The Power of Idea-Sharing: Takeaways from the Knotel Network Series

In June, we hosted our inaugural Knotel Network Series, a month-long program of intimate (yet virtual) roundtable discussions between our customers and the wider business community. The series was anchored around four subjects of particular relevance to remote work and future plans in the COVID era, namely: Workplace strategy, People Operations, Learning & Development, and Sales.

Sessions ranged from more tactical discussions, such as “Tactical Return to Workspace (RTW) Planning,” during which attendees exchanged their various plans for going back, to more forward-thinking, imaginative discussions, such as “Envisioning the Office of the Future.”

During a time in which we’re not able to network in person, this series brought together people from across the globe. Here’s what we’ve learned.

Takeaway 1: Flexible work is here to stay, but many want to return to the office long-term and are wondering “what will the office of the future look like?”

Many attendees voiced similar RTW plans: They were testing out shift schedules, heightened cleaning practices, and limited capacity returns for those who were healthy, able, and desired to return to the workspace. These plans were highly contingent upon local government mandates and virus conditions.

As they manage their immediate-term plans, some are finding this interim period to be lacking, and are looking forward to the social and cultural aspects of a full office. Kevin Wong, Senior Director of Real Estate at Optimizely, noted that the few who have returned to the office find the environment to be missing the energy from a normal workspace. He said, “The office environment isn’t the same at limited capacity, there’s no buzz or energy on the floor. We’re wondering if the interim period is even worth it. People miss the environment, energy, and ambiance of a full office.”

But the future office will have to accommodate the new health and safety concerns that have arisen from this pandemic, while also maintaining and improving upon all the aspects that made the office so great to begin with: organic and random exchanges of ideas, building social capital with colleagues through in-person meetings, and the fully three-dimensional experience of having a meeting with your colleagues in person (registering a person’s body language instead of merely facial expressions over a screen, collaborating on a white board, getting lost in an impromptu brainstorm over coffee) Therefore, office design must change.

Takeaway 2: Companies are still searching for the right digital solutions to support flexible, decentralized work

Technology was a topic that came up consistently in our discussions, with questions such as: what technologies are best, how can they support decentralized work, and can we ensure that technology is creating a level playing field?

From what we heard in our discussions, the technologies that companies are seeking today can be bucketed into three areas:

  1. Technology that enables remote/dispersed collaboration
  2. Technology that ensures the health and safety of employees, and
  3. Technology that can aspire to (but perhaps never fully replicate) the organic social environment of being in an office together.

While companies have adopted certain technologies that are vital for remote collaboration, i.e., Slack, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc., many voiced that it’s become difficult to decide exactly which technology is an ideal fit for their company, and how to leverage that technology to its fullest abilities. Simultaneously, workplace leaders who are managing their employees’ return to the workspace are focusing on technologies that can help control and track office capacity and traffic, as well as updating products with technology that can minimize the spread of the virus (such as touchless water dispensers).

Others are focused on replicating the feel of organic, random social interactions that often are the source of new ideas or increased collaboration. Working remotely has caused us to schedule meetings on an as-needed basis, oftentimes limiting us to our immediate teams and cross-functional stakeholders. Companies are testing out tools such as the Donut application, which randomly pairs employees in order to encourage forming new relationships across the company — even while working remotely.

Takeaway 3: Maintaining and fortifying employee culture and wellness remains top of mind, especially as companies are nearing their fifth or sixth month of remote work

While companies have quickly adapted to remote work by fortifying their communications with employees (think weekly all-hands, ever-growing numbers of Slack channels, and virtual team happy hours), many are finding that their employees are overwhelmed by the inundation of virtual meetings (also known as Zoom fatigue). While we can take steps to minimize this fatigue, virtual meetings still serve as a key way of socializing for those who are working from home alone, and thus important for maintaining mental health.

One thing that many companies voiced as useful was surveying employees on topics related to their work-from-home experiences, as well as leveraging surveys to understand employees’ appetite and tolerance for returning to the office. Attendees mentioned surveying their employees repeatedly over time, so that they could also uncover trends in their data.

Companies will surely continue to focus on fortifying employee health and company culture as we continue to navigate a decentralized work environment. People leaders will have to work with their companies to ensure that certain social and cultural norms are instilled as some people return to the office and others remain remote, so that unequal playing fields or undue pressure on teams and individuals aren’t created.

The first half of 2020 involved world and paradigm-changing events that prompted this very series, and we’re sure that H2 2020 will provide even more reasons for us to exchange ideas and experiences. If you are interested in being a part of our next Knotel Network Series or have ideas of what you’d like to discuss, feel free to email us at content@knotel.com.