Featured in today's newsletter:
- The changes that make offices healthier.
- The outlook for raises in 2023.
- Workplaces as venues for discussing contentious issues.
The latest virus forecast: The US had a 28% decrease from two weeks earlier, with about 66,000 new Covid cases on Friday (though those figures likely aren’t entirely accurate, with Labor Day weekend causing some delays in reporting). As updated booster shots targeting the Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 roll out to the public, federal health officials say Covid vaccination will likely shift to an annual schedule moving forward.
The business impact: Amid continued high inflation, current consumer sentiment is lower than it was in the thick of the Covid lockdowns of 2020, with a record-high number of people saying in June that high prices were preventing them from making large household purchases.
Focus on How Changes to the Office Can Support Worker Wellbeing
As companies ramp up the push to bring workers back to the office, many employees are now heading back into workplaces that look significantly different from the ones they left, with new layouts, new amenities, and new expectations for how, when, and why the space will be used.
For employers, the return is a chance to craft new norms not only around how work is done, but around how the built environment can support worker health and wellbeing. We asked Dr. Cristina Banks, director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at the University of California, Berkeley, about the design features that make offices healthier places for their occupants. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for space and clarity:
What are the physical components of a healthy workplace? What should organizations be prioritizing there as more employees come back?
It has everything to do with how the physical environment reduces the amount of frustration, disengagement, interruption that makes the day longer and causes people to respond in a fight-or-flight manner or causes some bad things happening with your physiology. The physical environment has to have the comforts of home, which means it has to have these qualities of being flexible, comfortable, predictable, equitable, social—because they want to connect with their bosses and their coworkers—and safe. There's a lot of signals now that we're not there.
A concrete thing that employers can do is curate who comes back when. Make sure that when people come back to work, the people they want to be with and reconnect with can be there with them at the same time together. That takes a scheduling and logistics application.
The next thing is to create neighborhoods in the physical space by friend groups or affiliations or identity that they elect. Some of the workplace strategists I've been talking to have started to think about creating neighborhoods that are different from team neighborhoods. Teams can always get out of their seats and go someplace and meet. They don't necessarily have to be there to turn around and say something to someone else with respect to their work.
What we're trying to do is create an environment where people have a sense of belonging to their coworkers and to the organization. Some combination of HR and logistics has to figure out how to query people about, who would you want to work with? Who would you want to see at work? They're all going to say their boss, number one. But if they're given permission to create their own neighborhoods, they will. Then it's a matter of determining which days they'll be sitting together and which days they'll be working from home. So it's permission and support from the organization, and then the workers determining how to populate the algorithm, if you will.
It sounds like that’s the social element. What do the other traits such as flexibility and predictability that you mentioned look like in practice?
Flexibility: You can go to a place where you can get the resources, supplies, meet the people and do your work in the setting that's really going to support that work. Companies think they've solved that through online reservation systems, but what they don't track is how many times people ask for a room and can't get it. So we need to solve that, like building more meeting rooms, getting a real feel for what the need is.
Predictable means that you remove uncertainty to the greatest degree. When you come to work, you have a place that's yours. It's not hoteling. So you have a place, you know who's going to be there, you know when they're available, you know when you can get a room. You can get the resources you need for the day. You can get food and beverages. Because when people come downtown, a lot of the restaurants aren't open anymore. And also that there is a predictable time that they can socialize with their friends. Reliable wifi. Technology that works.
Comfortable means that you have ergonomic desk furniture that is comfortable, and when you have social settings, you have comfy furniture just like home couches. What we’re trying to do with comfy furniture is provide a feeling of physical and psychological comfort, and that creates a sense of ease and positive emotions that then drive wellbeing. But the comfort is also a feeling of protection from harassment and being excluded. When people go to work, they're comfortable being a part of that organization and they feel like they belong.
Equitable is about messaging from the organization that everybody counts and that everybody is an important contributor. Do people have equal access to views and windows? Do people get equal access to high-value activities? People who come to work have to feel like it is worth it for them coming in, because they will be recognized as an important contributor no matter who you are.
