Apr 15, 2021

Getting Social in Return to Work

Cori Enghusen
Account Executive

I had a milestone birthday early April 2020. I remember thinking how massively unlucky I was that this, of all birthdays, would fall during what I expected would be a short-term restriction on access to friends and fun. Now, as I approach milestone +1, it finally seems like relief is in sight.

Quarantine has felt like an intercontinental flight without a concept of time, or reading a long book in a digital format… no indication of how much more lies ahead. Now, suddenly, here we are, nearing the predicted end—

Well, end-ish. As vaccines are distributed, doors are opening. And I am ready. Excited to hug friends and family, to go to brunch, to see a live show; all things I will choose to do when I once again have that choice. But those are all after hours social activities… what about our workday environments? I look forward to getting back to my friends at work too.

As a global community, we have experienced a shared trauma that wholistically affected all our lives. According to Gensler’s 2020 US Workplace Study, just 10% of US workers regularly worked from home prior to the pandemic, a number that increased exponentially over the course of just days or weeks and has remained that way for a year. The positive impact that a shared environment has on a workforce has been proven time and again. It seems younger generations have struggled the most with maintaining productivity and job satisfaction while working from home this year, facing challenges with keeping a healthy work-life balance, being aware of expectations, and feeling accomplished. So it’s no surprise that 70% of American workers want to return to the office for the majority of the work week.

But whether you have thrived while working from home or struggled, the resulting change in our needs and expectations for the office environment moving forward are the same. According to Steelcase’s Work Better Study…

People have learned from what they’ve been through this year and are looking to their organizations to create substantially better work experiences. So how can employers use furniture to help create spaces that meet these needs?

Globally, 72% of businesses expect to operate in a hybrid model, according to Steelcase. This could mean some departments return to the office while others remain remote but, more likely, this would look like teams coming back into the office for part of the week, staggering with other teams. Spaces will need to be reconfigured or redesigned to accommodate this change in work style. Dedensification would help facilitate ongoing social distancing while still allowing for access to required tools and materials and provide space for both team collaboration and social engagement. And, while the intention would be to meet in the office to interact face to face, the likelihood there will still be a need to connect with someone off-sight, so braided in technology—the ability to seamlessly collaborate with those in and not in the room—is essential.

The office is an ecosystem of spaces that includes private offices and owned workstations, nomadic touchdown areas, and meeting spaces with varying levels of privacy, technology, and formality. But if attendance in the office is staggered and employees are there with the primary goal of meeting in groups, these spaces can be reimagined with greater flexibility and agility, adaptable to the unique needs of these individual groups: think reconfigurable furniture, easy to connect to technology, and analogue presentation equipment that can be stored rather than erased. Surfaces need to be disinfectable and procedures put into place both ensuring the cleanliness of the space and limiting access to anyone not passing a health check—55% of employees expect more strictly enforced guidelines around stay-at-home-when-sick policies when they return to the office.

As much as the focus has been on meeting friends and family socially as we return to “normal” we need to consider that this return means returning to a new normal for work. And our office spaces will need to meet the social, team and individual demands before we can return with confidence.