NeoConnect 2020: Raising the Bar as We Rethink the Workspace • Webinar Recap

October is National Work and Family month! See how we embraced it along with our NeoCon friends.

This month, WDM’s own Elise Shapiro moderated the second of two NeoConnect webinars that were hosted in partnership with NeoCon on the subject of the future of the workplace post-COVID-19. The intent of the conversation was for the panelists to build on part one’s dialogue about the future definition and context of the office. Each of the esteemed panelists, which included Anjell Karibian, IIDA, LEED AP ID+C, Senior Workplace Design Strategist, Haworth; Jan Johnson, FIIDA, ASID, CoreNet Global, IFMA, Vice President, Workplace Strategy, Allsteel; Royce Epstein, LEED AP, A&D Design Director, Mohawk Group; and Dr. Tracy Brower, Principal, Applied Research and Consulting, Steelcase, was asked what they think is important and what they are doing to meet the needs of the evolving workplace. Check out the full video recording of the webinar to learn more about their thoughts.

After you’ve had the chance to watch the webinar, go deeper with our panelists in the extended Q&A below.

Extended Q&A:

What suggestions do you have for the multi-generation workforce and their different expectations and interactions with the built environment?

Royce: I think patience, empathy, and flexibility are going to be needed most. Everyone is experiencing this pandemic in different ways, and it has affected all of us to varying degrees. Everyone has different needs based on their health, their family situation, and living circumstances. Some of this is generational, but also a lot of it is personal based on your socio-economic circumstances and roles at home and work. So perhaps we will move away from thinking about generational needs in the workplace into a more holistic way of addressing people’s overall needs, like those who need social engagement for wellbeing, or those who need a flexible schedule to deal with home schooling children. I hope this is something that can happen, where companies value employees and allow them to create their own work plan based on what’s important for their health, emotional wellness, and lifestyle. For this to happen, we all need to be patient, everyone is experiencing stress several times an hour and we are all trying our best to be productive under duress. We as workers need to be flexible, as do companies that employ workers. It’s an evolving culture. As for the built environment, prior to the pandemic, the workplace offered a variety of space types and work solutions based on functions throughout the day – like collaboration, focus work, or meetings. I still think we will need that, but we will need to factor in social distancing, more private spaces than social spaces for those who will remain uncomfortable in group settings, and ultimately design for trust, comfort, and inclusion – which includes tolerance and patience for everyone’s individual needs. It may take a while to figure out what this looks like and how space will need to be designed to accommodate this.

Anjell: With respect to multi-generations, there’s obvious alignment to organizational culture. We have learned through the pandemic that generation types respond differently to the conditions of remote work. Specifically, research shows GenZers ability to cope with distractions and maintaining a work-life balance, while working remote, has been difficult compared to other generations. In addition, younger workers have struggled to gain the benefits of social capital, often developed over time through spontaneous and planned face-to-face interactions.

Tracy: One of the things we’re hearing is younger generations are seeking to come back and are especially enthusiastic about if for a few reasons. First, younger generations are earlier in their career and therefore may not have as much social capital on which to draw. They crave the office setting to sustain and build their networks and professional relationships. In addition, we’ve found younger generations may be less likely to have a larger home with a dedicated home office. For these situations, people crave to come to the office to focus and have the space they need to be as effective as possible in their work. The challenges of working from home are different for everyone, regardless of generation, but the life stage that is associated with generation may make a difference.

What role does your customer’s customer play in human behavior, psychological impact, etc of the recent and future events?

Jan: We’re sharing our perspectives right now about psychological safety and borrowing a page from Maslow’s hierarchy to do so. Our premise is that—especially now—we need to feel a sense of trust that leadership is “on it” and doing the right things; including keeping us physiologically safe, contributing to a sense of belonging/connection to our organization, and being inclusive and actively supporting worker wellbeing writ large.

Tracy: We know people are most motivated when their work matters—and when they have a broader sense of purpose. People don’t just want to lay bricks, they want to build a cathedral. Line of sight is helpful to consider. People need a figurative line of sight from their work to their internal customer and then to the final customer. Effective cultures and leaders help ensure people feel connected to a broader purpose and this ultimate receiver of the employee’s contribution. Literal line of sight is important as well—being in the office to see others who share a common purpose and see people with whom we need to connect are key elements of place that contribute to productivity and effectiveness.

Regarding furniture solutions, how can the next office experience bring in the things we like while working from home?

Jan: This question actually makes me think more about “agency” – the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices – than about furniture options. Personally, one of the things I love about working from home is all the choices I have even though I need to be accessible and responsive to my colleagues and clients: I can play music, grab snacks or make tea, move to a different room/a different posture to read something, adjust the temperature or the lighting, etc…and yes, I now have a height-adjustable desk (what took me so long?) and it’s wonderful to work in different postures throughout the day. I hope we not only provide a broad range of choices—furniture and other supports—in the office, but truly encourage workers to “move freely about the office” and use whatever spaces are most conducive to their activity and/or their personal preferences for noise level, vista, etc.

