Staying Human in a Digital Workplace

Ten Research-Based Ideas to Improve Hybrid Work Settings

June 17, 2021

Partner, NBBJ

@ryanjmullenix

A major disruption on many fronts, the Covid-19 pandemic also challenges nearly every standard methodology around work. The resulting tension provides an opportunity to ground daily work habits in a deeper understanding of human nature. People seek meaning in their jobs through multiple ways, especially through the context of relationships — a trying predicament inherent in a remote or physically distanced workplace. Effective outcomes require recognizing such limitations and using research-backed design strategies to support the agency, behavior, creativity and unpredictable beauty that ultimately makes us human.

As organizations transition back to the physical office, many will continue remote working policies or create hybrid workplaces with a mix of off-site and co-located workers. Depending on organizational vision, mode of work and personal preference, this approach will present both unique challenges and opportunities. Through NBBJ’s Fellowship Program with brain scientist Dr. John Medina, we identify 10 research-based ideas for improving engagement and productivity in these new workplace experiences.

Meeting Strategies for Hybrid Work Settings
In hybrid workplaces, a significant amount of communication occurs via videoconferencing and other technologies. Creating productive remote work environments that more closely approximate in-person meetings are critical to addressing a major challenge of hybrid workplaces — remote workers may be at a disadvantage due to technology gaps and lower visibility.

Additionally, while technology transforms aspects of how we work, it is often still an impoverished form of communication. Zoom fatigue is real — video meetings are more exhausting than in-person conversation because the brain must fill in gaps of information it normally gets through face-to-face conversations. Our reliance on body language is so strong that we often only hear 25% of what is said (and surprisingly retain only half at that).

With that in mind, here are five key protocols that can help address these limitations to create a better remote work environment:

Share Meeting Materials in Advance
Meeting organizers should provide written meeting agendas, materials and goals prior to meetings. This approach compels organizers to crystallize their thoughts in advance and allows attendees — whether remote or collocated — to prepare. The outcome is a true discussion that encourages synchronous interaction versus a presentation.

Make Meetings as Interactive as Possible
Meeting attendees should read the agenda and materials prior to the meeting and come prepared with ideas, comments and questions. The organizer can begin with a brief summary, but then move quickly to a more interactive discussion. The more interactive the exchange, the better the material is retained.

Ask Questions and Clarify
Remote communication increases the odds of being misunderstood, so it is crucial that everyone feels empowered to ask for clarification as soon as a point of confusion arises. This helps ensure clearer communication; if a frequent practice, it also helps impart a feeling of safety in the group, which tends to be in short supply in remote settings.

Practice Good Listening Skills
Everyone can improve their listening skills. Research shows that great listeners actively comment and ask questions, and avoid pressuring the speaker even when tough questions are posed. This supports cooperative conversations in which no one dominates or gets defensive. Keep in mind that people engage in different ways—a lack of response may not indicate disinterest, but that another approach is needed to get input.

Rethink Virtual Platforms
The above-noted behaviors can be supported by communication tools that bring more of the human body into the field of vision, and use color and other visual elements to capture non-verbal cues. More visibility into the workplace for remote workers can improve awareness of others and prompt important unplanned connections.

 

Design and Workplace Strategies for Hybrid Work Settings
Individuals have the highest awareness of what habits and preferences work best for them. Forward-thinking organizations must leverage this knowledge to create processes and spaces that enable people to not only reconnect to one another when the pandemic recedes, but to map out their optimal workday. This is particularly important in hybrid workplaces, where, as more workers shift back and forth between office and remote work, there will be an increased need for individual flexibility.

To support the balance between individual prosperity and organizational success, here are five strategies to consider in creating a workplace that reflects both:

Understand Team Needs and Preferences
People have different preferences for how, when and where they work. Developing question sets that explore how these preferences vary across teams can be a useful, straightforward step towards creating more productive team dynamics and tailored schedules that take individual work habits into account. For larger companies, a framework that enables teams to manage themselves will likely lead to faster overall growth and camaraderie than a single blanket policy.

