HR Leads Conversations About Redesigning Office Space Post-Pandemic

The corner office is not what it used to be as companies strive for comfort, safety and inspiration

By Paul Bergeron November 16, 2021
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HR Leads Conversations About Redesigning Office Space Post-Pandemic

​As cases of COVID-19 wane and rates of vaccination and testing increase, many company leaders feel it is safer for some employees to come back to their workplaces. They are reconsidering and redesigning their office spaces to better accommodate collaboration among employees on a hybrid schedule or working remotely full time.

HR professionals are playing a critical role in these efforts, not only attending meetings and tours, but often leading discussions with potential architecture and interior design firms.

Soliciting employee feedback about office space design and sharing it with their companies' C-suites remains a key role for HR teams. That feedback is also crucial for the office designers or relocation consultants. Keep this in mind because office changes can greatly affect a company's culture and recruiting. 

"The HR team should be a priority voice amongst decision-makers or stakeholders driving any organization's redesign or renovation of space," said Anna Okerhjelm, design director at Pophouse, an interior design company based in Detroit.

"It's important for designers to understand the initiatives and standards the HR team is working [on] within the culture of the organization to design an environment, which reinforces these efforts and feels authentic to a human-centric approach," she said. "When this happens, thoughtful design decisions can be made every step of the way to support and create a landscape which is approachable, engaging, diverse and safe for all team members, bringing HR's initiatives to life."

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Return to Work

Not Just Being Safe, but Feeling Safe

Donna Flynn, vice president of global talent for furniture firm Steelcase, headquartered in Grand Rapids, Mich., said that when employees return to the office, they notice a difference between being safe and feeling safe.

"When you are asking workers to come back, you have to think of it as bringing them home again," Flynn said. "Things are familiar, but think of it more like they are returning to a remodeled home.

"So, you need to do it gradually, and provide social events along the way such as coffee chats. Hold activities outside when you can, and have activities so the employees can learn about their new space."

Flynn recommended that HR teams think about how to reconfigure the office space to influence employee behavior and improve experiences within the office.

"Space shapes behavior, and behavior over time is culture. How might you leverage your workspace to shift your culture?" Flynn said. "The space creates habits and practices that let workers support each other. Whether it's a physical space, or virtual, or a combination, you have to be able to build trust and social connections with nuances that increase employee engagement, innovation and collaboration."

Flynn said she's seeing more HR executives visiting the Steelcase campus to talk directly about their needs.

"There's been a huge uptick in them being in the conversation and often leading those conversations," Flynn said. "To inspire people to return to the office, they need to approach [office design] more differently than ever before. Workers will not embrace the look of cubicles and benching."

Ernst & Young last month launched its EY Future Workplace Index, which tracks executive sentiment and behavioral data about the workplace of the future. The survey revealed the future of work is hybrid, meaning historically office-based workforces will work from the office and remote locations at any given time, and, for many, the traditional role of the office will become obsolete.

The survey found that 72 percent of office-based organizations are currently working in a hybrid environment, and 75 percent of respondents anticipate they will not have any one dominant work location going forward.

Corner Office Is Not What It Used to Be

Pam Mazza, principal and chief HR officer for Avison Young, based in Chicago, said her workspaces are undergoing purposeful change to draw people back into the office.

"We're adding more collaborative areas, meeting rooms, technology rooms; no longer is the 'corner office' necessarily an area that is awarded because of status."

Mazza said the HR department knows a company's employees best.

"We find the more you seek employee input, the greater your chances are for success," she noted. "When a staff is truly engaged in the process, they are more likely to stay. You need to meet your people where they are."

Pophouse Business Intelligence Account Director Sarah Davis said her company and her clients benefit when HR is involved and providing worker feedback.

"Often, we assume we know how individuals want to use space or need to use space, and then in the process of soliciting that feedback, we will uncover insights that were not known to us," Davis said. "[Being] armed with knowledge to help us to better understand how individuals will benefit from the recommendations being made, in turn, results in optimized business outcomes."

HR in some cases may conduct several layers of surveys and townhall forums for team members to share their thoughts with the organization; these insights provide a critical knowledge stream of partnership, Davis said. "HR participating and representing their angle of the business contributes to a holistic, culture-centric design."

Mazza said HR is also best equipped to create spaces for each archetype of worker.

"Some who are returning are re-energized about working directly with others, and some are more in need of quiet, alone spaces to get their work done," Mazza said. "HR is equipped to be able to draw the best seating map to make this happen."

Mazza, for example, drew up seating maps and shared them with groups of her staff who she knew would provide candid and thoughtful feedback.

Comfort, Safety and Inspiration

Flynn said the priority should be making sure the space is comfortable, safe and inspiring.

"You can do that by choosing different materials, more like the types of things people are used to at home," she said, thinking of upholstery, window coverings and furnishings. "The spaces need to be adaptable for hybrid-worker connectivity but also provide privacy."

Meanwhile, to induce highly effective collaboration, she advised, "you need to eliminate any gaps between the in-office and remote workers, creating an equal presence for team meetings, etc."

Flynn said companies need to be more flexible about their plans and think about flexible workspaces so that what they decide can be managed to meet current needs, and those two years or even five years later.

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