Insights on Safely Reinvigorating the Workplace: A Case Study in Proactivity
by Nick Meter, Vice President, Customer Experience, Tangram
At Tangram, we have developed a comprehensive return-to-work strategy that we are also sharing with our clients, in the interest of helping them address the challenges we all face.
The plan is based on decades of experience as well as input from a wide range of sources including customers and partners. We felt it was essential to practice what we preach, and we find that many in our industry are following the same track.
First, an honest caveat. There are limits to how definitive any prescriptive approach can be, because we continue to learn new things every day. For instance, there have been questions about the relative ineffectiveness of certain temperature taking devices and how they are being used with employees as they re-enter the workspace.
The obvious reality is that the new discoveries around the behavior of the virus are happening rapidly and regularly, but that shouldn’t prevent us from action. We believe it’s essential to do the best we can now with the flexibility to adapt as the situation evolves.
Our framework encompasses three main elements:
>First is understanding whether a particular space is safe for a return to work, given the nature of the work that’s being done.
>Second is spatial configuration, for example in terms of how people interact with one another in order to function successfully and in a safe environment.
>Third is working now to prepare for the future. In other words, what approaches allow for adapting to potential changes over time with minimal disruption and cost.
Finding out what makes people comfortable as a baseline for the employee population is essential to informing the reconfigurations that you’re going to undertake. To understand whether or not your workforce is prepared for going back to work, employee feedback has never been more valuable. By generating feedback, you create opportunities for engagement. Even if you can’t necessarily act on all the feedback immediately, soliciting it is a first step in illustrating the organization’s concern and empathy.
These should be the watchwords for leaders right now, as they talk about their space and how it should perform. People who are fearful, disengaged and with unresolved feelings over being asked to return to work are not going to be productive.
With this in mind, the first thing we did was to survey our own people. We then reported the results and showed the staff what they had said. Transparency, empathy and concern were our goals at this initial stage. That’s the “soft” side of culture and leadership. These are muscles that may not be exercised as regularly as they should be. But warm them up now, because they are key performance motivators.
Is the office safe for a return to work? What does “safe” mean? Is it a perception or a reality?
A broad range of activities can be considered for making a workplace as safe as is reasonably possible, such as:
>Sanitization and disinfection, at the level required of each space, including high-touch areas
>Symptom checks at the front of the facility before entry
>Secure badging for contact tracing if there is an infection
>New hardware for hands-free entrances and exits
>Appropriate social distancing and space allocation
>Sanitizer in places it’s never been used before
>New protocols for routine maintenance and cleaning
In particular, distance matters. Increasingly we’re discovering that a cough or a sneeze can travel farther than six feet. However, the public has landed on six feet as a minimum distance between individuals. In our planning for our clients and for ourselves, we’re seeing complete removal of desks as well as increased separation of people at desks or in chairs to achieve that amount of separation. Then we’re extending that practice to travel paths and other areas where people might congregate for socializing and collaboration.
Frankly, this is the minimum bar to clear.
As an example, let’s talk specifically about the Tangram workspace.
Our work café is wonderful. It allows for all sorts of different interactions and settings, whether in a booth or at tables. People congregate to eat, to socialize, to work, to snack in an environment that encourages networking and energy. We’re removing the artifacts that would make the space more dense than we’d be comfortable with. Instead of four chairs around a table, it’s two. It might be fewer tables and/or benches in total. Unfortunately, people are going to have to change their habits when socializing.
We’ve looked at conference rooms as well. In a conference room built to accommodate, say, 14 people, the allowable usage might be reduced to eight or six. Meetings that were once 100% in-person may become partially in-person, partially remote. Organizations need to carefully consider who should be in-person for best effect, and who can be virtual.
“Meetings that were once 100% in-person may become partially in-person, partially remote. Organizations need to carefully consider who should be in-person for best effect, and who can be virtual.”
We’ve come to the realization, in developing our own protocols, that this process is equal parts perception and practice. Yet a basic challenge lies in the fact that it’s literally impossible to do minute-to-minute testing or to detect the virus in any and all forms. It’s the right combination of perception and practice that leads to an improved outcome over doing nothing.
The best work happens when employees are not distracted and have a sense of wellbeing, both physical and emotional. If someone is going out of their way to come to the office, you want them to feel like they can perform at the levels that they’re used to.
To a great degree, perception and best practices intersect in the aspect of physical distancing – at least for the foreseeable future. When we talk about adding screens, dividers and things like that to the workspace to help people feel like they’re more separated from others, we’re encouraging peace of mind.
As an organization, we’re not presenting solutions as being totally preventive measures for this virus. No one can do that yet, as an ongoing understanding of its nature develops. But we’re doing everything we can to demonstrate both the reality and the perception of safety.
Preparing for the now while keeping the future in mind means understanding how to make short-term changes that the culture of your organization can assimilate and absorb. They should not be so permanent that they could change the fundamental dynamics that have made you a successful company.
That’s easy to say, but what does it mean in practice?
Employees make decisions about organizations by walking through the space, by seeing how people interact, by what kind of relationships they can build with their peers. Or maybe they decided to join an organization because it offers privacy and a sense of focus in their space.
As just one example, for open and collaborative organizations with employees who value that environment, at some point they may likely need the ability to take down the dividers, screens and other de-densifying strategies in a safe way for the overall benefit of the organization.
Temporary modifications must incorporate the capacity for undoing them conveniently and cost effectively. In doing so, the organization can further reinstate its culture and return to the behaviors and environment that the employee signed up for.
In our space, we’ve been pursuing approaches with semi-permanence or medium-term permanence in mind. When we talk to our clients, those are discussions we’re having now as well. Our goal is to find solutions that can be re-modified and are not complex to implement.
As we’ve noted, the current situation is highly dynamic and still unpredictable in many areas. If, at some point, the public perception changes so dramatically that organizations elect not to go back to the “old way” of doing things, design firms and their clients must open-minded about that as well.
People may conclude that the virus could repeat itself at some point in the future and elect not to go through another cycle of change. That may well be a prudent choice. But let’s continue to have conversations and take care of our people the best we can. It’s what we strive to do with our own employees and what we highly encourage other companies do for themselves.
We documented our process under the theme “Second Safest Place: Protocols for the New Normal” and are happy to share it with others for best practice reference in addressing their specific situations. Click here to view that document.
Nick Meter is a multi-year veteran of the commercial furniture industry, having worked for dealerships since he was interning over summers in Detroit at the age of 17. Nearly 20 years later, he is now Director of New Client Sales and Customer Experience for the Tangram Los Angeles team.