As employers scramble to adapt their offices and adopt new ways of working in the midst of the global pandemic, Workplace Change Management is more important now than ever before. With over 30 years of experience developing activity-based work environments across EMEA, Senior Associate at AWA Clark Elliott shares his expert advice on how workplace designers can best respond to change and adapt to the ‘new normal’.

Start by asking the right questions

When it comes to designing work spaces, many architects are still not asking the magic question: “Who are the users and what will they be doing in this building that I’ve been asked to create?”

This question is more crucial now than ever before, as employees anticipate new ways of working in response to the global pandemic. It’s not about cutting costs, it’s about adapting spaces for different work practices. That may mean using hybrid working - home and office - depending on different work activities. It’s an opportunity to glue different types of working together in new ways. 

Anticipating challenges ahead

One of the main obstacles I have seen clients experience as they try to navigate the current situation is the lack of competence to manage dispersed teams. 

This is where we have two groups here in the Western world: those that introduced agile, remote working years ago and those that introduced it in the middle of March 2020 in crisis mode when the pandemic was announced.

Another issue is the lack of eye contact and body language in virtual meetings. Adapting language for clarity and avoiding misunderstandings has been identified as a key issue in our research at AWA.

On virtual conference calls, the 15-millisecond delay between you asking a question and getting an answer, on a human level (harking back to our evolution) plants a seed of distrust. Now, if you are making a multimillion-dollar decision, virtual meetings can be an issue that needs to be handled in creative ways.

The key point to remember is that we need to put the human at the centre of discussion. 

The three most common issues employees are facing right now:

  1. Supporting Mental Health 
    Keeping everyone mentally healthy is crucial right now. Leadership teams need to empower employees to work in the new landscape with the right tools and management.

  2. Adapting to Virtual Modes of Working
    Finding creative ways to maintain social interaction between teams - e.g. adding 10 mins social coffee time before or after meetings. This is particularly crucial when it comes to integrating new recruits too. Some companies are installing studios for high quality sound and video for virtual meetings, training and professional presentations. Mentoring staff and new hires to optimise virtual modes is now a new focus. 

  3. Communicating Change
    While working out a plan of action, employers also need to remember to communicate what is going on and provide office workers with guidance to help them adjust to more agile working behaviours and new ways of working in the office in more collaborative, yet socially distanced ways.

Recognising the ‘grey areas’ 

In summary, when it comes to adapting workplaces in the wake of the pandemic, it is not black and white and it is far from one-size-fits-all. 

We need blended solutions. The firms that are doing this well are those that are considering individuals as individuals - as human beings - and then clustering them into ‘personas’ to calculate desired presence and types of activities. It is fascinating to see how work is being reinvented live in response to the ‘new not normal’.

But it is work-in-progress. We can’t google the future, but I’m confident that by taking a holistic approach, we will find the right solutions. And there may be more than one solution to choose from. Businesses need to choose the best option for them.

Top tips to help workplace managers navigate the current landscape

  1. Look at “work” in a holistic sense. Drop the word workplace, look at “work arrangements.” Most issues are not related to space but about making intelligent decisions about processes, time, the complexity of scheduling and predicting demand.

  2. Get a professional to guide you through the steps. We aren’t making this up, we have been doing it for decades but there are just new components to make a coherent project.

  3. Be consultative and co-create solutions. Ask employees questions. Work with leadership and make sure it isn’t a cost cutting affair, but look at how to ease people’s daily ways of working. 

My rule of thumb: just do it - and then review it. Once the ‘new normal’ starts, each work day is a journey not a destination. And it will continue to evolve. 

Clark Elliott Senior Consultant, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) Full bio and articles

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