Building the Workplace Community After COVID-19

Content by John Berendzen, AIA, and Jeremy Migneco

As we begin returning to the workplace, most businesses are focused on operational changes and the space itself. They need to reconfigure workspaces and staff schedules to align with the recommended social distancing protocols. They need to incorporate new cleaning and disinfection methods into the workday. However, there may be one important item that is being overlooked: how to strengthen workplace sense of community when everyone returns.

After reading the paragraph above, one might think, “What does strengthening the workplace sense of community have to do with architecture and design?” Simply, architecture is about more than a designing a building, it is about creating a sense of place. A good analogy of this is dining out at a restaurant. Prior to COVID-19, most of our restaurant experiences fell into one of three categories:

  1. Great food but sub-par atmosphere
  2. Amazing atmosphere but meh food
  3. Delicious food and a perfect atmosphere

The first two are common; the last one is elusive. And while the food takes center stage, it requires a culmination of various factors (atmosphere, service, fellow diners, etc.) to elevate a simple meal into an experience.

The same theory applies to the workplace. If the workspace is great but the leadership and community is missing, the production/output will underachieve. Alternatively, a great organization with an inefficient or outmoded workplace yields similar results. The most innovative and productive companies have both – great leadership and a great environment.

With experience in designing workplaces, we understand the creation and growth of workplace culture is specific to each individual organization. Apple’s culture is far different than Boeing’s culture. Both may have similar magnitudes of strength and success; however, they were built anatomically at different levels. Suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to company culture as we return to our places of work would be ineffective.

As Fox anticipates a return to our office, we established criteria to analyze our culture and determine the best methods to encourage its continued strength in the post COVID-19 workplace. Below is some of our process of research and analysis, shared as a guideline for others.


Analyze Connections

Have people inventory the ways in which they connect with others throughout the day. These should include planned and unplanned interactions. This will give insight on how you influence and are influenced by others and the times this happens.  Examples include one-on-one technology assistance, design team meetings, casual conversations in the kitchen or at our desks, walking with someone to the parking garage, etc.

Analyze Free Time

Have people identify the ways they spend their “free time” at work – when they take breaks, have lunch, go on a walk etc.  Do not underestimate the importance of this free time on both culture and productivity. Analyze these to help suggest new ways to build workplace community.  Some examples our team found include arrival and break times, where and when we at lunch, where we work, and listening to music.

Analyze Workflow Collaboration

Ask team members to identify how they work collaboratively. Separate from any social aspect, how do they work with other teammates towards a shared goal? A few examples are one-on-one design critiques, design team meetings, and utilizing work-sharing software

Analyze Big-Picture Cultural Processes

Have Leadership identify how they believe the culture has been shaped. Some ideas include recurring team meetings, office-wide meetings, mentorship programs, office-wide continuing education programs, planned and unplanned office social activities, and serendipitous interactions.


Once the information is gathered, it is time to process. Assess which responses were most important and determine the best manner to enhance them. Locate where employees’ free time overlaps and foster opportunities for connection. Create new approaches to collaborative workflows and determine any spatial/technological requirements. Brainstorm how to adapt and continue existing big-picture cultural processes and use this as an opportunity to shape your sense of common purpose.


Conclude what works well, what can be enhanced and what new procedures can be implemented.   Consider what spatial, technological, or social requirements exist for adapted or new procedures. Share adapted and new procedures with the team, leaving plenty of space for discussion. At Fox, we will try many things, keep what works and jettison what doesn’t.

Sketch by Jeremy Migneco.

Now the Fox Blog just dropped a whole lot of knowledge and you may be wondering…how in the world to apply this information. Great organizations build community through a shared sense of mission and purpose.  Here are some simple steps Fox plans on modifying or testing at our office:

  1. Stand and Discuss. Collaborating to refine an idea leverages multiple thought processes and distributes ownership. Gather your team – six feet apart, of course – and get to work. Quick stand-up meetings around our long worktables are an option. Collaborate. Create.
  2.  Go Big. When presenting an idea, use more images, fewer words, and larger text. Everyone will be sitting further apart, so it is important to ensure all participants can see and understand the concepts being presented. Simplify your content, then simplify some more.
  3. Stay Social. Because unplanned interactions will decrease, plan alternative methods of interaction. Schedule a group “circle up” time each day –maintaining the appropriate distance – and share something about your day. Bring a cup of coffee, grab soda or, if it is happy hour time, pop open a beer, and keep the mood light and the conversation flowing. As the opportunities to have serendipitous moments of bumping into someone will decrease, do the next best thing and schedule the serendipity.
  4. Headphones Off. In many organizations, people wear headphones or earbuds to take calls and attend conference calls and leave them in afterwards to listen to a music or catch up on their favorite podcast. With people and teams spread further apart, however, it is incumbent to be able to listen. So take in the sounds of Bob two seats down munching on his pistachios. Chime in on a conversation Denise and Janet are having from opposite ends of a co-working table. Or stop to smell the White-Out and listen to the sounds of office life going on around you.

It has been a while. Welcome back.

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