A year has passed since COVID-19 turned our personal and professional lives upside down. There are almost infinite ways in which to reflect on this milestone: how different countries handled the spread of the virus, how families coped with remote learning, how many memorable moments we missed because we didn’t travel or attend graduations or weddings, and how many memories we created simply by staying at home. But one way to reflect on this past year is how companies and employees have changed their expectations for where and how people work.
Very suddenly in March 2020, COVID-19 forced most employees to work remotely—at least at companies whose operations allowed it. Companies had to figure out quickly how to enable employees to work from home—especially organizations who had not previously established a remote-working policy. Different employees likely had very disparate reactions to working from home, depending on whether they had previously been accustomed to it, had elders or children who required care or home schooling, and so on. Most companies likely assumed that this was temporary—only to realize by late spring that it wasn’t. As the initial, triage phase of remote working plateaued and operations within companies stabilized, many companies realized that they should use this situation as an opportunity to rethink the future of work for all their employees.
In this article, I’ll share how the organization for which I work approached this problem and discovered that an employee-centered vision could drive workplace-transformation decisions for diverse corporate departments, including Information Technology (IT), Human Resources (HR), and Facilities.
Winter 2020: Triage
In early February 2020, my company, an IT services consultancy, stopped all international travel—requiring approval from senior leadership for any necessary exceptions. By late February, the company had stopped all domestic travel as well. In early March, management began communicating to employees who worked in the office that they should prepare to begin working from home by mid-March. They encouraged employees to bring anything they needed to be productive at home from their office space.
I had already been working remotely full time for years, so the office closure had no impact on my daily work life. However, having my children at home and their need for remote learning certainly impacted my daily routine and work schedule. I needed to consider my kids’ school schedule when scheduling work meetings or setting expectations for when people could expect presentations and deliverables from me.
While I don’t want to speak for all my coworkers, I don’t believe anyone thought, at that time, the office closure would last more than a couple of months. Most employees probably thought, Well, by late spring or early summer, I’ll be back in the office. Those initial months were really a triage phase, during which employees adapted quickly to remote work, made urgent requests to IT to resolve any issues they encountered, or spoke with their manager to address the short-term project impacts of managing home schooling or coping with other personal challenges.
Spring 2020: Stabilization
Throughout April and May, employees adjusted to this new normal of remote work. Then management began pivoting from triage mode to stabilization. People knew then that this new way of working wasn’t a short-term fix. Circumstances compelled leadership to figure out not only how to make remote work more comfortable for everyone but also how to ensure employees’ physical and mental well-being. They conducted more frequent town halls, surveyed employees, and launched wellness initiatives such as yoga, mindfulness, and cooking classes.
Even though survey results indicated that most employees were managing working at home well and were able to be productive, using Zoom and Teams as the new ways of conducting meetings was the biggest adjustment for employees who were accustomed to collaborating in person. Plus, distractions from children or pets made adjusting to meeting online even more difficult. Therefore, leadership decided to address these challenges by launching a campaign that communicated: your home family is part of the corporate family. They encouraged employees not to feel embarrassed if their children interrupted them because of a virtual-learning issue or their dogs were barking in the background. At a time when employees were experiencing obvious anxiety about the future, this early intervention by leadership and their clear empathy for employees really helped the company overall. We just took a breath and adjusted to this new way of working.
Summer 2020: Transformation Strategy
Over the summer, employees began to master working from home. The need to multitask because of helping with remote learning eased up and, overall, people became comfortable with collaboration technologies and remote working. At that time, management was able to take a step back, reflect on the future of work at the company, and ultimately, plan how the organization should transform by adopting new approaches regarding where and how people do their work. Leaders wanted to understand how they could make remote working more permanent and consider how physical office spaces factored into that vision. Management sought the expertise of our Customer Experience practice, which I helped lead, to ensure that they made any decisions in an employee-focused way.
Making Working from Home a Permanent Solution
One of the first activities through which our team helped management was defining what problem statements the team wanted to address. Our first goal was to enable a permanent, productive, work-from-home approach for the majority of employees. Up until this point, enabling employees to work from home had been a technology problem: do people have access to the systems and applications they need to be productive at home? While technology policy and ensuring that employees have the tools necessary to do their job at home is critical, a true work-from-home strategy must be broader. For example, over the years, many managers had likely become accustomed to seeing their team come into the office by a certain time, take a lunch break, then leave the office at a certain time. The move to remote work flipped those expectations upside down. Successful employee performance doesn’t require that employees be sitting in a cube for a certain number of hours a day. We needed to shift managers’ expectations: Don’t care where and when people do their work. Instead, care about outcomes and the quality of work. Our cross-functional management team who worked on this transformation initiative took ownership of the next steps, relating to human resources and performance management, IT policy, culture and wellness, and communications.
Understanding Workplace Usage
While we knew that office workspaces weren’t going completely away, we needed to understand what purpose they should serve if the majority of our employees would be working from home long term. Therefore, our next goal was to create an office experience that supports and complements working from home. So management began the exercise of looking at historical office-space usage versus overall capacity—for example, how many employees had actually come into the office regularly.
