Healthy Offices, Healthy People
By Kerry Brown, David Weldon | 14 min read
In 2017, executives at pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. decided that its Manhattan headquarters near the United Nations, its home since 1961, was tired. The company wanted a new site that conveyed a fresh image, one that spoke to its innovations. First, it needed to convey an open-armed welcome to employees while embodying the company’s mission of “delivering breakthroughs that change patients’ lives.”
Kris Jackson, senior director of global workforce solutions at Pfizer Digital, who leads the technology work stream for the new home office, says that the new headquarters has to serve two additional goals after representing Pfizer’s purpose. “Second, we’re trying to create a place that is exciting, challenges colleagues, and builds this sense of community. And third, it’s got to be flexible, enabling much more collaboration, connectivity, and productivity than our current headquarters.”
Pfizer found the solution for its new headquarters across town at The Spiral – a 1,031-foot-tall glass tower rising near the Hudson Yards and High Line, a former elevated rail line converted into a popular park. Pfizer signed a 20-year lease for 800,000 square feet of workspace, composed of floors 7 through 20, as well as a dedicated lobby and mezzanine. When Pfizer moves in in 2023, it will be the anchor tenant.
On the outside, the building’s floor-to-ceiling windows and hanging gardens are designed to provide “lush outdoor terrace space” to tenants on every floor, as the building’s owners note. But it’s the structure’s interior flexibility that has Jackson’s attention. “In some areas you can mix up the space. You can move the furniture and the walls. You can create the environment you need for what’s coming up and the way it needs to work for you. There are a number of these design areas through the Pfizer floors,” Jackson says.
Pfizer will have its C-suite offices and its central functions (HR, legal, finance, business development, biopharmaceutical sales and marketing, investor relations) based in The Spiral, along with executives from other key groups (manufacturing, supply chain, research and development, and procurement) represented in the space.
Central to the design: an open floor plan will encourage interactions and experimentation. Ad hoc workstations will serve employees who are visiting headquarters for meetings and projects. Movable furniture will accommodate varied team sizes. Technology will include registration apps to use different spaces and sensors tied to an Internet of Things backbone that capture employee-movement data to analyze space usage and manage the environment (including lighting and temperature). This will enable the company to adapt and support employees’ efforts.
Notably, Pfizer’s home in The Spiral will open ready for social distancing practices, ventilation precautions, and other needs that came about during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We really haven’t had to modify the design at all,” Jackson says. “We’re making it very open and collaborative and it can easily accommodate social distancing. Air quality is high on the list of things that have to be top notch. The only thing that will potentially change will be fewer people coming into our building because of our new flexibility policy.”
Designing the office of the future means focusing more on employee well-being.
Said another way, when the pandemic struck and forced the world to stay at home or stay apart, Pfizer, which launched one of the first approved COVID-19 vaccines developed in cooperation with BioNTech, was already working on an office for the postpandemic future. Its criteria for a new headquarters office – design for flexibility and expect changes; accommodate a workforce that will have a mix of in-office workers and visiting employees; invest in facilities that keep people well with ventilation and enough space – is a useful model.
For many organizations, designing the office of the future will mean completely reevaluating all current work and customer-serving areas, access space, stairways and elevators, and utilities. The goals will be to best promote collaboration and encourage productivity while also ensuring safety. There will also be a greater focus on employee wellness, including mental and physical health, and how design elements can aid in those efforts.
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What the pandemic taught us about offices
There’s no question that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed how executives – both those managing workplace settings and those in the real estate industry – analyze their decisions.
“Most are discussing concepts that did not seem necessary prior to the pandemic,” says Rachel Casanova, senior managing director of workplace innovation at commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield, based in Chicago. “The workplace is top of mind for every employee right now, whereas historically, corporate real estate decisions were made by leaders and industry experts.”
Casanova says that the pandemic has moved employees’ well-being to the center of conversations. “Concepts that may have seemed too progressive to HR before the pandemic are now commonplace conversations, such as a flexible work ecosystem where employees choose where they work. Before the pandemic, companies might have chosen not to develop policies for flexibility. However, right now, employees are driving that conversation and are able to share their personal preferences when it comes to decision-making,” she says.
That emphasis on flexibility carries over to the allocation of spaces within offices, says Alina Duckham, senior interior designer with architecture firm SGA. “Prior to the pandemic, we did see a big focus on employers looking to provide amenity spaces like lounges and coffee bars to attract and retain talent. I think those amenities will continue to grow as part of the workplace. But I think the function of those are going to be much more intentional rather than supplemental. They’re going to support more client interactions,” Duckham says.
