Returning to We from Me: Back to the Office with a Purpose of Place

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Lisa Statkiewicz
Lisa Statkiewicz
Lisa Statkiewicz is the Design Practice Leader at Bergmeyer Greater Boston.

Lisa Statkiewicz shares how understanding the purpose of place can help bring employees back to the office post-pandemic.

The Purpose

The spring of 2021 brought about strategies and implementation processes to help businesses get back to work in the office. With health and safety for everyone at the foremost of planning, successful re-opening of an office involves following all state & federal guidelines and other considerations.

While many have focused on going back to the office safely, business owners should be carefully thinking about why employees want to go to the office in the first place.

What is the purpose of place? When employees are together in the office, casual conversations enhance their life and work experience. Through these discussions, companies connect and learn to navigate their individual worlds and their complexities. It is the community that gives purpose to the place, and helps workplace environments return to ‘we’ from ‘me’.

The Place

As an industry, we are now refreshing our office spaces to connect to our community and employee needs. The criteria for getting back to the office is not just about aligning to a business’ core values, but also about why we as employees come to the office in the first place.

Working from home has changed our perspective of what a work environment means.

  • Employees are coming back to the office after a year and a half of having a home workspace that, for some, reflected their personalities and personal work styles. For others, it was a challenge to carve out a productive environment.
  • Many struggled to set boundaries with the lack of structure defining work and home, previously set by such rituals that commuting brought. Some chose to come into the office to help more concretely define work time and workspace separately.
  • When teams needed to collaborate, they reached out and connected using digital tools and technology when they could not meet in person.
  • Employees were missing the seamless flow of knowledge sharing and informal mentorship moments that being together in the office brings.

As employees go back to the office, flexibility in space type based on various needs will be desired, and a simple fixed desk is not always the answer. Employees will want the office landscape to enhance their work styles and knowledge sharing, and embrace their community’s personality, much like the home reflects each individual’s personality.

Wellness of People and Place

Designing wellness at the workplace should start with a shift in the team’s mindset at the project’s kickoff. There should be a shared commitment to use healthier products and materials, when possible, to limit workers’, employees’, and visitors’ exposure to hazardous and/or toxic chemicals. By doing a health analysis of all the products and materials that designers plan to use in the respective space, better choices and selections can be made. This along with the use of plants throughout the space improves air quality and overall well-being for employees and visitors in the office space.

The Plan

Many companies have found they needed to adjust their back-to-work strategies throughout 2020. For example, outfitting traditional meeting rooms to have remote capabilities and adding branded elements for those who join meetings remotely. Medium and large conference rooms need more overt branding for a proper remote presence for multi-person zoom meetings, suggesting a setup that may stick long-term. Those coming into the office on a semi-regular basis were there to meet needs that were not being met working remotely, including:

  1. Face-to-face collaboration
  2. Facile ideation with teammates and clients
  3. Working from home is sometimes distracting and coming into the office gave some the chance to deeply focus on the tasks at hand.
  4. Better branded environment for remote meetings and interviews with clients and external collaborators.
  5. Access to tools and materials that are not readily available to work with at home.
  6. Better opportunities for knowledge sharing and mentorship in a more equitable and seamless manner.
  7. As a community of designers that engage and learn from our peers who work in a variety of ways, on equally different things. Being in the office physically enriches the community that creatives thrive in, bringing employees together in a more seamless platform that inspires connection, learning and idea generation.

Events over the past year have emphasized that our people and our community are significantly important. Offices will need to enhance these experiences as well as give employees the tools and spaces for their new work styles and platforms.

  • Office plan pivots can include elements of design that embrace each individual community. Employees can contribute and share their experiences that are meaningful and inspiring. Adding these uniquely personal design elements further amplify employee’s voice to share their stories, while also elevating and celebrating businesses diverse backgrounds and what uniquely inspires all of their employees.
  • Open seat & meet options that are comfortable, inviting, support collaboration and knowledge sharing, and function as alternative workspaces.
  • Open meeting spaces can be more visible and therefore more frequently utilized creating more opportunities for an equitable knowledge-sharing environment.

In conclusion, the company’s community drives why many will return to the workplace and bring everyone back together. The future spaces can further reflect the stories of its people, projects, and community, and offer shared spaces celebratory of each company’s culture. Togetherness will enhance wellness, mentorship and strengthen mental health. Flexibility in where and when employees work will ease anxiety and transitioning back into the office environment. Most importantly, the visibly shared contributions of our communities will be embraced alongside the benefits being physically in an office brings.

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