The Covid-19 pandemic forced a rapid and almost universal shift to remote work in roles where a virtual office was possible. Now, even while many organizations are reopening their offices, many workers say they prefer to continue to work from home.
Yet both employees and employers are realizing there are benefits to in-person work that can’t be gained through virtual workspaces. To get teams back to the workplace, workspaces need to promote physical and emotional health for employees, and be spaces where people want to work.
Dr. Whitney Austin Gray, Senior Vice President at the International WELL Building Institute, Ewelina Kałużna, Head of Strategic Workplace Solutions Advisory for Central and Eastern Europe at Skanska and Managing Director at Business Link, and Theres Söderlund Lakso, Head of Internal Communications for Business Area Cloud Software & Services at Ericsson, are all working to create just those sorts of spaces. Through smart design and attention to the needs of employees, they’re helping to shape a future of in-person work that is healthy and sustainable for individuals and organizations.
Prioritizing employee wellness
A fundamental step in creating a desirable workplace for employees is designing a space that is physically healthy for team members. This goes beyond basic safety regulations as required by governments or municipalities. Instead, the focus is on a holistic view of wellness that includes factors such as air quality, appropriate seating and access to nutritious food.
Dr Whitney Austin Gray and the team at the International WELL Building Institute are helping developers and organizational leaders implement design strategies aimed at pursuing this wellness approach. As she tells it, the average person spends 90,000 hours at work over the course of their lifetime. On that scale, chronic exposure to even minor deficiencies in air quality or seated posture can have significant long-term health effects.
To create a healthier working environment, the International WELL Building Institute developed the WELL Standards. These cover building and equipment design but also workplace best practices that contribute to improved employee wellness. Guidelines within the WELL Standards include suggestions for the minimum number of adjustable-height workstations in any given office, and water- and air-quality requirements for office buildings.
Physical wellness is not the only concern. The WELL Standards also suggest ways to manage employee stress. Chronic stress not only affects a person’s ability to focus and be productive at work but also has a profound impact on the body. Keeping employees physically well, then, requires attentiveness to their psychological health as well. The WELL Standards include guidelines for creating an ideal work environment through the size, shape, color, lighting and noise level of a room. Each of these can either contribute to or mitigate employee stress levels, and proper building design can create a space that is not only conducive to low-stress work but is a place where people want to and prefer to work.
The WELL Standards are applicable in any built environment, not just offices. Individuals can use these same standards in their homes, creating healthy spaces that contribute to wellness at all times, whether on or off the clock.
Creating a desirable workplace
Wellness standards ensure the continued health of employees once they get to the office, but what incentives can make people want to go to the office? The rise of virtual workspaces during the pandemic caused a shift in employee desires and expectations about in-person work. Understanding those changes can help organizational leaders create an office that people want to come to.
Skanska’s Ewelina Kałużna has conducted employee surveys to get a clearer picture of what team members expect and need from their workplace. As she did so, two broad categories emerged as being of significant importance to employees: location and social connection.
Since remote work became more common during the pandemic, Ewelina and her team found that tolerance for a long commute has dropped significantly in the past two years. As such, the location of an office is a significant factor in its appeal to employees. It’s not just about being close to home, however. Having a workplace near restaurants, grocery stores, pharmacies and public transportation is becoming increasingly important to employees. Like the 15-Minute City, the perceived value of a physical workplace lies primarily in its integration into the full scope of easily accessible, essential services and amenities.
Once at the office, Ewelina found, many employees no longer want to do work in the same way as they did before the pandemic. There’s an increased desire for social connection through collaborative work and less of a desire for individualized tasks. Those individual tasks are often easily accomplished at home, so people who commit to in-person work want a different experience than the one they could achieve virtually.
Meeting rooms, workshop areas and a superior internet connection all contribute to a social experience that can’t be had outside the office. By providing a location that integrates seamlessly into the rhythms of employees’ lives, organizations can motivate team members to not only get back to the office but also make the most of the time they have there.
The future in action at Ericsson
We know what it takes to get people into the office and to promote a healthy work environment. It’s not enough simply to understand these steps, though — we have to realize them.
Theres Söderlund Lakso is working to make the future of healthy, collaborative office spaces a reality at her organization, global telecommunications company Ericsson. Ericsson has adopted what Theres refers to as a 50-50 work model. This means they anticipate employees will spend 50 percent of their working time at home and 50 percent at the office.
In the office, Ericsson has introduced initiatives to create a psychologically and socially healthy workspace for employees. As well as paying attention to details like the color and material of office chairs and desks, Ericsson incorporates collaborative workspaces and social spaces into its building design to promote interaction between team members. This not only creates meaningful human relationships but also allows employees to learn from each other through consistent in-person collaboration.
Ericsson has also invested in better technology to facilitate easier workflows and communication when team members are working from home. It’s even gone so far as to research the most necessary equipment for employees’ home offices and has proposed investing in that equipment on behalf of its employees.
Ericsson’s commitment to the health of its team, both at home and in the office, simultaneously embraces the new virtual office capabilities that new technologies provide while also creating meaningful incentives that make its employees want to spend time in the office. It’s an exciting glimpse into the flexible work model that is quickly becoming more commonplace in a post-pandemic world. When we combine the best parts of remote and in-person work, we can have a positive impact on employees’ mental and physical wellness without losing the profound benefits of being physically present together.
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