COVID-19 Support

Balancing Safety with the Human Urge for Social Interaction

COVID-19 Support

Balancing Safety with the Human Urge for Social Interaction

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The whole purpose of offices is to create a social space. The reason we have always gone to work is to be near other people, to communicate and socialize. It’s only relatively recently that telecommunications and online tools have enabled us to communicate effectively without having to meet people face to face.

Foreword

The impact of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has been profound for corporate real estate professionals as they rethink and rapidly reconfigure their workplaces to adapt to the “new normal.” In our Mighty Guide eBook, 7 Experts on Reimagining the Workplace, we interview real estate professionals on the impact of COVID-19 on their roles and their employees’ well-being as well as how they anticipate moving forward. In this blog post, Nick Booth shares his perspective on how real estate professionals must address a new set of challenges and opportunities.

How has social interaction in the workplace changed since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and how has that change affected people’s feelings of connectedness with one another?

The whole purpose of offices is to create a social space. The reason we have always gone to work is to be near other people, to communicate and socialize. It’s only relatively recently that telecommunications and online tools have enabled us to communicate effectively without having to meet people face to face. Nonetheless, I think that there’s still a strong human desire—an urge—to gather together and to see people. If you talk to people about how they are getting on during lockdown, a consistent issue is that they’re missing their workmates, their friends. That social interaction isn’t quite the same online. That’s a real challenge.

We used to work around densities, depending on the operation, from 8 to 10 square meters per person. I suspect that we’re probably going to be near 15 to 20 square meters per person now. Initially, my employer took away every other chair, taped across every other desk to discourage people from sitting there, removed keyboards, and provided everyone with their own laptop and cleaning materials. The kitchen areas now have a queuing system, so no more than two people are in a kitchen at a time. Instead of a café and restaurant, the company provides vending facilities. All the situations that would encourage social interaction, even within the workplace, have been removed.

We’ve also considered how we treat visitors and customers. When they come into the building, are they encouraged to stay? We don’t want to be antisocial. The trend is to have as little interaction as possible. People come in with a mask on, do what they need to do, sign the document, and then leave. I did this the other day. I went into my lawyer’s office because I had to sign a document, and I was there for about five minutes. Normally, it takes an hour and a half. All the consultation took place online. There’s no densification at the office at all. It’s empty. The sense of isolation creates a starkly different feeling than we’re used to.

How will people connect with one another when they can’t be together in person at the office?

We’ve all gotten used to sitting in our own home offices. We have become much more accustomed to using tools such as Microsoft Teams and conference facilities where we have a camera, audio, and can share information on desktops. We’re becoming better at virtually showing each other documents, spreadsheets, and videos. This transition to remote work has pros and cons. While we’re seeing a boost in productivity, the increased time online poses some concerns from an employee well-being perspective.

I think that the transfer of information and the speed with which activities are taking place have increased. Remote work has created a more efficient working environment. I read something in National Geographic about a bit of research that genuinely identified online meeting fatigue as being a risk to the employee. Spending too much time online is recognized as being a much more intense experience than conventional office interactions. We have to keep a close eye on employee wellness in this context.

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