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Thought Leadership

Four Roles of Physical Workspaces

4 roles of physical workspce

The common belief is that employees will not want to return to the office post-pandemic. However, many employees are looking forward to going back to work, just not for the old way and the old reason. Employees may not want the same intensive interaction with others as before COVID, but still desire professional connection. Physical offices will play a critical role in the hybrid workplaces of the future. Here are four ideas to consider as we transition back to the office.

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1. Encouraging the Collision of Ideas

A subtle but critical reason for why employees liked the office was to hear others’ ideas and be inspired and motivated to think creatively. When reimagining the workplace, it is this very collision of ideas that may have to be systematically designed into the workplace. A couple thoughts to consider:

  • Small talk at the watercoolers and in break rooms often led to hearing what others were working on and were often the spark for innovation. These conversations can be incorporated virtually by having short meetings or open virtual rooms where people can pop in, or by using tools like Slack. Tools for such spontaneous interactions should be made available, but not mandated in use.
  • Remember those whiteboards with post-it notes we once relied on? Those are the very spaces for ideas that may need to be highlighted. Employees may not all come in at the same time, but when they are in office, they can look at the whiteboard to see what others are thinking about and doing and can leave their own thoughts.

A businesswoman cheering while sitting in front of a laptop.

2. Reinforcing the Culture

In a remote work environment, employees don’t have the visibility of others, the conviviality, or the camaraderie. These are all the visible cues we took for granted in an in-person work environment.

Returning to work allows us to deliberately and systematically take advantage of physical spaces to reinforce the culture. Leaders and organizations may want to consider a few important tools and techniques for reinforcing the culture as we transition back to the office:

  • Visibly reinforcing “we are all in it together.”
  • Seeing the “performative actions” of others to boost employee motivation.
  • Recognizing employees for their achievements and accomplishments in front of the group.
  • Hearing from senior executives on how the culture is exemplified, recognizing those who have exemplified it (can also be done virtually).
  • Extending skills through talks, demonstrations, and live learning events.
  • Mentoring sessions with senior execs or supervisors.
  • Teambuilding exercises which can promote empathy, recognition, and patience.

Businesspeople standing and sitting around a table in an office break room with coffee.

3. Designing Socialization at Work

If there is one thing we have learned during the pandemic, it is that we are humans with the need for others. It could be the same people that maybe even irked us in the past, but just being with them was something we liked and yearned for once it was gone. Offices should be designed to encourage the moments of being together by having:

  • Open-air spaces which encourage “around the campfire” type of activities to share with each other and learn about each other outside the work setting.
  • Deliberate activities focused on sharing each other’s life contexts to reinforce the culture and a broader understanding of others’ constraints and situations.
  • Whoever is at work together, even if on a rotational basis, should share where they are in life and their interests outside of work.

Businesswoman looking out a window while thinking.

4. Allowing for Time Away from Home

While most of us have gotten used to balancing our work and home life over the last year-plus, we’ve also undoubtedly felt the urge to get away from home for a bit. The physical workspace can offer the following benefits to workers:

  • A place which facilitates quiet moments and deeper thinking.
  • The opportunity to dress up for work because research shows there is truth to dressing for success.
  • The opportunity to get out of the house for a change of scenery and engagement with others.
  • A creation of a thinking space which allows workers to be thoughtful and creative.
  • Restoration of work-life balance by creating a separate place where work happens or without life intruding as much on work.

The design of the workplace will go hand in hand with why people may want to come back. As such, organizations should keep the following in mind as they prepare for a returning workforce:

  • Cubicles of the past may be less important than the open spaces. Atriums and lawns may be the places where employees congregate for the socially distanced fun part of work.
  • Monolithic office campuses, buildings, or floor(s) may over time give way to satellite offices where groups and teams who are most closely tied to the performance of work come together on chosen times and days.
  • Spaces may even be rented rather than owned by companies.
  • The four uses of physical space highlighted previously may be designed at a smaller scale for groups or teams in addition to being applied to the broader organization.

Organizations may need to adjust to a new hybrid model or workforce where some individuals are remote and others are in the office.

Arvind Malhotra is H. Allen Andrew Professor of Entrepreneurial Education and Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.