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Designing the New (On-Site) Employee Experience

Designing the New (On-Site) Employee Experience

The next Circle|Call was focused on space planning, human factors design, and ergonomics within the confines of a COVID-19 safe environment. As we’ve collectively already convened on other topics around the Remote Work Series:

The Circle community came together with a stellar cast of subject matter experts (Damla Gerhart from CBRE, Melissa Hanley from Blitz, Eric Pfeiffer from Corral and Shannon Magari from Colden) in the areas of space planning, architectural/interior design, and workspace ergonomics to discuss how once employees are on-site, how to drive desired perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors through human-factors and ergonomics design.

The Experience. A few things to consider to help deliver a positive re-entry experience:

Provide a realistic picture to help build trust and alleviate fear. Help employees envision what that experience will be before they actually get there. Develop FAQs and guides to help outline what the new protocols will be and share them via a virtual town hall. A “Know Before You Go” video would take it even a step further. This video could help paint a picture of how things will flow and what employees will need to do upon arriving at the office, as they move through the office, how they leave the office. The guides or videos would help give employees a better sense of what they’re going back to and help, again, frame that picture in a really realistic way.

Consider the entire employee journey of coming into the office. Consider the entire journey of what it looks like to come to work from your bed to your desk, as there a lot of different factors that employees have to encounter from the moment they leave their house to when they arrive at their desk to how they interact with the various spaces in the office. 

Overly communicate!!! Accepting that change is hard and the unknown really creates a lot of anxiety. Communicate the expectations of space and how to use space and how to move around space. Some of it can be as overt as signage saying, “Don’t sit here or this way to the bathroom,” or whatever that resource is. One recommendation is to designate a hygiene ambassador, somebody whose job it is to to be the go-to point person for all the questions around the new workplace and will make it a friendly experience. Someone who can greet employees when they come in, provide the welcome guide and say, “Here’s how to check out a dongle. Here’s how to get coffee. Here’s how to engage with the different parts of your day.” This could be a nice branded cultural element too. 

Think beyond the physical space. Ensure that managers are ready and trained, and possibly ready to lead a combination of a team of people who are going to be onsite and also remote. This has now been stressed on multiple calls. If the manager level is not trained and ready, it could create a not so positive experience. Especially, because surveys have shown leaders feel that managing everyone at home is, in many ways, a lot easier than managing some combination of people in and out of the office. So, training for employees and managers as they go through the change management process is key. Additionally, nobody wants to be the workplace police, but leaders in this situation will need to be prepared for these uncomfortable situations. So how do you address instances when rules aren’t being followed by a particular person or groups of people? What do you do when someone is displaying some symptoms, whether they have COVID or not, but it’s making people feel uncomfortable or a little unsure about whether or not they should be there? There are those things that leaders will need to step up and do that we likely haven’t done in the past.

It’s recommended, a mechanism for employees to share ideas or give feedback is implemented. Because we’re all coming up with what we think is going to be the best process flow, the best approach to the rules, the best way to work in this office. But inevitably, you may get into the office the first week and realize some things aren’t quite working the way we thought they would.  So making sure employees feel empowered to share their ideas, talk about what’s not working so that we can make adjustments quickly and on the fly as we’re working in our new normal in these kinds of workplaces.

There are also intangible perceptions to manage, in addition to tangible and physical ones. Like, how do you signal to employees their workstation was cleaned? Is it instead of the cleaning crew at night running around hidden, do we have those people in yellow shirts running around the office during the day? The desk configuration is changing, but the desk-experience is not changing. Additionally, what is changing is the programming and the logistics about how we move in and out of that space.

The Math. How does a company determine how many employees can be in the office simultaneously?

Although math is involved, there isn’t a magical math calculation. But there are considerations to make before determining the layout.

Step 1: Determine the total supply of seats in your office after factoring for social distancing. The experts found that in many cases in the floor plans they’ve been evaluating, it’s likely 50% of your maximum occupancy today. So you might need to look at the floor plan and say, “Well, we can’t have people sitting 18 inches apart. We’re going to have to cut off every other desk or put a big piece of red tape on it saying you can’t sit here.” (The red tape, is not the positive experience being recommended just a clean example). To keep it simple, if you had a hundred people in an office sitting side by side, that might be more like 50 seats that you could really take up with that six-foot distancing.

“There’s nothing magical about six feet to keep people apart,” but that’s what everyone is aiming for, at least six feet and experts realize there are companies that don’t have the space to keep employees six feet apart. These companies are finding other ways to accommodate for this, by putting up freestanding barriers.

Step 2 (or simultaneously with Step 1): Forecast the demand for seats based on your workforce’s desire/ability to return to the office in the near-term. Conduct a survey to help you gauge what departments, and specifically, what teams within those departments, want to come back as well as the level of frequency. Early survey results are showing, in some cases, that the demand wasn’t as high as companies thought, as some team members were only willing to come back either a couple of days a week or not for a couple of months. 

Step 3: If Demand>Supply, develop “teams” or staggered shifts. You might have a green team and a gold team. And everyone on the green team comes in for a week. And then in between over the weekend, the office is deep cleaned. And then the following week, a different team would come in. If companies need more frequency than that, some organizations are creating staggered shifts, where group one comes in eight to twelve, and then the office is closed down for a couple of hours and then the next group of people comes in from two to six. That way everyone has access on a more regular basis, but it requires a little bit more operational management to make the staggered shift work.

