What if Returning to the Office Felt Like Coming Home?

Ways to Bring the Comforts of Home and Hospitality Into the Workplace

August 31, 2021

Principal, Workplace Strategist, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Kelly Griffin and Kelly Farrell.

Last year, we abandoned our workplaces practically overnight. Now, as companies plan a phased return to the places we left behind, they may no longer be suited to how we do our best work. Despite the comfort and flexibility in working remotely, research shows that employees miss connecting with their colleagues, and crave a change in scenery that an office provides. In-person interaction is also crucial for innovation, productivity and profitability, not to mention building culture and connection. The pandemic provides us the unique opportunity to rethink our old offices and rituals to improve productivity and employee satisfaction.

So, how can we take the best of working from home and imbue it into the office?

Embrace Flexibility

Work is no longer about absolutes—office or home, heads down or heads up, independent or team-based. Instead, each mode has a role to play in creating healthier, more effective work. An organization should invest in environments that support a range of work modes throughout the day. Hyper-flexible workplaces with movable, adjustable infrastructure like walls, furniture and technology, can accommodate a range of needs. Flexible arrangements also offer more personal choice and agency (which is crucial to employee satisfaction) as well as adapting quickly as safety and work policies evolve.

After months of working at home, the constant flurry of activity in an office may feel overwhelming. Build in library, booth or café spaces for quiet, heads-down work where people can be alone but not isolated. In the same way, encourage side-by-side problem solving and passive collaboration with drop-in teaming spaces and tools such as digital whiteboards, monitors and multipurpose wall space that help teams see their work clearly, even if some members are in the office and others are online. Finally, accessorize. Equip communal spaces with phone props or provide sanitized headsets for impromptu video calls.

Encourage Community
The past year and a half taught us that it is difficult to maintain community and build culture online. However, embracing a hybrid work model seems to be the norm for the immediate future. In addition to investing in and expanding technology offerings to better connect with remote team members, changing the appearance of the workplace so that remote workers are not met with a “sea of workstations” when on video calls—an image that implies people must be at a desk and are missing out if they are not in the office—evens the playing field between in-person, hybrid and remote employees.

In the office, encourage people to think about who they need to see or work with, rather than defaulting to the same desk every day. Building on the routines we established while working from home—uninterrupted concentration in a home office, collaborative problem-solving at the kitchen table, virtual brainstorming on the couch—every space in the office is now a place to work. Create areas for communal interaction that are not explicitly geared toward work as well. Expanding places to share a meal or grab coffee helps people create new rituals and come together after a long absence. Offering “whole life” amenities and shared or learning experiences such as yoga or gardening also contributes to a feeling of community and organizational health. Take it one step further and introduce amenities that are also neighborhood touchpoints, such as a public garden where your company can host health and cooking seminars, or a maker space to mentor local high school students.

Take Cues from Hospitality
Consider the hotel lobby. Often the only common area in a hotel aside from the elevators and restaurants, the lobby must offer a variety of spaces for different types of activity. Groupings of furniture such as low tables with surrounding seating encourage conversation, whereas high-backed chairs tucked into corners or nooks along a wall provide more privacy. This idea can also be applied to the office. Invest in multipurpose furniture that is shaped and configured to work in multiple ways, and that adapts as needs reveal themselves, makes it easier to collaborate. The more home- or hospitality-like an office feels, the less stressful the environment. Introduce softer lighting, more texture and organic shapes.

Likewise, think about the check-in process. You’re greeted graciously, often offered a refreshing drink or warm towel, and given clear directions for how to get to your room and use the amenities. What if this type of experience was present at the office? Many hygiene and safety elements that will need to be incorporated into the workplace, such as wayfinding and cleaning, can also create pleasant rituals and experiences. For example, attractive cleaning stations with welcoming designs or ambient effects could be located as intentional arrival points to common areas.

Design with a Healthier Workplace in Mind
Supporting employees’ mental and physical well-being is no longer optional. After months of working from home, employees have figured out what works best for them in terms of concentration, productivity and stress management—a walk to regroup, movement around the house to support different types of focus, a catnap to refresh. These same options can extend to the workplace, from incorporating walking paths (or scheduling walking meetings) to more spatial and experiential variety inspired by residential and hospitality design.

Long-term, focus on access to fresh air by improving ventilation and filtration in mechanical systems. Employees will feel safer and breathe better. Increase views and daylight in the office, which reinforces people’s circadian rhythms and helps with productivity during the workday. Build in moments of respite in the work environment. Horticulture, sound or aromatherapy can quickly transport people to a calmer and more soothing place. While sleeping at work may not be an option, areas to rest—and the cultural permission to take a break—can help people feel more focused and supported.

The pandemic has allowed us to re-examine how we want to work and live. Design can be a transformative tool for reshaping work into a healthier, more purposeful experience. By bringing the comforts of home and hospitality into the workplace, organizations can provide the best of both worlds.

