Management teams everywhere are grappling with the same question: Does the office still matter? While remote work is an alternative for many, some companies are rethinking the role of the office. Redefining the workplace as an experience opens the door to new and interesting possibilities for how we operate.
But where do you start?
There’s no doubt that the post-COVID workplace will be different. Where it once might have been a passive character in our experience, going forward the workplace can play an active role in our work story. It can take a leading role, interacting with us and actively shaping our experience at every touchpoint.
From our arrival at the front door to each interaction throughout our day, our workplaces have the power to shape the narrative arc of our experience.
Here’s a three-step approach that can help create a meaningful workplace experience:
- Make the workplace a destination
- Harness the power of propinquity
- Embrace the emotional transition
Experience-minded leaders can begin to reframe the role of the workplace by considering it an ecosystem of places, tools and experiences. Offering greater choice and autonomy builds trust while also fulfilling our need to connect, focus and rejuvenate.
However, this new ecosystem doesn’t exist so that an employee can commute to the office just to sit at a desk and be counted. Working from the office becomes a choice that changes how we operate.
In July, when Munich-based Siemens AG announced that nearly half of its 300,000-person workforce would adopt working from home as their “new normal,” Deputy CEO Roland Busch was quoted on Inc. as saying: “These changes will also be associated with a different leadership style, one that focuses on outcomes rather than on time spent at the office. We trust our employees and empower them to shape their work themselves so that they can achieve the best possible results.”
At design integration firm One Workplace, which has evolved over the past three to four years, trust and autonomy have been core to organizational changes. Reinventing the work experience better prepared employees (inadvertently) for the unexpected impact of the coronavirus, positioned them to help customers evolve to more agile and flexible workforces as well.
One Workplace evolved from a traditional open office to an “Open Community” concept made up of a network of office locations, shared neighborhood settings and amenities. A desk became secondary instead of a primary work mode and working from remote locations was encouraged, not merely tolerated.
This way of work emphasizes the office as a desirable destination and requires extensive re-learning around what it means for members of a team to be self-directed. It requires training on leading and managing others and new ways of measuring performance, productivity and potential.
These new ways of working—combined with a workplace design and experience that supports empowerment and autonomy—transformed One Workplace’s physical office locations across the entire organization and all of its locations on the West Coast.
Once the workplace is recognized as a worthy destination, the next challenge is to build a deeper sense of connection and belonging between people.
In a recent HR Transform webinar, Tony Vargas, global head of Workplace at Sprinklr, recently remarked on the remote phenomenon and the fact that we may never again “see” all of our colleagues at the office—at least not at the same time: “People need to feel an innate, deep sense of belonging to the workplace—whether that bond is virtual or physical. Community will be the glue that holds us together when we are geographically dispersed.”
Designing for community means looking to things like our neurochemistry and taking advantage of a fundamental human trait—our natural tendency to develop personal bonds with people who we see often, and with whom we share a common experience.
Called propinquity, it is an emotional response driven as much by hormones as it is by intention. The rule of propinquity relies on proximity, frequency and affinity. In short, we are more likely to develop bonds with the people we are closest to; these bonds develop more quickly with the frequency of our interactions, and these bonds grow more deeply when we share common interests, beliefs and values.
Intentionally designing workplace experiences around the rule of propinquity means we’re optimizing for mixed presence, that we are fostering socially connected teams, and broadening community connections inside and outside the office.
For the majority of humans, the global pandemic has exposed a reality we previously took for granted—the fact that the office plays a large role in the shaping of our experience. Sharing space and time with the people around us helps build cultural connections and allows us to make meaningful contributions to our organizations. At the same time, for many of us, remote work has resulted in benefits like the lack of a commute.
The last stage in shifting to more experiential workplaces is to facilitate an emotional transition. Just as the sudden move to remote work was an unexpected shift for many, our return to the post-pandemic work experience may also feel foreign.
Many parts of our daily routines, lives and expectations will change, and the sense of identity associated with how and why we work might be lost. Organizations can acknowledge this state of change, recognize our grief, and inspire belief and confidence in what is to come by giving people a voice in sharing their own personal stories as we make the transition.
Prior to COVID-19 it was easy for us to think of the workplace as the setting for our work story. While it may have served as a highly detailed backdrop, the workplace was a passive player in shaping the work experience—engaging us only so far as we changed scenes from meeting room to breakroom to workstation.
Going forward, we can invite the workplace in as a lead character in our experience, a phenomenon that inspires everything from workplace design to leadership approaches.
About the Author:
Christopher Good is Chief Creative Officer at One Workplace, and Co-Founder of +One Work Culture Consulting. His work is dedicated to changing the way we think about our relationship to work and the workplace. He is an advocate of the design thinking process and is a frequent speaker and presenter at events across the country, leading active workshops to solve big problems. Most of all he believes in the power of design to do good things for other people.