The New Workspace: Precautions, productivity and the power of memes as teams and work evolve

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way that most workplaces function, and, as the virus continues to affect the world, the workplace of the future may retain some of the changes that have been made in recent months.

Entrepreneurs and business leaders from around the state discussed this idea and how it might play out in their workspaces during The New Workspace, a webinar presented by Missouri Business Alert.

The remote future

The pandemic has introduced many companies to increased flexibility of the workspace in terms of location. With pivots towards social distancing and less in-person contact, much of what was done in company offices has transitioned to being done remotely from home.

“One thing I think that COVID-19 has taught us is that a lot of work can be done virtually, so I see that becoming more of a norm,” said Delight Deloney, a St. Louis-based field services director for the Society of Human Resources Management.

For companies like Boddle Learning, a Kansas City-based startup that makes educational software for children, most work was already done remotely, which was advantageous when the stay-at-home orders were announced. While not opposed to an in-person office environment, Boddle must do what works best for its employees, who come from various areas of the country.

“We want the talent, but we also want them to be comfortable wherever they are,” said Clarence Tan, Boddle co-founder and CFO.

Open lines of communication

Communication is the key factor in making an office run smoothly, and the transition to remote work has required the addition of new tools to maintain pre-pandemic levels of communication, panelists said. Across the board, workplace messaging software Slack seemed to be the preferred means of inter-office communication.

“Email kind of feels dead at this point as far as internal communication,” said Kristen Brown, owner and chief creative officer of Hoot Design Co.

Hoot Design is a web design, branding and marketing agency based in downtown Columbia. Along with Slack, the business has used a shared Google Drive and the program Basecamp for project management and communication since before the onset of the pandemic. Brown credits this existing system to the company’s relative ease in pivoting to a temporary remote work arrangement.

“I would say we were up and running from home in only a few hours,” Brown said, “whereas, with larger organizations, I think it’s almost like trying to turn the Titanic.”

For many businesses, open group communication channel has replaced the in-person communication that might occur in a physical workspace. Tools like Slack have facilitated this change, allowing companies to have conversations in channels where all staff members can see.

“The more you can expose all of your employees to the overall conversation, whether they are participating or not, is like a stream of consciousness within the company,” said Gerald Smith, owner and CEO of Plexpod, which operates coworking spaces in the Kansas City area.

The physical workspace is often where many employees form friendships and build lasting relationships with their co-workers. With the shift to remote setups, companies are looking to creative ways to continue fostering these relationships.

While some workplaces have tried book clubs and fitness challenges, Boddle Learning has employed a different approach. Employees use memes via the company Slack channel to break the ice and provide humor in the workplace.

“It sounds really silly and simple, but it actually creates a lot of camaraderie,” Tan said. “It really uplifts the workplace.”

Changes to physical spaces

While some offices may remain remote, many companies are returning to their physical locations. But those spaces won’t be the same as before the pandemic.

Desks have been rearranged to meet social distancing guidelines, and sanitation stations are popping up in high-traffic areas. Companies that require their employees to travel have taken additional precautions.

“I would call it a rolling quarantine,” Brown said. “So right now, we’re having people — when they travel to larger cities where they are in big groups — we’re having them self-quarantine for two weeks.”

There are additional considerations for employees who have children, as plans for schools reopening remain fluid and child care may be difficult to obtain. With some schools considering having students attend on alternating days, employees may find themselves needing flexibility and the option of working remotely.

Also, as confirmed cases of COVID-19 begin to rise again in parts of the country, there may be risks involved for employees to leave the home and interact with the public.

“A lot of companies are returning to the workplace,” Deloney said, “but you do have to think about people who have underlying health concerns who may not be able to return to the office and being flexible enough to allow them to continue remote working.”

Attention to mental health

The added stress of the pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of many people across the world. Transitioning to a remote workspace also adds an element of perceived isolation and makes it harder for employers to notice when an employee is struggling.

“Right now, I think about 43% of Americans or employees are reporting that they are feeling down, feeling sad, feeling depressed because of the separation from others,” Deloney said.

There is an enhanced focus on providing support for those who need it through employee assistance programs. Some companies even assist financially with bills incurred for mental health care.

In addition, remote working can often mean longer hours spent at a desk without much physical activity. Many companies are using creative means to encourage employees to be active, both for the physical and mental health benefits.

“We encourage them to put ‘moving their body’ in their timesheets,” Brown said. “So, essentially, we paid them to work out.”

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