Safer has to do with both physical safety and psychological safety. Let me tackle physical safety: I'm reading now that companies are not asking for testing or masks, no proof of vaccination. It's just like the Covid doesn't exist anymore. And not everybody has a situation where they're comfortable with getting Covid. The other is psychological safety. If you were harassed or excluded or in an uncomfortable position before Covid, coming back, will you feel like those issues will be resolved?
Why is hotel desking a negative?
Belonging is one of the key basic needs we have, and one physical connection to belonging is having a home. We have a human nature to nest. We want to have our own place. And when we don’t, we don’t feel like we belong. Maybe you figure out schedules so people share desks on different days. Then they still feel like they own a place, even though those desks aren’t going to be occupied by those people all five days of the week. The important thing is that they have a home, whether it’s a desk or a neighborhood.
Are there any other design features that are considered best practices?
The work experience that you want to engender in your workforce is that the company cares about you. And if they care about you, it can't just be about, ‘How much can you produce for me?’ It has to be, ‘I want you to have a great experience. I want you to be here for the long term.’ It means that they have to not only look at the employee as a worker and what they can produce, but also, what are their personal issues or needs that have to be fulfilled? We do that by recognizing that people have these basic human needs, and with the built environment, we demonstrate caring by providing the circumstances to satisfy those needs. Caring comes in the form of understanding that what you build really changes behavior and people's work experience.
So how can you build it? This is just a silly example, but a central stairway. Make the stairs a central feature, but put pads on the stairs so people will sit on them, maybe have their lunch or their coffee, and it becomes like the Spanish steps. Another way to care is, ‘We know you have big childcare issues. What if we built an extension or used some of our space to hold a childcare center?’ Or, ‘We know that noise really bothers you. We need to create private soundproof space so that when you have private conversations, they're kept private and it's quiet.’ Bathrooms that are gender-neutral and single-stall. Not having people walk behind your desk, because pathways where people walk create a lot of noise. So making the walkways far away from where people are trying to concentrate.
I’m working on a project with the University of Houston right now for a new building that’s going up there, to help them understand how to create a great experience for the occupants in the building. So helping them understand, what are the work activities that people need to do? What are the work supports, physically and operationally, to help them do that? And then how do we build in the health and wellbeing design qualities that will promote a healthy environment? It’s unusual, when you build a new building, to bring in the people who really understand the occupants and the work that they have to do and what they need to do it, like privacy, quiet, close proximity to resources. We need to change that process so that the occupant experience comes first, and everything is backfilled to promote that.
Read a transcript of our conversation, including what to preserve as office footprints shrink and how workplaces should be designing for Covid right now.
What Else You Need to Know
Bigger salary increases are coming in 2023. Around a quarter of employers in the National Salary Budget Survey from employee-compensation platform Salary.com are planning raises between 5% and 7% for next year.
- The survey, which collected information from more than 1,000 employers across 20 industries, also found that companies are planning for a median pay bump of 4% for 2023, in line with increases for 2022 and up from 3% the two years prior.
- A separate May survey of 337 companies from compensation consulting firm Pearl Meyer found that the most common reason cited for higher salary increases this year was retention, followed by inflation and cost of living.
- Workers’ offer expectations have also increased: In a July survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, respondents said they would need an average salary of $72,873 to take a new job, up from $68,964 a year prior.
Business travel still hasn’t caught up to its pre-pandemic norms. While Labor Day air travel this year surpassed 2019 levels, business travel is lagging at 25-30% below its pre-pandemic rate, with the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) pointing to the rise of remote work and increased focus on sustainability as key factors.
- The GBTA has estimated that a full rebound for business travel won’t happen until midway through 2026.
- On the heels of a similar cost-saving directive from Microsoft last month, Google recently moved to cut down on employee travel, instructing company leaders to approve only trips made for “business critical” reasons with a “high bar” for determining what meets that qualification.
- The rise of so-called “bleisure” travel, blending business and leisure, has become a trickier gray area for companies as it grows in popularity, raising questions about liability and expenses.
The post-summer office return is playing out against widespread disengagement. Just a third of employees in a June Gallup poll described themselves as engaged at work, a decrease from last year, while 18% identified as “actively disengaged,” likely driven at least in part by dissatisfaction with the renewed push to bring workers back to the office.
- The recent attention to “quiet quitting” may reflect the large number of employees who fall somewhere between those two categories: neither fully disengaged nor fully engaged with their jobs, but passively in the middle.
