Lessons learned from COVID-​19: a forced experiment in workplace strategy

By: Christa Jansen, Design Director, B+H Advance Strategy

May 25, 2020

We are all undergoing a transformation

With the high costs of real estate in urban centers, and scarcity of space in many cases, our large tech clients have been grappling with the idea of remote working, flexible environments and non-assigned workspaces over the last five years. B+H has been tasked with developing strategies for co-working style workspaces with lockers and a variety of choice-based work environments. We’ve done space utilization studies that show low rates of desk occupancy throughout the day. In almost every case, clients have encountered internal pushback to the idea of change, and eventually opted to go forward with more traditional, proven floor plans.

Many leaders have been reluctant to embrace the idea of allowing more flexible work styles and trusting employees to work somewhere other than the office. Remember Marissa Mayer’s 2013 decree that brought all remote Yahoo staffers back into the office? In Yahoo’s case, Mayer believed that staff needed to be working side-by-side in order to optimize communication and collaboration, and in turn, position Yahoo as a contender in the web space. Despite epic backlash from those who were used to working remotely, Yahoo reported just a few months later that employee engagement was up and product launches had increased significantly.

And what of those companies who’ve never allowed remote work, and the workers who’ve begged for the flexibility to do so?

According to the Brookings Institute a few recent experimental studies, provide evidence of the high value workers place on the ability to work from home. On US study found that workers would be willing to take an 8% wage cut for the ability to work from home and a similar study in China found that jobseekers there are more likely to apply for, and accept lower pay, for jobs that support telecommuting.

There’s a lot to be said for face-to-face interaction. As we’re quickly learning, in person collaboration is something that people crave, and is essential in some industries. But we’ve also learned that current technology allows us to work remotely and still get things done.

The Productivity Question

For B+H’s Seattle studio, productivity has increased sharply since we’ve started working from home, as well as elsewhere across the firm. In all our studios, we’re finding new ways of working, collaborating and connecting with one another. It seems that when people are working remotely, they work hard, engage with teammates when needed, and more actively seek out social and team-building opportunities with colleagues.

The flip side is, that we’e all reporting higher levels of exhaustion after being on video calls all day. In a recent interview with the BBC, Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead, who explores sustainable learning and development in the workplace, explains that the need to work harder to interpret facial expressions, tone and pitch of the voice and body language consumes a lot more energy and focus than face-to-face chat.

Our minds are together when our bodies feel we’re not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting.”

Our clients are telling similar stories. Up until now we’ve been parsing and analyzing conflicting reports all the while tethered to our conventional workplace schedules and set ups. The current COVID-19 crisis has created a forced experiment for all of us. It’s a wonderful opportunity to really examine what’s working and what isn’t and to think about the implications for the future of workplace design – indeed, for all building design.

Time to Think Differently

While our current scenario may not represent the ideal balance, it is the catalyst we’ve needed to push companies (and employees) into thinking differently about work and the workplace itself. We’d already been theoretically exploring alternative workstyles with our clients, but now we are implementing them, very rapidly, in real life. We’ve all learned that there are some great things about working remotely (more time to focus on heads down work without interruption), and some not-so-great things (not being able to read a client’s body language during a presentation, no spontaneous conversation with a colleague in the kitchen, etc.)

We can’t predict the eventual impacts of our global quarantine, but it’s prudent to assume that everyone will be transformed in some way by this experience. We are all learning new things, building new muscles, and those will be with us for the rest of our lives. When we eventually go back to the office we’ll interact differently.

The Future is Already Here

Our approach to workplace design will be informed by this experience. The workplace response doesnt exist yet, but elements of what will be successful do. One of our favorite mantras at B+H is science fiction writer William Gibson’s marvelous observation that, “the future already exists, it just isn’t very evenly distributed.” This means that there are clues and signals all around us that hint at what our future might look like. Thinking about our own work and the conversations we have with our clients, we can see some precursors that give us a glimpse of the future and allow us to make some smart guesses.

Turn 10 Studios: Brand and Adaptation

The home of the famous Forza racing game, Turn 10 Studios’ staff is made up of artists, engineers, coders, media and audio specialists and other creatives. They all have one thing in common – they are passionate about car culture. The design embodies the grit and character of a garage or workshop where cars might be built, crossed with a polished sleekness reflective of custom cars themselves. High end automotive details such as metal air grilles, quilted upholstery and knurled control knobs are woven throughout spaces along with plywood, raw perforated metal and open ceilings. This full-scale immersion in a company brand and culture is something only the workplace can provide.

Another key future-ready attribute of this space is its high level of adaptability. The Turn 10 team have intense product development cycles, followed by a reset and a retooling. The space is designed to allow rapid reconfiguration of product teams and space types, as teams and priorities pivot.

Microsoft Buildings 121 + 122: One Size Misfits All

This challenging adaptation of a building designed for machines into a building designed for people accommodates a wide variety of user groups from engineering, data scientists and researchers to organizational functions like finance, legal and real estate. The aesthetic concepts and user experience had to be universal enough to be enjoyed and understood by a variety of people, but clear enough to anchor users in Microsoft’s values and connect people to a unique sense of place. B+H planned skylights and large openings in the existing floor slabs to create several three-story interior spaces to provide natural light for team workspaces at the center of the building. These atria also became “connector” spaces in the buildings with kitchens, open meeting areas, relaxation and recreation spaces adjacent. Flexible overhead power, movable meeting spaces and large gathering spaces ensure the space can be easily adapted for a wide array of functions and can support diverse work styles.

Xnor.ai: Wellbeing and Specialization

This innovative start-up, recently snapped up by Apple, has the lofty ambition to democratize AI. Recognizing the long hours many employees would be working Xnor.ai wanted a space that felt like a community, with lots of options to recharge, relax and refuel, together with access to highly specialize equipment for product development.  Prioritizing the wellbeing and productivity of their employees, Xnor.ai invested in the technology and workspace that enables end users to work smarter and faster. Every conference room wall is writable, each desk has eight outlets, large monitors are plentiful, and their server room is packed with so much computing power that they had to beef up both the cooling and electrical infrastructure in their building. The result is a clean, bright Makers’ paradise that blends technology with biophilic elements for health and wellbeing.

Hybridization: The Best of Both Worlds

When we emerge from our living experiment well have new data to inform our decisions and our own personal experiences to draw from. We can anticipate a hybridization of work – all the best of telecommuting melded with the things we miss most at the office – and the things we simply can’t access from home.

We think there are some clues in the examples we’ve shared. Brand expression will be more important than ever as remote employees seek to reconnect with their company mission and culture. We will continue to evolve and accelerate flexible, adaptable solutions that can pivot both to better accommodate the work and also provide options in future crises. A variety of gathering spaces and spaces that accommodate different work styles will allow smaller footprints to accommodate multiple, diverse users while optimizing opportunities for social interaction. There will be a continued need for specialist spaces that provide access to tools and equipment not easily accessible from home. Finally, we’ll all be scrutinizing our buildings harder than ever to ensure that they are supporting our health and wellness.

Will the silver lining be that we will emerge from our physical confinement with more mental freedom? As the experiment in remote working continues to prove successful, is it creating the opportunity for us to find greater engagement, enthusiasm and commitment in our work? Only time will tell.

When we emerge from our living experiment well have new data to inform our decisions and our own personal experiences to draw from. We can anticipate a hybridization of work – all the best of telecommuting melded with the things we miss most at the office – and the things we simply can’t access from home.