Encourage Personal Agency
Research shows that encouraging choice reduces stress and improves job satisfaction. It can also help people make better decisions to support their personal and professional development, and build understanding as to how, when and where they feel most productive. People offered more choice in how they organize and collaborate should arrive at the best setup for their individual needs. Configurable “kit of parts” spaces designed for smaller autonomous teams can provide significant flexibility and enable teams to experiment to find optimal work arrangements. Consider how this benefit can extend to remote environments where some may not have true agency due to apartment size or housemates. Also acknowledge that agency can be intimidating—develop a means to evaluate how well these choices are benefitting individual employee satisfaction and growth over time.

Support Diversity and Autonomy
The pandemic popularizes flexible work models which are likely to become a more permanent feature. Expanded and unconventional work shifts that encompass remote and office modes can be supported and coordinated to provide individuals with the work schedule that best aligns with their chronotype, work habits and role and life responsibilities. With many companies looking to reduce the number of workstations, amenities will also become more important as spaces that support a wider variety of individual and team work modes.

Promote Wellbeing
The health and wellbeing of the workforce is critical to organizational success, impacting everything from job turnover to performance and brand image. Organizations can consider realigning corporate values and priorities and developing new success metrics to support physical and mental health. Workplace design can incorporate strategies that support movement like stairs and walking paths while offering a connection to nature that may not always be possible in a remote setting. Wellness amenities that employees can’t get at home will be a valued in-person benefit.

Maintain the Intimacy of Working From Home
The working from home experiment builds deeper connections among some colleagues as they “invite” each other into their homes. In hybrid workplaces, it will be important to find ways of retaining and promoting those personal connections by imbuing them into the office. Layouts which group workers into smaller team areas with flexible furniture configurations, for example, can encourage greater intimacy and personalization. The harshness of a conference room compared to the softness of a home or hospitality environment will be readily felt, perhaps underscoring the gap between remote and in-person. Finding a more seamless transition that is able to be personalized in both realms will be critical.

The past year has initiated a chaotic yet revealing series of conditions that many are just beginning to comprehend. However, just as we grapple with these learnings – some new, some decades old – promising results from vaccines plus the desire for clarity in the year to come has created an urgency for organizations to define their next workplace now. The obvious danger lies in reacting so quickly that the next workplace becomes the previous workplace, or even worse, the unsustainable workplace.

For companies navigating this crisis, this transitory period has been ripe with opportunities to learn and reimagine, driving towards spaces that capture what a work experience should have been. The result can be a fluid environment that enables people to be their most productive selves while engaging in a deeply meaningful way. Humans have survived for 40,000 years because of their ability to socialize, adapt and rely on individual talents and strengths. The science behind this history is critical for its future – to stay human in a hybrid world, don’t forget to be humane.

 

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Socializing At Work Is About More Than Just Fun And Games.

The business benefit of relationships with colleagues and how the design of post-Covid offices can foster valuable connections.

June 8, 2021

Principal, Workplace Strategist, NBBJ

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

This post was co-authored by Kelly Griffin and Robert Mankin.

 

In the early days of office work, socializing and building friendships at work was not tolerated. In fact, it was perceived as taking attention away from the task at hand. The world has since learned, particularly during the pandemic, that socializing at work is a critical building block of trust, innovation and wellbeing in organizations. Numerous research studies, beginning with a pioneer 1920s study on a team of factory workers at Western Electric Company, show that social support and group interaction between colleagues create powerful, positive benefits not just for employees, but companies too. This includes greater social cohesion, wellness and a healthier life overall, which fuels higher engagement, productivity and organizational success.

Given these immense benefits, social activities in the workplace are essential for healthy employees and companies. However, once the pandemic forced most organizations to work from home, many people lost this vital in-person interaction. Remote work has inhibited important face-to-face social connections with colleagues, teams and the community as a whole.

In the post-Covid office, it will be more important than ever to have space to unite teams and celebrate success, to boost wellness and reduce stress. The below outlines four ways the workplace can create comfortable, welcoming experiences that encourage genuine human connection.

Provide alluring social spaces that address movement, culture and routines to foster a natural rhythm of shared connections. As social activities in the workplace are unique to each company, team and individual, it is essential to offer a variety of areas in the office — from the comforting to the unexpected — to support both routine and unplanned social moments. This can include rethinking the experience of the “journey.” Transition or “in-between” spaces typically used for travel such as hallways, paths or stairwells can become unique areas for connection. This can also mean offering alternative, social gathering zones that go beyond multipurpose meeting rooms. Read on for a few strategies to help employees build closer connections and friendships.

