Deep Dive: How the future of work is being shaped by empathy, ergonomics, mental and physical health and inclusion

COVID-19 won’t hang around forever, but the pandemic’s impact on workplaces around the world will have repercussions that shape the way we work for years to come. Leaders are thinking deeply about the future of work and coming to terms with the fact that there is no going back to the way things were.

The pandemic has transformed our understanding of the way work is organized, where it is done, when and by whom, how we communicate, meet and collaborate, the tools we use to do all this, how work relates to our personal lives and so much more. And though the whole experience has been exhausting, stressful and sometimes traumatic, there have also been positives. Now, companies are leaning on those benefits to chart a path towards a better workplace for the post-pandemic era and beyond.

Digiday’s Deep Dive is a collection of videos and key takeaways from our Future of Work Forum that will provide valuable testimonials and insights from executives from a range of industries for navigating the path towards a high functioning distributed workforce, avoiding employee burnout, the next phase of office culture, and more. Below you’ll find key takeaways, quotes and stats, as well as videos from our recent Future of Work Forum.

The New Workplace

The key to understanding the future of work is that it will be centered around a distributed workforce. The 20th century model of commuting to the office for the Monday to Friday nine-till-five is over. Demanding that talented prospective hires move to the big city to be close to the office? That might be over too. The future workforce will be a collection of talents spread across cities, the country or even the world. They may spend some time in the office, but only for specific reasons — important meetings, collaborative activities that benefit from face-to-face interaction, and so on. 

That’s going to change the ways teams work, how hiring is done and the design of the office space itself. “The notion that everyone comes to the office every day, sits down at a desk whether they collaborate with people or not, does their work, gets up and grabs lunch, goes back to their desk and continues on until they end up leaving … I think those days are gone,” said Andrew Bailey, North America CEO of The&Partnership. “I think collaboration is going to be a real feature of how we use the space and the office going forward.”

The notion that everyone comes to the office every day, sits down at a desk whether they collaborate with people or not, does their work, gets up and grabs lunch … those days are gone.
Andrew Bailey, North America CEO of The&Partnership

Companies are also taking a more active role in prioritizing employees’ physical and mental health. That means stepping up the availability of scheduled workouts or mental health resources, and making sure these are accessible remotely as well as in-office. As work moves out of the office, leaders have to take an interest in supporting employees’ remote work environments. Part of that is ensuring that work is not a never-ending virtual meeting and finding the appropriate balance to make sure screen time doesn’t become burdensome.

Diversity and inclusion has been on every leader’s mind this year, but companies can’t rest on their laurels, not least when a major change in the way teams work is underway. D&I teams can expect new challenges and leaders need to be there to support them through the changes to come.

These transitions are not going to happen by themselves, and companies can’t just assume that the current pandemic mode they are operating in is an acceptable design for a post-pandemic distributed workforce. The year ahead demands companies be proactive in developing a blueprint for how they will evolve into truly distributed workplaces, anticipating the challenges that will be thrown up and building safety nets for when things don’t go fully according to plan.

And none of this means it’s time to abandon the physical office. Tempting as it may be to save money on rent, the office will remain an indispensable space for many companies. Over-correcting will only invite new headaches, so companies need to focus on finding the balance as they sketch out their plan for the future.

“The notion of distributed work is not new. The pandemic has accelerated the adoption of it, and people can be productive working elsewhere, but it’s important to remember that offices can still provide value for us as we think about the on-demand resources for individuals and teams that offices can provide,” said Debbie Propst, President of Herman Miller Retail “The offices of the future will need to build on the culture and community, and support individual focus and facilitate really intensive teamwork.”

Here is what you need to know

01
Employees are going to work from home and from the office for the long-term – it’s not going to be one or the other

Eight months into the pandemic, companies are under no illusions that they are dealing with a temporary situation. Many have adapted to new ways of doing business and organizing their workforce, and others are still getting up to speed, but few expect a full return to the way things were pre-pandemic.

That means organizations have to embrace distributed teams and remote work as a norm. That doesn’t mean remote work will be the default or the only way of working, but it will be an option, co-existing alongside in-office work. The office will still exist, but offices will start to look different as they are retooled to address the new reality. Companies have to carefully navigate this shift, making sure to build appropriate support systems and safety nets to make sure that neither productivity nor employee wellbeing suffers.

