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  • Writer's pictureKelly Griffin

Is Your Post-Coronavirus Workplace Planning Focused on Fear or Growth?

Organizations Should Keep These Three Responses in Mind When Strategizing Their Return to the Workplace

Principal, Workplace Strategist, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Kelly Griffin, Andrew Lazarow and Samuel Liberant.

For more than 100 years, neurologists have been looking at the ways stress can pull us out of our comfort zones and free us to achieve at higher levels. But what does one do when that source of stress is a pandemic? Weeks into the worldwide shutdown in response to COVID-19, many organizations are asking themselves, When can we get back to normal? What will the new normal be? These are understandable questions; however, it’s important for organizations to reflect on how they’re reacting before bringing employees back to the office or making changes about future policies or office design.

The Three Zones

An organization’s response to crisis typically falls into three zones, through which one may move sequentially, almost like the grieving process.

  1. The Fear Zone The “Fear Zone” is a reactionary phase in which an organization follows impulses. The Fear Zone is a stance of loss aversion, an attempt to mitigate a painful situation as quickly as possible. This is a common mindset, as it is human to seek comfort. We are built to develop routines, and the emotion of fear may often direct our actions. Importantly, this is usually a temporary place that can be an enabler of change and an improved mindset.

  2. The Learning Zone Next is the “Learning Zone,” when an organization develops new confidence that enables reflection on thoughts and reactions. The Learning Zone is a time of increased awareness, not only introspectively but also of how others respond to the situation. The organization gains new skills and experiences that allow it to deal with challenges and problems.

  3. The Growth Zone Finally, in the “Growth Zone,” an organization is empowered to make swift decisions in support of a greater purpose. Now that it is more resilient and comfortable with being uncomfortable, it asks how to grow from it, how it will be affected going forward, and to whom it might reach out for help. An indicator of being in this zone is a new mindset, characterized by acting with immediacy after reflection. Performing at this level, the organization is free to see new goals and objectives, or new solutions to existing objectives.

What the Three Zones Mean for the Workplace

An organization in the Fear Zone will focus on immediate mitigation and attempt to return to its comfort zone as quickly as possible. While this response is understandable, even necessary, in the early stages of a crisis, an organization that never progresses beyond the Fear Zone can make short-sighted decisions. For instance, responding to the coronavirus threat by tearing out workstations and putting everyone in 8’x8′ cubicles with high partitions, thus undermining everything we know about the importance of daylight and human connections to personal health and organizational performance. Or by installing infrared fever monitors, which are of limited effectiveness when anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of people can transmit the disease while exhibiting no symptoms.

When an organization moves from the Fear Zone to the Learning Zone, it is working hard to make itself better. It begins asking, either internally or with the help of experts, the questions that spur reflection: What is your underlying vision as an organization? How can you remain authentic to that vision amidst changing circumstances? What is critical to your work, and to our basic need as humans to be social? What makes your staff feel valued even through this moment?

Finally, in the Growth Zone, the crisis becomes an opportunity for an organization either to confirm its purpose or to question and refine it further. Most organizations will say yes, their vision and purpose continue to be relevant, but it’s a powerful question to ask, because it serves as a reminder of who you are and what you stand for. It puts a crisis in perspective and allows an organization to align around a meaningful, intentional path forward, regardless of whether or not it reveals immediate design solutions. This renewed purpose can also be used to refine ideas — or potential design decisions — developed in the Learning Zone.

Everyone starts in the Fear Zone, but the sooner an organization can access what’s true to itself, the faster it can move into the Growth Zone and physicalize the changes it needs to make.

Potential Implications

Potential changes to collaborative vs. focused work locations Organizations in the Growth Zone will reflect on what worked and what did not work in their response to COVID-19, and will take the opportunity to connect those lessons to their purpose and social sustainability before driving to real estate outcomes. An important task is not to solve problems but to explore possibilities. Maybe an organization will permanently locate 50% of its workforce in the office and 50% at home. Or maybe the office becomes a more social environment with fewer desks and more support for team-based collaborative interactions, while the home becomes a place for more focused work. Regardless, successful organizations will engage in a purposeful, growth-minded dialogue about what best supports their vision.

Potential changes to protocols and operations Nor will we solve all the problems of COVID-19 through physical changes alone. There will always be pinch points where people gather — and potentially spread a contagious illness — in elevators, in restrooms, by the coffeemaker or in conference rooms. Journey mapping — helping people understand all their touch points on the way back to work — can reveal changes to protocols and operations that mitigate those pinch points, perhaps by opening up stairs and limiting the number of people in an elevator. Perhaps an organization will hire a barista so there aren’t dozens of employees’ hands touching the coffee pot and sugar packets. Perhaps when colleagues brainstorm together they wear masks or bring their own set of markers to the conference room. The point is to ask what an organization needs to fundamentally achieve its mission while eliminating the touch points that pose a potential threat — primarily in the short term, but potentially for the long term as well.

Potential changes to emphasize wellbeing and social connection For many of us in the middle of the coronavirus crisis, our world has narrowed to two questions: Will I get sick? And how can I cope with isolation? For many organizations, their response to COVID-19 may double down on those two issues, wellbeing and social connection, which we already knew were vital to the health and performance of both individuals and organizations. Perhaps we’ll create more environments incorporate nature, encourage movement and connect people to each other to boost employee health and performance and each organization’s triple-bottom-line.

What People and Organizations Should Do in Response to COVID-19

  1. Notice where you are.

  2. Pause and give space for reflection.

  3. Allow yourself to pursue an intentional journey of greater purpose with a renewed sense of spirit, commitment and engagement.

As yet, no one knows for certain whether the coronavirus pandemic will be forgotten quickly — because unlike a natural disaster like a flood or volcanic eruption, it leaves behind no dramatic physical evidence — or whether it will spur major societal changes. Either way, once the immediate threat passes, an organization’s long-term challenges and goals will continue to exist, and those who are able to align around their vision will be the ones most positioned for success.

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