Employees continue to slowly migrate back into traditional workplace settings, but the process has been slow and tedious for companies to effectively communicate, if not demonstrate, why the workplace provides an environment for heightened productivity, career advancement and acceptable safety. During his State of the Union address, President Biden declared “It’s time for Americans to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again,” but many industry experts believe getting workers to leave their comfort zone at home is proving difficult.

Rebecca Lee, Vice President of Development for Simpli, and Robin Senecal, Director of A+D for American Office, recently discussed the topic.

Establishing return-to-work guidelines

Robin Senecal (RS): “Nearly every employee sheltered in place during the early stages of the healthcare crisis but, as conditions eased, companies saw the need to establish acceptable return to the office guidelines and many struggled with this exercise initially because as leaders we’ve never had to negotiate anything like this before. Many immediately polled employees to generate input and demonstrate the importance of hearing their voices and to better understand their needs. It became clear that, based on different job responsibilities and family situations, that a one-size-fits-all solution did not exist. Companies walked a tightrope in considering what was best for the organization, while also showing empathy for its employees. Most strove to establish choices, balance and autonomy for all parties to retain corporate culture and overall productivity.”

Rebecca Lee (RL): “At the outset, many companies felt paralyzed to make return-to-work decisions as well as reticent to be a leader or the first to institute important policies, because guidance was constantly changing. Major commercial real estate brokerage firms eventually published guidelines and that information was used to generate strategy and protocols. Many realized the importance of making the workplace more purposeful and a critical place for collaboration, social interaction and the sharing of ideas. Basically, to demonstrate important things that cannot be derived from working at home. There was tremendous trial and error and networking with peer groups to find feasible solutions. The process, in fact, continues.”

 The importance of luring but not forcing

RS: “Luring people back into the office feels disingenuous, so it is better to demonstrate the value of being together and programming the space to achieve that. It never works to trick people because that is only a short-term solution and not sustainable. It is vital to express to employees that they have flexibility and mobility, while also generating constant feedback so policies can be adjusted as situations change.”

RL: “It takes effort for employees to take a shower, get dressed and commute to work so companies need to demonstrate this is not a waste of time and that starts with making the workplace purposeful and different from home. Providing incentives can be helpful if implemented correctly and with compassion. We have seen tremendous success with the execution of wellness programming with a focus on physical and mental health including meditation and mindfulness support. Companies have provided free massages, car detailing and food which is admirable and helps build employee morale.”

 Workplace design and technology changes

RS: “Employee feedback has triggered changes in workplace configurations including the size of conference rooms, the addition of single-person workstations including phone booths and pods and removing certain office spaces away from high-traffic areas. It is essential to take an individualistic approach to this rather than following what others are doing. Working with design professionals can simplify the process.”

RL: “We are seeing amenities being customized to match the emerging requirements of employees and office spaces have been reworked while they were away. Implementing technology, like Simpli’s tenant engagement app, that helps assimilate still working remotely, to reduce proximity bias, is also key to maintaining corporate culture and the feeling of togetherness.”

Creating themes and activating dead spaces

RS: “Employee isolation remains a very real problem and, while technology helps that, it is important to establish and maintain a sense of belonging. This can be accomplished with programming and genuine amenities geared to help employees. To help foster that sense of belonging our company has instituted the theme of gratitude. We consistently thank our employees for being present and working hard, as well as express our thanks to our customers for remaining loyal. In terms of amenities, it’s important to place them in high profile areas so employees see and use them, rather than dead space that are out of sight.”

RL: “The office is the hub of activity and one size does not fit all.  Companies and buildings are exploring ways to make the workplace more compelling and attractive, with some creating outdoor spaces for work and social activities, establishing rooftop decks and adding sport courts and golf simulators.  It is also important to create opportunities for engagement by activating these spaces through programs that focus on wellbeing, community and connection.”