07/30/2020 • 6 min read

Rethinking the Role of Space

Well-being, culture, and collaboration are still priorities

by Haworth, Inc.

In a given year at Haworth, we welcome over 2,000 visitors at our global headquarters in Holland, Michigan, including customers, influencers, and dealer partners. They experience our culture and brand first-hand, join in dialogue with our members to share their workspace challenges, and learn how we’ve helped customers with similar issues.

Since COVID-19 changed the way we work in March, customers have asked us how we have planned returning to the workplace and what we’ve learned during our stay-at-home stint.

So Haworth’s Research and Ideation teams engaged with 150+ clients on a global level and had dialogues about the issues that are top of mind for them. Not surprising, key themes around well-being, culture, and collaboration emerged—and how to manage change.

Discussions and workshops occurred in April and May with customers from a variety of industries: Finance, Agriculture, Pharma/Biotech, Real Estate, Defense, Technology, Healthcare, and Manufacturing.

Return to Work(place) topics emerged and were divided into three categories: Employee Well-Being, Organizational Culture, and Transforming the Floorplate, with subcategories ranging from employee physical health to organizational values and surface materials. 

“Ideally, the workplace should provide people with resources to meet their job responsibilities,” said Beck Johnson, Senior Research Specialist at Haworth. “How well the physical workplace provides those resources communicates to employees how the organization prioritizes meeting their needs.”

Transform the Floorplate
We found that during the first few weeks of the pandemic, most customers were highly focused on floorplate solutions that could be implemented to either keep essential workers at work safely or prepare for the return of workers in the near future. The highest rated floorplate topics were Clean and Safe Facilities and Product Solutions.

In general, many organizations began to rethink the role of all types of spaces—social spaces, private offices, common spaces, etc. What do they actually need to provide, and to whom? Specific cleaning protocols were also frequently desired. And many organizations were wondering about physical distancing practices in various spaces. They were curious what others were doing across their own industries.

“Clients are adopting agile and flexible settings replicating the community spaces developed by coworking operators. These organic spaces are easily and quickly adapted to suit small engagements and larger events,” said Brendan Bruce, Haworth’s International Director of Ideation Services, who is based in Singapore.

Other topics of concern within the floorplate category were the use of technology and collaboration modes. “Redefining the role of the office as a place for collaboration, creation, inspiration, and social interaction is paramount. Asking our teams to come to the office for activities that can be managed from the home office seems to me to be an outdated conception of work,” said François Brounais, Haworth’s Vice President of Sales for WEMEA, International Sector.

This situation was especially relevant when customers began focusing on more long-term solutions to support the connection of their employees and innovation that comes with face-to-face collaboration. “Often, but not always, innovation is the result of a happy accident,” said  Kamran Arshad, Haworth Workplace Strategist based in San Francisco. “Serendipity is, by definition, the result of chance. And allowing the space [literal or metaphorical] for spontaneous interaction fosters serendipity.”

Carolina Roa, Senior Workplace Design Strategist for Haworth Latin America, agrees. “Creativity and innovation could happen spontaneously or scheduled, but I think the natural feedback and the way you share your ideas in a non-scheduled way could be less free in a virtual setting,” she said.

Nurture Culture
Organizational culture was also high on the list of customers’ concerns during the first few weeks, especially when it came to change communication. Employees relied on their organizations to know what was happening during a time of rapid and constant change. It remained a primary concern of most customers for the duration of the engagements.

“One way to maintain an organization’s culture is through effective communication,” said John Scott, Senior Workplace Design Strategist at Haworth. “Each culture needs to communicate with its employees who are working remotely in different ways. Some cultures require a more social approach to connecting people, while others need more specific guidelines and structure, all explained in sequential order. Some are more visual, while others need to understand what defines success in order to be effective.”

Many organizational leaders were worried about their employees’ perceptions of the workplace once they began returning to the physical space. While organizational values and goals were not primary concerns at first, they rose to the top as the weeks wore on. It’s possible that once leadership addressed immediate issues like physical safety, they began to focus on the longer-term impacts their company culture influences—either helping or hindering the change they would undergo.

Customers were also very interested in work-from-anywhere best practices and how to best support their remote workers. “Social relationships can generate trust between coworkers,” said Anjell Karibian, Senior Workplace Design Strategist at Haworth. “Higher engagement and well-being align from trust-based relationships.”

Foster Well-Being
Employee well-being, which includes physical health, cognitive health, and psychological safety, was a primary concern for customers from the beginning, and remained so every week. “Workplace design can affect health in a positive way, increasing movement, good posture, air quality, light quality, and nutrition,” said Carolina Roa. “Mental health could also be affected in a positive way through relationships, sense of community, altruism, and collaboration.”

Some customers were interested in what their leadership could do to demonstrate better empathy and support for employees. Many were concerned with reductions in productivity among workers. And a large number were interested in managing employee stress levels. Change communication and communications plan questions factored into this.

“One of the biggest concerns before the pandemic was burn-out caused by chronic work stress,” said Beck Johnson. “How stress gets managed—whether remotely or in the workplace—will undoubtedly continue to impact employee performance. Job demands are the greatest source of stress, so it’s important for managers and leaders to address this appropriately.”

It also depends on how different people perceive stress: Some may view stressors as “challenges” while others may view them as “hinderances.” Those who can frame stressors as challenges are more likely to leverage them to perform well. The opposite effect occurs if stressors are seen as hinderances.

Some customers expressed difficulty in being able to assess the feelings of their workers. “By sharpening skills and using empathy, leaders will be supporting everyone on the team—both in the office and those working remotely,” said Brad Burrows, North American Strategy Manager and Senior Workplace Strategist at Haworth. “Proactive leaders will adapt and use positivity and long-term success measures to support all their workers.”

Many organizations may be navigating returning to the workplace for the short-term, but this is a pivotal time to think about the office of the future. Going forward, supporting well-being, culture, and flexibility, finding the balance between virtual and physical interaction, and enabling collaboration will be vital for people to perform their best.

Learn about our Return to Work(place) journey.