March 2020 marked the beginning of the COVID-19 national emergency. It simultaneously feels like it was yesterday, but also a lifetime ago. Life seemingly changed overnight, and the conventional office environment was uprooted. The once busy rush hour commute went silent, and the buzz of the city disappeared in the blink of an eye. Companies nationwide transitioned to full remote work schedules. The initial work from home initiative brought flexibility to individuals schedules – perhaps it was gaining an hour or two back from not commuting or being able to get a workout in over lunch break. However, as time has progressed employees and employers have begun to the feel the negative effects of working from home. Terms such as zoom fatigue, social distancing, and cleaning protocol have become common in workplace dialogue. The once deliberate separation of work and personal life has melted into one. As we have officially hit the 6-month mark of an altered lifestyle, many companies have begun to roll out their return to office plan of action – and the importance of the workplace has never felt more vital.
Working from home has challenged, more than ever before, the concept of work-life balance. Eliminating physical separation between the office and the home has blurred the lines of compartmentalization. For employees, place attachment to the office plays an important role in daily life and identity. Place attachment, “the cognitive-emotional bond that forms between individuals and their important settings,” is responsible for feelings of belonging, relaxation, support, and more.1 This psychological disturbance of place attachment, in regards to the office, has had a negative impact on employees. Employee morale and productivity have decreased, resulting in a negative impact on both business success and social-emotional health. Every workplace is designed uniquely for people and intended function of work. Corporate design caters to employee needs and results in a resilient workplace environment. The sacrifice of the physical workplace has allowed designers, employers, and employees to reflect on the importance of the office. The office environment provides stability, social connection, and competitive edge.
You have heard it time and time again, human beings are a social species, but what does that really mean? The human brain is built to connect with others. It is in a person’s chemical makeup to mirror reactions and experience empathy – this connects us and is achieved primarily through in-person interactions.2 A well-socialized individual experiences numerous health benefits: lower stress, increased memory, and improved mental and physical health.3 When considering the average life span, a person will spend roughly one third of their life at work. 4 The office setting is a key player in individual happiness and socialization.
As the workplace haphazardly transitioned to home, the largest detriment to employees was a feeling of isolation. The average employee who ranges from 20 to 60 years of age, went from having in-person interactions with roughly 20 people a day to only having social contact with those whom they share a living space.5 Extreme isolation results in changes in personality, cognitive decline, and episodes of anxiety and depression.6 The resilient workplace allocates space for heads down work, collaboration, mobility, socialization, and resources.7 These five zones of work allow employees social and emotional needs to be met. When a person’s social-emotional needs are met, overall happiness is increased. A happy employee, according to Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, in collaboration with British Telecom, one of the UK’s largest private employers, found that happy employees are 13% more productive.8 Increased productivity gives way for innovative collaboration and ideas throughout the workplace. The isolation felt from the removal of the physical office setting can potentially be “twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.”9 As life during the COVID-19 pandemic has continued, inventive ways to stay connected have come into play – but we must face the reality of the mental and emotional factors of continuing to work from home.
The breakdown of the emotional barrier between the office and home is detrimental not only to employees’ wellbeing, but to business itself. The ability to work remotely gives employees the tools to work whenever and wherever. At first glance this flexibility may feel beneficial, however it is reported that employees feel the need to work longer hours – building on an ever-changing stigma of what working from home should look like. How often have you caught yourself replying to work emails before going to sleep? This behavior of constantly being readily available results in burnout. Burnout is responsible for job dissatisfaction, heightened mental health struggles, and increased physical health conditions caused by stress.10 The effects of burnout impact individual employee’s personal life and work life. A 2017 report conducted by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions stated that 41% of remote employees report higher levels of stress compared to the 25% of their counterparts working in the office.11 It is imperative that a safe return to the office is initiated in order to protect the long-term health of employees. It is the job of designers and employers alike to create safe spaces for employees, and while physical safety is of the utmost importance, so is social-emotional safety. Work from home is only sustainable for so long, until employee happiness and morale plummets.
The importance of social connections made within the office are equally as important as the physical workplace. The biggest benefit to social connections within the office is internal networking. Internal networking is the process of engaging and connecting within an organization, without being required to do so.12 Internal networking establishes social connections within a company, benefitting company culture. Strong personal connections between coworkers cultivate mutual respect and trust between employees. This connectedness allows employees to feel comfortable taking risks, expressing concern, and asking for opportunities.
A return to the office will also become increasingly important when attracting new talent. The workforce, beginning this past summer, began to see the emergence of Generation Z in the workplace. Generation Z, more than any other generation before, places high emphasis on connection, structure and predictability.13 The office setting provides the stability Generation Z craves. Additionally, the physical office will be imperative for merging the work cultures of Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, Millennials and Generation Z. The sharing of generational values within the office will create depth – giving way to ambitious and adaptive solutions.
The process of hiring new talent and retaining talent has become compromised during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is shown that the process of onboarding remotely is not effective. New employees, who begin in a working from home setting, have no connection to the physical office space or anyone that works there. A virtual conversation or email chain can only go so far in regard to feeling part of a team. The absence of in-person interactions, when first being integrated into a new group of people, often results in unintentional ostracism. The feeling of being invisible in the office causes distress to an employee’s wellbeing and results in high rates of turnover.14 High turnover rates are not only expensive but have a large impact on company morale. Employee’s crave stability, and a constant shift of co-workers and management is detrimental to the communication of an entire team of people.
As we approach the transitional path ahead of us, we must not abandon the physical workplace. Human beings thrive on their connectedness with one another. The act of being together is the largest source for innovation. Together we take care of one another, root each other on, and achieve goals. We are all stronger together. While the return to the office may look different for everyone, it is vital to take the steps towards a safe return.
Please refer to our white paper “Adapting your Office in the Wake of COVID-19”, where we explore ways to create a safer space for employees upon their return to the office.
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- 4. Gettysburg College. (n.d.). One third of your life is spent at work. Retrieved September 30, 2020, from https://www.gettysburg.edu/news/stories?id=79db7b34-630c-4f49-ad32-4ab9ea48e72b&pageTitle=1/3 of your life is spent at work#:~:text=Writer Annie Dillard famously said,on your quality of life.
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