The COVID-19 pandemic has forced LPA, like millions of other companies, to re-examine where we work, how we work and what we can do better to maintain our workplace culture in the months ahead.
LPA CEO Wendy Rogers distinctly remembers leaving the office that night in March, when California shut down business. “We had sent everyone home, and I was walking through this empty space wondering when we’d ever come back into this fabulous new office,” she recalls. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget that moment, ever.”
By the time she reached her car, the questions started: Will people be able to work from home? Will the technology support us? How will we work together going forward? Within days, the company went from 100 percent studio based to 100 percent working at home.
In the weeks ahead, the questions about day-to-day operations were answered, as teams embraced technology and projects moved ahead. Designers found new ways to collaborate with clients and meet the rigorous demands of the approval processes. Soon, however, the questions changed. Along with corporate executives throughout the country, LPA leaders began to wonder, what’s next? How will the pandemic fundamentally change how we work?
“We saw it as a rare opportunity to look inward and examine how we could work better,” says LPA Design Director Rick D’Amato. “We needed to understand what we have learned from this experience.”
Leadership wanted to learn more about workflow and collaboration.
“We realized as a company that we were going to be facing bigger questions and likely our clients would be asking the same questions,” Rogers says. “It just seemed like this was the time to understand what this would mean for us.”
The firm launched a change-management research project to learn more about how the staff was operating during the pandemic and how that might affect the work habits and culture going forward. In many ways, the goal was to treat the firm as its own client, similar to the process that developed the design of the LEED Platinum headquarters studio, which opened last year as a healthy workspace and “living laboratory” for collaboration.
Each week the staff was sent three open-ended questions on targeted topics.
LPAred, the firm’s in-house research team, was enlisted to research the issues and learn more about how the teams were responding in real time. Leadership wanted to learn more about employees’ individual workflows, how they were collaborating and the influence this might have on design strategies for the transition back into the workplace. LPAred developed a program of regular staff surveys exploring different elements of their work habits. The goal was to better understand how the pandemic was affecting specific areas of the firm—people (who we are), process (how we work), product (what we create), place (where we work) and planet (sustainability).
Once a week for four weeks, LPAred researchers sent three open-ended questions to staff, focusing on the goal areas. The answers to each question were treated as anonymous journal entries, allowing the researchers to capture the evolution of each individual’s experiences. The response rate was consistently strong, averaging close to 25 percent, says LPAred Senior Research Analyst Kimari Phillips.
An inductive coding process was used to analyze the responses and remove any researcher bias. “We wanted the themes to emerge on their own by grouping common responses together, rather than predetermining buckets to fit the responses into,” Phillips says.
The project prompted an on-going discussion between leadership and staff.
“We’re really trying to understand the emotional nature of what people are going through... Instead of trying to fight it, we want to learn how our office culture and our collaboration and our community can adapt to it.” - Rick D’Amato, Design Director
Three major themes emerged from the surveys, elements that were affecting the target areas: physical environmental needs, confidence navigating the virtual world and employees’ growing sense of agency. The results showed a clear evolution as people became more accustomed to working from home. But there were nuances. Staffers shared the need to feel connected to the organization and to feel part of the “collective whole.” As confidence rose in their surroundings and technology, people found that collaboration and communication improved. People were more willing to call a colleague or make a point of staying in touch. Meetings were deliberate, efficient and focused.
Another key finding was the sense of agency and empowerment staff members developed as they settled into the routines of working from home. Many found that they could work productively, even as they developed an improved work-life balance and made a greater investment of time in health, wellness and family. They made it clear that they did not wish to lose these elements in any plan to return to the office. “Many people reported feeling as though their ability to exercise agency over their immediate environment, schedule and life outside of work since working from home contributed to a better work-life balance,” says LPAred Research Analyst Rachel Nasland. “When people feel as though they have greater control over various aspects of their lives, they can manage their stress better and perform at higher levels.”
At the same time, people became more aware of personalization and equity in discussions; with everyone working remotely, people came to feel that they had more of an equal voice on Zoom calls than in the traditional in-office encounters of the past. Titles and geographic locations became less relevant. Designers from all disciplines and regions were on equal footing with their counterparts. Calls with colleagues and clients became more personal, as participants shared glimpses of their home environments.
“I think the biggest learning moment was how we became so much more inclusive, in terms of how everyone was engaged and involved,” Rogers says.
The surveys showed employees were quick to adapt to their new work routines. Overall, 88 percent of the respondents said they were satisfied with their ability to effectively work from home; 68 percent reported an increase in their self-rated productivity since the first month working from home.
The study was designed to learn more about how office culture and collaboration could adapt to the new conditions.
“We were surprised at how successful people were working from home,” Phillips says. As the weeks progressed, “people felt as though they could maintain the same level of effectiveness as they would in the office.”By the fourth week of the survey, there was evidence a change had occurred.
As employees began to focus on returning to the workplace, they expressed a desire to maintain the ability to make choices in their environment. They want greater flexibility to choose the environment that best suits their personal needs, the study found.
A MECHANISM FOR CHANGE
As LPA prepared to return to the studio, it became clear the “forced experiment” of working from home was going to be a catalyst for culture change. In the short term, COVID-related health issues remained the primary reason the staff was uncomfortable returning to the office; 44 percent cited health and safety concerns. However, the majority expressed that they would be willing to return to the office, as needed.
But the study also illustrated that working at home had altered people’s perception of their workplace. The majority said they were interested in working a hybrid schedule, at least until child care and schools reopen. Designers expressed a desire to continue the use of virtual communication and collaborative tools for accessibility and productivity. People said they were feeling more connected to their teams and did not want that to change.
Employees felt communication and collaboration improved in the digital realm.
The knowledge developed during this time will also encourage designers to seek new perspectives on how people use spaces and the best ways to develop places that respond to their needs.
Other basic lessons from the study could also be applied to the future workplace. Employees would like mobility and digital tools to be a bigger part of the workplace mix. Laptops provide the flexibility to change locations, affording more freedom for employees to choose where to work. Quality video cameras and virtual tools will be priorities to maintain visual connections, collaborate more efficiently and allow people to continue the development of their “virtual selves.”
The study was so successful that LPA leaders decided to keep it going. Leadership realized it was crucial to continue the exploration of different ways people were working and adapting to change. The ongoing analysis will play a key role in how the studios will operate going forward.
“We’re really trying to understand the emotional nature of what people are going through, and I think everyone’s trying to tap into that,” LPA Design Director Rick D’Amato says. “Instead of trying to fight it, we want to learn how our office culture and our collaboration and our community can adapt to it.”
The continuing engagement will ensure that staff members play an active part in shaping the process of returning, while maximizing feelings of safety and comfort working in the studios. The knowledge developed during this time will also encourage designers to seek new perspectives on how people use spaces and the best ways to develop places that respond to their needs.