2021 Trends: Toward A New Wellbeing

SmithGroup’s George Athens predicts that the next workplace will serve more than the wellbeing of the individual—it will serve the wellbeing of our collective groups.

We have learned a lot about ourselves during this pandemic. Many of us have dramatically changed the patterns of our daily lives so we can work from home; if not all of the time, then most of the time. Not only have we learned how to work effectively within a virtual space, but we have also learned new ways to sustain our cultural connections without the usual “props” to which we have become accustomed. And despite the generally held pre-pandemic concern that working remotely would isolate staff and lower productivity, many of us have come to love working remotely, using the increased flexibility to give us more control over our work-life balance and to actually be more productive.

With a vaccine right around the corner, it is still tempting to think that we’ll soon return to “normal.” And though nobody can predict the future, most of us would agree, I think, that we will likely not return to “normal” in the old sense. At the very least, we have already instituted changes that will make us better prepared for the next pandemic, which scientists assure us is coming. But it’s more than that.

Interestingly, we know that the more control a person has over their work environment, the more engaged they are likely to be. We know that remote work has resulted in people gaining back time formerly spent commuting; and that fewer commuter miles have, in turn, reduced carbon in the atmosphere. So, it is not just better for a lot of people, it is also better for the planet. Given that, it is wise to assume that remote work in varying degrees will persist into the future; and that’s a good thing.

However, though we have seen people adapt to rapidly changing conditions, many are operating under less-than-ideal circumstances—juggling daycare, tutoring, meal prep and an array of other responsibilities with work. Their resiliency has been astonishing, but it has come at a price. We are seeing higher levels of stress and fatigue, especially in workers with young children. Indeed, many doctors are predicting a mental-health crisis when the pandemic is no longer a threat. Stress makes it difficult to fully engage, reducing productivity and highlighting the importance of workers’ well-being.

We will need to move to an ecosystem that not only supports the wellbeing of the individual, but more importantly, the wellbeing of the collective group.

Moving into the future, we will clearly need and probably expect something different from what we have traditionally thought of as “the office.” In the past, all types of work have been accommodated within the walls of the office—with a balance between individual work settings and meeting or collaboration spaces. In the future, I think we will see less need for the former and a rise in the latter. The new office might be a War Room where teammates come together to brainstorm and solve thorny problems. Perhaps there are places for respite and escape. Or could it be a place where teammates live for short periods of time in support of intense exploration? The office is only one part of the formula. We will need to move to an ecosystem that not only supports the wellbeing of the individual, but more importantly, the wellbeing of the collective group. The community. What will this be? How do we create an ecosystem that brings people of diverse backgrounds and life experiences together? How can the reimagined workplace help us to connect emotionally and tap into our combined creative genius? Embracing this kind of thinking will be essential to determining the new, post-pandemic workplace.

We know that diverse, happy, and healthy organizations outperform their peers. A healthy corporate culture will be supported in part by a flexible ecosystem that allows individual workers choice; that empowers them by letting them decide how and where to accomplish their work. At the same time, we need to provide wellbeing for our community of workers, by providing them with opportunities and places to build relationships and social capital. This sense of community will create cohesive bonds that thrive even when colleagues are working and connecting virtually. Technology makes it possible to come together remotely, but there is nothing like being in the same room with a group of people who are working collaboratively and creatively. The excitement is palpable. The next workplace will foster these kinds of interactions and will serve more than the wellbeing of the individual—it will serve the wellbeing of our collective groups.

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