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The latest virus forecast: The US has had a 19% decrease from two weeks earlier, averaging about 56,000 new cases per day. The US has administered over 100 million vaccine doses, with about 14% of the adult population fully vaccinated and roughly an equivalent percentage having received one dose. President Biden wants all adults to be eligible for vaccines by May 1, and sees a return to normal starting by this summer. (Some experts say there are still too many variables to predict the future of Covid.)
The business impact: CEO confidence in business conditions remains high, with 64% saying they will increase hiring in the next 12 months. Chief human resources officers are even more confident than CEOs, and chief financial officers are less optimistic than the two other groups. Hotel occupancy rates are approaching 50%, up from a low of 22% last April.
Focus on the Design of Hybrid Workplaces
It’s increasingly clear that most businesses will be able to safely return to their workplaces by the end of the summer. But how those offices should be configured, given flexible and hybrid work approaches, still largely lacks definition.
To understand what research tells us about how to best design workplaces for hybrid organizations, I spoke with Anne-Laure Fayard, associate professor of innovation, design and organizational studies at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Fayard, who researches collaboration at work, recently coauthored a Harvard Business Review article titled “Designing the Hybrid Office.” Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:
What are some of the best practices from your research for hybrid work?
People are all trying different things. But if you get people to come back in the office, if it’s just to squeeze in all your meetings and do heads-down work during these two days that you’re in the office, you’re missing the informal and connective types of work that people seem to be missing when they say they want to go back to the office. You want to make it clear that it’s not necessarily for formal meetings, because we might be able to do a lot of the formal meetings by Zoom. Encourage people to realize that you might be in the office and chatting with people half of the day—but in fact that’s rebuilding trust, understanding, learning how to do things that you didn’t know, getting a sense of who is doing what.
The risk is people are going to think, I have to be in the office because then I will look like I’m working or I might see the senior management. One of the co-founders of Quora was saying that he makes sure the whole leadership is not going more than once a month so that people don’t feel like they have to.
The hybrid office forces us to recognize the diversity of needs of people, whether it’s personality needs—you might want to be with people to feel like you’re working—but also personal needs. You might not have the space, or you have too many people in your apartment, or all these things. If hybrid is hybrid, it should be a highly flexible hybrid to a certain extent, or maybe a more human-centered hybrid.
Also, how do you get people to mingle? Because if you design hybrid and say, ‘Oh, it’s only going to be people who work on a specific project,’ you’re missing one piece of going to the office, which is you might meet someone who is not working on your project and learn something from them. It’s like this company we mentioned where they split the week half and half, and people never met. So you end up with two companies in parallel. And you lose the serendipity and the overlapping.
So how do you think about that? One thing that people are looking at is saying that everybody has to be there on Tuesday or Wednesday, for example. There are some people who look at more complex time schedules, either with Excel spreadsheets or more AI-based technology. That’s a work-in-progress, but it’s important to keep that in mind and to realize that you might have to iterate and learn. That’s what organizational culture is always about. It’s hopefully a good opportunity for organizations to reset things mindfully.
Some companies are using technology to analyze the connections between people and the use of space. Does that seem like it’s helpful?
It seems like the people who are using it find it kind of useful. Gensler, the architecture firm, has their own types of technology to map out things. It’s a tool to collect the data; it gives you more data, but it depends on what kind of questions you’re asking and then how you interpret it.
Should the physical design of offices change for hybrid work?
It depends what kind of office you have. If you had only closed offices or cubicles, yes. If you already have a space that was designed in thinking about collaboration, you might want to add a few more things, but not necessarily that much. In the case of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), for example, they designed an office that aims to create this interconnection and collaboration. So I don’t think they need to redesign their office—they have the right office. It’s more of figuring out how much your current layout supports informal interaction. Salesforce wrote about how they’re rethinking the whole design—it’s quite close to what we were envisioning, with more spaces where people can do more informal work and chat, and you still want to have a few places where people can still take a phone call or do heads-down work.
In previous research we were looking at spaces. There are three dimensions that lead to collaboration in spaces. In the physical space, it’s the balance between privacy and what we call propinquity, which is basically traffic and openness. You want to have a space where people can meet and see each other, but you also want to have enough privacy so that people can have a conversation. What’s interesting is that in our studies and in other studies, people found that if you have something that is too open—you had this company that at some point created more of an airport-type space. What they realized is people would meet, but they would just say ‘Hi,’ wave, and that’s it. If they had a conversation, they would go and do it in a more private space.
So it’s about finding this semi-public space, an alcove or think of a booth in a coffee shop where you’re not enclosed completely, but you have some kind of privacy, you can talk like what we’re missing in Zoom. That’s what you might want to think about, places where people can share resources. But it’s not also too weird. Like I have a reason to go to the space and I can meet. So it can be coffee; I studied copier machines because it’s a great place where people can be standing there doing something. Maybe this kind of thing.
You’ve studied collaboration. Is there anything that we’ve learned from this last year, in terms of how people collaborate effectively or not?
For the first time, everybody was distributed to a certain extent, but also distributed as in isolated from each other. It’s not like two offices working together. People were forced to be more transparent, and there’s a lot of coordination work required to be able to make things smooth.
But also if you talk to people, there’s been a lot of thinking about how do we still build a social glue? Whether it’s the icebreaker on Zoom, even if people are Zoom fatigued, there were all these ways. We interviewed Frog Design, which was on Slack, but they had this office manager who kind of became the remote culture. A facilitator trying to create this sense of community. I was talking with them and they were wondering how much would go back to in-person and how much would stay remote, or a mix of the two. I think they’re going to keep a hybrid model. So it’s about realizing that we can be creative in terms of finding ways of reconnecting with people.
