As the Covid-19 crisis enters its third year and the Omicron variant surges, organizations around the world are contemplating how, when, and even if to have their knowledge workers resume regular in-office hours. And they do so at a time when the views and priorities of their employees have shifted. A recent McKinsey study showed that well-being, flexibility, and work-life balance are top of mind. A survey Microsoft conducted last year indicated that 41% of the global workforce would consider switching jobs in the next year, with 55% noting that work environment would play a role in their decisions.
Our firm was put in a unusual position in 2020: we were hired to design the headquarters of the Korean fintech company Hana Bank during the very period when the pandemic was forcing business leaders to rethink the purpose of the office. But the process — and the resulting building — wasn’t a reaction to Covid. Rather, the crisis highlighted and accelerated trends that had been bubbling under the surface for years, including an increased focus on employee mental and physical health, the needs of a multi-generational workforce, greater emphasis on corporate purpose, and the shift to remote work.
The pandemic raised the stakes for companies looking to retain top-tier employees and build thriving cultures. Here are some of the principles we employed and lessons we took away from the Hana Bank project as well as our recommendations for how organizations can implement both small and large-scale changes in enticing people to return to in-person work.
Ask what the space is for — and name it accordingly
It might sound simple, but nomenclature matters. For knowledge workers, the office shouldn’t be a place to tackle a to-do list. It’s a place for collaboration, creativity, and learning, where an employee feels nurtured and a sense of belonging. Names of buildings, floors, areas, or rooms should reflect this intent. Terms like “learning center” or “innovation space” communicate the new perspective, shape design changes, attract talent, and influence behavior.
Hana Bank calls its new HQ “Mindmark” to acknowledge the creative work happening inside. Cutting-edge tech companies like Facebook and Google have “campuses” for the same reason; they want their engineers to experiment just as they did when they were students. Even UPS recently renamed its corporate headquarters building — from the Plaza to Casey Hall — as CEO Carol Tome recounts in this HBR article to emphasize a more warm, inviting, collaborative environment.
Listen to what your employees want and need
Think of Covid as a catalyst to talk about what the best employees want from their workplaces, even if you can’t execute on every idea. For most organizations, reverting to the status quo won’t be an option. People will expect more flexibility, better technology, and incentives to come to the office, and companies must heed that call.
Salesforce, for example, reduced its desk space by 40% and embraced a floor plan that features more team-focused spaces that encourage a balance of individual and collaborative work. The Hana Bank HQ caters to various modes of working, including the kind of heads-down individual work that happens at a desk, flexible seating for when people need a break from their desks, collaborative spaces that encourage focused team interaction, and lounges for socializing. This combination of experiences encourages worker agency while still providing structure.
Experiment within your own organization
Some companies will create a new headquarters post-pandemic. But most can design a more thoughtful office environment. To start exploring ideas for your own organization, our recommendation is to start small. Repurpose conference rooms, invest in a new teaming table, or refurbish a floor instead of an entire building. You might also incorporate multimedia technology to bring people together and breathe new life into your office.
WarnerMedia’s new headquarters features an immersive media experience that incorporates content from the company’s vast universe of networks to create a sense of brand identity and community. Many companies have invested in smart hybrid meeting technology as well. Look also for multi-use opportunities. For example, the circuitous indoor/outdoor ramps that stretch from the bottom to the top of the Hana Bank building can be used for one-on-one walking meetings, individual exercise, or social breaks in nature and fresh air. Finally, be sure to focus on safety and sustainability by following healthy building guidelines.
Activate partnerships based on insights
For younger knowledge workers, the office is as much a place to learn and socialize as it is a place to meet deadlines. Nearly 60% of Millennials report that opportunities to discover new insights are extremely important to them when applying for a job, and they may also stay longer at a company if they get involved in social causes. Smart companies make this happen by partnering with outside organizations to provide such programming.
Activities like yoga or meditation, community service, or continuing education are a good place to start. Even small initiatives like a hanging work from local or student artists in rotation, canned food drives in the lobby, or pop-up food trucks outside can fuel employees’ sense of purpose. Gravity — a mixed-use development in Columbus, Ohio, that houses a large-scale creative office building in addition to residences — employs a full-time amenities curator to seek out partners and programs that feed curiosity and build community.
The workplace trends that accelerated and employee preferences that crystallized during the pandemic aren’t going away. We urge corporations to use this moment to think about how they can improve work environments in a way that boosts employee engagement and well-being, there by attendance, increasing retention, and attracting new talent. Now is the time to act.