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Are Zoom Towns the Future of Cities?

July 27, 2021

Applied Analytics & Data Visualization Strategist, NBBJ

More than a year after the pandemic caused an abrupt shift to working remotely, offices are starting to reopen. However, in many cases, hybrid work policies are here to stay. This year-long work from home experiment showed that some tasks are more productive at home, while others benefit from being in the office (and others, such as essential workers, are required to do their jobs in-person).

According to a recent study by Microsoft, 73% of workers prefer a flexible work environment, and 46% of the global workforce is planning to move now that they can work at least partially in a remote configuration. From the employer perspective, remote work could upend the demand for companies to locate in competitive markets near an established talent pool and offering geographic flexibility could be a talent attraction strategy. If some employees are offered a flexible work environment, and many employers can now hire from anywhere, where might people choose to locate? Enter the concept of “zoom towns.”

Zoom towns are locations that are beginning to see a significant influx of remote workers. Initially, many zoom towns were in vacation destinations like Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Aspen, Colorado and Lake Tahoe, California. But as employers make hybrid and remote options more permanent, zoom towns are evolving to a wider variety of locations, such as Austin, Texas, Charleston, South Carolina and Butte, Montana. Publicly available data has already started to give us a glimpse of the future. The USPS “Change of Address” dataset shows an increase in both overall moves and in net out-migration from larger cities. A national Bankrate/YouGov survey found millennials are most likely to have moved in 2020; movers preferred smaller cities or less-dense neighborhoods and; movers tended to relocate within the same region as their previous address. The survey also revealed that 21% of people relocated for their job, while 17% moved because they can now work from anywhere.

Given the availability of this data, new tools can help employees and employers identify ideal locations for their homes and businesses. A zoom towns location analysis tool developed by our firm uses geographic layers that capture a specific data theme, and compiles those layers to produce a weighted location suitability index for every area in the U.S. For example, an employee is ready to work remotely and move her family out of a major city. Her ideal home is in a location with a temperate climate (more important) and a low tax burden (less important). First, each data layer is classified, giving the best locations a score of 9, and the worst a score of 1. Second, each layer is weighted based on importance. With the layer classification and weighting complete, a simple arithmetic analysis produces the result: the best locations to live with both a temperate climate and low taxes are throughout the middle of the country, in certain locations throughout the Rocky Mountains, and along the Pacific Northwest coast. The analysis is quick and easy, and the employee can now see multiple location options that perhaps she hadn’t previously considered.

 

 

As zoom towns continue to see an increase in population, it’s also important to think about how we make these smaller, more remote areas more community-oriented and sustainable. People who are considering or have already moved to a zoom town may need to find new ways to network and connect outside the workplace. Activities like supporting small businesses, volunteering, joining neighborhood or civic associations, and researching local issues and causes allow zoom towns to support and accommodate their new residents, and to thrive as strong, resilient communities.

Additionally, many small towns are not prepared for a large influx of new residents, which may strain resources and cause problems like congestion, unaffordability and infrastructure constraints. This so-called “amenity migration” can have destructive consequences if not planned for and managed, according to researchers from the University of Utah. Adequate infrastructure, denser development, cleaner and more accessible public transportation, and access to a stable, fast Internet connection can all help zoom towns to retain both new and existing residents. Zoom towns may also help counteract the widely researched effects of “brain-drain” – the loss of highly-educated residents from rural environments to large cities.

Zoom towns do not mean an end for more traditional large cities, or the destruction of urban growth. Rather, zoom towns may need to be more like cities, adapting to challenges such as housing and transportation, and developing sustainably. With new tools and the ability to choose where and how we live and work, the two can coexist and even benefit one another.

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How Can Rest Build Creativity, Focus and Wellness at Work?

Five Strategies to Support Rest in the Office

July 15, 2021

Principal, Workplace Strategist, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This is the sixth and final article in a six-part series on five different work modes. The first piece outlined a framework for each work mode, while subsequent posts explored a single work mode in greater depth — including focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest.

This post was co-authored by Kelly Griffin and Edwin Beltran.

The coronavirus crisis has shown more than ever that rest is essential to life — and especially work. It is critical to being effective, productive and creative. Yet rest is typically viewed as a counterpoint to work and a waste of time. While society typically doesn’t think of rest as a critical knowledge-building work mode, it is important to understand the role rest plays in the ability to generate new ideas and build knowledge. As organizations soon return to offices, it is time to think of rest as an essential work mode too.

Neuroscience points to the incredible benefits of rest. A NASA study found that a 26-minute nap can dramatically improve alertness by 54% and performance by 34%. Other studies show that when we sleep, our brains are incredibly active, removing toxins to make way for new growth. (And poor sleep has tremendous costs, not just physically but financially as well. Experts say that U.S. businesses lose $411 billion annually due to reduced performance and lost work from sleep deprivation.)

