April 23, 2020

Over these last few weeks, we’ve been on the phone and in front of a camera more than ever, chatting with vendors, contractors, consultants, co-workers and clients of all shapes and sizes. We’re all doing our best to distinguish the insight from the noise following the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus. Right now the only certainty is that how we look at the workplace will be different going forward.

We’re designers and workplace strategists; we’ve spent our careers reimagining the workplace to support our clients’ businesses. We partner with our clients to create alignment between business, culture and the physical work environment—recognizing that these three elements should be indelibly linked and consistently synchronized.

For us to design a workplace that is aligned, we must understand the context. We inquire about mission, structure and processes to understand each business. For us to understand culture, we dig into the shared assumptions, values and beliefs that dictate how people behave. In short, culture drives behavior, and we design the workplace to encourage the desired behaviors of the business.

Survey Says: Flexibility is the Key to Stability

To try and make sense of the impact this virus is having right now and in the future, we sent an informal survey to a number of clients to learn about how they’re adjusting and if and how their thinking is changing. The clients we surveyed have offices all over the country. They come from a variety of industries like finance, retail, legal services, logistics and healthcare. Many are large, multinational companies trying to make sense of how this virus impacts their day-to-day operations and bottom line.

We asked questions like:

  • Before the virus outbreak, had you considered shifting your workforce to remote work?
  • What have been your greatest challenges?
  • Does this experience impact your workplace of the future?

The intent was to put our finger on the pulse of what professionals are thinking about the future of their workplace in the long run, not just reactions to short-term disruptions.

We saw a lot of similarities in their answers, including the following:

  • All are shifting to remote work, where possible.
  • Remote work has become a more viable option for everyone, regardless of previous reluctance.
  • Everyone has had their challenges adapting, but they’re all embracing some form of video conferencing technology.
  • They all miss and continue to highly value face-to-face interaction.

While approaches vary, the overwhelming response has centered around greater flexibility for where and when employees work, offering some part of the now-in-place remote work programs as a potential permanent strategy. Past resistance due to the cost of infrastructure investment or lack of employee trust has now been overcome. Face-to-face interaction reigns as the first choice for collaborative interaction, but new tools offer additional opportunities for remote collaborations and business continuity.

Baker McKenzie’s Tampa Center is home to a variety of teams, from finance and IT to talent management, which meant the office needed a variety of spaces like this one.

Next Steps: Addressing Density, Shared Spaces and Germ Control

Most agree that more remote working, including more shared workplaces, will have an impact on the amount of office space they will need in the future. In fact, several organizations are now considering more advanced measures of desk sharing such as free address to eliminate unnecessary real estate.

One client facing a consolidation of employees, who previously would not have considered desk sharing a viable option, is now having us study the impact of a free address alternative. This is a huge turnaround from just a few weeks ago.

Another client who moved into their new building in recent years has been experiencing an empty building syndrome during certain days of the week. The creation of a flexible working program and the roll out of a wide variety of virtual collaboration tools is the reason. “Prior to this, I encouraged our leadership to consider moving to a completely unassigned work environment because the work time on-site has dropped 25% per employee,” he told us. “I was getting pushback then, but now we have proven we can efficiently work remotely for an extended timeframe. How we will look at the work environment will be completely different as we move forward.”

“Because our people are on the road a lot our offices are underutilized, but we haven’t been able to convince leadership of the benefits of a shared workplace,” offered another client of ours from one of many phone conversations. “I’m not sure, but this may do it. It would be a shame to let a good crisis go to waste.”

Others are taking a wait-and-see approach for now. “From the facilities perspective, I think the cost savings for how we can run the building will be apparent once we return back to normal, and this will likely influence staffing strategies,” mentioned another client.

Others noted they would evaluate a relaxation on some of the increasing densities of assigned workspaces that have been prevalent over the past decade, nodding to concepts of social or workplace distancing, which would go hand in hand with a shared desking program.

The concept of sharing, however, is a concern for some, considering our current experience with infectious disease control and worry that increased sharing could exacerbate the issue. Public health is presently top of mind, and it’s too early to tell, but few, if any are planning on significant changes to existing office furniture or layout at this time. However, they are intending to address some or all of the following in the immediate term: strengthened cleaning protocols, additional hand-washing stations, hands free controls, no-contact temperature checks, masks for staff, reducing large gatherings, emphasizing social distancing and staggered employee return and work schedules.

A decade ago, many of our clients were just beginning to think about whether a more mobile workplace strategy could work for them. The difference between then and now is that some of the seemingly more extreme concepts are now likely to become more commonplace. Free address, hot-desking, coworking, agile, and activity-based working to name a few have been deployed by many companies to decrease overhead expense, and increase utilization of their real estate. Equally powerful drivers have been promoting employee interaction, encouraging innovation, and offering flexibility with a focus on attraction and retention. We don’t see these drivers changing.

A look at the open and collaborative nature of Schneider Electric’s Nashville hub.

A prime example of success around this type of transformation is Schneider Electric. Their Nashville hub is a consolidation of multiple operating groups in the area, and it is their largest deployment of their “Workplace of the Future” strategy, an activity-based working and free address environment that moved 80% of their approximate 850 employees to an unassigned environment. It has been wildly successful. For this location, they have decreased their real estate by 45%, increased engagement considerably after the move, and they maintained one of the highest retention rates through and well beyond the move. In a recent conversation with the site director, he told us he’s very pleased with their decision in light of recent events. “The flexible work arrangements and mobility tools we deployed as a part of the workplace strategy enable us to move entirely to work from home without any hesitation,” he shared. “It also gives us a lot of flexibility on a phased re-entry.”

The virus even has our team studying our own workplace strategy at Gresham Smith. We recently moved into a new building in Nashville, where employees are offered the choice of a free address workstyle. We maintain a balance of about 20-25% of employees opting to adopt this choice for workstyle. We are now starting to think about ways we can enhance our own workplace strategy to emphasize the office as a hub for collaborative work and promote a greater acceptance of the free address workstyle, as we anticipate an increased propensity for remote working post-virus.

As we learn more about the impact of the virus, these discussions will continue and evolve over time. At this point, the economy is taking a significant hit and cost-saving measures with a revved-up focus on employee health and wellness are driving the moves organizations make. Stay tuned. Next, we plan to explore the challenges we’ll face as we re-enter the workplace over the coming weeks and months.