Advice from a Millennial for how we can best safeguard our businesses and workplaces against future emergency situations.
With five generations currently making up today’s workforce, Millennials are often a major part of the conversation. According to a report by PWC, Millennials are defined in part by their technological adeptness, their rejection of rigid corporate structures, and their propensity for flexible work environments. This generation ushered in a new wave of workplace design, where open floorplans replaced high walls, ping pong tables replaced conference tables, and couches replaced cubicles. Trends like remote working, alternative spaces, tech-focused workplaces, flattening hierarchical structures, and general flexibility have often been attributed to Millennials entering the workforce. This influence will likely grow as it’s predicted that by 2025, Millennials will make up 75 percent of the global workforce.
Not every workplace has been able to adopt these “Millennial trends,” whether due to legitimate reasons like scale, industry, and financial constraints, or simply due to an unwillingness to change. In the face of today’s pandemic, however, we are all forced to adopt remote working policies, to be flexible and learn to work from new environments, and to adapt to new technologies. Many of us are adding these new stresses on top of the immense pressures of safeguarding our families against the pandemic, looking after and homeschooling children, and finding ways to stock our homes with food and supplies, all while worrying if the job we hold today will still be here tomorrow. This stress leaves us with little time to think about what the workplace of the future will look like. Prudent planning dictates that as we are beginning to consider our return to our offices, now is the best time to start thinking about what we can do in the future to make sure a pandemic or other emergency has minimal disruption to our business as usual. And in many cases, it is the Millennial mindsets and trends I mentioned above that provide the answers. As a Millennial myself, I feel I have a good perspective to offer architects, designers and business owners who are curious about how, as we start to return to normal, we can best safeguard our businesses and workplaces against future emergency situations.
To start, when we return to the office it will be imperative that we rethink and update our IT infrastructures. Consider switching employees from desktops to laptops and investing in remote login software. Research the benefits of the various internal communication methods (Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Skype) and determine which one best fits your company’s needs. Investigate whether your staff know how to use the various technologies already available to them, and ask them to put their knowledge into practice. You might assume your staff knows how to access files from home, but actually connecting to a VPN and knowing how to do it in theory are two different things. Improved technology can help make for a near seamless transition to working remote, which as we’ve learned, can become necessary whether or not it is company policy. To that end, if your company hasn’t yet become paperless, it will be more important than ever to start. Being able to access files remotely with as much ease as if you were in the office will help keep business running through the next emergency situation.
In addition to using technology to prepare staff for the possibility of remote work in the future, technology can be employed to make our physical workplaces safer. Touchless technology can help prevent the spread of germs within the office. Consider using apps for guest check-in and wayfinding, rather than a shared touchpad station. Voice-enabled technologies (think Siri and Alexa) can be utilized for controlling your environment (like HVAC and lighting), and face recognition software can replace card-swipe security systems, helping to mitigate the risks involved with sharing space in a post-pandemic world. Investing in technology will help prepare staff to be more flexible in the future, and make the workplace safer as we transition back into shared spaces again. And as an additional benefit, companies that embrace technology will have a better time attracting millennials to work there. The tech-dependent generation expects sufficient technology in their workplaces so they can have the tools they need to do their jobs most efficiently.
Develop a Remote Work Policy and Strategy
Remote work isn’t suitable for every company or role. But every company should develop a detailed policy around remote work that is clearly communicated to staff. Staff should understand why that policy best benefits the company. Then, regardless of whether or not remote work is implemented, a plan should be developed to determine how remote work can be implemented should it become necessary in the case of an emergency situation. This plan should include a determination of the technologies needed to equip staff to work remotely (laptops, VPN connection, remote login software, or monitor setup), as well as a plan around how everyone’s work at the organization can be done remotely. Like many Millennials, I am an advocate for remote work as it enables flexibility and productivity. Giving employees the flexibility to work when and where they work best benefits employee attraction and retention, and allows staff to do their best work. In fact, a survey conducted by research firm Valoir found that the recent widespread adoption of remote work has resulted in a negligible 1 percent reduction in productivity. And even this slight reduction could be the result of a multitude of factors that, in time, could be worked out (i.e. the adjustment curve to working from home or the lack of proper technology). While not all research regarding the recent adjustment to remote work has been favorable, there’s no ignoring the fact that it’s here to stay. Even now as states begin to reopen, many companies that have the ability to are deciding to continue working from home. Facebook is giving their employees the option to work from home though 2020, and most employees at Alphabet (Google’s parent company) will continue working from home past the reopening dates provided by local governments. It took some employers a pandemic to (begrudgingly) embrace remote work, while workers at more flexible organizations likely had an easier transition to full-time work from home. Whether your organization’s remote work policy is one of complete flexibility or a policy of zero-tolerance, there should always be a plan made for situations where staff physically can’t get to the office.