  • Explore existing social moments and routines — including their higher purpose and goals. As with other types of work activities, it’s key to first examine and establish a culture of socializing and building relationships in the workplace. Consider guiding questions, such as: What is the intent for socializing? What types of social engagement are most valued or preferred? How can we build social cohesion with our teams? Keep in mind the three main scales of social activities, such as larger team gatherings like community networking events, smaller group connections including lunches, and one-on-one chats like a coffee break. To help build community within and outside an organization’s walls, office spaces should address social preferences that make it easy (and fun) to organically connect.
  • Consider the journey. Even before an employee arrives at the office, the meeting room, or their desk, it’s important to consider the sequence of spaces that come before. This could include the larger experience of traveling through a headquarters’ campus from the bus stop or parking lot, through a building lobby or a shared welcoming area or café. How can these areas promote opportunities for shared social connections? One way is to create irresistible and engaging places for serendipitous discovery. For example, a workplace headquarters project in South Korea features a series of pathways that cascade up 15 stories to become a unique walking route primed for social interactions. Colleagues can stroll up and down its ramps for not just walking meetings, but for informal conversations too, and also cross paths with visitors. In addition, benches and nooks along the way provide natural moments to extend a conversation. The outdoors can be a part of the journey as well. For example, a special arrival and exit zone can simulates a walk in the woods with lush native plants, gently winding paths and natural materials like stone and wood. Ultimately, it’s not about the distance traveled, but the experience of the journey and the movement through space as a shared experience.
  • Create a compelling destination. Creating “destination” social spaces encourages colleagues to get out of their normal routine and most important, feel comfortable enough to build strong social connections. For instance, a lobby in an office building or front desk zone in a workplace can become an interactive destination that welcomes and delights employees, visitors and local residents. Inviting digital media walls and installations can be tailored with inspiring graphics that change depending on the occasion, movement or touch, to create truly customized environments.
  • Enhance the ritual of socializing through design. Finally, design can encourage a regular cadence of socializing for better idea-generation and problem solving. For example, it can be helpful to provide spaces that support everyday routines or special traditions to help remove barriers. One way is to build relationships around the ritual of hospitality, including meals or drinks. For instance, if a team typically gets a morning coffee or connects over a Friday lunch to discuss ideas, inviting, “neutral” spaces for gathering can help further these friendships to create a sense of belonging. This could include cozy seating zones inside an office that mimic the feel of gathering together in a favorite pub. Outside, a central campfire space with outdoor staircases nearby can host large employee gatherings. In addition, underutilized areas in a building’s ground floor or lobby can become pop-up spaces for partnerships with local restaurants, coffee shops and juice bars. Outdoor areas can also become valuable community resources for connection. At Samsung’s North America headquarters, nature-filled courtyards transform into areas for fitness, recreation and family activities. This creates a unique workplace that is both restorative and generative — better integrated into the social fabric for improved relationship-building and idea generation.

Socializing is critical to trust, learning and growth. The workplace of today — and tomorrow — can foster a sense of belonging, providing opportunities for employees to connect with one another and the community in a way that is unique to their values. Ultimately, teams that have strong social bonds are more likely to stay with an organization longer, generate new and more innovative ideas and deliver work more effectively.

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As Many Storefronts Sit Empty, Three Opportunities to Rethink the Ground Floor of Buildings

May 20, 2021

Design Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Ward and Andrea Vanecko.

 

The pandemic shows us what cities without vibrant and engaging commercial streets look like – when some of our favorite spaces are shuttered and instead of spending a day popping into shops, we are met with stores displaying ‘For Lease’ signs.

The decline of in-person retail and the question of what to do with ground level retail space has been on the minds of developers, architects, and urban planners for years. However, the pandemic accelerates this crisis, with retail vacancies expected to reach a seven year high this year.

The vitality of ground level commercial space is about much more than the future of retail. These spaces are where neighborhood identity is formed, it’s where we live our day-to-day lives, where we play and meet up with friends. And how these places are curated makes the difference between streetscapes that are livable and human, and those that lack a sense of coherence and place.
This moment – between the devastation of the pandemic and full reopening – presents an opportunity to be bold in reimagining what we want our cities to look like and in rethinking how ground level retail space is zoned, used and configured.

