Has COVID changed our workplace community forever?
Our workplace is a community. It has its own hierarchy, social norms and expectations. Workplace design company Evoke Projects examines how the physical environment has changed during the COVID pandemic and how this has affected our sense of community and belonging.
The importance of belonging
When we feel connected with our workplace community, we feel safe and accepted. Our mental health and well-being are improved, and we are engaged and motivated to give the best of ourselves to our workplace. At a management level, businesses recognise that talent is valuable, and staff are more likely to remain with a firm if they feel a strong sense of community and belonging. This has led to an increased focus on improving the employee experience in recent years.
Physical environment before and after COVID
Before COVID, the physical workplace was the hub of our work community. Of course, some people occasionally worked from home and others were on the road or at client sites. But there was always this gravitational pull back to the office. It was the home of team meetings, brainstorming and training sessions. It was the place to catch up on office gossip, and its inhabitants often departed en masse for after-work drinks. In the pre-COVID world, our contentment with the physical environment was simply determined by the quality of our office fit-out and breakout areas.
And then came COVID. Millions of people worked from home. Everyone struggled for a while to work out the new social norms of remote working and Zoom meetings. Video on or off? Work attire or t-shirt? Who speaks first? Our physical environment became suddenly less important as pets and children invaded our workplaces, and we all just “made do”. However, in the latter half of 2020, whether we returned to the office or continued working from home, our physical work environment became a stronger talking point than ever before.
Community and belonging in the COVID-safe office
For staff working in the office, the necessary changes in the physical environment have had a big impact on community and belonging. Working safely in a COVID-safe environment often involves physical distancing. When distancing is not practicable due to the nature of the work, mask-wearing might be necessary. This has led to barriers to community and belonging. For example:
- People raise their voices to communicate.
- Small talk and private conversations are difficult from 1.5 metres away or when wearing masks.
- Subtle facial expressions are missed.
- Etiquette and safety make team meetings feel more formal, less fun.
- It can be uncomfortable asking others to observe social distancing.
- The use of break out areas may be restricted.
Creating a safe physical environment at work
The outdoor risk is lower than inside so expanding outdoor interaction is a great way to regenerate the workplace community. Look at how you can adapt your workplace design and the physical environment to make the most of outdoor spaces. Courtyards, rooftops and balconies all provide safer ways to mingle at work. People will feel more comfortable in this lower risk environment, which will help their sense of community.
Reconfiguring the office fit-out with more space between workstations will help workers to feel more relaxed about their physical environment. Where space is restricted, acrylic dividers and screens enable safer and easier discussions.
Communication is vital. If everybody understands the guidelines, there need not be awkward requests to socially distance. Reminding people that everyone is in this situation together can also help cohesion and a sense of community.
Community and belonging while working from home
f you have a team working from home, the physical environment is more challenging. Education on ergonomic working and providing the best technology will help productivity and well-being. However, to promote a better sense of community and belonging for home based employees, workplace solutions around the non-physical environment will be most beneficial; for example, staff online trivia sessions, online group exercise sessions or a remote happy hour!
Technology also provides the means to bring the team together both at home and in the workplace. Create collaboration and connection opportunities for both groups equally so they feel at one with their workplace wherever they are physically located on any given day.
Please call Evoke Projects on 1300 720 692 to find out more about workplace designs that support community and belonging.