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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