Since shelter-in-place orders came into effect due to COVID-19 in March, the United States’ workforce has shifted dramatically to remote work — from 7% pre-pandemic to nearly two-thirds of workers now. With modern technological tools and infrastructure, companies have largely been able to keep their teams working and to maintain operations. But the sudden transition from physically centralized to distributed teams hasn’t been without challenge, from shifts in communication styles to distractions in the home.
What does a team’s workspace have to do with performance? And how can leaders incorporate these principles into their planning during and after COVID-19?
As organizations navigate the current evolving landscape and strategize for the longer term, the question of where to locate teams is significant. Here we will explore how quality work gets accomplished in virtual versus in-person settings, highlighting some of the key performance areas for leaders to consider.
Weighing the benefits of remote work vs. co-location
During COVID-19, leaders have been tasked with prioritizing safety and balancing individual and team needs and preferences, all while keeping operations running as effectively as possible.
For companies that have replaced co-location (working in the same physical space) to telework (working remotely), this shift demonstrates agility and adaptability, two qualities that ultimately make your organization stronger. The past several months have proven successful enough for some employers that telework will become a more standard option moving forward. A handful of high-profile companies, including Twitter and Shopify, have announced they will allow employees to work from home indefinitely.
Even more companies are looking at giving employees a hybrid option: a mix of some days in the office and some days at home each week. PwC reports 39% of companies, before shelter-in-place, allowing their employees to work from home at least one day a week, versus a projected 55% granting this same flexibility after the pandemic. The hybrid option reflects what many workers want: As many as 83% of workers expressed the desire to be able to work from home at least one day a week, according to Global Workplace Analytics.
The current pandemic has pushed many organizations who had previously resisted telework to experiment with and adapt to it. However, as companies move from the emergency phase of reacting to COVID-19 to longer term planning, it’s worth understanding the connection between where employees work and how they perform.
“The design of a workspace is fundamental in making it productive, innovative, and collaborative,” says Sidi Gomes, Principal Designer at CIC. “To achieve these goals at the highest levels, one needs to create spaces that make you want to spend a lot of time in them, where your mind isn’t worried about satisfying basic human needs, and where you can focus on being productive.”
Factors like temperature, proper ventilation, and natural light all factor into how enjoyable and healthy a space is for its users.
There’s a human factor, too. “We believe in creating spaces that allow you to build trust with your teammates, which then allows for good collaboration to take place,” Gomes says.
Below, we’ll explore more deeply the effect of one’s workspace on these three realms of performance:
Innovation and creative thinking
How workspace impacts productivity
Simply put, your physical environment impacts your productivity. How focused your brain can be depends on what other demands are made of your brain at the same time — whether due to external stimuli, your physical comfort, or how many tasks you’re trying to tackle in a given time frame.
What does this mean for working from home versus working in a shared office?
It’s important to acknowledge that the ideal conditions for productivity aren’t identical for everyone, and recent data on telework during COVID-19 shows just that. According to PwC, 28% of employees reported feeling less productive while working during shelter from home, while 29% of employees said they were more productive under these conditions.
(Interestingly, in this report, employers gave a different picture of their workers’ experiences: Employers reported that 44% of employees were more productive from home. There are a few potential takeaways from these disparate perspectives. First, what criteria are company leaders using to assess employees’ productivity? Are these criteria data-driven? Second, are leaders asking employees directly about their experiences, and, if so, are they listening and incorporating these voices into their decision-making?)
There are several factors that can account for one’s change in productivity as their workspace changes. For starters, being at home might introduce a new set of distractions: kids in the home, other family members working in the same space, or the loss of psychological separation between work and not work. At the office, your physical space is full of visual and other sensory cues that you associate with work. It can be harder to get in the work mindset in the absence of those work-associated cues and, simultaneously, in the presence of rest-associated cues of the home.
Infrastructural elements impact productivity, too — from lighting and design to ease of use and comfortability of furniture. One research paper published by the American Psychological Association in 2014 stated that empty, blank-walled offices are “the most toxic space for people to work in.” The study revealed that employees were 15% more productive and their memory retention improved when working in spaces with plants. Creative workspaces, often found at coworking centers or innovation-focused companies, are often designed with these principles in mind, incorporating people-friendly features such as bright or soothing colors, plants, natural materials, and a variety of seating options.
How workspace impacts innovation & creative thinking
Have you ever been asked to sit down and think of a creative idea — an invention, a solution to a company problem — and drawn a blank, only to walk out of the room and suddenly experience a surge of thoughts? There are scientific reasons for this phenomenon.
One reason traces back to the connection between the motor and cognitive functions of the human brain. As Harvard Medical School professor John Ratey explains in his book A User’s Guide to the Brain, you utilize the very same neural circuits in planning a mental act as in planning a physical act. Movement and thinking go hand in hand.
Researchers have collectively produced a large body of work positively linking physical movement with creative thinking specifically. Among these is a 2014 paper by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz at Stanford University, which investigated how the simple act of walking stimulates creative thinking. While walking, study participants exhibited higher novel idea generation than when they were sitting, and some of their experiments showed that this heightened creativity extended past the walk to when individuals were sitting again. The investigators’ conclusion? “When there is a premium on generating new ideas in the workday, it should be beneficial to incorporate walks.”
Workspaces that prompt people to move throughout them during the day due to their inherent layout — from desk to conference room to kitchen to desk to phone booth to the coffee shop down the street — have the built-in benefit of encouraging those short walk breaks that tangibly impact employees’ thinking. Often, working from home decreases some of this inevitable movement simply due to smaller and less varied layouts.
The diversity of kinds of spaces within a larger workspace has a measurable impact as well. Through the Well Living Lab, a collaboration between Delos and Mayo Clinic, researchers identified eight zones of an ideal office, each with a unique purpose for the people working there. These zones include spaces for confidential talk, conferencing, mind and body reactivation, and open spaces that promote collaborative idea generation, among others. Each type of space is designed accordingly.
Workspaces that are designed for a variety of uses result in employees changing their physical environments throughout the day. Turns out that changes in scenery can, too, benefit innovative thinking. University of California professor Kimberly Elsbach, who studies workplace psychology, has researched the impacts of one’s physical environment on creativity. “We know that creativity and innovation happen when people change their environment, and especially when they expose themselves to a nature-like environment,” she told NPR.
In the video below, you can see an example of varied workspaces at CIC Miami.