Propst said that pre-pandemic, they found that 65 percent of their employees went into the office five days a week, but an April survey revealed that the same percentage of employees preferred to come in just two to four days a week.

“It’s really important to me as a retail leader that we don’t sit behind our screens all day in the safe haven of our homes when we have our retail staff out there on the forefront with our customers all day,” Propst said. “So getting back into the office in a safe and productive way has really been a priority for me, which is why we’re pushing forward with this cooperative concept and a more perpetual distributed work model.”

  • A revolution in hiring practices is necessary to address this new reality Embracing a distributed workforce means recognizing that the best person for the job may not be in the same city, state or even country as the company office. The pandemic first saw employees work from home, but then many workers realized they could work from wherever they wanted to be — whether that meant closer to family, nature or from the beach. The balance of power has tilted away from the employer in this regard, and hiring practices and on-boarding policies have to change to accommodate the shift.

“We’re going to have to find new ways, as we’ve seen for the past seven months of digital engagement with talent, to ensure that we’re always getting best in class talent, but also being flexible and giving them the autonomy to be able to do things like this and work virtually,” said Aisha Losche, vp of Talent Engagement & Inclusion at Publicis Groupe. “It’s going to be a balance, but it’s definitely broken a barrier that we hadn’t tested before, but now we’ve seen that it can work very well.”

  • The physical office needs to be a dynamic environment. As more team members spend less time in the office, companies are rethinking the purpose of the office space. That’s going to lead to big changes in the ways offices are designed, furnished and the functions they serve in the life of the business.
Bottom Line

Companies need to be agile in creating both remote and in person work environments that evolve with business needs and reflect the work-from-home trend long term. It’s not a question of a trade-off between productivity and employee engagement and wellbeing — rather, businesses have to invest in solutions that bring these factors into alignment to ensure a direct correlation between employee comfort and happiness and productivity.

Propst said businesses should think of their office not as a cost center, but as a positive generator of value, a “competitive differentiator that encourages collaboration and can be the cultural hub of a community.” Herman Miller is piloting a new cooperative space that will serve as a safe destination for collaboration activities that are currently being carried out from home.

“Place, technology, and culture have to come together to shape how employees interact with each other, and our workplace should reflect and stretch the way in which people actually work,” Propst said.

  • Workplaces should play a role in supporting their employees’ home office environment. With more people working from home, questions arise about whose responsibility it is to provide a comfortable environment that is conducive to getting things done. Some companies are adopting a proactive approach, recognizing that a bad work environment at home is just as bad for business as a chaotic workspace.

Nutrafol CEO Giorgos Tsetis is one leader who has invested in giving employees the resources to upgrade their home office facilities. “I consider that really, really foundational,” Tsetis said. “You should ensure that you have a good environment, ensure that you’ve got the right technologies.”

02
Businesses have to solve challenges of remote work, but be wary of over-correcting to the point where employees can’t return to the office

Once leaders accept that the future of work will neither take place entirely from the office nor entirely from the couch, they need to throw themselves into the work of making sure their business is fully prepared for the world of the distributed workforce.

Critically, leaders need to anticipate the potential inefficiencies that are thrown up by a more distributed workplace. The ways teams communicate, meet, share and manage data, along with security protocols and SOPs —leaders likely need to review all of these areas to make sure they are compatible with the new reality.

A new paradigm demands new tools, and as remote work becomes normalized companies will deploy software and systems that are better suited to the new era. Think of the way Zoom and Microsoft Teams have blown up this year — and they may just be the tip of the iceberg.

It’s also important not to over-correct — working from home doesn’t suit every company or employee. While there are benefits to a more distributed workforce, it’s not a panacea. “The office as we knew it is no longer a requirement for enabling employee productivity, but it can be a cornerstone of our thriving culture in a successful distributed work strategy,” said Propst, adding “Frankly, people miss the office, just not enough to go back there every day.”