Remote work is here to stay
The pandemic-induced remote workforce will not go away, nor should it. Workers have proven they can be plenty productive at home and many will not return to the traditional workplace, at least not full-time. This fact, combined with the ongoing need for caution as governments around the world distribute vaccines, is giving rise to the activity-based workspace – places designed to support a work function, not a specific job or employee. Instead of being a central location where all employees gather, the office of the future will accommodate jobs that simply must be done there, while many other employees will continue to work remotely or in a hybrid arrangement – some days at home and some in the office.
Fewer workers are and will be returning to the office, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It will enable organizations to reallocate space more strategically. They will be poised to implement social distancing again if the need arises in the future.
Duckham says health and safety concerns will continue after the pandemic subsides. In large offices, companies are installing signs to direct the flow of people moving indoors and to encourage social distancing. Larger spaces, such as conference rooms, libraries, and break rooms will have less furniture. Even after people return to offices, companies will need to provide enough space for people to feel comfortably distanced. Maintaining cleaning protocols will also be important. New office projects will incorporate these lessons.
“Most ground-up construction will foster better mechanical systems that will bring in more fresh air exchanges,” Duckham says. “Workstation sizes may increase as a larger footprint with higher partitions and differs from the prior standard, which crammed people into tighter desk spaces. These practices for the foreseeable future will become more commonplace. The remote-work model will allow this to happen more easily, as employees can now plan for less office density if employees work from home part of the time.”
Reassess the hub-and-spoke system of distributed offices
It’s not unusual for enterprises to lease headquarters buildings in cities, where they can host clients and events, with smaller satellite offices. As CBRE, a real estate services company points out, this hub-and-spoke model also proved cost efficient. “Companies could distribute their employees in less expensive markets, rather than paying a premium for large swaths of pricey downtown space,” the company notes in a recent report.
After the pandemic, the model is likely to tilt more toward the spokes and away from the hub, says Libby Sander, who studies office space as an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Bond University in Australia. That’s because with so many people learning they can be productive at home during the pandemic, they are likely to eschew the long commutes into the city.
“Employees are likely to be less inclined to trade off long commutes when we have established work from home is effective, at least some of the time, for most employees. As such, employees are likely to make housing choices based on lifestyle over commuting distance if they are working from home permanently, or several days a week. We will see a shift in the central business district model as we have known it,” Sanders says.
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There’s also another consideration: getting to the office. During the preparation of this article, the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines had begun in a number of countries. But the pandemic raised another issue for corporate decision-makers: the problem for many urban centers isn’t that the office buildings and work facilities they host are themselves unsafe – it is the process of getting workers to them that can create apprehension for people traveling on public transit, at least until the majority of the population is vaccinated.
Casanova says that companies can use data about commuter migration patterns to identify where people are coming from and factor that into decisions about whether to provide alternative transportation for employees or locate new satellite offices outside the city center. The truth is that we will need time to assess the situation.
“While this all supports the idea of having a work ecosystem, it’s critical to note that nobody knows what the ‘new normal’ will really be. One thing we do know: real estate and the workplace don’t drive employee behavior – they’re a response to that behavior and we’re still waiting to see how norms evolve,” Casanova says.
Devote ongoing attention to a hybrid workforce
Another lesson of the work-at-home pandemic: the need to ensure that the workplace experiences of employees, no matter where they are doing their jobs, are high quality.
Equipping employees with connections to colleagues and their work, with VPNs and desktop videoconferencing and other collaboration tools, became table stakes during the pandemic.
James Dellow, a digital strategist who provides advice on office designs at the Digital Workplace Company in Sydney, Australia, says the emphasis was on “good enough” fixes that sought to replicate the in-office experience. In the postpandemic office, managers will need to elevate their efforts to support people who are working remotely so they feel as equals to those who are in the office.
This goes beyond those networking technologies and collaboration apps, Dellow says. “We’ve discovered that productivity isn’t an issue, but higher-order problems of remote leadership, knowledge management, and social support are. The physical and digital workplace are going to need to support each other more than ever before. A successful digital workplace strategy will need to be part of an overarching employee-experience strategy. It can’t stand alone anymore.”
As an example, Dellow cites physical office spaces designed to maintain line-of-sight access among coworkers. Open office plans, desk layouts, and breakout spaces are common features. “In a hybrid work model, you can’t have a physical line-of-sight of the people that aren’t in the office that day. This is really an old problem, but the remote worker that couldn’t be seen was usually in the minority. In a way, this is about helping to nudge or support the idea of serendipity,” Dellow says.
