where they’re working from. “It's really about understanding your audience, who your people are, and keeping it user-focused,” he remarked. Toward this end, ATB’s transition to a distributed workplace has been guided by the direct input of its employees, whose stated workstyles and multisensory preferences are now reflected in the updated workplace. But de Jourdan was also quick to point out that communication must be a two-way street. Employers should start the evolutionary process by listening to their workforce, and then follow up by clearly and transparently explaining how employees’ input gave way to the decisions reached. “If [your employees] don’t understand why [you’re doing something], then no matter what you roll out, it’s not going to be effective for them.” The only way to ensure that employees make the most of workplace development is by including them in every step of the process, from visioning to implementation.

Rosen was quick to point out that technology is an instrumental – if not the most instrumental – component of this evolutionary process. And it’s been this way since 2014, when the majority of organizations’ expenditures started to shift from real estate to technology. This trend has only accelerated over the last three years, as employers have recognized that tech is “the common thread for not only supporting work in a dynamic and distributed fashion, but propelling all those changes that need to happen [so that employees] feel comfortable [enough] to make that culture change actually effective.” A space-booking tool recently adopted by ATB Financial offered a perfect case study. It presents a live, daily glimpse of floor plans and available space types, along with information on who will be in the office and where they’ll be located. This kind of visibility enables employees to plan for the day ahead and optimize their time in the office, thereby making in-person work more fulfilling on both a personal and professional level.

No workplace solution, though, will be perfect for everyone. People must be open to constructive compromises. For this reason, every company should pay special attention to cultivating a culture of self-awareness and accountability. HKS, for one, has been utilizing the Intercultural Development Inventory, which provides a framework through which people’s individual mindsets can be classified as monocultural or intercultural. “Culture is just a set of patterns, and those patterns are rooted in geography, in race, in many different things,” Rivera noted. One’s ability to recognize the limitations of their own patterns and the validity of others’ is what determines how intercultural – or, in other words, adaptive – that person is. Assessing employees’ interculturalism before asking for their input on any potential changes has helped HKS fully calibrate when measuring the success of certain workplace adjustments. It has also given employees a chance to self-reflect and open up to the possibility that their own ingrained habits may not always be the only path forward.

Towards the end of the conversation, all three speakers resoundingly agreed that this clarity in communication has to start from day one. In de Jourdan’s experience, an employee’s decision to remain at a company is “going to be made based on how invested they become in your [company’s] cultural objectives, your vision, your why, how you're going to make a difference, [and] the [stated] purpose of your organization.” If those core values aren’t communicated from the outset and explicitly linked to the workplace’s norms and expectations, employees will have a much harder time discovering a sense of purpose and belonging as they grow into their role. That’s why ATB Financial gives its week-long onboarding process utmost priority – employees should be given the chance to understand how to interact with their work environment before being asked to dive into their work.

This conversation marks the final of PLASTARC’s most recent webinar series, which brought thought leaders together to share their insights on everything from real estate strategies to pilot techniques. To look back on past webinars, check out our Bibliography, or sign up for our newsletter to hear about what’s on the horizon!