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Workplace Thought Leadership

Adjusting Workplace Strategies for a Post-COVID Future

By Laura Woodard
Real Estate & Workplace Program Manager (Ret.)
Google

“…I believe scarcity breeds clarity: it focuses minds, forcing people to think creatively and rise to the challenge.”
Sergey Brin, Google Co-founder & President, Technology
2008 Founders’ Letter (May 2009)

Those words resonated deeply with everyone at Google at a time when the housing market crashed to record lows. Like the Dot-com bubble burst of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Google weathered the storm by embracing Sergey’s words: “Scarcity breeds clarity.” We ruthlessly prioritized, did more with less, and planned for the future.

The world faces a greater challenge in COVID-19. Yes, businesses are closing. But this time, people are dying from an enemy not interested in instant online business success or low mortgage rates. Companies of all sizes and types have closed their doors not because of economic strain; they’re shuttered to keep employees and customers alive.

As the business community prepares to reopen, its path remains fraught with perils we don’t understand, nor are prepared to face. Social distancing is defining a new workplace structure that may require a completely different work model based on remote employees, staggered shifts, and smaller footprints. But one thing is certain: we won’t go back to the way things were in January 2020.

Get out of the weeds

It’s easy to become mired in the day-to-day issues of getting back to business under COVID-19. You’ve got a lot of questions—but they may not be the right ones. Instead of only planning where to put hand sanitizer stations, you should also be asking how you’ll adjust to changes two to five years from now.

Crises will come and go, but how you adapt to the changes those emergencies foster is the difference between success and failure. There’s no crystal ball to guide your decision-making, but focusing on change management vs. crisis management requires big-picture vision.

First, create a cross-functional team including executive management, HR, people managers, and employees who work in lockstep on strategies that cover a two-to-five-year horizon. The team should meet on a regular basis to assess current strategies and make adjustments. Note: there may be an existing cross-functional team established already that you can leverage for this longer-term outlook.

Because there’s no one-size-fits-all change management structure, the cross-functional team should create a decision tree that identifies the strategies, tactics, and incidentals your business needs to succeed. Think of each branch as a different strategic path you take depending on the change that’s required.

Finally, plan for likely scenarios. Play the “If this, then that” game to identify and plan for internal and external circumstances. Your decision tree determines which of these tactics to use and the cross-functional team ensures the right work gets done at the right time.

These plans aren’t tabletop exercises based on imagination, but on data. Your cross-functional team should determine how to measure business success during the reopening phase. Specific metrics and outcomes will help clarify how a physical comeback to the office—even at a partial level—will support operations. Key areas to explore are employee uncertainty, the effects of social distancing on capacity, and long-term lease considerations.

The human element

Because the workplace is a microcosm of society, there’s a human element to consider as you reopen your business. You need to acknowledge that employees are dealing with a heightened state of individual fears as well as a sense of loss. In addition to anxiety surrounding their personal lives, they could be carrying residual stress from this extended shutdown and the negative impacts it may have had on your company.

As you welcome employees back to the office, offer clear communication channels for them to voice their concerns. Their apprehensions may involve workplace-related issues like the process of returning to the building, issues with public transportation, or private considerations about a family death, mental health, or a lack of access to childcare.

If your company has multiple locations, be aware that communications will need to be tempered for each site. New Yorkers, for example, are going to have a different state of mind than employees in areas where cases haven’t been as high. Tailor your response guidelines and workplace modifications to each city, county, and state to match the realities of their situations.

Managers should also be empowered to both receive and relay concerns from the frontlines. In a March Gallup poll, only 54% of employees felt strongly “that their supervisor keeps them informed about what is going on in the organization.” Managers are in the best position to understand individual concerns, as well as judge team morale. They know which roles can be done remotely, those unique to the office, and what technology solutions both groups will need.

End of crammed offices

Companies across every industry have long been reducing the square footage allocated for individual workstations. Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, was once famous for adopting an open-office concept in a government building. Dubbed the Bullpen, employees were stationed at small desks configured in tight rows. But the practice of working shoulder-to-shoulder is—at least for the time being—a big no-no.

Business owners should determine if hoteling, hot desks, and benching can accommodate on-site workers under social-distancing rules. Even if you currently offer reservable desks, employees might be worried about who else sat there and for how long. Plus, there’s now a question of adding daily janitorial services to sanitize desks and other work surfaces.

One solution to alleviate overcrowding and improve cleaning efficiency is to implement A/B days. The first step is to determine where people normally sit, then calculate capacity based on distancing guidelines. Because social distancing significantly alters capacity, space planning software can show how to place people at safe intervals.

