On June 1st, PLASTARC hosted its latest webinar, “Sudden Shifts and Long-Term Solutions: Reflecting on Three Years of Workplace Change.” During an hour-long discussion, three panelists explored the many workplace changes that were precipitated by the pandemic, and explained which of those adjustments continue to have a palpable impact on the modern office. Chief amongst those lasting changes is a reshuffling of priorities and communication styles, from more top-down managerial dynamics to inclusive mindsets. Rather than insisting that workers must fit a singular mold and imposing it onto them, companies are finding new ways to give employees a sense of choice, thereby increasing their sense of personal autonomy and social connection.
The panel, facilitated by PLASTARC’s Sociospatial Designer, Amy Rosen, included three panelists who are all applying their own innovative philosophies to offices that are tackling the future head-on: Jan Johnson, Principal at Workplace Collective, who has spent her career strengthening the correlation between business strategies and the planning, design, and management of workplaces; Evelyn Lee, Head of Workplace Strategy and Innovation at Slack; and Amy Hill, Principal and Workplace Strategist at Workflow Interiors. Together, the three reflected on how workplace frameworks have changed over the course of the past three years, and how they must continue to evolve in order to reach each organization’s true potential, both on an emotional and an economic level.
In her opening statement, Johnson grounded the conversation with the four “reasons why we need to be together,” as originally delineated by her colleague, Keith Perske. Johnson contended that these four criteria – social cohesion, empathy building, diversity experience, and sense of belonging – can and should collectively guide workplace design decisions. “We used to manage by presence…by walking around and making sure people were at their desks,” Johnson noted, but research is increasingly demonstrating that this was founded on “an incredible myth that was probably never really true.” Organizations with social cohesion, for instance, tend to have 50% higher productivity than those that lack it. By instead focusing on metrics that revolve around a sense of connection and personal fulfillment in the workplace, organizations are cultivating healthier and more productive workforces.
Hill expounded on how our questions about the office have evolved and have continued to evolve since the onset of Covid. At first, we contended with whether people could safely return to the office, then we asked how employees could be enticed to return to their physical workspace, and today, we’re finally starting to ask “the right question…what the office is actually for.” In asking this question, Hill has found that directly consulting employees in workplace design decisions has expanded organizations’ understanding of what is possible and helped them “open up some leadership blinders” as they build an office that truly works for everyone. She also noted that this inclusive mindset is in many respects a direct result of the “cross-functional swarms of teams” that emerged when organizations were first trying to adapt to lockdown conditions. In the case of one client, “everybody was at the table: legal, security, environmental health and safety, facilities, HR. It was all hands on-deck,” and while the rigorousness of those conversations may not be sustainable, they demonstrated the urgency of interdepartmental feedback, and how meaningful shifts can only be made when every perspective is taken into account.
In her work at Slack, Lee has found an abundance of evidence to support the need for inclusive leadership models, especially when considering policy and space decisions. After “sending out pulse surveys to over 10,000 knowledge workers [including executives and individual contributors] every quarter throughout the pandemic,” Lee’s office saw a clear disconnect between executives who solicited little-to-no input when determining workplace policies and the employees who those policies were supposed to serve. Rather than dictating the terms to which people must comply, Lee said, organizations should start with more holistic and transparent team agreements. “People want flexibility,” she explained, “but [that flexibility] can [still] exist within a framework.” In order to establish protocols that truly elevate a workplace, leadership needs to integrate employee feedback into policies that reflect employees’ stated needs while giving them a clear sense of autonomy.
All three panelists emphasized the importance of personal autonomy in the workplace, and how, since the onset of the pandemic, the hybrid office’s greatest asset has been the many modes of flexibility it grants to employees. By giving people the ability to determine “where, when, and how they work,” as Johnson put it, organizations are able to sustain “a higher percentage of high performers [who] stick around.” That’s because the most flexible hybrid offices tend to embody the same golden rule that we are taught from a very young age, “to treat people with the same respect that you want for yourself.” Lee, who has helped Slack implement and expand its “digital-first” workplace strategy, added that since the pandemic, schedule flexibility has actually been a higher priority for workers than location flexibility. The best way to grant autonomy, then, is by giving people the ability to work when they would prefer to, and minimizing mandatory hours during the day.
As companies continue striving to cultivate a healthier distributed workplace, they’ll need to keep incorporating input from employees into their design and policy decisions. “When we engage with users…and ask them to be a participant in the discovery of how they work and what they need, we are getting a whole raft of fantastic benefits out of that, [largely because] we get [much more precise] workplace data,” Johnson pointed out.
In our next webinar, “Optimizing the Distributed Work Experience: Lessons from the COVID Era,” we’ll continue exploring how organizations can learn from the pandemic as they develop opportunities for knowledge-sharing, collaboration, and socialization in the distributed workplace. Panelists will discuss how prioritizing empathy, trust, and infrastructural agility helps to foster a shared sense of purpose and overall well-being amongst all workers, regardless of where and how they work. Join us on Thursday, June 29.