The Details. A reminder this is situational and that flexibility and creativity are what everyone should aim for.

A piece of simple advice, react, but don’t overreact. “You don’t want the office experience to feel like you are working in a fishbowl.”

High Traffic Areas: There are some important locations to consider when floor planning, like high traffic areas (i.e. elevators, bathrooms, pantries) where it’s tough to keep the proper spacing between two people as most shared corridors in buildings around five feet wide. One can consider floor stickers to help the flow of traffic, but it’s not the only way (back to the fishbowl reference). Or consider signaling subtly through spacing, either signage, art, plants, or things that can suggest where separations could be, rather than saying, one-way corridor around the entire building. 

“Instead of don’t sit here, don’t walk here. How can we create objects or place objects in offices that subtly hint at here’s what you should be doing.”

Desks: Experts are finding it’s easier to work with offices where people don’t have an assigned desk which helps with supporting the logistics for “teams” or staggered shifts. And from a cleaning perspective, it’s also easier to manage because it’s a lot harder to clean desks that are covered with personal effects, like picture frames. 

For offices where people do have an assigned desk, the goal is to try not to go into an environment where people are bringing their equipment back and forth, but figuring out in the near term, what can be provided at home versus in the office to make people productive on the days they’re in either location. Ask yourself, “how does an employee move to and from, if they are going to be sharing the home base as it were?” Lockers can be another alternative for keeping personal items or even peripheral items (like keyboards and mice) where employees can check-in and out their various equipment and personal plug-in their docks. But things like monitors, desks, and chairs are recommended to stay put. 

Conference Rooms: Small conference, huddle, and phone rooms, for now, are recommended to be repurposed as private offices for a party of one. And instead, take a small part of a neighborhood (open space) and converting them to semi-enclosed with freestanding screens, plants, and various other barriers to create a socially distanced meeting zone, meeting area. They recognize it does not have the privacy and the acoustic attenuation of four walls and a roof, but it is allowing for that space for people to come together and to be bookable and to be designated for that team. Another idea for conference rooms is to repurpose large rooms in the building that are temporarily not being used, like a training room, and convert those spaces into makeshift conference rooms where people can be together in groups more than two or three, but still, be socially distant and spaced apart. Lastly, a no-cost and no-furniture idea are to take meetings outside, walking meetings, if possible. That said, consider that not everyone that was intended to be a part of a meeting will be there in person, so accommodations and considerations of inclusivity should be considered. (See the takeaways on Considerations for Going All Remote for expert recommendations on how to drive inclusivity in a hybrid remote model.)

Cafetaria: Most organizations are doing one of two things. They’re either creating tables that are six feet apart and having one person sit at each one. So they could still have lunch with their friends, but won’t be sitting right in front of them. Or turning what would be the cafeteria space into a larger type meeting space for those types of meetings and then encouraging people to just eat at their desks as a way to repurpose some of the spaces. So again, it was recognized this is not ideal, but it’s just for an interim period of time.

Restrooms: One expert thinks from an infection standpoint, the bathroom is probably one of the weaker points in an office space just because they are enclosed smaller spaces and occupancy should be controlled. They tend to have better ventilation, but it’s definitely a space that needs some additional consideration. The American Industrial Hygiene Association has great restroom study to reference. One recommendation is to purchase electronic digital counters set up outside the restroom to help limit the capacity, It allows one to see how many people are in there before you go in. In addition, they are asking employees to queue up for the restroom in the hallway as opposed to in the space. Another recommendation was to take the doors off of half the stalls to ensure that capacity is being limited. A constant reminder, that these are all short term solutions.

Masks: Universally, having everyone wear a face covering is going to be really important. And critically making sure communication is clear on when employees need to wear the mask, but really thinking long and hard about giving people breaks from mask-wearing in the office. Understandably they are hard to wear and especially for long periods of time. People are going to need breaks to eat and to recover. And so creating spaces where people can feel comfortable by themselves taking a break from their face covering is going to be important too. One dynamic to consider is meetings, where some employees are on video and others, are in the office having to wear a mask – how does that go? A dynamic that hasn’t been completely ironed out, but consideration is clear masks that are currently being used for the hearing impaired.

Is there a radical way to think of office space?

“I don’t think that the office is dead. I think the office as we know it is dead. And hallelujah, let’s be excited about not doing that anymore.”

One expert pointed out that this pandemic may be forcing an acceleration of trends and ideas around workspace planning that were already happening. Moving away from a blanket sea of desks, open office concept, and thinking more about choice and user choice during the day. And acknowledging that one size does not fit all and one task does not fit in one location. And also addressing that work from home or working remotely or working while traveling has been part of our lives for quite some time. So providing choice and providing a lot of different types of settings is going to be really helpful. 

Another idea was to think of the office as onsite-offsite, thinking of this resource that is open to the entire organization where people can book out different neighborhoods, amenities, rooms, whatever it is that they need to do for their collaborative we work. Think more about environments, the ecosystem, the types of activities, and considering that all of it is bookable for any team. And that could be on a day, could be a week. It could be a group that has a sprint for two months, they could book out a neighborhood or a room. And then assuming that the “me” work, head’s down focused activities, are probably better done at home.

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