  • Take a balanced approach to distributed work. There’s a temptation to follow the small number of companies (mostly in the tech space) — Dropbox, Slack, Shopify and Twitter, to name a few — who have announced that work-from-home will be their default arrangement post-pandemic. But going all-in on remote brings its own pitfalls. For most companies, the more likely scenario is striking a balance to get the best of both worlds.

The&Partnership’s Bailey draws a contrast between tech companies who had a track record of working remotely long before the coronavirus crisis on the one hand, and on the other, companies whose work was reliant on in-person communications and collaboration. He believes that for the latter group, trying to jump to exclusively to remote models will be a mistake. He says The&Partnership has “taken a pretty measured and responsible approach” in bringing back limited in-person collaboration. “We’ve also realized that if we can get certain teams together for collaborative purposes, collaboration really is still best done in person,” Bailey said.

  • Geographically, companies are going to get more diverse. If employees are working from home, it doesn’t really matter where home is. Remote work allows companies to recruit from a broader talent pool, including hiring in smaller cities. Those employees can travel occasionally to the office, or for important meetings, but businesses will grow increasingly comfortable with staff whose occasional “commute” includes a flight.
Bottom Line

The office is here to stay, but it may never again have the same centrality to your organization’s work. Balance is the key, so take the time now to figure out how a more distributed workforce will impact your organization’s work and start building to address the challenges and capture the opportunities.

“If I’m sitting in Austin, Texas, and I’ve got a client on the west coast, I might come to the New York office for a couple days every few weeks, and I might spend more time in fact in my client’s organization,” said Andrew Bailey of The&Partnership. “I think we’re just going to look at home bases differently than what we have in the past.” 

  • Utilize tools that facilitate a seamless balancing of remote and in-person work. Companies are making use of tools that provide convenient, holistic ways for teams to stay in touch, compensating for the loss of interpersonal dynamics in the office.

For example, Publicis Groupe streamlined communications between colleagues by switching from Skype to Microsoft Teams, which offers more integrated all-round functionality. Losche said the chat features on Teams help create a more seamless remote work experience and replace some of the in-office buzz. “That was the kind of way where I’d walk by someone’s desk and say ‘hey, do you have this?’” Losche said. “I can go into a smaller Teams chat and have that same kind of ping mentality and keep in constant contact with with my talent and my coworkers alike.”

03
Companies have to figure out how to make screen time engaging, not torturous

There’s no getting away from the necessity of meetings, but nobody needs another Zoom call in their day. Finding the right balance is tricky, but companies are acknowledging that virtual meetings are taxing, even if employees are working from the presumed comfort of their homes.

Leaders need to be aware that as home and office life have collided, team members are juggling multiple pressures. For many people, “screen time” extends beyond the workplace and into family relationships and schooling, and that has to be accounted for. Thoughtful companies are using lightweight meetings that respect boundaries and minimize screen fatigue while ensuring teams are staying in touch.

“Zoom fatigue is something that we are all facing by being on cameras nine to ten hours a day,” said Publicis Groupe’s Losche.

  • It’s not just employees who are at home—in many cases, it’s also their kids. Companies are taking the lead in providing resources to support parents whose children are participating in virtual schooling.

Publicis Groupe’s business resource group for parents created a schooling program that was able to scale globally. “Employees were able to offer classes to different ranges of ages of students,” Losche said. While Publicis parents were on a call, their kids could be logged in and learning a new art or craft. As schools have returned, the company has doubled down on this commitment. “That’s definitely one area we are being very mindful of and programming to ensure that our talent again has those resources and outputs to be able to have opportunity to get away from work even though it’s still on a screen,” Losche said.

  • Implement daily pulse checks for managing teams. Setting a rhythm of regular — but brief — check-ins helps managers to stay in touch without burdening colleagues with unnecessary screen time.

A pulse check can take many different forms, but it can be as simple as a five-minute call, with no need to have videos switched on. Bailey said his agency uses a morning standup meeting not just to check in on progress, but also as a “sanity check.” The format allows people to feel like they’re staying connected to their colleagues, the company and the work, but it’s sufficiently low-intensity so as not to be draining. “Those kinds of gestures go incredibly far,” Bailey said. “You have to be connected to your people in a way that you probably weren’t previously.”