Remodel or renegotiate

Now, step forward 18 months. Theoretically, you should feel comfortable making permanent decisions about workplace strategies. We’ll likely have more clarity on a “new normal” and how that impacts workplace operations. Is social distancing still needed? If not, should you abandon hot desks for more permanent workstations? Can you design for capacity or is distancing required?

Changing the physical workplace is an expensive endeavor;it be done easily or quickly. Companies need to consider how long social distancing might last before committing to layout changes that require a remodel. It’s worth remembering that a construction project often depreciates over the length of the lease. If your lease expires in 10 years, 18 months is not that long to wait for a renovation.

The coronavirus pandemic has made companies even more cautious of committing to decades-long leases and costly buildouts. As businesses inevitably shutter during this period, turnkey office space at below-market rates is more readily available. It may be prudent to evaluate these options and take the opportunity to negotiate more flexible terms for your existing lease.

Look to the future

The end of the COVID-19 story is unclear; we have no way of knowing where each of us will be after this saga. But the silver lining for businesses is an opportunity to recalibrate. When everything has changed, it’s wise to pause and take a fresh look at the how’s and why’s of doing business.

Companies no longer have the luxury of holding onto the mantra of “We have always done it this way, so that’s the way we should do it.” That’s putting your head in the sand. Don’t ignore the facts that business has changed. Instead, rise to the challenge, throw out the old rule books, and get laser-sharp about our workplace goals.

Keep Reading: COVID-19 Wokplace Management Resources

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Workplace Thought Leadership

Great Employee Seating

By Laura Woodard
Real Estate Executive (Ret.)
Google

Employee conflict is inevitable in the workplace. There’s always a touch of drama wherever humans congregate. But an overlooked source of workplace tension could be your seating strategy. Your layout can either foster team togetherness or breed frustration. An effective way to minimize discord is to measure space usage and optimize your chosen configuration with a workplace management platform.

Design Influences Behavior (and Stress Levels!)

Human beings are influenced by their surroundings. It’s why some employees thrive in exuberant environments while others flourish in tranquil ones. Finding the right balance between these workstyles, however, is a serious challenge. One type of workplace layout might work wonders for one group but create serious dissatisfaction for another.

Just look at the open office. Removing cubicles and bringing down walls is a great way to combat isolation and encourage collaboration. But what if employees feel compelled to wear headphones to block noise? Your layout is now a source of stress. All that lost momentum, productivity, and concentration will eventually affect your bottom line.

I’ve seen this first hand when a team of software engineers was placed across from a group of recruiters. The only thing separating these two departments were very low cubicle walls. The recruiters wanted a bullpen-style environment on their side because they wanted the noise and the “buzz” from being on the phone all day—it helped their team keep up the high energy needed for their work. But the software engineers couldn’t escape the raucous atmosphere. It was so bad, one of the software engineers had memorized a recruiter’s pitch!

Neighborhoods are another popular workplace environment because teams or departments can be grouped together with supporting amenities. This is really beneficial, for example, if you have an accounting department that works well in a quiet open floor surrounded by a handful of small conference rooms. Everyone has access to the right combination of resources: quiet areas, proximity to colleagues, and huddle spaces.

However, the neighborhood concept can cause discord if it doesn’t fulfill a team’s needs. If an agile team is placed in an area with limited conference rooms, its ability to have scrum meetings is hampered. Employees can then become exasperated when they have to constantly search for a free conference room or a private place for a phone call.

What’s more, all of this time spent hunting for the right work environment comes at a cost. According to a 2018 Steelcase Workplace Survey, 40% of workers waste up to 30 minutes a day looking for a place to collaborate. And the 2017 Office Workplace Survey 2017 by Senion found that “39% of office workers spend as much as 60 minutes every week searching for available desks, conference rooms, or colleagues.”

In all of these examples, space shortages are the primary source of workplace conflict.  When everyone is vying for the same conference rooms, quiet zones, or privacy spaces, congestion is bound to occur. How can employees do their best if they don’t have the right work environment?

Create a Flexibility Layout

It would be fantastic if there was a universal seating strategy that worked for all companies, across all industries, but that’s simply not realistic. Creating a flexible workplace environment starts with digging deep and assessing what your employees truly need. When it comes to space programming, employees actually know best. That requires talking to them, not just their managers.

Because employees are the ones in the proverbial trenches, they are the first to experience friction. It’s important to understand the nuances of their workflow in a given day or week. How many hours are they in meetings versus doing individual work? How many times do they have a spontaneous meeting but can’t find space to collaborate? Is noise welcomed in the background or seen as a major disruption?