In the post-pandemic return to the office, restorative rest will be even more essential to health, wellbeing and the ability perform at the highest level in the workplace, both individually and as a member of an organization. The office fortunately can provide these valuable benefits — with the comfort and expanded flexibility found in current work-from-home setups. Here are five strategies to implement in the workplace so employees are refreshed and rejuvenated so creativity and productivity can flourish.

Embrace a culture of rest. To encourage rest in the workplace, it is helpful to first create or reframe organizational guidelines around rest activities. Consider when, where and how employees are most productive when their mental and physical wellbeing are supported. Engage with and observe staff: What restful activities are they drawn to and where do they occur? The key is to be intentional and keep an open mind when implementing new procedures and configurations. An office “rest ambassador” that champions the power of rest can provide a supportive link between staff, leadership and the design team.

Extend opportunities to rest outside the workplace. Promoting restful activities outside the workplace can be beneficial, while encouraging the importance of rest in the community. Cabanas or benches underneath a tree can offer joyful, calming places for respite. Outdoor public spaces with immersive media experiences that feature customizable nature scenes and sounds from around the world can bring the powerful benefits of nature to an urban city block. These scenes can be tailored to adjust to different times of day, seasons, holidays or visitor preferences.

In addition, inspirational slowdown routes or scenic “hikes” that reconnect employees and visitors with the purpose and mission of an organization can re-energize and inspire. For example, restorative, landscaped paths lined with scented plants like rosemary, jasmine and honeysuckle can create moments of rest. They can also be strategically placed at arrival and exit zones and even transform the experience of walking through a parking lot from car to building, bus stop, or drop-off area.

Provide active rest zones to restore and rejuvenate. Rest can be an active and extroverted experience. Areas that allow teams to unplug together can offer unique ways to collectivity unwind, connect with colleagues and perhaps even learn a new skill. For example, sound-proofed music rooms — outfitted with a piano, guitars and drums — can enable staff to come together to create uplifting music that enhances cognition, lowers stress and even improves the immune system. In addition, maker spaces and art studios can also provide opportunities for teams to transfer the creative energy of a soothing hobby into innovation-building and problem-solving at work.

Furthermore, multi-purpose areas or conference spaces can transform into areas for calming group meditation, breathing exercise and yoga stretches with flexible furniture that can be stored away when needed, customizable circadian lighting and built-in speakers with peaceful music. Furniture selections in these spaces could be cleverly tailored to successfully support the dual functions of collaboration and leisure with the ability to change from formal, upright table-side postures to softer, lounging postures. These informal postures can help people feel more relaxed and better able to share ideas.

Offer calming respite spaces for positive passive distractions. Peaceful areas in the office to engage in low-key activities can provide employees much needed opportunities to recharge from the stressors of the day. These spaces can also allow the mind to wander, helping people reflect on bits of information or problems in the background while engaging in other low-demand activities. The best ideas can present themselves when they are least expected.

To refresh the mind, these more introverted spaces can feature garden-like elements that provide the inherent calming benefits of nature. For instance, an indoor room filled with immune-boosting lavender, air-purifying snake plants and natural light — as well as views or access to outdoor green spaces and porches — can offer a meditative place to get away. These spaces could also feature the rejuvenating sounds of running water and gentle bird calls. In healthcare settings, Snoezelen rooms — multi-sensory rooms with gentle lighting, relaxing sounds, soothing scents and tactile materials — have become popular not only as therapeutic offerings for patients, but also as restorative relaxation environments for staff.

These sensory experiences aren’t limited to dedicated rooms of course. They can also include napping zones with comfortable high-backed chairs at the end of a hallway to extra-long window seats in stair landings, both providing relaxing places to reset and reflect. In Google’s South Lake Union workplace, rest in the office is an important component, from a circadian-lit “treehouse” to a jellyfish lounge with dimmed lighting.

Finally, consider implementing a range of workplace setups, from the simple to the advanced. The strategies discussed above can be designed at three levels:

  • Simple. The easiest to implement with changes to behaviors, culture and technology.
  • Medium. Is more robust and increases effectiveness not only through changes to behaviors but strategies to “green up” the space and adjust furniture.
  • Advanced. Provides the maximum benefit with additional spaces and programs that support all aspects of rest.

For example, the hallway napping niche discussed earlier could expand into a dedicated napping zone that supports multiple senses. This could include a designated room in the office with a lounge chair, sound-reducing materials, gentle lighting and cooler temperatures.

Rest has never been considered a critical work mode but it should be. Society is learning that humans, when tired and stressed, do not bring their best ideas to work. The workplace design strategies that support productive rest outlined above can boost wellness and productivity — essential to an organization’s long-term success.

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