How To Lead Workplace Transformation In The Post-Pandemic Era
A major workplace transformation is already happening, whether you’re actively leading it or not. Rather than working a typical 9-5 workday, with a clear separation between home and the office, employees find themselves in a riptide of blurred responsibilities. Their daily focus and concerns overlap in an exhausting and seemingly unending cycle of trying to create balance. This ongoing juggling act creates a ripple effect, leaving businesses and workplace leaders wondering how to best structure their emotional and physical environments moving forward.
The key: Marry time-tested principles with forward-thinking initiatives.
Workplace design leaders Emily Klein and Dr. Melissa Steach shared best practices for leading a successful workplace transformation that benefits everyone in a recent webinar.
What is workplace transformation in the post-pandemic era?
Despite the perks of remote work, a significant portion of the workforce is facing digital burnout.
A new Microsoft study shows that 54 percent of workers surveyed feel overworked, and 39 percent feel exhausted. This exhaustion may stem from the time they spend in virtual meetings and in front of screens. The time employees spent in Microsoft Teams meetings more than doubled globally between February 2020 and February 2021, according to the study.
Despite meeting and chat overload, 50% of people respond to Microsoft Teams chats within five minutes or less, a response time that has not changed year-over-year. It seems to show that the intensity of our workday and what is expected of employees during this time has increased significantly.
No wonder this same study showed that 41 percent of workers globally are thinking about handing in their notice. (Is it nap time yet?)
Perkins & Will Director of Workplace Emily Klein said the new focus of workplace transformation is to make companies more human-centric by embracing change with people at the heart of it.
“How do we design workspaces that really meet employees where they’re at right now?” she asked. “The research is showing that people do, in fact, want to come back to offices. As much as we’ve proved we’ve been really productive in our home offices, we do want to come back. But we want to come back for socialization with our colleagues. We want to come back to collaborate with our colleagues and collaborate with our teams.”
To lead successful workplace transformation, business leaders should give employees agency and autonomy over how they work. This idea of freedom is not to create chaos, Klein said, but rather to create a hybrid workplace that allows employees to feel they come to work with authenticity.
Dr. Melissa Steach, a workplace wellbeing knowledge lead with Herman Miller, referenced a 2013 Harvard study researchers replicated in 2020 that found productivity is still, on average, better when you are at home because you have more freedom. Rather than working to show you are working, you can choose to prioritize your work in a way that best fits your personality, work style, and workload. You still answer your emails, write your reports, and join in conference calls, but you can choose to work differently, which leads to greater productivity.
Work-from-home habits that translate to back-to-office reality can include substituting a meeting for a conference call or video conference, taking breaks where you step away from the screen to refocus and refresh your body and mind, and a more relaxed dress code that’s still professional, but more comfortable. (Think business loungewear.)
“There are always some barriers that happen with virtual engagements rather than in person,” Steach said. “But there’s some interesting things that we can either turn the volume up on in regards to habits that I think that being at home has facilitated and supported, and then other things that we need to move away from.”
Klein described this as creating a hybrid workplace that re-imagines the new employee experience and designing a workplace where purpose, brand, and culture align to make employees feel supported.
“Where I think we’re taking this now in the sort of pandemic to post- pandemic timeframe is being able to create a workplace that resonates with the whole human, so I can bring my whole self to work,” Klein said. “It means I bring everything that is going on in my life, not just professionally, but personally.”
What concerns do employees have about the return to office?
Bringing your whole self to work as you return to the office can look different across industries and at different levels of the organizational chart. While workplace transformation includes a change in the physical design — such as moving workspaces farther apart and making them reservable instead of assigned — your company culture requires an overhaul as well.
A Flexjobs survey of 2,100 people in April showed that health concerns such as exposure to coronavirus, less flexibility, and less work-life balance are the top three return-to-office concerns. Others include a change in daily routine, being away from family or pets, office politics and distractions, and childcare/caregiver responsibilities.
Klein shared her view that the pandemic created a positive opportunity to begin conversations around collaborating in different ways. She cited architect and designer Bucky Fuller, who said:
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
In the webinar, Klein discussed the need to transform our thoughts and traditional perspectives as much as our office design, and allow our thinking about how and when work is done to shift with this new paradigm.
“While that’s really important, we want to address that, sometimes really being able to pull people forward is creating new models that get people excited about how we can work in the future,” Klein said. “It’s just that recognition that we are humans, and that we’re all dealing with this together, and that we all want a lot of different things out of our work experience.”
How can you help employees adapt to workplace transformation?
Employee’s health and wellbeing need to be at the forefront of all thought, space, and process transformation. Wellness extends beyond physical health and wellness to include mental and emotional health.
Putting this into practice can start with small steps, beginning with asking employees how they feel about returning to the office.
Recognize that employees may be nervous to take public transportation or take their children to daycare again. Implement a flexible schedule if possible to give them time to adjust to a new routine.
Create opportunities during the day for parents who are returning to the office to have a video call with their children. At the beginning of the pandemic, many working parents were thrown into the role of figuring out how to work remotely and how to help their children adapt to a new normal. Now, the adjustment is in the reverse, with parents and children used to spending most of their time together having to renavigate what it looks like to be separated, by work, school, or childcare.
Digital transformation should go hand-in-hand with workplace transformation.
Give employees peace of mind and a feeling of control over their own health and schedule with tools that help them manage their experience in the office.
Tools such as the Hummingbird workplace app give employees a contactless way to reserve workstations or conference rooms, request service, and receive alerts about visitors, deliveries, or important announcements.
In a hybrid work environment, employers will also need to be more purposeful and intentional about when and why they want employees in the office.
Outline specific meetings employees will be required to attend, as well as opportunities for team-building and interactive workshops for ongoing learning.
Klein recommends thinking of your office space more as a facilitator of wellbeing, and consider how your company can invest in wellbeing through digital, mental health, and wellness apps.
An early 2021, 2-week online global survey of 4,553 full-time employees over the age of 18 showed that only 55 percent of employees feel their organization cares about them. Conducted by the Limeaide Institute, the study showed that managers and leaders were more apt to feel their superiors cared about improving their wellbeing, as opposed to individual contributors.
One of the keys to wellness is establishing mutual trust between employees and workplace leaders. A few practical ways to do this:
- Spark frequent and in-depth conversations with employees about what they would like to see in your return-to-office plan and what benefits are important to both hybrid employees and your fully remote workforce.
- Survey, analyze, implement, and survey again. Keep asking for feedback as you make adjustments and go through changes. Workplace transformation is a process.
- Invest in wellness training or mindfulness seminars, and consider adding mental health benefits to your insurance package for employees.
- Rework your PTO plan to provide mental health flex-time for employees struggling to balance or adjust to their new normal.
“I think we have to be very mindful of the fact that we’re human beings, and we’re not just going to snap back,” Klein said. “You can’t fully go back to where you were in the past. You can take elements of (it) that you build on it, and you go forward.”
This mindset is Steach’s nod to Socrates and his thought: “The secret of change is in focusing all of your energy not in fighting the old, but in building the new.”
Focus on what is going well with your workplace design and your company culture, and find ways to accelerate that positive momentum.
Listen to the full webinar to discover ways your workplace can transition into a productive, positive, and employee-focused new normal.