As the firm-wide director of consulting for global design and architectural company HOK, Adam Stoltz has spent much of his 15 years in the industry thinking about the ways in which people work. Today, that means pondering how the COVID-19 pandemic might forever change our offices and workdays.
REjournals recently spoke with Stoltz, who is based in HOK’s New York City office, about the long-term changes that the pandemic, and the country’s response to it, might have on the world of work.
Let’s start with the obvious question: Now that so many employees are working from home, will we see more remote working even after the threat of COVID-19 fades?
Adam Stoltz: A lot of companies are facing the reality that they had perhaps been resisting of enabling employees to work more remotely or more flexibly. They have been forced into it today and now realize that it is certainly possible. For some companies and employees, working from home is working well. For others, while it might be working fairly well from a business standpoint, it’s not actually working from a personal standpoint, from that individual’s standpoint.
Some companies will look at this situation and tell their employees, ‘This is working out better than we thought. Guess what? You are now going to work remotely or work remotely more often.’ It’s important for companies to realize, though, that working remotely might not be working for individuals for a variety of reasons. Companies will have to balance what works for them as a business and what works for their employees as individuals.
What do you hope companies are learning about remote working
during this time?
Stoltz: In the end, I hope that what we take away from this is two-fold: That we can do a much better job of giving people support with greater choices, flexibility and control over some of the decisions they make about how they do their best work. If an employee works better when that employee works at least part of the time remotely, we must recognize that, even if that hasn’t always been company policy. If we can do that, that will be valuable.
The second thing is, when we decide to ask people to come back into the office, I hope we recognize that there are likely several things we have to do to make them feel comfortable. The idea of tuning off a switch that has been turned on and now we are just turning it off? I just don’t think it can work that way.
What will be some of the challenges that workers might
face when they are asked to return to the office?
Stoltz: Some people are enjoying the reduction of their commutes. Long commutes are stressful. Many people today are enjoying the fact that they don’t have to face that stress or waste that time sitting in traffic. These employees might not want to give that up every day of the week. Other people might now have the opportunity to be closer to family members who need them nearby, for whatever reason. If these people are still getting their work done and are now able to be there more often for their family members, it might be a lot for companies to ask them to give this all up.
We know from the research we do on work patterns and behaviors, that many jobs are focused some days on individual, concentrated work while on other days they are focused on interactions with others in group projects and meetings. Companies might think about giving people the choice of picking the setting or environment that fits best with the work they are doing that day. For some people that cold mean that tomorrow they are going to work from home because they are spending most of the day in a video conference with people across the globe. Why do they need to go into the office if they are going to be in a video conference call by themselves? They can do that from home.
What about the emotional shift employees might have to
make when shifting from working at home to returning to the office?
Stoltz: The virus is anticipated to have a long-lasting emotional, psychological impact. One of the challenges that companies have to prepare for in asking people to come back to the office is that these workers might not be ready to do so. We have to rebuild some of that trust. We must communicate to employees what we ae doing to keep them safe. We need to focus on keeping offices clean. We might need to shift to workplace set-ups that recognize that the health and wellbeing of our employees is important when they do come back.
What can companies do to promote wellbeing when employees
Stoltz: Companies should think about providing more opportunities for unassigned space. This doesn’t mean that no one gets an assigned desk. It’s about giving people the freedom to move about the office to find the spaces that are most comfortable for them. Maybe an employee has a co-worker who has a sniffle or a cough. That can be anything. It can be allergies. It can be truly benign. But if it makes that first employee more comfortable to get up from his or her desk and go to another part of the office to work, I hope employees have the opportunity to do that. I hope the work settings are there to help them do that. I think giving employees more freedom of movement and more choice is important.
I think employees would feel more comfortable if they saw surfaces being wiped down regularly or if companies provided employees the tools and equipment they needed to do it themselves. That could be a valuable change.
And I think we need to see the development of tools and technology that allow people to gain more information about how the work settings available to them were last used and when they were last cleaned and serviced. Employees could log onto a portal to see when a workstation was last used by one of their co-workers and when it was last cleaned. They can see if five other employees have booked workstations around the station they are looking at or if a workstation will be mostly surrounded by other stations that haven’t been booked, giving them more distance from their co-workers if that’s what they need to feel comfortable.
Do you think the way offices are laid out will change?
Stoltz: We have been pursing greater density in the workplace for several years now. Companies have wanted less office space per person. I don’t foresee workspaces getting larger, even after this pandemic. But I think companies might start rethinking the spacing they have between workstations and how they arrange these stations to give employees a bit more spacing between each other.
I do think that we are going to focus on how space is used over time. It’s not just that we will give people more space. It’s more about supporting people in their ability to not have to come into the office every day. If companies do that, the density of the number of people in an office space at any given time won’t be as great. We will relieve some of the pressure if we do that. I don’t see companies moving back to a time when offices were oversized, and workstations were 64 square feet for a laptop and a couple of monitors. Instead, we’ll see companies focusing more on putting more distance between the desks.