Article by Neil Ginty, WDA
While some initially heralded the decline of the traditional workplace due to the sudden surge in people relocating to their homes because of the coronavirus, this great remote working experiment has found that most people are feeling “overworked, stressed and eager to get back to the office”.
The trend in remote working was already rising, and the pandemic restrictions have given employees and employers alike an appreciation that it is feasible and can even increase productivity. Here at WDA, however, we see enduring value in the physical workplace as a forum for the exchange of ideas, as healthy environment and a place that cultivates culture and brand identity.
Over one-third of American jobs could “plausibly be performed entirely at home” according to research by the University of Chicago. A Stanford study, however, found that while remote working does increase productivity, most people just do not want to do it with loneliness and legitimate worries over career progression being why they preferred the office.
The Stanford study was focused on junior staff in a call center and did not measure the learning or development outcomes of the individuals. A physical workplace affords opportunities for incidental learning that are almost impossible while remote working, no matter how many impressive communication apps your business has.
Professors Victoria Marsick and Karen Watkins have spent 30 years collaborating on research to do with informal and incidental learning and their importance when it comes to digesting and gaining workplace experience.
Through implied, social learning “we construct the mental, emotional, and interpersonal frameworks for processing all of our experience into knowledge,” they found. “Whether undertaken collaboratively or not, the collective nature of the workplace nudges, imprints, or controls what is learned.”
Earlier this year, after years of research, Google’s “Project Aristotle” released the findings of their mission to “discover how to build the perfect team.” Among their key findings was the concept of “Psychological Safety” which is a sense that there is no risk associated with voicing an idea, question, concern or mistake. The research shows that teams with trusting interpersonal relationships, built by passive as well as spoken communication, are better able to innovate faster, achieve better deliverables and have higher job satisfaction.
“Remote working must have a threshold where productivity starts decreasing,” said William Duff, founder of William Duff Architects. “Collaboration is just better in person. Interacting with people feeds the soul. It is a piece of culture that was taken for granted that we are not taking for granted anymore,” he said.
SAFETY AND WELLNESS
With the continual erosion of genuine social connections and a squeeze for built space causing housing crises in our major cities, the workplace becomes crucial in creating a sense of belonging and establishing interpersonal relationships which are essential for one’s mental health. William also spoke to appreciating the workplace as an environment that can facilitate safety and wellness.
“The workplace can be safer than, say, the grocery store. The single company workplace can create a safer environment through filtration of the HVAC system and ensuring it regularly recycles the air,” William said. “Ergonomic workstations and wellness rooms are already included in most new offices.”
In a study for her book “The Village Effect” Psychologist Susan Pinker found that workers with an opportunity to socialize with coworkers for 15-minutes showed a 20% performance increase. “Building in-person interaction into our cities, into our workplaces, into our agendas bolsters the immune system, sends feel-good hormones surging through the bloodstream and brain and helps us live longer,” she said in her 2017 Ted Talk. “I call this building your village and building it and sustaining it is a matter of life and death.”
CULTIVATING SHARED CULTURE
The control that can make a physical workplace safe can also serve companies by helping to cultivate a culture and brand identity that are true to their values.
“For us, one of our values is transparency,” said William Duff. “All our conference rooms have clear glass doors. It is important that our staff know what is going on. The architecture expresses our values in a literal sense and creates a very different connection than through a computer screen.”
FINDING THE BALANCE
In the post-shutdown reality, the spatial arrangement for workplaces will likely have to be rethought. The key will be about flexibility but its importance as a physical forum for the exchange of ideas, incidental learning and fostering of community will always remain important.