A great way to prepare staff for the possibility of remote work once we’ve returned to the office is to encourage mobility within the office. One way to do this is to create destinations – different types of work environments – throughout the office. These can be spaces for casual collaboration, soft seating for work away from the general work area, or lounge seating for R&R. Getting employees in the practice of moving about throughout their day, being productive in a range of work environments, will make possible transitions to work from home a little less jarring. Further, just as the transition to working from home has been difficult for many to manage, the transition back into working in the office will be an adjustment as well. Providing employees with alternative spaces will help soften that transition, as well as reduce stress for an employee population still worried about infection and germs in general. I don’t believe the pandemic will end the use of alternative spaces or the creation of open office plans. It will, however, encourage us to think even more critically about their place in the office and how best to make the space work for the employees.
Companies without the space or budget to create these types of alternative spaces can take advantage of the urban infrastructure surrounding their workplace. Consider creating a policy where staff are encouraged to take their laptops and work from a nearby café every so often. Or encourage staff to take walking meetings around the block. Being mobile and changing up your work environment throughout the day can boost both productivity and employee satisfaction. Change Management will be more integral than ever in encouraging and communicating these new mobile work policies. Working with an external change management expert will help to determine the right ways to encourage mobility at your specific workplace while avoiding the pitfalls of groupthink.
Maximize Space Efficiency
Workplace Strategy isn’t simply a practice in reducing square footage in an effort to shrink the bottom line for our clients. It’s about making sure the space works best for their needs. When we return to the office, our organizations should think critically about their footprint. Especially in cities like Manhattan where real estate is at a premium, it is imperative that companies stop paying for unused or underutilized square footage. Cutting real estate costs can and should be viewed as a form of business preparedness. Don’t find yourself in the midst of a pandemic or other emergency, paying a premium on real estate you don’t use, can’t afford, or will unlikely be able to sell very quickly (in the case of real estate ownership). Data suggests that as much as 40 percent of dedicated space in an office sits unused on a given day. Businesses have been paying for unused office space well before the pandemic forced everybody home. When we return to the office, let’s determine a workplace strategy that maximizes our space efficiency and gets the most bang for our buck.
To that end, it’s unclear right now how exactly the pandemic will affect the market for commercial real estate. On the one hand, many companies are delaying their return to the office through 2020. And many are learning that there are jobs that don’t ever need to return to the office, already seeing the benefits of working remotely. But on the other hand, companies that choose to return to the office may require additional space as they try to adopt social-distancing guidelines; spacing workstations at least six feet apart, managing large groupings of employees, etc. Millennials have previously redefined commercial real estate, influencing the influx of building amenities offered to tenants and the ubiquity of coworking spaces in recent years. Regardless of the state of the commercial real estate market, similar ingenuity will be necessary in order to shape commercial real estate to fit our needs.
Lead with Compassion
One of the effects of the pandemic that I think we are only beginning to see relates to the ways in which employees feel they have been treated over the course of the pandemic. Millions of Americans have been let go or furloughed due to the faltering economy, and those who still hold their jobs are paying extra attention to the ways their employers are conducting business. Consumers as well have been paying attention. Unprepared employers or those who didn’t take the pandemic as seriously as they should have, employers who rush back to the office without taking extra safety precautions, as well as those who fail to recognize the sacrifices employees have been forced to make during this time of transition, will be at risk of attrition or economic consequence in the coming months. In the age of the internet, it’s nearly impossible for companies to keep their dealings with their staff under wraps. Take it from Mark Cuban, who said that, “new and coming consumers, the younger generations, Gen Z, and Millennials, they pay attention.” The pandemic will be over soon enough, and the economy will recover eventually. Let’s remember the lessons we were forced to learn, and the people responsible for our making it to the other side.