Surveys have shown that people have enjoyed the benefits of working remotely during the pandemic – and many want to continue doing so when it subsides. The risk is that leaders in the postpandemic workplace will relax the attention paid to their off-site colleagues.
“If we don’t solve these issues, employee engagement will suffer because people will become disconnected from their colleagues. They will have fewer opportunities to form weak-tie relationships across the organization. Not only will productivity fall, but people might become more tribal – loyal to their immediate team, not to their business. Social capital is a key challenge for virtual organizations and knowledge won’t be shared unless there is both trust and a means for sharing,” Dellow says.
Casanova, the Cushman & Wakefield executive, says that companies designing new offices can incorporate these hybrid experiences. A simple example is ensuring the audio and video connections are strong.
Once the pandemic subsides, it will be up to leaders to maintain their attentiveness to a workforce that has grown accustomed to having hybrid teams work in multiple locations, including the office and at home.
Companies also can use analytics to collect data about where employees and teams do their work – and the quality of those collaborations and where people do their best work, Casanova says. “These analytics enable us to understand how employees relate to each other by analyzing their relationships. Thanks to historical analytics, companies are able to see one year of data—and that means we can compare the strength of relationships before and during the pandemic to see how remote work has affected the strength and width of relationships,” she says.
Keep the buildings – and people – healthy
If you were not thinking much about the occupancy density of your offices, or the ventilation systems in your company’s offices, the pandemic was a wake-up call.
Beyond the temporary fixes – installing signs that promote social distancing and publicize occupancy limits – there are more permanent moves companies can make to keep their buildings healthy in the long run, and they can include them in the design of new spaces, says David A. Hobart Jr., principal at McCarthy Nordburg, an interior design studio in Phoenix.
Moves could include widening walking pathways between offices, installing easy-to-clean interior finishes on surfaces, and configuring cubicles so people are not face-to-face as they work. Making these adjustments subtle, rather than overt, will help gain acceptance because they will appear as part of good design, Hobart says. A tactic like installing tall cubicle walls or adding clear plastic barriers would provide protection but inhibit collaboration. He says temporary fixes, like populating every other workstation and including acoustical dividers that also block airborne particles, are more effective.
Moves to maintaining healthy office environments include widening walking paths, installing easy-to-clean surfaces, and configuring cubicles so people won’t work face-to-face.
Then there are changes to mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. “Retrofitting ionization systems into mechanical systems to kill viruses and adding touchless plumbing fixtures not only provide protection during a pandemic but are also good design practices for the future,” Hobart says.
These adjustments are prompting designers to rethink the trend of packing more people into offices, he says. “For the last 10 years, the trend towards increased density to maximize commercial real estate has pushed the limits of building systems and the health and wellness of the user. With the growing popularity of smaller workstations, we are putting more people in a given square footage than ever before. The pandemic has forced us to stop and reevaluate these practices and realize that it is not in the best interest of people’s health and wellness to push the limits of occupancy,” Hobart says.
It’s clear that the pandemic has elevated the issue of mental health. And the physical environment has an impact on employees’ emotional well-being and mental wellness, says Janice Litvin, a wellness expert and workplace consultant in Walnut Creek, California.
Litvin recommends that office managers add items such as the following to their checklists:
- Ensure that employees have natural light throughout the indoor environment using large windows or skylights.
- Add noise control (including noise-canceling headphones).
- Make healthy food available (and preferably free).
- Designate outdoor meeting spots, weather permitting.
- Provide standing desk furniture for employees who request it.
Some companies offer a “quiet room” for employee breaks, a music room with instruments, or a library. These amenities also make a positive difference. Treating people and their preferences on an individual basis can go a long way. “People should be able to have the type of workspace that makes them happiest and most productive,” Litvin says.
The office will endure – and so will office culture
With all the changes to our work lives wrought by the pandemic, Hobart says that leaders need to remember the importance of the organization’s culture – and the role that the office plays in building and supporting that culture.
Some of the organizations he works with have hailed the success of the remote workforce and talked about reducing their commercial real estate footprint to cut costs. “While this may look great on paper, it takes a toll on the company culture,” he says.
“Working from home may work for some but it does not work for everybody. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Hobart says. “There are many design and organizational strategies to help create the perfect balance between culture, performance, and wellness when looking to build or remodel. The office isn’t going away, nor should it. Collaboration, knowledge transfer, and team building are best done face-to-face, and when the pandemic ends, having a highly functional, safe, and inspiring office will attract and retain the very best talent.”
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