Bottom Line

Working through the pandemic has added enough stress to everyone’s lives — companies and managers have to make sure that unnecessary and lengthy meetings don’t add to the load. Revisit meetings formats and establish efficient ways of checking in on what matters, whether that means progress on a big project or making sure team members are doing well.

  • Companies are using digital tools to help build virtual culture. Connectivity and cohesion between colleagues is among the challenges of working with a highly distributed workforce, but companies simply have to get creative and work hard at building up workplace culture —especially when our concept of “the workplace” seems set to change for good.

When the extent of the coronavirus crisis began to become clear, Publicis Groupe had a secret weapon up its sleeve. The company deployed its AI-powered platform, Marcel, to try to improve coordination and communication between teams. Marcel had been in development for some time prior to the pandemic, but Losche said coronavirus gave the tool a chance to shine and keep colleagues engaged. “That helped accelerate our connectivity across the globe,” Losche said. “By engaging our people in new ways, being able to have our Business Resource Groups tap into this source and post articles and connect with folks all over the world.”

04
Employees’ physical health is more important than ever

The physical and mental health of the workforce is an integral driver of business success, and the circumstances of the pandemic have brought this home in stark terms. Many companies have made wellbeing a focus over the past several months, and with the pandemic looking likely to extend into 2021, now is not the time to let up on those commitments.

Nutrafol’s Tsetis undertook a wide-ranging set of actions to improve employee wellbeing. He implemented wellness breaks twice a day, healthy lunches, spiritual meditations and breakout sessions for people to connect and talk about how they feel. Tsetis talks about the damaging effects of elevated cortisol levels, advocating both lots of movement and natural stress adaptogens to combat stress and its consequences.

  • Start by listening. A company that succeeds in this area maintains close contact with its team members, whether via surveys or managers checking in regularly — and meaningfully — with their teams. What do employees really need? What are their pain points? Leadership needs to take a step back and take the temperature within the ranks before deciding the best course of action.

“We all need something very different,” said Tsetis, who implemented surveys of Nutrafol employees to allow the company to identify issues and respond quickly. “It’s something very personal, it’s an individualized journey, it’s not one-size fits all. So how do you listen to your employees and how do you really focus on how they actually feel?” he said. 

  • Take ergonomics seriously — at home and in the office. Poor posture and inadequate equipment can be a source of serious physical problems and can be a drag on productivity. That’s costly for a company, so it pays businesses to invest in making sure their employees are sitting comfortably.

At Nutrafol, Tsetis recognized that employees were often working from home in less than desirable circumstances — hunched on couches with small laptops, staring at screens and possibly suffering a lack of natural light. He was able to find a budget to provide team members with desks and chairs, and said the feedback from employees has been “tremendous.” “When you have the right tools around you, it does make life definitely much easier,” Tsetis said.

Bottom Line

Business leaders have to analyze the many and disparate factors that contribute to each individual’s wellbeing, proactively communicating with colleagues and listening for problems. The key is to be proactive both about identifying issues and investing in responses.

  • Programs designed to support wellbeing have gone virtual. Taking these initiatives virtual was an obvious step to maintain a degree of consistency as workers adjusted to the pandemic. Keeping these programs going has allowed companies to offer a change of pace and tone from the monotony of virtual meetings, as well as providing a vital support network and community to employees who may be isolated and marginalized.

Losche describes Publicis Groupe’s Business Resource Groups as “the lifeblood and culture of our organization.” Losche said that many of the BRGs have gone virtual, with multiple workout classes every week and meditation sessions among other activities and discussions. “During Pride month we had some events on Saturdays, because we knew that some of our talent were home alone in large cities or even small rural places,” Losche said. Taking these events virtual also gives team members opportunities to connect with colleagues from other offices around the country and internationally like never before. 

05
Now’s the time to double down on diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion policies and initiatives have been put front and center as never before in 2020, but there remains plenty of work to be done. As we look towards a future where distributed workplaces are the norm, companies need to remain consistent on their commitments to diversity and inclusion, as well as equipping their teams to ensure that new working models do not open up new disparities in the workplace.

