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Office design will impact employee wellbeing when they return

As the transition to the workplace after the covid-19 pandemic begins, a global survey on return-to-work protocols shows how offices have to change

Offices will have to account for social distancing
Offices will have to account for social distancing (Laura Davidson/Unsplash)

As the world slowly adjusts to the way it was before the covid-19 pandemic hit, and as we start heading back to the office after a whole year of working from home, one of the biggest questions confronting many of us is how we'll fit back into the new, old reality. It remains to be seen what the permanent impact of this great social experiment will look like, but at the moment, getting back to the office is not a prospect filled with unalloyed relief and joy. Many of us have settled into the comforts of working from home—no commutes, hot lunches, occasional naps—and getting back to the daily grind of long commutes and multiple meetings in different locations may feel daunting.

Then, too, the anxiety over covid-19 and other infections lurking out there is not entirely gone. We will return to the office a more cautious, sober bunch, missing our families and the familiar spaces of our homes.

What must employers do to ensure safe environments while preserving organizational culture and continued innovation? How will employees embrace the workplace; what will be their expectations? What role will remote work paly going forward, and how successful was it during the lock-down? These are some of the questions a global survey conducted by interior design and architecture firms Space Matrix and Interior Architects sought to answer, and findings from the surveys conducted by them show overwhelmingly that office design will play a large role in determining employee health and wellbeing in the post-pandemic world.

“One of the most impactful lessons we have learned from the chaos is that conscious planning and design should make wellbeing an essential part of all office spaces. As a part of this realization, it has also come to light that in majority of the organizations, conventional office designs, structures and processes are not in sync with the mental and physical wellness needs of our times. Thus, as office designers, we need to consciously innovate and focus on design concepts which promote employee wellness and elicit positive psychological responses without compromising on the conventional needs for efficiency and space optimization,” say the authors of the report.

The responses to two surveys done by Singapore-headquartered Space Matrix and pan-America firm Interior Architects made it clear that an organization’s ultimate goal will be the creation of a safe haven for employees. And in the near term, the key component will be flexibility. Employees overwhelmingly want flexibility when returning to the office and the choice to work remotely as a firm option. “Based on respondents’ comments, people found working from home to be productive, providing greater control of work-life balance, eliminating commute time, and offering an option that was not always offered before the pandemic,” says the report.

Flexibility will go a long way towards ensuring a happy transition back to the office and hopefully, the pandemic has put to rest employers’ fears about the productivity of their teams while working remotely. Going forward, giving employees more control over their choice of location to work from will definitely enhance wellbeing and loyalty.

Hygiene was also seen as a major concern by employees, and the report states that the more visible the hygiene efforts, the better. Several research papers, including a presentation from IA, propose that cleaning crews be visible and active throughout the workday, rather than limiting cleaning as a behind-the-scenes activity. A cleaning helpdesk, similar to a tech helpdesk, is another attractive option.

Clients are rethinking desksharing, how to maintain physical distancing for staff in the near term, and discussing a mix of safety measures, says Space Matrix. “There is evidence that design elements such as color palettes and interactive technology and spatial layouts or furniture can make a positive impact. Design firms will be leveraging ‘nudging techniques’ based on the Nudge Theory formulated by Richard H Thaler, Nobel Prize-winning economist, which suggests embedding cues in design that make people act in ways that benefit them individually as well as collectively. For instance, a well-placed and inspiringly designed staircase might make people use it more often and give them a workout as well as space for conversations,” says Akshay Lakhanpal, CEO of Space Matrix in India.

They also believe that in the post-covid scenario, giving employees greater control over their work environment will become important, pointing to the Hyderabad office of a US-based tech firm, where the individual work desks are not attached to a central spine and users can move them to a spot of their choice. They also have the option to choose the type of screens dividing workstations in terms of opacity as well as height and orientation, giving them a great control over their work environment.

Choice of colours will also be important, as the right colours can help people overcome fear and anxiety. According to American colour theorist Laura Guido-Clark, mixing warm and cool colors together can convey a message of collaboration and coexistence. Color is contextual and affects emotions and values within the workplace, says Guido-Clark.

Finally, the report found that overall, there is a desire to gradually return to the office rather than rush back, in order to test behaviours and handle any health issues that might arise. “Employees may be balancing numerous considerations— childcare challenges and trepidation about public transportation, among other issues—that require an eased return to the office,” the authors conclude.

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