Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic has been an exercise in patience for many, but the transition to home-based work could also have implications for workplace design once it’s safe to return to an office.
ONE Global Design, an alliance of 20 design and architecture firms representing more than 1,500 design professionals, surveyed all of its employees in early April about the transition. By that point, most people had been working from home for a few weeks. Their answers represent a snapshot of 2020’s remote work period and offer insights into how our workplaces might look different than they did pre-pandemic.
How Are We Working?
The survey covered five key areas of the work-from-home experience: health and wellbeing, workflow, technology, tools, and management style/change readiness.
Health and wellbeing: Not surprisingly during a pandemic, health and wellbeing are at the forefront of survey respondents’ minds. Staying healthy and balanced was a top priority for the designers, with 73% naming personal connections as a top priority. Working at home further blurs the lines between work and personal lives, which might be why 55% of respondents wanted more time to unplug from technology.
However, some aspects of working from home resonated with respondents, who named flexibility as their No. 1 priority as offices begin to reopen. Working from home is giving people a better understanding of when and how they work best, which could have implications for workplace design.
Workflow: Working from home has granted workers a higher level of autonomy, even for people who can only work from one spot in their home or have caretaker responsibilities, the survey says. Many respondents have gained a clear understanding of activities that are best supported in the office versus the home. Designers noted that the autonomy of home is better suited for focus work, but in-person engagement in the office is invaluable for socialization and teamwork.
“They crave seeing their coworkers and being in social settings together,” notes Suzanne Nicholson, principal and strategist for MEYER and a co-leader of ONE Global Design’s workplace committee. “Isolation stinks, and while it may be great as an eye-opener, they definitely want to go back to the office. It may be going back to the office with some flexibility, where it makes sense that I spend one day of the week at home doing heads-down work.”
Technology: Technology presents a prime opportunity to determine which behaviors we want to promote and discourage old habits from returning, the study notes. Technology made respondents feel more connected with their teams and provided better access to leadership, and people working remotely are no longer a minority in meetings. However, respondents also expressed anxiety about increased noise levels if Zoom meetings without headsets continue after a return to the office.
The technology portion of the survey also revealed that the majority of respondents felt they had to learn new technologies during the transition to 100% remote work. “They all felt like they had to learn a new technology, and they were embracing it, but they felt like more training would have been helpful,” Nicholson explains.
Tools: Working from home has helped people realize which tools they need to be most effective. For example, 80% of respondents said they could do without a desk phone, and 50% didn’t feel they needed an assigned desk. People who weren’t ready to give up their assigned desk cited access to space for tools and resources, dedicated space for personal items and clarity on how to find a space to work when they were in the office. The comments in this section underscore the importance of workplace strategies that are tied concretely to organizational goals and work styles.
Management style and change readiness: The responses generally showed a positive outlook on change and the respondents felt positively about their organization’s ability to adapt to change, according to the study. Respondents cited frequent check-ins and increased technology usage as providing a level playing field to connect with both colleagues and organizational leadership. Most wanted the frequent communication to continue, but with a clear agenda and purpose.
What Designers Can Learn from Working from Home
The implications for design firms affect workplace policy more than the practice of design, though participants did note several key points that could affect the way offices are structured:
- Participants in the survey are learning more about what work modes encourage their best work. This could mean some regular work-from-home days for focus work, as Nicholson suggests, or it may underscore the need for quiet spaces in the office that are suited to heads-down work.
- Respondents were concerned about increased noise levels if their colleagues continue having Zoom meetings without headsets after returning to the office. This underscores a key concept for office design—the importance of good acoustical design. Designers whose clients use video meeting software extensively might also design more huddle rooms and small meeting spaces for one to two people to mitigate the noise from video meetings.
- Half of the respondents were willing to give up their desks, but half weren’t—and the answers they gave ranged from storage to simply finding a place to work. Every workplace is different, however, and some organizations may be ready for free-address workspaces. This suggests a need for designers to have a strong understanding of the client’s work styles and goals in order to create offices that support productivity.
In the meantime, Nicholson is finding that one of the biggest concerns for people working from home is the same concern they have in the office—ergonomics.
“Are they working safely? Is their desk height right? Those are important considerations about the office at home,” Nicholson says. “The other aspect people are struggling with is the ability to disconnect because when they get up, they’re looking at their office. They don’t even have time to transition on the commute. Having people develop good work separation habits from life is going to be important. You almost need policies in place that it’s OK to not work during certain time periods. If everybody’s working 24 hours a day, that’s not healthy.”
Take the Survey
The ONE Global Design team launched a survey similar to the one their employees took, focusing on how people are feeling and what they’re learning. Share your insights for their new report, due in June. Research will continue through the end of November to measure how people are feeling as they slowly reoccupy their offices.