Then pair these observations with space usage data—especially for conference rooms. Establish how many meetings were booked, but also how many actually took place. See if you can ascertain if the meetings went over or under the allotted time. It could also be helpful to determine how many times a conference room was booked on the fly rather than in advance.

Once you establish programming patterns, space planning technologies are your friend. A space planning tool allows employees to view available conference rooms and book them with ease. Some software includes a floor plan that shows the proximity of a conference room to all attendees, which is crucial for a workplace that is spread across several floors or an entire campus.

For real estate or human resource managers, a workplace management platform also provides the ability to digitally manipulate layouts. You can run scenarios that forecast the impact of moving individuals or entire departments to a new location. Dynamic planning allows you to evaluate where you have free space and if it will support a team’s workflow.

At the end of the day, flexible seating strategies help diffuse workplace conflict. Everyone can breathe a little easier when they have the right resources to do their work efficiently and effectively. A productive and happy workforce is just a new layout away.

Keep reading: 10 factors shaping office space planning guidelines.

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Workplace Thought Leadership

Maintaining Business Agility Amidst Evolving Workplace Needs

By Laura Woodard
Real Estate Executive (Ret.)
Google

It seems counterintuitive. Agility should feel flexible, right? But even the most flexible person has a backbone. Agile companies succeed because of their anchor points, which in addition to acting as a mission statement can also be the primary structure everything else is built around. Aaron De Smet, a principal in organizational design at McKinsey, expands on his interpretation of business agility with the following: “Agile companies tend to keep the primary and secondary axis of their organization structure pretty constant so that people have a clear home—it’s clear to them where they belong, where they build up expertise…they provide mechanisms for quickly assembling teams with the right talent to address the challenges and opportunities that are coming up.”

This idea of having a core axis around which multiple teams and projects flow is how Spotify stays competitive. The music streaming company, which actually employs “agile coaches,” is divided into autonomous squads that are given the opportunity to develop and innovate, with each squad leader acting as the problem solver. These squads also tackle a problem that holds companies back from agility: hierarchy. Each squad is viewed as equal and operates with a peer review system, so everything is fair game. Squad members can also cross-pollinate by working with other teams within their “tribe.” They still report to the same leader. While this could be messy because, let’s face it, egos often get in the way at work. Agility in company culture is anchored in egalitarianism and allows Spotify to thrive.

Apple is another example of a company culture steeped in egalitarianism. Under Steve Jobs’ leadership, Apple’s anchor point—or mission—was to “make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind.” Even when the company erred in product or software design, this objective never changed and was, arguably, met with every product the company released. Years ago in a garage, Jobs likely didn’t expect his company to be the driving force behind selfie culture or act as the launchpad for hundreds of new artists to host their music. Those developments—hi-res cameras on the front and back of iPhones, plus iTunes and Apple Music—were the hallmarks of the company adapting to the consumer zeitgeist.

But how does the physical workplace support an agile business?  Interestingly, Apple designed its stores with sculptor Tom Sach’s “Always Be Knolling” (ABK) in mind, which is why their spaces are so inviting.

Always Be “Knolling”

Knolling is the organizational process of arranging items in parallel or at 90-degree angles. It’s a practice many stores use to make their products visually appealing or how individuals maintain sanity in their offices or homes. However, we can look at knolling more broadly as the process of putting everything in its rightful place, which won’t be the same all the time. We can apply the ABK principle to the workplace within the framework of agility. According to De Smet, agility requires two things: “a dynamic capability, the ability to move fast—speed, nimbleness, responsiveness” and “an anchor point that doesn’t change while a whole bunch of other things are changing constantly.”

Do my spaces have key anchor points across the country and across the globe? Is there a pattern that’s clear if I’m navigating a new office or new floor? Do I have a space that can adjust to an organizational leaders needs in an appropriate time frame? What changes can be done in hours? What changes require weeks or months?

Leadership can be the biggest inhibitor of agility, according to a report from the Business Agility Institute. Managers like stability. It reflects well on them, which means they may be the least likely to adapt. But managers are the ones who should set the core goals and give teams flexibility in how those goals are met. How we “knoll” in business is to shift our processes into the angle that meets the needs of that moment, not throw out the process entirely. Agility doesn’t mean a reinvention, rather a reinterpretation, to best accomplish the business goal.

As we are aware of the need for agility, and educate business leaders about the opportunities to flex the workspace, we can support the visionary aspirations of our company.

Keep reading: Corporate Agility: A Modern Workplace Must-Have Trait.

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Workplace Thought Leadership

What Does Your Workplace Say About Your Company?

