UMI shares some ways to bring belonging to our new work environments and how to turn the virtual and in-person world into a hybrid community.
The largely successful shift to remote work caused by COVID-19’s lockdown measures has convinced companies that remote working is here to stay. But in this new normal, where teams are expected to work seamlessly both in and out of the office, fostering collaboration and belonging is a mounting challenge. Before, most of us could walk over to a peer or colleague, stumble into an office party, and spontaneously meet friends throughout the work day. The future, however, will continue to include Zoom meetings and virtual war rooms, creating a hybrid environment of online and in person work life with a whole new set of challenges. While productivity itself has been largely successful under this new model, the community and bonding—the culture of work—has suffered. Loneliness is on the rise, exacerbated by social distancing and the disruption of normal routines. Belonging will be key to a successful future of blended environments. We are actively researching ways to bring belonging to these new environments, to turn the virtual and in-person work world into a hybrid community.
To create these hybrid communities, we are adapting our understandings of placemaking to fit our new normal. Inherently human-centered, placemaking is a collaborative and community-focused process to create spaces that are socially and culturally sensitive, using strategies to leverage the assets of the local community. It is about creating spaces that support “health, happiness, and well-being.” While placemaking has, in the past, promoted physical strategies to bring people together, our research shows that creating a sense of belonging does not necessarily require physical proximity. Extensive psychological studies on loneliness have determined an important distinction between loneliness and being physically alone: loneliness is a consequence of feeling emotionally distant. Therefore, focusing on placemaking strategies that support the feeling of connection, even if only virtually, are key building successful hybrid communities.
Virtual Placemaking and Hybrid Communities
How can we, as architects, leverage the merging of virtual and physical spaces to cultivate a sense of belonging? While the tenants of placemaking still stand, we want to update their strategies, to innovate placemaking’s foundations to foster connection in our new digital and in person world. Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit organization focusing on placemaking in the public realm, identifies four key placemaking strategies: 1) Uses & Activities, 2) Comfort & Image, 3) Access & Linkages, and 4) Sociability. Using this framework, each of the four categories have been adapted to fit the context of a blended work environment, identifying strategies that can be applied in the post-COVID office.
Uses & Activities
“Desk work” will no longer be the cornerstone of the office in the future. Workplaces will transition from a place to accomplish heads-down, focused work, to a place of collaborative, team-building activities. Through accommodating these new uses and activities, the post-COVID workplace will require different types of spaces –more lounges, huddle rooms and lunchrooms – to foster interaction and community.
Comfort & Image
Coming out of the global pandemic, workers are more concerned than ever about their health and safety in the workplace. Strategies to promote wellbeing include biophilic interventions, such as ample daylight and access to the outdoors, health-promoting amenities like gyms and wellness rooms, and indoor air filtration to reduce pollutants and airborne viruses. Providing a comfortable, attractive office space that is distinctly responsive to its users’ needs will be an essential component of a successful workplace in the future.
Access & Linkages
A firm-wide survey indicates that 67 percent of employees identified eliminating commute time as a major benefit when working from home. Commutability is therefore a key trend following our nation-wide experiment with remote work. Suburban outposts may become more common for workplaces, and the rise in co-working spaces that are located within residential developments may be met with significant demand.
A welcoming, interactive work environment is essential to employee satisfaction, regardless of whether they are working remotely or in person. Connecting individuals in this new “blended” era will ensure that everyone feels they have an equal seat at the table – even those who work from home. While utilizing existing communication tools like Zoom, Teams, or Skype to their fullest will help assist with bridging the gap, new collaboration tools are also quickly growing in popularity, including whiteboard applications such as Miro or project management apps such as Trello, which will allow for improved engagement between remote and non-remote employees.
The Future of Workplace: Hybrid Communities
Renewed investment in placemaking is just one essential part of successful hybrid communities, an investment that seeks to make permanent the successful parts of remote working caused by COVID-19. As we transition into the post-COVID world, workplaces that adjust their spaces to foster belonging, that create seamless connection between the in-person and virtual work world will give their employees the flexibility to balance their work and life in a whole new way. It will be exciting to see the products of these ideas, and to design the offices that will shine as the workplace of the future.