Anjell: As we accept the notion that effective work can take place anywhere, furniture and technology will need to support the mode of work in a variety of space types and conditions. Design sensibilities such as scalability, materiality, and advanced ergonomics will gain relevance.

Tracy: We have learned a lot from the time we’ve all been spending working from home. Applying that learning, we know offices and the work experiences they offer (inclusive of furniture) will need to provide for safety, productivity, adaptability and inspiration. People want to be safe and feel safe. At home, they know what safety measures are in place. The office needs to provide people with physical and psychological safety through systemic and transparent disease mitigation efforts and by configuring furniture with density, geometry, and division in mind. Pre-pandemic, we know some people struggled with office distractions and the lack of places for individual focus in some environments – that need has been accelerated since people have been home. The office needs to provide people with the privacy they need to concentrate and rejuvenate. The workplace will need to motivate people to return by not only looking great, but also by creating an infrastructure for building social capital. People want inviting, energizing spaces that also support getting things done in a meaningful way. And they want to feel comfortable. That includes ergonomics – but also psychological comfort which may mean a new sense of team or individual ownership allowing people to surround themselves with the things that make them feel good like pictures or plants. At home, people said they enjoy having more control and flexibility over how and where they get work done. Control and flexibility will be more important than ever in the office with settings that can be adjusted by individuals and teams based on their immediate needs. We’ve always thought of the office as a destination and that will be especially true now—bringing people back, we will need to create a place they want to be, attending to those four attributes.

We will need more flexible furniture options to reduce the need to build hard walls. Work & phone booths are great but not easily moveable. Will there be more options for completely closed spaces that are truly flexible?

Tracy: Flexibility and adaptability will be fundamental to our success with the ebb and flow of the virus and whatever future disruption comes our way. Organizations want investments now that can adapt in the future based on how they need to expand or contract to ensure long-term business continuity. There are solutions ready now that can help. Steelcase Flex Collection is designed to create dynamic team neighborhoods that empower teams to reconfigure space on demand. The Acoustic Boundary, Flex Mobile Power, screens and markerboard solutions let teams move things around hour-by-hour. When it comes to collaborative tools, Steelcase and Microsoft have been working together to make sure large-scale collaboration isn’t confined to fixed spaces. Steelcase Roam Collection, for the Microsoft Surface Hub 2S family of devices, lets teams turn any space into a collaborative space. The future workplace will be designed with greater flexibility and mobility. Light architectural envelopes will allow for quick adaptation based on the needs of individuals and teams. And furniture and tools will be highly mobile.

What would you like to see/have in your workplace so that you feel more comfortable working during this pandemic?

Royce: Emotional comfort will be critical moving forward. People will need a really good reason to come into public space again. So while everyone is rallying for cleanable, no touch surfaces, I think what we emotionally need is textural surfaces or soft visuals – like fabric, carpet, even wallcovering – that convey a sense of nesting and feeling safe and cozy. Feeling safe and grounded is a basic human need that we all crave, and that will not go away. We will continue to see high texture and tactility where maybe it’s more visible but not touchable, and then cleanable surfaces will be in front of us. So I guess a hybrid space is in order. I also think we will see more use of biophilic design to connect people to nature, and we will expand our definition of sustainability to include emotional wellness. We will need to have spaces that use healthy products that are easy to maintain and clean but don’t harm human health. And lastly, I believe visual cohesion to reduce stress will be important. So long term design solutions will be necessary for designing for COVID-19 and future pandemics, and not ad-hoc solutions that will just foster more stress and chaos for people (like barriers and taped signs, etc).

Anjell: Perhaps our beloved pets may have mainstream admittance in any or all places we chose to work.

Tracy: Our research on this topic suggests people want places that offer overall safety that includes healthy indoor air quality, safety protocols, cleanliness, and distancing and boundaries between workstations. In June, Steelcase began a partnership with MIT researchers to study disease transmission in work environments and bring science-based insights to the post-COVID workplace. In addition to features of safety, we’ve also found people want places that let them collaborate with others, have easier access to the things and people they need to get things done and the ability to focus. While many of us want to go to the office to see our friends and work with our colleagues, we can’t ignore the reality of how work gets done. People don’t collaborate eight hours a day, and they don’t want to come into the office only to have to retreat home again to do focus work. We have to offer people a range of spaces that let them toggle between group and solo work. And we need access to solo spaces that let us feel shielded for more privacy and boundaries from others.

Want more information from our panelists?

More from Royce:

More from Anjell:

More from Tracy:

More from Jan:

As part of NeoConnect 2020, this is the fifth article in a six-part series of collaborations with originally scheduled NeoCon 2020 presenters. Read the first article featuring authors Jan Johnson and Jeff Leitner here, the second featuring Patricia Rotondo and Diana Araoz-Fraser here, the third featuring Rebecca Milne and Scott Fallick here, the fourth, part one of our NeoConnect webinars here, and the sixth featuring Brent Protzman here

Thank you to our NeoConnect sponsors: 

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