In the midst of these uncertain times, businesses across the globe are looking for new ways to support employee wellbeing and maintain social connectivity in both virtual and physical environments.

To shed some light on this subject, we spoke to Dr Eileen McNeely, Founder and Executive Director of the Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Read the Q&A below to find out more.

Q) Please can you tell us more about SHINE and how your research can help businesses promote health & wellbeing in the midst of Covid-19?

At SHINE, we study health and wellbeing by focusing on the platform of work because so many of our resources for complete wellbeing – social, emotional, purposeful and meaningful fulfilment, along with financial stability - come from the workplace. We undertake applied research, partnering with companies as incubator labs to help us understand what is going on in real-time.

By studying people in their usual environment, we’re able to bring much more insight to the data. Now, in the age of Covid-19, our work is more pertinent than ever before.

Also, because we've done workplace studies before Covid, and throughout these turbulent times, we can see what impact the pandemic is having on people and workplaces as we move through it.

Q2: How does SHINE’s research and focus differ to what most companies are already doing to explore ways of improving wellbeing in the time of Covid-19?

Most companies have been very aware of their responsibilities in terms of the requirements from the public health community and what keeps people safe e.g. social distancing, sanitation, testing and office density.

They will also recognise that employees with a high level of wellbeing will have a positive impact at work.

However, what many businesses have not got to grips with is the total disruption the pandemic has caused in every area of people’s lives. This has a huge impact on how they best support their employees.

In previous studies, we have looked at what people get from their work - financial security, dignity, meaning and purpose. But, what we didn't really think about - and what really surprised us in our research - is that people actually get more social connectedness and belonging from work than outside of work.

And this is crucial. Many places have been - and some still are - in lockdown. This means that people have missed a key access point to what makes them happy, healthy and well: the workplace. So, it’s really important that companies are intentional about promoting social belongingness and connectedness.

Q) From your research so far, what traditional office design elements do you think might need reviewing as people return to work mid-Covid?

Over the past decade, office designers have become increasingly conscious of this need for social connectedness, and so they’ve removed walls in the office and created open office spaces. The idea was to build collaboration.

But now, as people return to these open offices in the midst of Covid-19, many employees who are craving social interaction are finding that they are on different schedules, with a percentage of the workforce working from home. But, that also means that they will continue to be on Zoom calls even when they are in the office.

We published a paper in Frontiers in Psychology in 2018 studying the impact of open office design. We looked at what it meant for people's visual and acoustical privacy, their mood, their job satisfaction, their performance and productivity in terms of engagement - and even their health.

What was clear is that in open plan spaces workers are constantly staying vigilant and navigating their acoustical privacy (like who's talking when), which can take away from their concentration. So we have observed that open offices may adversely affect people's performance, productivity and their wellbeing.

So, what does that mean for employees’ wellbeing as we bring them back to the office? We already know that they're having a tough time with social connectedness and they’re now having to combine virtual conferencing with an open office space that really isn’t conducive to that.

However, we have also just finished a study on a community sample in North Carolina - across industries - to understand how people are doing right now. The majority of people think that social relationships got worse at the height of Covid. Close to half of the people found that the ability to concentrate is also worse. And these things are going to be amplified in an open office design with people on Zoom meetings. They will experience greater lack of control, concentration, distractions. So, that's something to be aware of.

Now on the other hand, we did look at open office design and people's perception of density. When it was too crowded that impacted them negatively. So, maybe returning to the office with lower density will make up for the increased video conferencing.

Q) From your studies so far, what else has changed since Covid-19 emerged?

What I think is really interesting from the studies I’ve seen so far is that people are working on average 48 minutes more a day with the boundaries between home and work blurring. It’s not 9 to 5 anymore.

People are also spending on average 12 and a half minutes more in meetings every day than they did pre-Covid. While these meetings tend to be shorter, they're also with more people, which can be pretty overwhelming.

So, all of these different changes might be multipliers of some of the things that we found in our open office paper.

Q) In terms of workplace wellbeing, from your studies so far, has anything improved since Covid?

One of the things that we look at is employees’ perception of culture. We ask a lot about their individual experience of work and wellbeing, based on their role and workplace design. But, we also try to understand their business culture and how people collectively perceive it.

Because it’s so intangible, culture is hard to tie down. We approach this by asking about what we call ‘caring culture’ or ‘caring climate’ - the composite of people's perception of trust, respect, fairness and caring by management.

This is important because when we look at performance, productivity and wellbeing outcomes, a ‘caring climate’ is a very useful measurement in terms of predicting performance.

What was clear during Covid, is that people felt that management cared more. They had empathy, which makes a big difference both now and going forward.

Q) As the world continues to navigate ways of working in the post-Covid world, what will you and the SHINE team be monitoring the most in the next few months?

We will be looking at not just what companies are doing right now, but how they are innovating to accommodate a new way of working.

Aside from piloting new ideas and exploring alternative ways of doing things, this pandemic has made companies think about what it really means to be resilient. This is unlikely to be the only global pandemic and so how can we learn to adapt more quickly?

Many businesses are wrestling with how to sense what’s happening on the ground as things are changing. How can they understand what works - fast? How can companies cross-skill and upskill?

We’re very eager to understand how companies are addressing those challenges in the next few months.

If you want to get involved with SHINE’s research or find out more about their work, you can read more here: https://shine.sph.harvard.edu/

Leslie Thompson Director of Workplace Strategy, Tarkett Full bio and articles

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