Opening up society
14 May 2021
As Covid-vaccines are being rolled out, society is gradually going back to normal - or is it? What impact has the pandemic had on business operations as we used to know them? How do businesses prepare to open up again, and what structures and ideas developed during the past year will linger? In this cross-sectoral feature, we will talk to representatives at three SCC member companies about their experience, what challenges they have faced, and how the pandemic will shape their future.
In the beginning, it was very much a chance to reflect,” Linda Thiel, Director of London studio and Partner at White Arkitekter AB says. “To reflect on how our cities are used and what impact the pandemic might have on society as a whole.” The architecture industry, much like many other industries, soon came to a standstill when the pandemic hit. “We definitely struggled a bit in the beginning. However, we were quite used to working online between the different offices even before the pandemic, so we recovered quite quickly. During the pandemic, collaboration across our offices have increased, and we’ve been working much closer, which I think has been a good experience. But obviously, it has put quite a lot of pressure on both our HR department and financial department. They worked really hard to make sure that the organisation is healthy enough, planning and managing all the information across the company.”
“The focus on HR and what we're doing has definitely increased during the pandemic”, Bernard Charles, Head of HR at Handelsbanken plc, says. “With the health, well-being and safety of employees coming into ever-greater focus, HR teams have been given a more prominent role in many organisations.” Like many other businesses, Handelsbanken quickly had to mobilise most of their employees to work from home. At the same time, however, they also kept all of their over 200 UK branches open. “It has been a great challenge to really make sure that you are there for all of the company's employees. From an HR perspective, we've been supporting people as they got used to working from home, but we’ve also had to make sure that those of our employees who continue to come into the office or to the branch were sufficiently supported”, Bernie says.
Well-being in focus
When the pandemic hit, it soon became evident that ensuring the well-being of employees would revolve not only around keeping them from getting infected by the virus. Bernie mentions several examples of measures Handelsbanken have taken to ensure the well-being of their employees. "For instance, we introduced a virtual GP service, because we knew it was going to be difficult for people to get to their own GP. We've also focused a lot on supporting the mental health of our employees so we post masterclasses around things to help people cope with change and to deal with stress, and we’ve also developed guides, e.g. for parents who were homeschooling.” Bernie highlights the importance of also providing training and support for managers, given that leading a team remotely requires a different skill set than leading a team in person. "I think many of the HR-related challenges that have come up through the pandemic are really around communication. You have to make sure that there continues to be good communication and collaboration when everybody is not in the office all the time, and that we are there for each other as colleagues and supporting each other. We've been encouraging our managers to make sure they're keeping in touch regularly with their team members to make sure that they are okay - emphasising the importance of checking in, not checking up.”
The focus on the well-being of employees has been at the forefront also for office furniture supplier Kinnarps. "For instance, we've started having yoga sessions and we've had a nutritionist teaching us what to eat and what to avoid. We've also had an internal wellness challenge where we encouraged people to walk more by dividing the company up into three teams who then competed to get to our factory in Sweden and back the quickest,” Fredrik Bergsten, Managing Director at Kinnarps UK says.
After living with the pandemic for well over a year, it's evident that some of the processes that had started before the pandemic, such as digitization, sustainability and more flexible work, have accelerated a lot in the past year. All three agree that the pandemic has brought important insights that will affect the way we live and, not least, work. “The biggest challenge for us has been the fact that we're not together in the office. We work closely between departments, so not being able to have that day-to-day interaction has been very difficult, particularly on the creative side. It's quite difficult to work creatively virtually via teams, zoom and so forth, Fredrik explains. Linda agrees: “For architects, meetings can easily be held online, whereas creative workshops, model making, and all of those things, require physical meetings. This goes also for company culture, which is very difficult to nurture when everyone is working online, especially now that everything is very value-based, and a lot of focus is put on having a meaningful place to work,” she says.
She continues: “One important lesson I think society has learned from the pandemic is that it’s really difficult to predict the future - not least how we will be working. Our work processes are likely to change again and again so offices need to have a very robust but flexible layout, and be easy to adapt,” Linda says. Fredrik agrees: “Moving forward, flexibility is going to be incredibly important when designing an office that’s made to last. You’ll need to consider the level of flexibility you require within the space, daily, short term and long term, allowing for this will not only give you a space that works better for your organisation but it’s also more sustainable in the long term with minimized waste.”
Speaking from an HR perspective, Bernie also thinks that flexibility will be one of the greatest considerations as companies start phasing people back into the office. “While many people have really missed their colleagues in the past year, there are also many who have really enjoyed the flexibility of working from home. I think a silver lining to the pandemic is that there will be more flexibility regarding the way we work, communicate and interact going forward. It is about getting the appropriate balance and ensuring we retain our strong corporate culture”.
Preparing for the unpredictable
Now that vaccines are being rolled out, businesses are making plans on how to return to a new normality. If the Covid pandemic has taught us that it's difficult to predict the future, then how do we prepare for the unpredictable?
“I think one of the greatest HR challenges is going to be how we build people's confidence up again. We have to assure our teams that we’ve put all the safety measures in place and that the office is a safe place to be. The fact that so many have become familiar with using online tools and resources is fantastic because it allows for more flexible ways of working, but I think many of these new ways of working will be ‘in-addition’ to how we used to work, rather than ‘instead of’ working with your colleagues in person,” Bernie says.
Fredrik agrees: “Currently, we're hearing various organisations say that the employees can work from home for as long as they want but I think that will present further challenges down the road. I think it's clear that a hybrid working model is going to be implemented by most organisations. And with that, I think we're gonna see an increase in what we call activity-based working, that is, offices designed according to the specific needs of the organisation. I think we will see new types of meeting rooms, allowing for new types of hybrid collaboration. I also think we will see a lot of quiet spaces because, for a lot of people, coming into the office means a chance to actually focus and get away from young children or sitting in uncomfortable positions.”
Fredrik goes on to explain that Kinnarps focuses on long-term strategies when working with its customers, rather than quick fixes such as high screen dividers which isn’t a long term solution. “Our focus will continue to be B2B, part of this now includes supporting our clients home working programs,” Fredrik says. During the pandemic, Kinnarps has been working with customers to help them rethink their workplace strategies, that is, the way they want to work moving forward. “If you are going to drive a big change within the office, now is a good time to do so as you can implement it with minimal disruption whilst most employees are still working from home.
“I think we'll likely see smaller team rooms or some sort of partitions in bigger spaces,” Linda says. “I also think that the values, culture and specific needs of the company are going to show more in the design of the office, resulting in a much broader range of interior designs and styles. What's certain is that businesses within different industries will have to figure out what works best for them and their work processes.”
“The interesting thing about architecture is that you can sort of predict things,” she adds. “However, human behaviour is very difficult to change so it will be interesting to see how workplaces and work culture evolve post-pandemic. That interaction between architecture and human behaviour is what makes a place good and really interesting, especially in these times”.