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Bergmeyer Office Re-Entry: Tales from the Return to the Workplace

The good, the bad, and the unexpected.

In April, when we published our Office Re-Entry plan as an open resource, we hoped that it would be useful for anyone trying to conceive a re-entry plan for their own office. In the last two months, we have been blown away by the volume and breadth of conversations publishing our re-entry plan has led to around physically preparing our spaces and psychologically supporting our teams to return to the workplace. We have been asked to adapt our strategy for businesses across the country for spaces ranging from workplaces to restaurants to large corporate campuses, and we have created unique branded wayfinding and graphics to support each individual corporate identity.

Once our local officials deemed it safe to do so, we welcomed our first small group of pioneers back into our office. We promised many of you that we would report back on how it went – the good, the bad, the unexpected – and we’re pleased to share what we have learned with you. We have been back in the office at 15% occupancy for the past three weeks (Wave 1). This week we are going up to 25% occupancy (Wave 2). As our first wave of employees came back in our Boston office, we polled them at the end of week 1 with the following questions:

  • What is working and what isn’t in our de-densified office environment?
  • How are you finding a staggered work schedule of M/W/F and T/TH?
  • How are you commuting to work? Is it different than how you commuted to work pre-COVID?
  • What were your concerns before to returning to the office? Have they been validated or eased?
  • Zoom is a (very) large part of our daily life. How are you finding zoom calls in the office vs. at home?
  • What learnings from your experience would you like to share with others who are contemplating returning in Wave 2 or 3?

Renderings from our office reentry plan:

We compiled all the feedback. With three weeks under our belt and 15% of our staff back in the office, we have made the following observations:

Take the appropriate time for planning and set-up, but prepare to adapt on the fly.

  • Re-setting the office takes more time than you think. To create a starting point for a “clear desk” policy, we had to clear off everyone’s desks and all public spaces prior to our deep clean (and our people really love trinkets, knick-knacks, and keepsakes). We also had to remove and store seating from all areas of the office to lower room occupancy counts and re-enforce the need for physical distancing.
  • The design of clear, concise, and branded signage is very important. It will be up for a while, so together with a deep clean, it is worth spending the money on. People who returned to the office have uniformly noted that they felt a wave of relief at how clear it was to know what was expected of them through the signage. Before they returned, they were worried, “will I walk in the wrong direction and bump into someone?” “will I know which bathroom stall to use?” “will others follow the new social norms”? but these fears have been allayed by good signage.
  • Be prepared to adapt. Not everything will work out the way you thought it would! As in all design work, the user experience will be determined in large part by the people who use the space. Think of your “week one” as an irreplaceable opportunity to get real-time feedback on what’s working and what’s not.

It feels great to be in the office…. but different

  • The people who want to be in the office (all of our waves were self-selected by participant) are finding that they enjoy returning to the ritual of their daily commute and having a start and end to their day. Some feel more productive without the distractions of home and family. Many people have had difficulty setting boundaries between work and home life in a home office environment. And for many of our employees who live in smaller city apartments, it is a welcome relief to enjoy a separate and ergonomically-designed office space and have some free time from their cohabitants.
  • Without a full bustling office full of our friendly colleagues it feels a little…lonely, or at least quiet. However, as some of the original trepidation from week 1 has eased, people have felt more comfortable chatting from several desks apart, popping their heads up to ask their colleagues questions, and started playing music for background noise. When colleagues they haven’t seen in a while in person arrive, it is like greeting long lost friends – seeing each other on zoom is really nothing like the excitement of seeing friends and colleagues in person.
  • Every single person who responded said that they feel safe in the office – many more-so than they expected. They specifically attributed this to the deep clean and de-cluttering of desks prior to re-entry, clear, concise and consistent signage throughout the office, readily available sanitization stations with cleaning products, gloves, hand sanitizer, and masks, and clear communication as to what to expect prior to re-entry. Our employees are readily complying with all new social norms.
  • The jury is still out on one-way circulation. It is frustrating at times and inconvenient but also has helped avoid the unexpected hallway meetings at intersections that challenge physical distancing requirements.

Schedules and Transportation are works in progress

  • Our plan allows for staff to choose to come into the office 2 or 3 days per week in Wave 1, 2 and 3. Some people prefer to work consecutive days because they don’t like setting up and taking down their work station. But many prefer staggered days to break up their week. We are being very open to staff creating a schedule that works for them as we are all dealing with cancelled summer camp, commuting concerns, etc. Team members are creating their own daily checklists to ensure they have everything they need at home and in the office. The clear desk policies help reinforce this!
  • Concerns over the safety of using public transportation and lack of childcare are still the number one concerns people cite as to why they are not yet ready to come to the office. Those who are traveling to the office are either driving, walking, bike commuting (some for the first time!) or taking the very empty commuter rail. Very few are taking public transportation currently, although that was the primary mode of transportation previously.

Zoom, Zoom and more Zoom – we need best practices

  • We still need to create a new best practices protocol for Zoom calls in the office. Most people use their integrated computer audio at home, but obviously that creates issues in an open office. With the sheer quantity of Zoom calls we are on all day, how do we keep usage of our conference rooms from being overwhelmed with people looking for acoustical privacy as more people return to the office? And while our office has fantastic natural light streaming in most of the day, it doesn’t create the best backdrop.
  • This is a topic that needs more study to answer questions such as: Headset or computer audio? Use a conference room or take a call at your desk? Does each member of a call feel comfortable in a conference room together even with physical distancing in place? At how many people back in the office do we run out of conference rooms? Should we set up new Zoom stations? What is the best physical backdrop for a teleconference?

While that is the feedback from people who have returned to the office, the people who have not returned yet are mostly concerned about lack of childcare and the safety of public transportation. This presents the question: are there opportunities for business to come up with creative solutions to address these potential longer term concerns? Could we band together as a business community to create alternative solutions to the child care or public transportation challenges?

As we tackle these questions along with the many other weighty topics facing our business these days, we have to say: Bottom line – it’s great to be back and we feel very proud to be able to offer a physically and psychologically safe environment for those who choose to return to the office on a regular basis. We commit to sharing our regular progress in our office re-entry with you in the hopes that it continues to spur more thoughtful dialogue on how we can best support each other and our teams.

Example of one of our wayfinding graphics:

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