Why workplace?

MAYVA DONNON

August 24, 2020

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, business press headlines have declared a range of impacts on the workplace, from the end of the office as we know it to the absolute necessity of in-person workplaces like never before.

Looking to industry itself reveals similarly divergent responses. As just one stark example, Facebook presents the seeming paradox of committing to remote work as a permanent option for its employees while simultaneously doubling down on millions of square feet of new prestige office space on Manhattan’s West Side. How can we reconcile such extreme contradictions?

We believe it comes down to ‘why.’ Why do we go to the office, and why is the communal workplace important?

To understand how executives in our networks are thinking about this issue, KSS is teaming with Tactix Real Estate Advisors to host a series of roundtable discussions moderated by Sven Schroeter, AIA, NCARB, Director of Interior Architecture at KSS; Mayva Donnon, AIA, LEED AP, Principal at KSS; and Gary Lozoff, Private Equity and F&B Practice Group Leader at Tactix.

The first two roundtables have provided a forum for some thoughtful and revealing conversation covering a range of issues, but three fundamental concepts have stood out:

  1. People need in-person connection, at work just as much as anywhere else.
  2. The physical office is here to stay, but it will be part of a new “hybrid” workplace strategy integrating different forms of remote and face-to-face work.
  3. Out of a crisis comes the necessity – but also opportunity – to envision a better future workplace.

What is missing?

In-Person Connection

We are innately social creatures who thrive on – and have evolved to best communicate through – face-to-face interaction. While technology has come a long way since the concept of remote work first gained serious corporate traction in the 1970s, certain activities and experiences simply cannot be fully replicated remotely.

In addition to Happy Hour and other missed face-to-face social interactions, collaboration and feedback deficits were called out most often during our conversations. While some degree of collaboration is possible in a remote work environment, almost everyone with whom we have spoken misses the informal interactions that happen in the office—spontaneously running an idea by a co-worker, problem solving on the fly, or even just running into someone in the lobby or on-campus. There is no substitute for the loose, serendipitous connections that occur in environments built to support face-to-face collaboration.

Our discussions have also revealed that a side-effect of remote work is the additional increment of stress around mentoring. From the logistics of on-boarding to ensuring efficient, integral on-the-job learning, leaders and managers have been challenged in providing professional guidance to junior staff. Many noted that less experienced employees who are not receiving the mentorship they need are suffering, which could have an adverse effect on the workforce in the long-term.

What is next?

Opportunities for the Future of Workplace

Consensus from our network showed a strong desire to be back in the office in some capacity when it is safe to do so. But we know offices will need to change to meet new safety measures and employee expectations. We can leverage this moment of disruption to re-imagine not just our office spaces but the culture of our companies and teams through both near-term responses and long-term shifts in objectives and behavior.

With the input of these leaders and other corporate stakeholders, this moment gives us as designers the opportunity to create workplaces that truly support employees and affords enlightened commercial real estate advisors working with these businesses the opportunity to procure real estate that optimally achieves these new workplace objectives.

We can ask employees how they want to work and create more inclusive work environments that are more adaptable to individual cognitive, personality, and work styles. We can design spaces that give employees both choice and ownership over their work environments, with new types of collaborative spaces that bridge the physical/virtual divide. And, of course, those spaces will need to promote and support holistic wellness, from indoor air quality to mental health. These new workplaces will be destinations, communal spaces we want to visit for access to resources, qualities, and experiences not available anywhere else.

As creative professionals, we can’t help but have an optimistic outlook – after all, what is design but believing that we can marshal resources to solve problems and leave the world better than it was yesterday? So even as we all struggle to manage the day to day challenges of a global crisis, we also believe that learning from it can influence and guide long-term improvements to the built environment—including healthier, more flexible and workplaces that support and enable a newly autonomous workforce navigating our new shared normal.

What is here to stay? Hybrid Work

We have found consensus around the durability of a hybrid work model in which employees work both from a traditional communal office and from home. Now that employees have experienced the flexibility and autonomy – and even increased productivity for some – that accompany working remotely, they want to integrate these benefits in their day-to-day in some capacity.

To make the hybrid model a success long-term, organizations will need to foster a company culture that ensures parity between in-person and remote workers. Many leaders appear anxious that a hybrid model has the potential to create two tiers of employees—those physically present in the office and those working remotely. In this scenario, office workers may be perceived as a privileged group with direct access to mentors, leadership, collaboration, resources, physical space perks such as private offices, and decision-making—while remote workers grow increasingly isolated and marginalized.

To avoid this unwitting stratification, companies must fully invest in both approaches, with leadership ensuring that their company’s culture encourages and supports those working remotely as much as those in the office. Leaders should also seek out and understand their employees’ attitude and acceptance (or not) of the hybrid model’s trade-offs – namely, identifying to what extent workers are prepared to forego private offices and other legacy perks of an office-centric model to work remotely, say, two days per week. At the same time, employees should be equally willing to share the benefits and challenges of a hybrid model as their contribution in nurturing a balanced, non-stratified workplace for all.