They also considered the various job functions throughout the company, then evaluated what types of jobs people would most likely be successful in doing from home. They based these decisions on common knowledge about specific types of jobs, initial surveys, and manager feedback on which employees required a work-from-anywhere approach—for example, sales and consultants—and which would require the use of an office space—for example, call-center agents. This exercise was essentially a high-level persona activity, allowing us to be smarter and more employee centered about office usage. It also enabled management to understand how much office space was really necessary.
Designing the Workplace of the Future
For the offices that would remain, we began the process of defining how they should look. We first needed to understand why employees would use an office space versus working from home. We launched a company-wide survey to understand their office usage—for example, how often they would use an office space and for what types of work activities and what challenges working from home would pose that an office space could help address. Some of our findings from this survey include the following:
People are productive working from home doing individual work tasks, so we did not see the need for office space for these types of work activities.
Space in which to enable effective collaboration and group activities was essential.
People would require limited-use office space on an as-necessary basis versus working in the office on a prescribed schedule or in a more permanent workspace.
Therefore, we knew that our strategy for the workplace of the future would need to focus on enabling collaboration and group activities and de-emphasize individual work.
Fall 2020: Implementation
By the fall of 2020, our management team was ready to execute our workplace-transformation strategy, which manifested itself in several ways:
Human Resources updated their policies to address the flexible working approach, including providing vouchers for employees who require special ergonomic chairs or other home-office needs.
The Performance Management group added training modules for managers who needed help navigating this new way of working.
IT updated their guidelines for system access and device and hardware requests to accommodate employees working from home.
Facilities began the process of strategically closing offices, while Communications emailed this information to employees.
Most exciting was the decision to begin a pilot workplace-redesign project. We selected an existing office that we weren’t planning to close as the target for our redesign, then sent out RFPs (Requests for Proposals) to solicit proposals from several design firms. This process was fascinating for a few reasons.
Working as a consultant, I’m used to being on the partner side of an RFP, but not the client side. So the experience of drafting an RFP, reviewing proposal responses, listening to oral presentations, and deciding on our final partner was slightly surreal for me.
While we wanted to give some direction to our potential partners, relating to our strategy and design considerations, we also wanted to get their point of view, as the experts on the design of workplaces. As a consultant, it can be frustrating when you receive an RFP that lacks details. But, after having been on the other side of this process, I now understand why clients do this. They want to see how a potential partner thinks, based on their experiences in similar client situations, without being affected by the client’s opinions.
The synergies between the design of physical spaces and service design were also fascinating. Over the years, I’ve written a lot about the relationship between the two, and the experience I had working with architecture and interior-design firms validated this connection. The partner we selected had conducted a discovery exercise and asked questions that enabled them to understand who our employees are, their use cases for the office space, and how adaptable the organization is to change. We shared the results of our research, while they shared studies they had done on the employee experience and the workplace transformation. They led some interactive workshops to help us understand their future-state vision for the space and identify barriers to change. Then they used the resulting insights and their best practices from similar workplace engagements to inform their design and draft a blueprint for the space. Thus, their process was not dissimilar to that of experience and service designers.
One interesting point of tension that arose during the design process was deciding how many individual, hotel-like spaces there should be. These are tiny rooms, usually with a small table, chair, phone, and door. I argued these spaces would be important for employees making client calls or requiring some decompression time between group meetings or collaboration sessions. But our Facilities group argued that these were the least-used spaces at our headquarters. I explained that the purpose of these two types of spaces would be completely different. At our headquarters, workspaces were for full-day, full-week use, and most employees had a dedicated cube or office space. In our newly designed office, there would be no dedicated spaces for employees. Therefore, we needed to accommodate employees’ more transient needs.
Short-term Change, Long-term Impacts
I often find myself explaining to colleagues and clients who are not familiar with user experience or customer experience that, as designers, we don’t simply give people what they want. We use our methods and expertise to uncover what they need.
My company’s transformation efforts really put this approach to the test. While this initiative was generally a positive, successful effort, it wasn’t without challenges. Notably, many employees wanted to return to the way things had been, so they struggled with leadership’s decision to close or redesign their office. Many were not happy that they were going to lose a permanent workspace—especially those who had previously had a private office.
The success of our initiative relied on strategic change management and effective communication—involving key leadership stakeholders in discussions early and often. I’m sure some employees still struggle with remote work and wish they could go back to the way they worked before, and I have great empathy for those employees. Change is hard. But I believe that organizations who opportunistically took advantage of this time to define a new way of working will ultimately have a more agile workforce, achieve greater collaboration across disparate groups, and provide an improved employee experience.
Director of Strategy & Experience Design at NTT Data
Woodbridge, New Jersey, USA
Laura’s 10 years of experience have focused on representing the human element in any interaction with a brand through actionable, business-impacting insight gathering and design. At NTT Data, Laura leads cross-channel experience design strategy engagements for clients. Clients have included AstraZeneca, Hachette Book Group, GlaxoSmithKline, Prostate Cancer Foundation, Honeywell, and the NBA. In addition to her Service Design column for UXmatters, Laura has written articles for the Service Design Network’s Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design, User Experience Magazine, Communication Arts, and Johnny Holland. She has presented on service design at SDN’s Global Service Design Conference, the Usability Professionals’ Association International Conference, IxDA New York City, and IxDA New Jersey. Read More