How the Future of Workplace Design Hinges on Fostering Social Connection

Megan Hart explores how to reclaim the social connection that was lost as we begin to make our return to work plans.

I feel it every Friday around 4:30 pm. A ping of loneliness has replaced what used to be a time I looked forward to. Friday at 4:30 meant it was almost time to leave my desk and meet my coworkers for cheap wine and free snacks. The office-sponsored happy hour was an organization’s way of saying thank you, but to many of us it was a way to make and foster friendships within the workplace. As one who has relocated more than once, informal corporate events have always proven to be a great way to make new friends in a new city. I think of my friends every Friday and I long for what was. I miss the morning chatter and the late night laughter. I miss the community.

No Direction But Forward

The workforce of 2021 is not the same workforce of 2019, or even 2020. Our wants and needs are not the same. In 2020 we all worked from home but in 2021, as we start to look beyond an age of social distancing, most companies are beginning to consider a work from anywhere model. “Work from anywhere” would allow for maximum flexibility and much more control over our own lives. The question asked a few months ago was if workers will ever return to the workplace. If we have proven that we can be effective from home, what do businesses need all this real estate for?

Forbes recently noted that positive and engaging work cultures have a direct impact on productivity and human health. In this moment, designers know the workplace can only go forward into a workplace environment dissimilar from the one we knew. Today, before a COVID vaccine makes it possible for all of us to re-enter the workforce, interior designers are presented with a unique opportunity to shape the future of corporate culture and to use physical space to create a sense of community that cannot be offered when working from home. This sense of belonging is why we must go back to the workplace.

Shifting Corporate Focus from “Me” to “We”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs states that humans all have basic psychological needs and needs for self-fulfillment. For a lucky number of people, our basic needs are met while working from home. We have a warm, safe place to live and work. Even if for some of us, this is just a small corner we carved out in our one bedroom apartment.

Maslow’s list of psychological needs calls for a sense of belonging. For many people, a sense of community and belonging came from the workplace. Working from home has helped many people gain control over our lives, but it risks loss of our professional communities. If employers can encourage and support a sense of community, it will be much easier for people to meet the two highest needs for themselves: self-esteem and self-actualization. Community is difficult to foster while working from home, so achieving a sense of accomplishment and living up to one’s full potential can be increasingly difficult.

If employers can encourage and support a sense of community, it will be much easier for people to meet the two highest needs for themselves: self-esteem and self-actualization

Before COVID-19, designers and industry professionals were beginning to see shifts in workplace design. The early aughts brought open work plans and companies like WeWork created flexible co-working style environments. Many businesses were redesigning their spaces to allow for maximum flexibility, indicating that businesses were listening to the research that this new style of working leads to employee satisfaction, increased productivity and corporate financial gains. In addition to the flexible work environment, employers began offering other perks like corporate gym memberships and lunch delivery services. However, as one Gallup poll showed, even when these perks are offered the one thing that keeps employees happy is engagement with our work and our community.

The option to work from home does allow for maximum flexibility and control over our time, which many workers appreciate. What it does not offer is the opportunity to foster engagement and social connections amongst our teams and colleagues. Undoubtedly for many workers, working from home is starting to feel limiting and often mundane. Working from anywhere offers employers the opportunity to shape the future of their culture by offering spaces that feel customized to their community. It will allow businesses to create spaces that exist for the sole purpose of social connection and collaborative team work. While our current “work from home” trend focuses on “me”, the future of workplace design will focus on “we”. 

Spaces for Social Connection

Employee happiness and a business’s retention of their most talented people will be directly affected if a proper space for a business’s community is not provided. If people who need or prefer to work alone continue to work from home, the need to go into the office will be for socialization and innovation. When looking at the office of the future, businesses should focus on what people need to thrive; time with each other.

By designing spaces that encourage social connection, designers create spaces where a sense of community can be fostered and encouraged.

Social gathering spaces will need to exist in every workspace so a team of people can work together. With any luck, these spaces will spark the industry disrupting ideas that will push companies forward. Private and semi-private spaces can be offered as an option for those who choose not to or simply cannot work from home. Assigned desks can be offered to those who need to create a home away from home. By designing spaces that encourage social connection, like common areas that keep energy high and casual meeting spaces that allow for focused teamwork and informal mentorship, designers create spaces where a sense of community can be fostered and encouraged.

Making Culture Part of A Brand

A company’s brand is closely tied to its culture. Culture is fostered by space and culture is what we want to reclaim. Businesses and employees will need spaces that reflect corporate values. Designers will be challenged to create spaces that support our teams and support social engagement.

A recent Harvard Business Review study listed four ways managers could foster such engagement at work. This list included fostering social connections, making time to mentor, showing empathy and encouraging communication. So though work from home is a nice perk, does it help us or hurt us?

Culture is fostered by space and culture is what we want to reclaim.

Some people thrive on working alone, while others need spontaneity to help spark ideas and innovating thinking. Mobility and flexibility were common trends in workplace design before the COVID-era. Companies realized that face-to-face interaction was vital to their success. So why do we think this has changed simply because we have proven that we can work effectively from home?

As we enter a new era in workplace design, the trend of encouraging spontaneous face-to-face interaction is no longer a trend, but a need. One size does not fit all when it comes to workplace design, and it never did. Open plans are not for everyone. Cubicles are not for everyone. Co-working is not for everyone. The future is someplace in between.

Shifting Towards “A Work From Anywhere” Model

In the past, shifting from different models of work space was a choice businesses could make for themselves without much risk of losing their most talented people. These shifts were not always easy as even a shift from assigned seating to unassigned seating in an office might require a shift in corporate policy or a business’s’ ideology. A “Work from Anywhere” model will undoubtedly require a similar shift in policy and ideology.

However, shifting to working from home last year has proven that both workers and business can adapt to change. If workers are to return to the workplace, the one thing that businesses need to provide in order to retain their staff is different environments for different people. The main thing that should be offered is choice.

The main thing that should be offered is choice.

As a veteran interior designer, there are several design options that businesses should consider to facilitate a shift towards a more inclusive, “Work from Anywhere” model. I recommend work spaces that visually represent a businesses cultural values and encourage social connection. This can be achieved through the use of transparent rooms with acoustical privacy, artwork and graphics that speaks to a company’s brand identity and soft seating in formal and informal meeting spaces. In my experience, these options all encourage socialization and create space for mentorship and conversation. This encourages socialization in the workplace because when workers see that employees of all levels are accessible for informal and formal conversation the culture of social connection and community is strengthened.

2020 was a year that forced businesses to look at their past and question their future. For those looking forward, the workplace must be a place that thrives on a culture of inclusivity, diversity, equity and collaboration. It is a place that allows workers to have control over their own lives and their own time. Businesses must put employee satisfaction at the core of its workplace design if they wish to retain their most talented employees and thrive in a post-COVID world.

Resources:

McCloud, Sam. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”, Simply Psychology. December 29, 2020

Kohll, Alan. “5 Reasons Social Connections Can Enhance Your Employee Wellness Program”. Forbes. June 31, 2018.

Seppala, Emma; Cameron, Kim. “Proof That Positive Work Cultures Are More Productive”. Harvard Business Review. December 1, 2015.

Tritch, Teresa. “Engagement Drives Results at New Century The specialty mortgage lender shows how engaged employees dramatically, and measurably, outperform their disengaged counterparts”. Gallup Management Journal. September 11, 2003.

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