The last piece is that because everybody was on the same page, it made people realize the difficulties that some of our counterparts who were remote before were facing. Some of the people I talked to were like, ‘I’ll remember.’ Hopefully they will. But it highlighted also all these dynamics that people have talked a lot about before, like time zones and a lot of things that if you’ve worked remote you know. It’s the simple things that create the most problems. And now it became clear for everyone.
You can read a full transcript of our conversation here.
Politico recently asked architects and workplace design experts to sketch how they thought post-pandemic workplaces should be configured. Their ideas include approaches such as opening more fully to outdoor space and creating structured spaces for informal interaction. You can see their designs here and here.
Steelcase’s answer to the future of the workplace includes office tents, created by a former REI outdoor gear designer. The idea is to replace the old cubicle with a semi-private tented space. It’s hard to imagine widespread adoption of office tents, but it seems pretty fun.
Content from our partner McKinsey & Company
The pluses of paternity leave. Maternity leave is a benefit many take for granted—but time off for new fathers can also make a big difference for employees and their families. New McKinsey research goes deeper on why it matters and what dads who took leave want their employers to know.
What Else You Need to Know
Even if companies won’t require vaccination, they can still help their employees with it. I’ve written about how some companies are paying staff for the time off needed to get the vaccine. Other initiatives that employers should consider include:
- Helping employees book vaccine appointments. Knowledge of the system and tech savvy help speed up your ability to get an appointment—companies can develop that expertise and assist their staff.
- An extra paid sick day, and flexibility, for employees who get hit hard by vaccine side effects.
Some large companies—including Tyson Foods, Exxon Mobil, and Fidelity Investments—have successfully registered to administer vaccines on-site to their eligible staff. They’re dependent on allocations of doses by state and local governments.
With summer approaching, employers are providing staff with firmer dates for returning to the office. CNN this week told staff that it was targeting an August 1 return for its Atlanta headquarters and September 1 for offices in New York and elsewhere. The company said in a memo that it plans to allow staff who can do their jobs remotely to work out flexible arrangements with their managers, but it is otherwise eschewing an organization-wide policy.
- Mike Bloomberg told Bloomberg employees in a memo last month that he expected them to return to the office once they’re vaccinated. “Any questions? I’m at my desk,” he wrote.
Just 57% of global executives believe their companies will return to normal business operations by the end of the year, with 43% predicting that won’t happen until 2022 or later.
Hybrid workplaces could further penalize women if we don’t get them right. Already more women are working remotely than men. And new research finds that women who work from home at least part-time are 27% less likely to have received a promotion in the prior 12 months than male peers.
- 40% of women say they considered scaling back on their jobs or leaving the workforce altogether during the pandemic. Many cited pressures related to child care.
- Women also have become less confident about asking for raises and promotions amid the pandemic. Only 58% of women said they were at least somewhat comfortable asking for a raise, compared to 74% of men.
The world’s most gender-diverse company according to a new survey is DNB, a Norwegian bank. DNB CEO Kjerstin Braathen told Bloomberg that the key is having good paid parental leave, so female employees aren’t at a disadvantage when they have children.
A majority of people are looking for their company to take a stance on social issues. A new survey indicates that employees are twice as likely to have high job satisfaction if their employer has strongly spoken out on current social and cultural issues.
- Nearly 70% of workers surveyed would consider quitting their job to work for a company with a stronger stance on social issues that matter to them.
- Some high-profile Silicon Valley CEOs this fall had argued that companies shouldn’t be concerned with politics or social issues.
Underperformers are getting the benefit of the doubt, for now. Many managers are reluctant to fire employees for performance reasons because of the difficulty of assessing performance when work is remote. Also they’re aware that staff are experiencing loss and trauma, and juggling family obligations even more than usual.
- Employment lawyers say it can require more documentation to justify firing someone. And it can be easier for an employee to challenge a layoff on the grounds they were retaliated against for dealing with pandemic-related family responsibilities.
- This all points to the need for organizations to figure out better ways to measure performance and provide feedback in remote and hybrid arrangements.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Focus on something else just before you give a big presentation. Research shows that taking your mind off what you’re about to do can actually improve your performance. One cognitive scientist reads Us magazine before she gives a big talk.
- Schedule personal needs on your work calendar. Before your schedule fills up, block out time for exercise, workday meals, and a few 15-minute “breather blocks” daily to regroup between meetings. Even better, block out 60 minutes each week for reading or another continuous learning activity.
- Engage in peer coaching. You can pair up with a colleague and spend a series of 60-minute blocks listening to each other and offering advice. And then you commit to take any actions stemming from the discussion, such as having a tough conversation with another colleague or apologizing for something you’ve done.
- Write job postings as a team. The skills required for most jobs are evolving quickly, and the team that will work with a new employee can have a more accurate sense of what the job entails. So rather than just the hiring manager writing the job posting, or recycling one that’s been used before, it’s a good idea to get input from others.
The pandemic has physically and emotionally changed us, in not so great ways. Over 40% of Americans surveyed reported undesired weight gain since the start of the pandemic. The weight gain averaged 29 pounds for this group, with a median of a 15-pound gain.
- Almost 25% of adults surveyed are drinking more alcohol to cope with pandemic stress, according to the American Psychological Association, which published the findings.
- About one-third of those surveyed said they were sleeping less than they wanted, and one-third said they were sleeping more than they wanted since the pandemic started.
It was a big year for Dungeons & Dragons. Sales of the table-top game increased 33% last year, as fans found extra time during the pandemic to play and teach friends. Players used videoconferencing and online services such as Roll20 or D&D Beyond to be able to play while distanced. Originally published in 1974, D&D requires players to create characters and undertake fantastical quests together. My family got hooked on after-dinner Boggle during the pandemic—a lower-commitment option, if you’re looking for one.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.