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What's Workplace Strategy During a Global Pandemic?

5 May 2020

There are many definitions out there in the world, so to focus the discussion, consider that workplace strategy sits at the intersection of (in order of importance):

  1. Business / Operational Objectives
  2. Culture
  3. Physical space

As we all are painfully aware, those three things have been -- and will continue to be -- deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects. So how does a company’s or institution’s workplace strategy change in this new world we are all navigating? The answer lies in an understanding how these three categories are shifting for your specific organization. Consider:

Business / Operational Objectives

Workplace strategy should always grow out of, and exist in service to, larger organizational goals. Those larger goals may be experiencing a seismic shift in recent weeks, depending on the industries and people they serve. Perhaps the revenue goals set by a company are deeply tied to a customer base that is now out of work, for example. Conversely, consider a company struggling to keep up with a sudden spike in demand for its products and services, so its focus has abruptly shifted to hiring and training new staff.

The first step in reevaluating your workplace strategy is to redefine core business objectives for the next six, 12 and 18 months, a process which is likely already underway for many companies. And then, just as critically, those new objectives must be shared across leadership groups and practice areas, so that everyone is driving toward the same goal.

If you are a business leader, your job is to share those new objectives with your real estate and operational teams.

If you are someone on front lines of workplace strategy – such as operations, employee engagement, workplace experience, and the like – and you don’t clearly understand how the organization’s goals are shifting, your job is to ask!

Culture

A good question to ask today is, what has your company culture been leading up to the current situation? Think of two or three words that employees, clients and partners would use to describe your teams. Will those descriptors still hold true when this crisis has passed? Are your actions demonstrating the culture that you want?

As my colleague Rachel Woodhouse mentions in her blog posted last week, leaders should ask questions of themselves and their organization about not only what their approach might be to a post-pandemic workplace, but also how that approach is reinforced and supported by the culture they have.

If your organizational culture is deeply dependent on cross-team collaboration, your workplace will need to evolve in new ways to support that teamwork and interaction. For example, perhaps half the team meets physically while the other half call in from remote locations at home offices or at their desks -- an effective way to limit meeting size.

If your company depends on a large number of individual contributors that work largely on their own and then come together at key moments, think about how to make your space a hub for shared experience and interaction, with most of the heads-down work happening at home, and teams gathering together physically only as needed. What are the ways to plan and design the office for optimal individual and team performance?

Conversely, consider ways to blow up the business model. Times of crisis always offer opportunities for change and growth, and successful organizations will think deeply and, I would suggest, poll their teams about the positive aspects of the pandemic’s demand for more remote work situations -- increased focus, for example, and more family time or shorter commutes, among others. Find out what is working now and seek to incorporate those positives back into the company culture moving forward.

Physical Space

This is the final piece of workplace strategy. If you consider business objectives and culture first, the physical space will fall into place. It goes without saying that in the near term (a minimum of six to 12 months) all workplaces will need to accommodate more social distancing protocols and more robust cleaning practices. A company’s approach to buildings and spaces will also vary based on size, its current setup, and the terms of their leases.

The most successful organizations will take this time to think about what changes will benefit their teams in the long run. Perhaps you have been considering reducing the number of seats in a given office space and adopting a hoteling policy to free up spaces for teaming. In other cases, you might be converting traditional conference rooms to be more flexible for stand-up meetings. In every case, now is the time to consider those ideas and explore them with small groups over the coming months.

In fact, most experts agree that the “return to the office” scenario will look a lot more like a trickle than a flood.

What better time to think about change than when it has been thrust upon us? Rather than approaching workplace and workspace from a place of fear, today’s challenges offer a valuable opportunity to reflect honestly about the current state of our facilities and spaces -- so we can improve on them for the future.

On Friday, look for Dyer Brown’s next blog installment in this series. Our Asset Design + Support studio will discuss what building owners and landlords may want to consider when tenants start to return back to their offices.

Post authored by

Ashley L. Dunn AIA
Associate Principal | Director of Workplace
Dyer Brown Architects

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