Will COVID-19 forever change how and where we work?
That question fueled research from communications firm Greentarget in partnership with GreenHouse::Innovation and in collaboration with Learn Adapt Build (LAB)/Amsterdam. Our efforts to explore the future of work, wellness and space actually began late last year in the wake of a historic economic expansion. But when COVID-19 upended workplaces in March, it became clear that COVID-19’s disruption was the story — and that working life was about to indelibly change.
But it also became clear that the change didn’t have to be all bad and that the pandemic provided a rare opportunity to rethink decades-old norms that might have outlived their usefulness. Dozens of experts in health care, commercial real estate, design, innovation and more provided us important learnings for business decision-makers — many of whom are faced with choices they probably couldn’t have imagined seven months ago.
As those executives grapple with what to do next, here are some pieces of advice derived from them.
- Focus on Mental Wellness
Even before the pandemic, employees were stressed. The World Health Organization reported in 2019 that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion a year and that every dollar invested in treatment for common mental disorders returns $4 in improved health and productivity.
The pandemic and a series of other stressors this year — from widespread racial tensions, to environmental disasters, to a highly charged political climate — will only make that worse, so employers would be wise to invest in mental wellness programs, experts said. And those programs should focus on de-stigmatization, stress coaching and be designed to help employees succeed, not just survive.
“We're kind of in this terrifying space that could either paralyze us or it could be seen as an opportunity,” said M. Todd Puckett, founder of Skycrest, which provides performance and life enhancement services to executives and other high-performing businesspeople. “I truly think it's about having a team of people. It’s not just going to the doctor. Maybe you go to the doctor, your massage therapist, your yoga person, your regular therapist or a strategist — and you go to all of these different people in one space.”
And that space, Puckett said, could easily be the workplace.
- Rethink the Office
While some offices have reopened or partially reopened in recent months, questions abound about creating safe and functioning communal workspaces, especially with remote work likely a big part of companies’ futures. But herein lies an opportunity, experts said.
“At no other time in history would this exploration of work even have been possible,” said Nicholas White, managing director of Learn Adapt Build (LAB)/Amsterdam. “Through collaborative, office and personal technologies, we are empowered to work differently, and we are seeing encouraging data and trends that encourage exploring these alternative ways of working.”
Some parts of the office — communal dishes, coffeemakers, reusable water bottles — are probably gone, at least until a vaccine is developed. But companies must plan strategically if they want to maintain the biggest reason for having offices in the first place — collaboration. There’s no silver bullet on this one, but creating collaborative spaces that safely accommodate people (perhaps outdoors) and investing in technology that allows strong participation by contributors even if they’re joining from afar are a couple places to start.
- Effectively Manage Virtual Space
An open question is whether employers will look to the past several months as reason to allow employees to work remotely once the pandemic has passed. Whether that happens or not, the likely continuing prevalence of remote work, even in the short term, means companies should focus on better managing their employees’ virtual workspaces.
That doesn’t mean closer scrutiny of employees’ actions, but it does mean not overscheduling remote meetings just because it’s relatively easy. It also means being cognizant that since March, employees have been working longer days; 48.5 minutes per day more, according to one study. Leaders also need to understand that even personality types who would seem to do well in remote conditions (i.e., introverts) might be self-isolating more, which can lead to other problems down the road.
More broadly, the home office is evolving. And employers need to follow suit and drop some of their longstanding, often rigid rules governing the workspace.
“People were asking to take their chairs home and they were not allowed — it’s a chair, not a NASA secret,” said Tanarra Schneider, managing director, design at Accenture Interactive/Fjord. “Companies have shifted from saying we should never work from home to doing it because of COVID, but there has not been an effort to truly listen and ensure that employees are set up for success.”
- Focus on Preventative Wellness
Roughly 90% of the $3.5 trillion the United States spends each year on health care goes to chronic and mental-health conditions, according to the CDC. It’s time for corporate America to adopt new thinking that moves toward holistic, preventative, value-based care.
There are some major investments backing that thinking; VillageMD recently announced a $1 billion investment from Walgreens Boots Alliance to open up to 700 physician-staffed clinics inside Walgreens drugstores. But for executives running offices and looking at future office space, proximity to medical care is important. A big part of that might be looking at what is near offices in the evolving area of “medtail,” in which medical services move into empty retail space.
“There’s a real opportunity for medical, commercial real estate and wellness to come together,” said Jack Siragusa, first vice president of the CBRE Retail Advisory Group in Chicago.
- Invest in the Place Where You Work
Business leaders obviously have a lot on their minds, so here’s one more thing: They should rethink how they help their local communities. Some experts believe this means a new approach to corporate philanthropy, such as Salesforce’s recent commitment of $18 million for schools in the Bay Area.
In the past, corporate dollars usually focused on things like helping at-risk youth. But with local government revenue in free fall, business leaders who rely on their hometowns as talent hubs might try to follow Salesforce’s lead, experts said. But government officials must also be more collaborative with business leaders and get past what has been a transactional relationship. That’s the best way to avoid empty downtowns and populations fleeing cities, said Paul O’Connor, an urban strategist.
O’Connor, like many of the experts we spoke to, didn’t pull punches about the gravity of this moment, the significance of the choices that must be made about the importance of not just emerging from COVID-19 but emerging better.
“It’s renaissance,” O’Connor said, “or ruin.”
About the Author
Paul Wilson is a senior editor on Greentarget’s content team.
Betsy Hoag is the director of research and planning at Greentarget.