- The Gallup report, which surveyed around 15,000 full-time employees, found that drops in engagement were especially steep for workers under 35, and pointed to lack of clarity around expectations and lack of growth opportunities as some of the factors contributing to the decline.
People see their workplaces as “islands of civility.” Many say they’re more comfortable discussing contentious societal issues with colleagues than with neighbors, according to a new large-scale Edelman Trust Barometer survey.
- Some 63% of workers globally said they were comfortable discussing opposing viewpoints on reproductive rights with co-workers, for example, compared to 55% who were with their neighbors. The top reason cited for this willingness to discuss with colleagues was “we respect the truth and agree on basic facts.”
- Some 60% of workers aged 18 to 34 said employers should train workers to have constructive debates about contentious issues inside and outside the workplace. Roughly half of older workers felt similarly.
- Compared with a year ago, more Republicans and Democrats said they were more likely to work for a company if it publicly supported addressing issues including racial justice, climate change, and reproductive rights. Fewer Republicans than a year ago said they would want to work for a company that took a stand on gun safety.
- There’s a wide gap in who workers trust in the workplace. Some 43% globally trust their co-workers to tell the truth about what is happening in their organization, compared with 25% who trust the CEO and 21% who trust the head of human resources to do so.
Return to workplace speed round:
- A summer of remote work internships has some Gen Z workers craving the office. According to data from the Harris Poll, two-thirds of remote interns reported feeling lost at work, and 56% responded that working remotely makes it difficult to understand and participate in their workplace culture.
- In contrast to other tech companies implementing mandatory office returns, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy publicly stated that the company wouldn’t require employees to return to offices.
- After the Labor Day holiday, Capital One fully reopened offices for hybrid working. Employees are able to work remotely Mondays and Fridays but are encouraged to come into offices Tuesday through Thursday.
- Returning to offices is essential to increasing productivity and decreasing inflation, argues BlackRock CEO Larry Fink. His statement came the same day the company announced that employees would now be expected to work in person three days a week.
- US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh has walked back earlier statements about hybrid and remote work. Although initially skeptical of remote work arrangements and eager for his own employees to return to offices, he told Politico that “there’s something to be said for flexibility.”
- Some 69% of medium and large companies require remote-enabled employees to work on site a set number of days, including 26% that require three days of in person work a week and 17% that require two, according to survey data from Gartner.
Here are some of the best tips and insights from the past week for managing yourself and your team:
- Build standing into your work routines. If you find yourself taking too few standing or walking breaks throughout the workday, try tying them to an action you do throughout the day. For example, stand up or take a lap around the room after every phone call.
- Use performance improvement plans to benefit employees. Performance improvement plans are developed for struggling employees who have been underperforming for some time, but they don’t have to be merely a pre-firing formality. Instead, use the opportunity to re-engage the employee by creating a plan for growth, identifying new opportunities, and helping them develop new strengths and skills.
- To rebuild connection, start talking to strangers. Over two years into the pandemic, many people have found themselves feeling less connected. One way to strengthen your social ties is to be purposeful about finding opportunities for small talk. Introduce yourself to an unfamiliar coworker or ask a stranger in the elevator class how their day has been—it makes it easier to say “hi” down the line.
- Scroll through #CorporateTok. For many younger workers, social media platform TikTok has been a source of career advice and community. Posts under the hashtag #corporatetok have given users a platform to talk about issues as diverse as salary transparency, work-life balance, and negotiating promotions.
A special offer for Charter readers: Join a free productivity masterclass with David Allen, the bestselling author of Getting Things Done (aka GTD), which will cover how to hit your goals while avoiding burnout and overwhelm. The event, hosted by Khe Hy of RadReads, is tomorrow, Sept. 12, at 11am EDT. Sign up here.
A return-to-office Hail Mary. In an attempt to entice tenants back to its buildings, one commercial New York landlord is running a daily lottery for VIP Jets and Giants football tickets, with a QR code displayed in the lobbies that employees have to scan in order to enter.
Time to brush up on social skills. Some workers, after forgetting how to spend full days in person around their colleagues, are getting professional help: Enrollment in LinkedIn’s business etiquette classes last month was up 127% from the previous August.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.