2021 Trends: Designing our workplaces to promote human connection

Perkins Eastman’s Rebecca Milne shares how it will be increasingly important to cultivate human connection in all of our experiences, whether they occur in a virtual or physical setting.

How can the design of the workplace promote belonging? More than ever, it is important to cultivate human connection in all of our experiences, whether they occur in a virtual or physical setting. As we help our clients prepare for the future, we are focused on design strategies to bring people together, foster inclusion, and build a sense of community.

Looking to the year ahead with hope and tentative optimism, the need for belonging is at the forefront of our minds. Months of social distancing and remote work, video calls and sheltering-in-place, have taken a toll on mental and emotional health. The Design Strategy team at Perkins Eastman is focused on helping our clients find their footing in the aftermath of COVID-19. This involves a complex balance: responding to urgent demands, like protecting employee health and safety, while also building resilience for a wide range of future scenarios. But we believe an essential part of these initiatives is an investment in renewed human connection.

Lack of belonging was a problem even before the pandemic forced employees out of the office. According to a 2019 workplace survey, 40 percent of people reported feeling isolated at work. Now, after months of working from home, there is an even more urgent need to address the isolation from peers and colleagues that many people are feeling. Many of our corporate clients want to know what they can do to support employee engagement and reinforce their company culture—and, from a business perspective, there is good reason to be concerned about these issues. Studies show that employees who feel a sense of belonging have fewer sick days, better job performance, and are more loyal to their company. As our clients navigate various phases of re-entry into the office, we are developing strategies to foster meaningful social interactions and build a culture of inclusion—from wherever employees happen to be working.

We believe an essential part of these initiatives is an investment in renewed human connection.

For many companies, the future workplace will need to accommodate a mix of remote, hybrid, and on-site workers. The prolonged period of remote work brought on by COVID-19 has transformed employee habits and expectations; they are more adapted to technology, accustomed to the flexibility and convenience of working from home, and have a heightened sensitivity to health and wellness issues. Even when it is safe to return to the office, a large number of workers will continue to work remotely in some expanded capacity. This will influence space planning decisions, like the ratio of desks to meeting rooms and square footage needs, but it will also change the way that employees relate to each other and their office environment. Our challenge, as architects, is to connect and unite a workforce of remote, hybrid, and on-site employees. To do this, we must use virtual and physical placemaking strategies to foster belonging independent of physical proximity.

In the wake of the global pandemic, we are keenly focused on strategies to keep employees safe, engaged, and productive at work. But how does creating a sense of belonging translate to design? It means using technology to enhance, not replace, human interactions; focusing on opportunities to support formal and informal mentorship, both virtually and in-person; and finding the right balance of collaborative and individual work spaces within the office. Most importantly, during any time of change or disruption, it essential to include employees in the design and planning process. Maintaining open and transparent communication, soliciting employee feedback, and inviting user participation in the design process can go a long way towards cultivating a sense of belonging in the workplace.

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