Return to office will require rethinking workplace purpose, design – Crain’s Chicago Business

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Every Thursday in Chicago Comes Back, Emily Drake and Todd Connor provide resilient leadership insights to help your business move forward as we emerge from the pandemic. Drake and Connor facilitate Crain’s Leadership Academy. Drake is a licensed therapist, owner of the Collective Academy and a leadership coach. Connor is the founder of Bunker Labs and the Collective Academy and is also a leadership consultant.

This week we’re joined by Todd Heiser, co-managing director of the Chicago office of architecture and design firm Gensler to learn more about how workspaces can level up culture, increase retention and encourage well-being as the city reopens.

Emily Drake: Reopening has us thinking about physical space. For those of us who have been working from home, we may be leaving one space for another. And for those of us who never stopped going to the office, it could be getting a lot more full. And then there’s the importance of space in how we re-envision a better Chicago. Since that’s a big aspiration, I’d love to start with a big quote of yours we saw recently: “The future of work is delivering the feeling of presence.” It feels really big and ambitious, but tell us more about what you mean by that.

Todd Heiser: A lot was missing from our lives amid the pandemic, and the presence of others was at the top of the list. Coming out of this, it is really important that we deliver on the experience of a workplace. The types of spaces we’ll return to, I like to call them magnetic spaces, people are only going to be excited to go because of the presence of one another. I hate the phrase “return to work” because we’ve been working more than ever. We brought work home, and going forward, I think we’ll be expected to bring home to work. So, we need workplaces that actually create a platform for people to thrive. Presence, then, needs to be paired with flexibility and choice, and really supporting people’s physical, mental and emotional wellbeing—placing connectivity and equity at the forefront. And that, for me, starts to build out what the meaning of true presence is.

Todd Connor: I love your idea of bringing home to work. We’ve talked amongst ourselves about how fear of missing out is driving people to want to go to the office, too. There’s a lot of future forecasting, so I’m curious what you think we’ll see as we get back into physical spaces? And over the next couple of decades?

TH: The true purpose of an office, or physical space, is to tie us to our mission. Company culture doesn’t translate very well through a screen. An office allows for culture to evolve and for spontaneous moments of connection and inspiration. Mentorship and coaching, if you look at Gensler’s research, has taken a huge hit during this time. Especially for junior staff. We’re also missing separation between work and our home lives. I think the future of how workspaces support the whole human is only five years down the road, and, again, brings elements of home to work. Cafes will be replaced with kitchens, for example—it becomes a place for cooking classes and interactivity. The ability to move our physical bodies will be important. Really nice gyms have become a mainstay. One of our projects installed a boxing ring. These features present the employee with choices and options. That’s compelling.

ED: It sounds exciting. And it represents some shifts in our thinking about what an office means. We’ve been focused on an equitable reopening for Chicago and wanting to be a city that sets the standard there. Every individual’s experience is different, so as you think about the whole human, how can workspaces account for individualized needs? A working parent who is also caring for an older adult? Or someone who identifies as having a disability or being able to work more effectively at home?

TH: We’ve been doing a lot of work on culture strategy on this very thing. Recently we used an assessment that helped us understand what each individual employee is thinking about, our articulated values as an organization and how individuals demonstrate that through actions. All of those factors were different for every single person. For so long we’ve been saying, “It’s all about the ‘we,’ ” and I think we realized through the pandemic that, yeah, it is about the “we,” there’s an importance of team, but we can’t be great team members if our individual wellbeing is suffering. The workplace of the future won’t be one size fits all. They are going to be moveable and nimble spaces that require designers, leaders and companies to really think about the individual personalities within their organization and create customized solutions that support their entire talent community.

TC: I wonder, as this thinking shifts for some leaders, what those leaders who are hesitant, unable or unwilling to invest in their workspace need to hear—and understand—to see the world a little bit more like you do.

TH: We’re going to experience a turnover tsunami and a talent war. In fact, we’re already in the middle of it. One of the indicators is that working from home has contributed to people feeling undervalued and burned out because they don’t have that physical presence. And it’s never been easier to switch jobs. It’s as simple as closing one laptop and opening another. Employers have got to be thinking about retention strategies and part of that has to be physical space. Employees are expecting things to be different when they go to the office. And if it’s not done right, it could be the deciding factor in a company’s post-COVID success. And I think with burnout being the biggest factor, the office environment and workplace culture has got to be something that employers act on now as a huge key differentiator, as “why them,” “why this company.”