Why Good Design and Empathy Are Key to Resuming Office Life Again

More Americans would rather quit their job or take a small pay cut than return to the office. For companies encouraging employees to do so, forward-thinking design solutions, flexible policies, and respectful communication from managers are key.

Apple Park in Cupertino, California

If companies have learned one thing during the pandemic, it’s that attitudes toward office culture have shifted dramatically. Though returning to the five-day in-person work week seemed feasible earlier this year as Covid-19 infection rates dwindled during the vaccine rollout, the Delta variant’s rapid spread has thrown a wrench in those plans. Tech giants can be viewed as a barometer for broader return-to-workplace trends—Amazon, Apple, Lyft, Salesforce, and Google have all postponed bringing employees back to the office in response to the Delta variant, opting for prolonged remote work as a safer alternative. Coinbase shuttered its San Francisco headquarters altogether, and Dropbox has started using its offices exclusively for meetings.

At the same time, white-collar employees have become accustomed to the perks afforded by a work-from home lifestyle. Without spending hours commuting and being tethered to a physical office every day, the workforce has been enjoying new benefits such as lunchtime naps and greater flexibility with childcare and working hours over the past 16 months. “Delta is probably the final nail in the coffin of the five-day return to the office,” Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University who studies work-from-home trends, tells Bloomberg. “[It] was still an option after the initial pandemic in summer 2020, but became increasingly unlikely when this stretched into 2021 and we all got used to working from home.”

Employers will need to adapt or risk facing a mass exodus of talent—a risky scenario as job openings recently soared to a record 10.1 million. According to a survey, the work-from-home lifestyle is so attractive that a majority of Americans would rather take a five percent pay cut than return to the office. Another survey shows that 39 percent of adults would consider quitting outright if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work, and a record 3.9 million people quit their jobs in June—many for higher-paying roles. 

Google office in Mountain View, California. Photography by Jeff Vespa for Surface

Not all companies will pick up on these shifting attitudes, but the C-suite tends to agree that employees do their best work together. Even though Google’s employees reported feeling equally productive at home, the company redesigned offices at the Googleplex with anti-virus balloon walls and outdoor tents in order to encourage staff to return. Bringing employees back too soon without taking proper precautions, however, presents some dicey scenarios. In the event that a worker contracts Covid-19 and infects other employees and their families, companies face a public relations nightmare and potential litigation. 

“While working from home worked well initially, and it continues to work well, people do want to return to the office because that’s where culture and creativity thrive,” Jean Anderson, principal and design director at Gensler, tells Surface in an email. A recent survey conducted by the global architecture firm with U.S. workers found that many prefer a hybrid work model in order to support productivity, convenience, and safety. “Rather than reducing the number of square feet, we’ve seen clients shift their allocation of space and account for more pragmatic amenities to support their employees’ time in the office as they transition from focus work at home to in-person collaboration at the office.” 

Of course, some work simply needs to be done in-person. During the pandemic’s early stages, office furniture giant Steelcase optimized its headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to accommodate hybrid working models. Among the campus’s biggest changes is the creation of a new open-plan Social Hub in the company’s Learning + Innovation Center that’s been designed to support social interaction and collaboration. Key spaces were reimagined to provide staff with options for individual focus work; workstations were enhanced with upgraded digital conferencing technology to support hybrid teamwork from afar. Modular furniture elements, meanwhile, can be easily moved to adapt spaces on demand as needed.  

Steelcase headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan

The transformation of Steelcase’s campus dovetails with new remote work policies that allow employees to choose whether or not returning to the office is right for them. During periods of high infection rates, the company invited “any employee to work in the office if it’s the best place for them, but defined ‘work from home’ as the default for most employees,” writes Donna Flynn, Steelcase’s Vice President of Global Talent. As infection rates decreased, the company encouraged staffers to gradually ramp up time physically spent in the office to reacquaint with the campus and reconnect with colleagues. Employees are free to negotiate alternative work agreements with their managers based on their own personal situations as a new sense of office community takes shape.

For CEOs wondering how to retain staff while reimagining office culture as boundaries between work and home remain amorphous, a recent study suggests that a little bit of empathy goes a long way. Younger employees—especially millennials under the age of 35—increasingly value respectful communication from managers as opposed to snazzy office amenities. “It might be that fun work perks like ping-pong tables and beer on tap are effective at attracting new talent when you walk them through the office, but over time, they see through all of that,” Danielle LaGree, an assistant professor of strategic communication at Kansas State University who led the study, tells Fast Company. “In terms of engaging these employees and retaining them over time, they want their leaders to advocate for them. Part of doing that is showing them respect.” Especially for employees navigating a nervous return to office life, respect from managers about their individual situations is paramount. 

Rather than prematurely forcing employees to re-acclimate to office life, managers should listen closely to their staffers’ personal preferences and arrive at an individualized, hybrid model that works for both parties. For employees required to return to the office, workstations should be tailored for social distancing with modular furniture and equipped with technology that facilitates seamless digital collaboration. If the numbers indicate one thing, companies risk hemorrhaging valuable talent if they fail to realize the biggest perk of all: peace of mind. 

Unity by Rapt Studio. Image courtesy Rapt Studio
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