A New Opportunity
As a team of architects, designers and strategists obsessed with the future of cities, we believe the street level of buildings should intermingle retail with social and community services, bring craft and making to the forefront and create an environment that better reflects the tastes and lifestyle of millennials and Gen Z. Here are a few examples:

  • One of the most compelling opportunities is to create more porous environments. Typically, retail spaces are small, hermetically sealed boxes solely reserved to the first floor of buildings that lack a sense of continuity and circulation in and between environments. If we look at some of the most successful and iconic spaces in cities – the Ferry Building in San Francisco, Pike Place Market in Seattle and Grand Central Market in Downtown LA – they all buck this trend. They feel organic, mixing indoors and outdoors, and are imbued with a sense of texture, discovery and exploration. These are all qualities we can translate into the street if we’re willing to think both creatively and strategically, designing for an interesting and engaging tenant mix and for different kinds of programming that move away from siloed retail.
  • What if in the same street you lived, you could also find pop-up galleries, community spaces, work zones and outdoor fitness classes? What if after work, all you had to do was go downstairs and a block away to walk into a cooking, pottery or foreign language class? By designing our commercial retail environments in a way that seamlessly integrates indoors and outdoors, we can connect tenants with an ongoing slate of physical and experiential programming and activations, from satellite art spaces connected to larger institutions to educational sessions to outdoor libraries and play spaces for children.
  • We can also challenge the idea of the ground floor as the only space available to us and explore what more vertical uses and programming could look like. We’ve seen this with green roofs and rooftop bars and restaurants, but could it also be that the 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 10th level gets programmed? Traveling beyond the first floor, we could see tenants higher up in the building that offer extended hours so there’s a vertical adventure like we see more commonly in cities like Tokyo and Hong Kong.

Roadblocks to Change
If we want to move toward this new vision for the commercial programming of cities, we must work closely with developers, city planners and city officials to overcome persistent roadblocks. Because without reform, these ideas will remain concepts instead of reality. We, both as a firm and as an industry, have an opportunity to advocate for new ways of doing work across:

  • City zoning unintentionally discourages ingenuity in this area, often operating within limited criteria for what traditional retail tenants can be. Zoning generally likes to organize cities in tidy boxes, but if we want to encourage the revitalization of these neighborhoods after the pandemic, allowing for a mix of uses at different times of day and night is one of the most effective strategies to get there. This approach will also create new opportunities for the slate of businesses across sectors that have been forced to exit their leases due to the pandemic and will be looking for a home after. Zoning can be a catalyst or a roadblock as we explore new configurations for both ground floors and vertical programming. If we want to adopt zoning modifications that allow us to create districts that better reflect the way we work, learn and play today, we should promote policy that allows for a greater diversity of uses in existing retail space and to reimagine vertical zoning within other kinds of commercial buildings. One of the biggest challenges in moving toward zoning reform is the limited way many cities interpret what retail and what vibrancy are. If we can widen that definition beyond point of sale for physical products and goods to include experiences and events, we can allow for a greater variety of tenants.
  • Especially in retail-intensive districts, there is an understandable tendency to capture immediate financial incentives by having spaces filled as quickly as possible by the highest paying tenants. But there’s also a growing movement with forward-thinking developers and property owners to reconceptualize the role of first floor space can play, away from immediate financial benefits and revenue generation as the determining factor toward spaces that will also establish the social identity of the area and bring in more people – an attribute that tenants crave. This approach is an investment in the medium and long-term longevity of these developments by prioritizing the quality of the place and experience offered therein. There’s already really promising movement in the commercial real estate sector to explore the benefits of this approach – a ULI survey finds that 60% of CRE professionals are moving towards nonfinancial measures like social value and community impact to assess the value of projects.
  • Many retail lease structures favor large, established tenants with long-term real estate needs. This approach has the important benefit of stability, but it can sometimes stifle innovation in how these spaces are occupied and programmed. For example, meanwhile uses and pop-up programming can bring in new audiences, drive foot traffic and reframe how people view a given street or district. More fluid lease lines that look beyond a major anchor tenant toward a series of smaller leases can open these districts to more engaging and innovative uses, and by having a constant churn of activity, create opportunities for people to come back again and again.

Architects, urban and town planners, designers, and the real estate sector have a unique opportunity to steward a new way of thinking about what our cities look like. And we have a significant role to play in designing spaces that supports a tenant mix that better reflects how we live today. The vision is here. It’s up to us to work together to dismantle the roadblocks to making it happen.

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