“I think everyone is hyper-aware of the importance of diversity and inclusion and they are hyper-accelerated in terms of how quickly they want to begin implementing programs,” said Shona Pinnock, Diversity & Inclusion director at Meredith. “So the challenge for me has been how do I provide sequencing to all of the programs that we want to do to help satisfy the appetite for our company to move the needle.”

  • Use “brave spaces” to center the conversation around diversity and inclusion. Establish a culture of open, honest communication that colleagues feel they can participate in with confidence.

Losche said setting up a brave space demands care and sensitivity. Those running the sessions may need training to help them facilitate a productive conversation. “It’s just making sure that you’re setting up your session and setting up the guardrails of how the conversation is going to go,” Losche said. “Setting expectations, letting folks know that they are truly going to be able to be in a safe space and say what they want and not have any repercussions, and having folks who are listening honor their confidentiality and respect.” However, if the foundations are properly laid, Losche said the initiative can scale in any organization—Publicis Groupe has hosted brave spaces for as many as 2,000 and as few as 12 colleagues.

  • Set data-driven goals and create measurements for success. The old adage that what gets measured gets done applies to D&I just as much as any other area of business. Use data to inform your targets, and be specific about what success looks like. Only then can you truly track and celebrate meaningful progress — or if you fall short, make plans to do better next time.
Bottom Line

Many companies have made commitments to improve on their records when it comes to diversity and inclusion. Amid the transition to a more distributed workplace, new challenges will inevitably emerge, so stay focused and make D&I a central part of planning for the new era. Keep up the momentum, set goals and measure progress to ensure your business is staying on track.

Meredith is developing a dashboard that can be shared across the company’s leadership to see how the leadership team at each level is living up to D&I goals. “It will allow them to cascade their goals to their leadership teams, and it just helps us to keep our eye on the prize really,” said Pinnock.

  • Help is coming from many different places. D&I directors are responsible for spearheading conversations and programs, but they are also leaning on the expertise of colleagues in different departments within their organizations to help them get the job done.

Pinnock says that at the company’s food magazines, it falls to the editorial teams to ensure that content is representative of the diverse communities that make up the readership. “I think people are seeing and understanding that they can impact this discussion in their own ecosystems,” Pinock said. “And that’s really how you shift the culture.”

06
WTFs

Distributed workforce

Traditionally, we think of a company as a group of people who gather in one location — or multiple locations for large enterprises — to carry out business. However, in many industries, technology has removed the need for teams to work together in a designated physical office, giving rise to teams that are geographically “distributed” both nationally and internationally. Over the past decade it’s become common for startups made up entirely of team members working from home or other makeshift locations, with no central office. The trend has accelerated, but the coronavirus pandemic has truly broken the model of the office commute, and distributed workforces will be the norm on the other side of the pandemic.

Brave space

Companies have to make sure that they cultivate an environment where employees feel empowered. “Brave spaces” are sessions that can take place physically or virtually, where employees can speak out on a variety of topics, often, but not exclusively, about diversity and inclusion issues. Employees have to go in with the confidence that they will not face retribution for anything said during the session.

Reflow

One of the big tasks facing companies entering the era of highly distributed work teams is how to repurpose the office space to meet the demands of the new model. “Reflow” refers to the process of redesigning the office, reimagining how people will move through the space, what elements will carry over from the traditional office layout and what may no longer be necessary. Herman Miller Retail’s Propst said that a critical component of this is to create a vision for how colleagues will interact and what that space needs to look like. “We don’t have that water cooler time anymore, so as we think about what a space looks like in a distributed work model — we have to create those their hubs where people can safely interact,” Propst said.

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“One of the first things that companies need to be doing right now is be decisive and stop acting like the situation that we’re in right now needs a temporary response. We have to understand that the distributed work model is the new normal.”

Debbie Propst, President, Herman Miller Retail

“You can tell sometimes by the look of someone on a Zoom, that they might need a reach-out, somebody to help them out.”

Andrew Bailey, North American CEO, The&Partnership

“Women are leaving the workforce in droves during this time. And that’s something that we’re looking to stop and ensure that we’re giving that support to not only women, but working parents and all folks going through many different challenges at this time.”

Aisha Losche, VP of Talent Engagement & Inclusion at Publicis Groupe
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