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  • Writer's pictureKelly Griffin

What if returning to the office felt like coming home?

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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