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Building a connected organization

The importance of intentionality in office space, digital tools and company culture

Posted June 15, 2021 by Dave Macnee

Reading time 7 min

This playbook was co-written by Dave Macnee, Senior Relationship Manager, Future Forum by Slack, and Megan Lyon, Chief Strategy Officer, Herman Miller

Herman Miller has joined the Future Forum as a founding partner. For more information, please read this blog post about the partnership.

Since the pandemic hit, companies around the world have been part of the biggest experiment in the age of knowledge work: the shift to a distributed and flexible workforce. And much to the surprise of many, the results from the experiment were positive—remote work has worked. According to recent research from the Future Forum, employees reported a boost in productivity, a more equitable work experience, and an increase in overall satisfaction with working arrangements this past year.

But the bright spots we’ve seen in this working arrangement don’t displace the need for the office, which can now even more meaningfully support the experience of work. As we emerge from this time, employees are looking forward to the occasional return to their physical workplace, particularly as a space to collaborate with coworkers, build general camaraderie, and create social bonds.

In response to employees’ desire for more flexibility, many companies are adopting a hybrid approach that allows employees to choose whether to work in the office or remotely on a near-daily basis. Successfully implementing this strategy requires being intentional about office space, technology tools, and the impact of both on corporate culture. It involves reconceptualizing a “workplace” not as a building but as a network of equally important nodes—such as car, cottage and conference room—and providing the tools to support work and connection in those places. These actions are steps toward building a connected organization.

If hybrid is your destination, then a connected organization is your vehicle, and a strong sense of belonging in employees is the engine.  

The value of belonging 

Regardless of what they do or where they live, human beings require belonging. From an evolutionary perspective, belonging to a group increases safety, and our brains are wired for it: Research suggests that social pain and pleasure use the same neural mechanisms as those stimulated by physical pain and pleasure.

Other studies show that a sense of belonging affects cognitive processes, as well as physical and emotional health and well-being. When people feel connected to something bigger than themselves, they are more satisfied and perform better at work, helping the organization achieve its goals. 

Design your office space to enhance sense of belonging

Over the past year, we’ve seen camaraderie increase among employees, and they’ve reported a growing sense of belonging since the pandemic hit.  

Now, as offices reopen, there’s an opportunity to further this investment in social connection in the office space. Just as it’s possible to design physical spaces optimized for work-specific activities, it’s possible to design them to promote human connection and that feeling of belonging.

Social commons

In the office, social commons are large, welcoming public spaces situated at major intersections and high-traffic areas. They encourage mixing and mingling and enable multiple work activities simultaneously. Spending time in the social commons is a way to take the pulse of the organization and gauge levels of morale.

Thoughtfully designed, a social commons might include:
  • Landmarks: cultural touchstones (e.g., a display of product prototypes or evidence of the company’s impact in the broader community) and amenities (snacks and coffee) to draw people in
  • Choice: different seating choices and casual workspaces that invite people to stay and chat 
  • Variety: open vistas to increase the likelihood of chance encounters and encourage interaction, as well as nooks, which allow people more control over their degree of interaction while still providing some connection—one way of easing post-pandemic return-to-the-office anxiety
  • Engagement: digital displays that disseminate information and encourage people to stay and absorb relevant and timely content

In the past, devoting space to a social commons may have seemed like a luxury. But now one of the biggest attractions of the office is the opportunity to connect and belong—and designing for connection works. 

In recent research conducted by the workplace research organization Leesman, in partnership with Herman Miller, Belonging Index scores (measured by level of agreement with statements like “I feel a sense of belonging to my organization” and “I feel that I can be myself at work”) increased an average of five percentage points after employees moved into a newly redesigned space. Agreement with the statement “The design of my workplace contributes to a sense of community at work” grew 28 percentage points post-move.

Belonging Index, conducted by Leesman in partnership with Herman Miller, 2021

With a hybrid work model, you’ll need less floor space for individual work. By understanding the reasons your employees will choose to work in the physical office, you can design for it and reallocate space for fostering connection. 

Understand that digital space is your new HQ—and give it the same intentionality

In the hybrid approach to the workplace, the organization encourages and supports both physical and remote work. While everyone knows how to connect in person, connecting virtually requires new tools—and being intentional about using them.

Investments in digital infrastructure are as important as those in physical space. Over the past year, digital investments by leaders significantly impacted employee experience: Employees who perceive their company to be an early adopter of technology reported scores twice as high for sense of belonging compared with those at organizations perceived to be late adopters.  

Here are a few ways to help people feel more connected, regardless of where they’re working:
  • Think beyond video. It’s only one way of connecting virtually and, depending on the task, it may not even be the best one. Other platforms and collaboration tools include Mural for brainstorming, Google Docs for writing, Donut for serendipitous meetings and strengthening weak ties, and social channels for decompressing and comparing notes on hobbies and TV shows. Leverage cloud-based tools that allow people to collaborate both in person and remotely.

    Using practices and tools that support equity and connection in meetings and casual conversation builds trust, and we know from research that the most effective distributed teams are those that are intentional about building trust.1
  • Push for asynchronous engagement. Another characteristic of effective distributed teams is that they are intentional in their use of asynchronous tools to stay connected throughout the day at whatever times are convenient. The results? Employees with time flexibility report a greater sense of belonging (+36%), far greater ability to manage stress at work and better work-life balance (both 140% higher), and overall higher satisfaction with work (+50%). 
  • Model desired behaviors. In times of change or when a company starts using new tools or processes, employees watch how and how often managers use them. They want to see for themselves whether you’re walking the talk. If you use social channels in the middle of the day for a few minutes to post about your pet, then others will follow suit. The way to change or strengthen corporate culture is to be the change you want to see. This includes setting and maintaining standards for behavior for meetings. A few best practices for connected organizations:

    1. Meeting overload is the number-one culprit when it comes to flexibility in when people work. Use the Dropbox model of the “3 Ds”: debate, discuss, decide. If the meeting does not fit one of those objectives, rely on tools instead to get a status check or run an asynchronous brainstorm.  

    2. Be intentional about when and how to use video. If one person at a meeting is attending virtually, the expectation should be that everyone will dial in from their own computers. Leaders need to drive a consistent experience and level the playing field by avoiding in-person favoritism or side conversations

    3. Set the expectation that relevant pre- and post-meeting conversations happen using digital tools rather than in hallway conversations.

Set the tone from the top

Unless you have a corporate culture that supports it, the hybrid approach will fail, even if your company has brilliantly designed offices and the best asynchronous platforms. As legendary management theorist Peter Drucker said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” 

We know that a leader’s behavior shapes culture, even unintentionally. So be intentional, and build a culture that champions the feelings of belonging and connection necessary for the hybrid approach.

  • Err toward overcommunicating. Don’t make people guess or read between the lines. Spell out what you expect, and communicate it regularly through all available channels.
  • Explain the advantages of the hybrid model not just for the corporation but for teams and individuals. People naturally want to know what’s in it for them. 
  • Model the behavior in private and public by embracing the hybrid model in your own day-to-day work. 
  • Seek out examples of others throughout the company who have found ways to increase belonging and strengthen connection. Publicly celebrate their efforts.

“The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality,” wrote Max De Pree, the late longtime CEO of Herman Miller. We’re living in a new reality. And we believe that leaders who work to foster feelings of social belonging and build connected organizations have the best chance at success.

 1Herman Miller, “Team Landscapes 3: The Challenges and Best Practices of Distributed Teams,” Company Confidential, 2018