After more than a year when companies sent employees home to work for the foreseeable future, business leaders are at a point of attempting to get back into the office—trying to figure out where they fall on the spectrum of fully in-office to hybrid to fully remote. As employers start to think about what their return to the office this summer or early fall will look like, it’s essential to pause, analyze that dusty office that has been vacant for months and consider the updates needed to ensure employees feel comfortable and highly productive. But according to a 2021 Employee Engagement Report—One year post Covid, almost 40% of organizations still have no formal return to work plan—two in every five companies—and 35% said they’ll adapt to some sort of hybrid. But the companies that are planning are unearthing some incredible ideas.
Some business leaders say before accommodating comfort levels, employers need to start thinking beyond regular cleanings and spacing out the desks. The overarching questions become: Is the design conducive to productivity? Does it meet the working style of employees who potentially had access to various settings within the home to work from daily? Office design expert Mara Hauser says the purpose of the office has changed due to the pandemic. She believes when analyzing the design of the space, leaders need to consider that employees want to come in to collaborate and brainstorm with team members. She envisions multiple interactive places across the office and believes these accommodations are essential to implement prior to sending teams back into the office:
- Project Rooms: Instead of conference rooms with one large table and multiple chairs, planners should consider incorporating project rooms designed for collaboration and creativity. These rooms now need movable furniture and whiteboards so teams can brainstorm and create together.
- Videocast Rooms: Zooms are likely here to stay and will be options that all companies should offer participants. Additionally, traveling across cities or state lines is still likely to be on hold so virtual calls will still be necessary when collaborating with other partners and organizations. Some employees, clients or partners may still not feel comfortable meeting in-person yet. Therefore, all meeting rooms must be outfitted with AV capabilities for Zoom calls.
- Private Spaces: The open concept that was gaining popularity before the pandemic is unfortunately a thing of the past. Now employees are used to privacy, having a dedicated spot to go “heads down” and work without distractions. When considering individual desks, we will see more private spaces. The square foot per person will go up and employees will look for these spaces to spread out and think like they were able to do at home. If there are multiple distractions and coworkers talking around them loudly, they are likely to be less productive.
- The Porch: We’ve worked from the couch, a desk and even in bed, and many are used to moving around the house throughout the day, working from anywhere. Therefore, employees will look for the same variety in their day when they return to the office—various indoor and outdoor spaces or “porches” to retreat to from their desks.
- Outdoor Rooms: No longer should you pack 50-plus people into a meeting room when all-company gathers. This is the time to get creative with outdoor spaces available at the building. Can you host a meeting in open spaces such as the parking lot, on the front lawn or even on the sidewalk for large gatherings? These untapped outdoor spaces should be considered part of the office moving forward.
“While we know every company will not be able to make these design changes,” Hauser says, “it is paramount to look at the office space and find innovative solutions to build new rooms, gathering spaces and areas for employees to collaborate, be productive and ultimately comfortable when in the office again.”
Other companies also have been grappling with what updates need to be made before teams come back into the office. Owl Labs—a Boston startup with $22 million in funding and a longtime hybrid workforce—built technology to solve for the pain points of collaborating across teams that are partially in-office and part remote even prior to the pandemic. Their flagship product, Meeting Owl Pro, is a 360-degree camera, mic and speaker that makes everyone feel included by sitting in the center of the table using proprietary tech to zoom in on who is speaking as shown here. The Owl was created by roboticists who used to design Roombas and tested the concept by putting a laptop on a spinning stool.
Tens of thousands of organizations including offices, hospitals, schools, courtrooms and more use Meeting Owls to make sure everyone has a seat at the physical and virtual table with demand increasing exponentially over the past year due to the pandemic. The Owl levels the playing field, so whoever needs to join meetings remotely for whatever reason—relocation, disability quarantine, etc.—isn’t at a disadvantage. Frank Weishaupt, CEO of Owl Labs is passionate about the hybrid future of work and believes business leaders should let go and trust their employees to be productive wherever they are. He says their post-quarantine policies state that none of Owl Lab’s 115-plus employees will ever be required to be in the office and ensures that remote employees feel immersed in all important meetings/discussions so they don’t feel left behind.
Weishaupt agrees with Hauser, “If your space isn’t wired for collaboration it’s a wasted space. As we all know, the future is hybrid—100% of teams will not be in the office 100% of the time, and you need to think about building spaces to be inclusive of all participants physically and virtually.” He adds two other important considerations:
- Invest in the right tech. A 360-degree video camera ensures that remote employees feel like they’re part of the conversation even when they cannot be in the same room. Make sure there is strong wifi connectivity and good audio quality to cut down on technical glitches that disrupt the flow of meetings and brainstorms.
- Give everyone space to speak. Hold smaller meetings and send out agendas ahead of time so everyone is prepared for what will be discussed. Ask direct questions and engage participants equally, so everyone can share their opinion, regardless if they are on video or physically in the room.
Some HR people predict that the return to work after the pandemic will be more difficult than the first six months of the pandemic. And the latest Limeade Employee Care Report found that 100% of employees previously working on-site at their place of employment but now working from home, said they were anxious about returning to work. Asked about their top sources of anxiety about returning to their previous worksite, 71% were concerned about less flexibility, 77% were concerned about exposure to Covid-19, and 68% cited commuting to work as a source of anxiety. But when companies consider some of these innovations that accommodate what employees have become accustomed to, it can ease the transition back to the office whether it’s full time or a hybrid approach.