By Laura Woodard
Real Estate Executive (Ret.)
Google

They say a home tells you everything you need to know about a person. The same can—or, perhaps, should—be said of a company and its workplace.

As part of the interview process, many job seekers place a premium on company culture. We typically associate culture with less tangible elements: how people behave and their interactions with one another, a person or company’s mission and goals, etc. However, someone’s first impression of your business develops around structural design. In other words, your workplace influences opinions of your business.

First Impressions Count

By structural design, we mean tangible items that influence how people behave and communicate with one another, which also supports how missions come to fruition, and how individuals meet those goals. For example, respectful and friendly office communication cannot happen in a noisy, open office with zero space for quiet work and collaboration cannot happen without a system to locate and communicate with one’s colleagues. Similarly, if a law firm prides itself on discretion and service tailored to each client’s needs, spreading out teams among different sections or offices, or failing to reserve private conference rooms for client meetings, reflects poorly on this mission.

Company culture is where the physical workplace meets human goals and behavior (also read why workplace culture is important for success). Should you include in your job posts  “private, reservation-only conference rooms” or “real-time employee location tracking”? It’s not nearly as compelling as saying “flexible workspace accommodations” and “collaborative work environment supported by technology tailored to your needs”.

Give Your Company Culture a Reality Check

The tools supporting the culture are what allow companies to retain employees—and you have to be prepared to back up claims made in job descriptions. While employees may be encouraged by the language used in an ad, we live in the age of reviews. Job seekers may contact a company’s current or former employees to hear their personal experience and whether working there is as good as a job post makes it seem. The current workforce, especially Millennials and Gen Z, isn’t swayed by language alone. They need real-life accounts to inform their decisions.

Across generations, employees hold feedback and appreciation in the highest regard; therefore, implementing tools that encourage regular comments and acknowledgement is necessary. Some companies rely on gamification, which combines feedback and rewards by ranking employees or teams based on achievement of their goals, all while encouraging productivity. However, leaderboards—like an open office or remote-work—don’t work with every industry. A software company, for instance, may see gamification in the workplace as the most useful way to keep sales teams motivated and engaged. However, an architecture firm likely wouldn’t reap the same benefits.

Who Knows How Well Your Office Works Better Than Your Team?

It’s not just enough, or even appropriate, to make your office look good and enforce what you perceive as the company’s culture or employee needs. You need to assess whether particular design or technology elements touted by other successful businesses work for yours and, when possible, ask your teams to weigh in.

A study from the Workforce Institute @ Kronos shows that employees believe they are what defines workplace culture, or—at least part of it. Utilizing the same processes for benchmarking company goals and achievements, you can get feedback on how well your workplace connects to the desired culture and what, if anything, can be done to improve it. You might find your goal of a laid-back and hip office is actually hindered by noise, an inability to locate colleagues, and aggressive art and color choices.

You can’t assess company culture or how your workplace contributes to it without feedback. One starting point, as Ivana Taylor, a DIY marketing expert, suggests, is to list your company’s values. Define them, and then ask your team to define them as well. How do executives rank these values vs. entry-level employees? This exercise illuminates how the boots on the ground, so to speak, view the company as opposed to what executives think they see.

Small, structural elements can create drastic shifts in culture for the better. Using sensors to detect when printer ink is low may reduce stress for an employee who needs to print hundreds of documents in one sitting. Introducing elements from nature with biophilic design in quiet spaces and human resource offices can calm employees, allowing them to focus or feel at ease in an otherwise stressful situation. Adding shades to glass-walled conference rooms offers another layer of privacy while raising them ensures the company’s democratic, collaborative values are on display (literally or not).

A Little is A LotMake Changes That Count

Employee perks, such as flexible work hours, should be supported by the workplace. Say your business doesn’t enforce a strict 9 a.m.-to-5 p.m. schedule, but lights go off and cleaning crews show up at 6 p.m. Such timing discourages workers from arriving and staying later or breaking their day into blocks to balance work and life needs. Similarly, if employees are encouraged to work remotely and the office, as a result, doesn’t have a desk for everyone, you may not realize that remote-work is only being utilized because of the lack of desks. Employees may actually prefer to be in the office; implementing a hot-desking policy allows managers to see how many people want to work in the office vs. how many actually are.

Every aspect of the workplace serves a purpose, down to the flooring in the office. And it all affects how your company’s culture is shaped and perceived. Does your physical office align with the values or your organization?  Or does it subtly contradict those values? Understanding how your physical space dictates the tone of your business is critical to supporting—and retaining—a productive, happy workforce.