Guest Post By Cynthia P. Martinez, The S/L/A/M Collaborative

To think beyond the safe, coordinated and mandated guidelines that businesses across the nation will adhere to when returning to the workplace, as interior architects/designers, we are discovering there is one critical component missing: engaging employees on how they envision their future workplace.

As individual states phase their economy out of quarantine due to the COVID-19 crisis, companies should ponder the words of Albert Einstein, “in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” If companies can take a step back and examine what the employee experience has been during this time, together, they may be enlightened moving forward in the new normal.  A full team engagement process invariably will bring to the table a fresh perspective, varied ideas, and never-imagined solutions for the workplace.

Companies that seize the opportunity to take a collective deep breath amongst the current chaos, and re-think what worked before COVID-19, what didn’t, and what could be better—while including their multi-generational employees in the process—will, in the long-term, come out ahead. 

All In this together

A catch phrase during this pandemic has been “in this together.”  Companies want to be on the path to accelerate economic recovery.  But they must keep in mind that the economic engine of every company is its employees. There is no asset more valuable to a business than the creativity, innovation and productivity that is achieved when people, who share a common purpose, come together in the workplace.

However, it has been several months since employees have been quarantined due to the COVID-19 crisis, and the thought of going back to the workplace has them feeling uneasy and insecure. They know it will not be the same.  And, it should not be. What companies do know is that working from home has both increased the productivity of many employees and has changed how they work. Thought needs to be given to how they want the office workspace to perform for them moving forward and how to structure their day.

However, it is important to recognize that a thoughtfully designed environment that supports how employees work, paired with a strong, inclusive culture and transparent communication from leadership, can make them feel safe, connected, and supported; and therefore, allows them to naturally explore and unleash their most creative and innovative ideas, maximizing their potential at work.

New policies will be implemented to keep them safe. Comfort levels at the office and in public will not be the same, for quite some time.  Perhaps, they have asked themselves, “why go back to the office full time if I have proven I can work from home part time, be more productive than ever, and stay safe without having to wear a mask all day?”  But they knew the day would come to go back.  It is time for employees to transition to the new normal and have the option to define what that will mean.

Not everything was working before

Although employees may all yearn for the way things were,the “old normal” was not perfect, either. For years they have heard passionate arguments for and against the open office– the latter’s argument has been louder about lack of acoustical and visual privacy, not having your own desk in some cases, bad lighting, temperature controls, lack of technology and never enough meeting space.

In addition, lack of engagement and employee retention has been one of the biggest challenges facing employers well before the current pandemic; the current need to deploy their workforce to work from home, has either been their time to shine as an employer or underperform. 

So why shouldn’t employees aspire to go back to a better workplace experience? This is their opportunity to re-imagine—together with their employer—what the new workplace experience should be and expand it with visions that are beyond the boundaries of the office. Ultimately, a great place to work is not just about having the latest and greatest amenities, it is about employees being productive and happy because they formed part of the solution and had input in shaping their new work environment.

Knowing they have been engaged in the plan to return to work, will likely make them feel safer and even excited to go back to the office and be with their people. Companies that have transparent and frequent communication with their employees (including personal touch points) that address their health and wellbeing, and provide a supportive work environment, will result in higher morale.

It is time employers apply the lessons learned from the past and use them to create a better, more engaged workforce in the future.

Lessons Learned During Quarantine

If companies look on the bright side of this time in quarantine and what they have learned, employees are unequivocally grateful for this gift of time.  In the “old normal” employees were running around from meeting to meeting, and the thought of work/life balance was merely a myth. People were well on their way to burn out.

Even still, working from home comes with a few new adjustments. With the physical transition from work to home missing, the day becomes blurred between when the workday starts and when it ends. People are still figuring out the right balance between virtual meetings and the lack of in-person interaction with co-workers, which may be, for some, the greatest motivation to go back.

This time at home has had a positive impact on new ways teams are collaborating due to advances in technology, and a sense of achieving work/life balance.  An overwhelming percentage of employees say working from home is an option they would welcome permanently, for part of the week.

Over the past years interior architects have designed workplaces to include amenities reminiscent of home, and today we have brought the office into our home. People love the flexibility that working from home provides, but what they miss the most about going to the office is the sense of community, social interaction and collaboration.  They go to the office for the overall workplace experience and a shared sense of purpose. That will not change. 

Companies are left to figure out how to reconcile these two experiences and create a workplace that blends the best of both worlds. 


Be prepared to pivot and adapt until the right balance of measures, policies and workplace environment that supports your culture and your company mission is found. The outcome will represent a new employee engagement paradigm that provides an increase in communications, a focus on employee health and wellbeing, while creating a more resilient and dedicated workforce.  Retaining and recruiting top talent will remain a top priority for companies.  But, the considerations of what this new workforce will be looking for may have shifted:

  • The option to balance working from home and the office in order to maintain a flexible schedule that prioritizes flexibility and work/life balance. 
  • A workplace that is intentionally designed for people to safely connect, collaborate, learn and socialize in either a physical or virtual setting, while providing adequate privacy and focus areas.  (This may require re-thinking the mix of allocation of spaces, and multi-purposing of common areas.)
  • An agile workplace that provides enhanced technology tools and resources to support employees to work and collaborate from anywhere at any time.
  • Prioritizing and customizing the employee experience based on their career stage.
  • Placing a permanent emphasis on employee health and wellbeing, including mental and financial health.
  • Robust change management strategies that emphasize meaningful communication.
  • A strong leadership that leads by example, cascades into captivating a shared brand, mission and culture that is inclusive of their employees.

A Workplace Renaissance

Although with great freedom, comes responsibility.  It cannot be over emphasized, how important it is to acknowledge that we are all in this together, and as the company does its part to adapt to the new “normal,” so too, must employees assume their part in the creation of a better workplace experience. 

Employees cannot expect the company and the leadership to lift this great burden alone. This is their time to excel and bring forth their boxed-up creativity and innovation and put it to work. If leadership asks their employees to be a part of the solution, they are, in turn, engaged and have “ownership” of the results.  

This pandemic will likely change the lives of workers and employers for the better.  A positive outlook will help transform corporate culture and challenge companies to explore how to engage their renewed and motivated workforce, whether they are in the office or at home.  What companies and employees have today is a once in a lifetime opportunity to come together and re-imagine a better workplace experience. 

Cynthia P. Martinez, Corporate Practice Leader-Denver. Cynthia is the Programs Chair for the CoreNet Global Colorado Chapter, Co-chair for the Community Relations committee for CREW and a member of the Economic Development Council for the Downtown Denver Partnership.  SLAM is a national, fully integrated architecture and design firm with practices in corporate, healthcare, education, justice and sports facilities.