Think about how you started your morning.
Did you and your colleagues exchange some friendly banter about your fantasy football league? Share your surprise over the “This Is Us” plot twist that caught you off guard?
Maybe you exchanged fist bumps with the sales director after learning about the deal that finally closed. Later, you caught up with your team over lunch.
Or maybe you just sat down at your desk and immediately got to work plowing through several hundred emails. You messaged your colleagues via Slack to ask them questions about a project and congratulated them on a big win via Google Hangouts. When you discovered an error one of your team members made, you sent them a strongly worded email expressing your frustration.
As much as technology has helped us work smarter and more efficiently, it has also made it easier for us to avoid face-to-face interaction with our colleagues. We’ve replaced a “high touch” environment with a high tech one. We’ve gone too far in one direction, in many ways, to our detriment. And now we’re trying to correct course. Here’s why more business leaders are advocating for a high touch workplace—or at least, one that balances technology and human interaction.
What Is a High Touch Workplace?
We all understand touch is an important aspect of nonverbal communication. We have more confidence in someone with a firm handshake compared to someone who shakes like a cold fish. We feel more comforted by a pat on the shoulder than a reassuring email.
But at a time when sexual harassment allegations are front-page headlines on a weekly basis, it’s understandable that many of us take a “hands off” approach in the workplace.
A high touch workplace isn’t about making anyone uncomfortable—in fact, it’s the exact opposite. It’s an environment centered around natural human interaction.
That includes smiling, laughter and face-to-face conversation, as well as friendly, appropriate contact like handshakes, high fives and fist-bumps. Research has shown that friendly physical contact can boost collaboration and performance within teams. (It should be noted this research involved NBA players, and the congratulatory slaps that happen on the court aren’t always appropriate in the workplace.)
A high touch environment isn’t just about physical contact, either.
Kay Sargent, senior principal and director of HOK’s WorkPlace practice, said the emphasis on technology in the workplace in recent years has caused many offices to feel cold, sterile and artificial, which makes us long for more natural elements.
“The more high tech we go, the more people crave real, authentic experiences,” Sargent said. “They want wood; 'biophilia,' access to nature—things that humanize us and bring us back to our organic selves.”
High Touch vs. High Tech: How To Find the Right Balance
Innovation is important, and technology is a big part of that. But we should never lose sight of the fact that the workplace exists for people—and it should be designed to support human interaction as much as possible.
With a little planning and thoughtful design, workplace leaders can foster an environment that’s both high touch and high tech. Here are a few recommendations.
1. Bring the Outdoors In
All of us love working in nature—it’s in our DNA, said Leigh Stringer, LEED AP at EYP, an architecture engineering and building technology firm and author of The Healthy Workplace and The Green Workplace.
We all know being outside makes us feel good. In Japan, this idea has become a movement known as “forest bathing”, which encourages employees to get outside more often during the workweek. Workplace leaders in Japan have found that spending even one extra hour each week immersed in nature improves employees’ moods, reduces stress and increases happiness. It also makes employees more creative and productive. Having common areas where employees can work or just take a break is ideal, but not every workplace has a lush forest nearby. Start by bringing elements of the outdoors in. Adding some potted plants, hanging gardens and furniture or decor made with natural elements can make a big difference.
2. Tear Down Those Walls
Technology has made it easier for all of us to be lazy when it comes to communication. Many workplace layouts only make the problem worse. Cubicles and private offices make employees less likely to walk over and talk with their colleagues. By contrast, a more flexible workplace design encourages activity-based working.
Employees might initially resist the idea of a more open office because it gives them less privacy and can make it easier to get distracted. That’s why it’s important to have a mix of collaborative areas, meeting rooms and private areas where people can go to concentrate on deep work.
Again, it’s all about balance.
The Assemblage, a coworking and coliving space in New York City, has a good mix of spaces that support different ways of working.
3. Don’t Let Employees Get too Attached to Their Desks
One big benefit of an activity-based work environment is that employees have more flexibility to move around. But most of us are creatures of habit, so it will probably take some coaxing to get employees to actually get up and move. Adding in some standing desks can help. So can a periodic “seat shuffle” that gets everyone out of their usual spots. It can encourage more interaction among employees who might not normally talk with each other and give everyone a fresh perspective, sparking creativity.
If you’re going to be routinely swapping seats, just make sure it’s easy for employees to move. Each workstation should have the same elements—monitor, outlet and connector cable, for instance—so people can move with as little hassle as possible.
Make sure you also give employees a place for them to put their belongings so they’re only keeping the essentials on their desks.
Another option is to eliminate the idea of assigned seats entirely and move to a reservation-based system like office hoteling. If you already use room reservation software for booking meeting rooms, you’re already halfway there.
4. Be Intentional About Workplace Technology
Workplace technology changes so fast that it’s easy to get “shiny object syndrome” and focus on the latest and greatest software, apps or IoT sensors. These are still essential elements of the modern digital workplace.
However, the introduction of so many new tools can also result in technology for technology’s sake.
Before you invest in something new, ask yourself these important questions:
- How will this new technology help us achieve our business objectives?
- Does it integrate with our existing workplace management software?
- Is it mobile-friendly so employees can access it from anywhere?
- Who will manage the data this new technology generates?
- Is this something our employees actually want and will use?
Taking the time to think through workplace technology decisions can help you avoid going overboard.
The best workplaces don’t just have the latest technology; they are designed in a way that encourages positive interaction between employees.
To see more examples of high tech and high touch workplaces (and learn more about how to create the right balance), check out our Workplace of the Future eBook.