The coronavirus crisis has had far-reaching effects on us individually and as a society, both inside and outside our homes, and for many of us, in the office spaces that we will return to soon. At EQ Office, we have seen the work environment change rapidly, and we are reinventing what it means to be part of a workplace community, no matter where that community now resides.
When workplaces began to shut down in the spring, in the anxious early days of the pandemic, a critical aspect of our traditional work community was lost. Companies across the country scrambled to make sense of a steady stream of new information, to conform to changing rules and health guidelines, and to adjust to the rapid rollout of new and largely untested work-from-home policies.
Employees adapted out of sheer necessity, and many have enjoyed the additional flexibility and newfound freedom of working remotely. Now, months later, after countless hours spent on video conferences, the initial glow has faded, and we are seeing a fatigued workforce and a falling-off in productivity amid the challenges of balancing life with remote work.
In a recent survey conducted by EQ Office, tenants told us that they feel that their company culture has deteriorated and that the lack of face-to-face interaction has hurt working relationships and left them missing a feeling of connection to their professional community. “There is no informal productivity or connectivity that happens,” as one of our tenants put it, “when people are not in the office together. The ability to have water-cooler chats or pop into someone’s office is lost. It’s hard to have spontaneous interactions in an online world.”
At EQ, we recognize that work is a major part of our personal identity. Without the personal exchanges, collaboration and spontaneous discussions we are used to, we become aware that we are missing something more than simply work, something bigger than ourselves. This is driving a renewed desire, almost a yearning, to get back to the workplace, our colleagues and our professional community.
Workplace communities are as important as ever, and this has become even more evident as we move forward.
In a survey of Facebook employees covered by the Harvard Business Review, the participants identified three things they wanted most from work: career, community and cause. When those three critical elements are met, they give employees a sense of respect, care and recognition from their community at work, and they report that they truly “bring their whole selves to work.” This sense of connection with a work community enriches their feeling of accomplishment, beyond the physical walls of the workplace.
Workplace communities are as important as ever, and this has become even more evident as we move forward.
Employing an experimental approach to workplace innovation
We are living through one of the most challenging times for commercial real estate in decades, which presents an incredible opportunity for discovery, and for leadership around what the new normal will look like for the workplace. Just as universities and K-12 classrooms are experimenting with novel ways to address the pandemic, our properties and, in particular the iconic Chicago landmark Willis Tower, have become critical innovation labs for EQ Office, as we guide the evolution of the new work experience. While we are still in the early days, and the situation continues to develop, we are pioneering new ways to modernize office spaces for the new realities.
First and foremost at Willis Tower, that means working to ensure tenants’ safety and well-being. Early on, we realized that there simply cannot be a strong sense of community unless people feel safe. “It takes leadership to improve safety,” as Formula One racing driver Jackie Stewart has said. Our approach has been to go above and beyond simple adherence to the CDC’s basic public health requirements, and to help create a sense of psychological safety.
Applying Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, when employee safety (either real or perceived) is threatened, a company must provide an adequate level of protection, or it will not be able to access the performance from its talent that results in the productivity and the creativity that businesses thrive on.
To optimize the safety and well-being of our tenants and visitors, we have spent months of exhaustive research and testing to ensure that we can provide a safe, secure workplace to return to when the time comes.
For example, our VP of real estate technology, Mikki Ward, led the charge on evaluating and testing the latest technological solutions available, including: ways to identify, monitor and track building visitors and to support enhanced cleaning measures; modifications of mechanical systems to improve air quality and measurement; spatial rearrangements to help keep people safely separated, and more.
As we continue to research and innovate, we have already made great progress on advancing these studies and on technology pilots at Willis Tower, including:
Providing multiple touchless access options for the building. We now understand that this option is more important than ever, and full touchless access will soon be available to the entire building population from lobby entry, through the turnstiles and up to their suites.
New and improved filtration systems to increase air quality, and improved mechanical monitoring processes to provide additional ventilation and airflow and to manage temperature and humidity more precisely.
Engaging our own independent consulting physician to advise us on each step of our safety implementation and to continuously review all processes, touchpoints and protocols.
Enhanced deep-cleaning, limiting density in common areas, and staggered elevator flow, with reduced occupancy.
Rebuilding community by taking a hybrid digital/physical approach
Another key takeaway from our work with tenants at Willis Tower is their deep desire to stay connected to the building community. We prioritized the transition from physical to digital, and have been rolling out new ways to recreate our building community and to maintain connectivity in the digital realm.
We have focused on what EQ’s CEO and president, Lisa Picard, calls the “phygital,” by recreating the physical services and amenities that we typically provide to our tenants and delivering them as digital experiences, too.
To accomplish this, we have focused on what EQ’s CEO and president, Lisa Picard, calls the “phygital,” by recreating the physical services and amenities that we typically provide to our tenants and delivering them as digital experiences, too.
As she sums it up, “Companies have been considering new hub-and-spoke strategies as they evaluate the current situation and begin planning for the future. Since the pandemic has forced the need for work-from-home policies, employers know that focusing on maintaining a strong culture and sense of community is mandatory to keep and attract talent. While a ‘phygital’-first approach — one that prioritizes a digital workplace combined with a physical one — is a near-term necessity, the future of work is human. People need and crave human connection. Community drives a sense of purpose.”
Services are a critical aspect of the Willis Tower brand and experience, and they bring tenants together as a community. While some of our amenities are still temporarily closed and we need to remain socially distant, we’ve started to re-energize Willis Tower’s culture by modifying and adding to our community offerings and maintaining much of its programming and services.
We understand from our tenants that recreating a “sense of community is harder to do because people are busy, more distracted, and ‘virtual happy hour’ events aren’t the same as having events or gatherings in the office.” This just means that we have to continue to innovate, and to work even harder to build that community in the phygital world. To that end, and since the start of this pandemic, we have launched new products and services that extend physical experiences to the virtual space, including:
Enrichment: “Tower Talks”, a live lecture series that featured a broad variety of topics — from workshops geared to advice for interns to book author and artist talks — has gone virtual. It is now available on the Tower app.
Networking: Affinity and cohort-building community groups, including the wildly popular “Women of Willis,” provide opportunities for connection that have extended into digital meetups and happy hours.
Fitness: TONE Fitness Center is providing online fitness classes through the Tower app, both on demand and in live formats.
Expanding flexibility and workspace options
In 2020, we have certainly learned that the future is never guaranteed, and that to thrive requires adaptation and flexibility. At EQ, we know we must support companies as they adapt, and that the office space of old is not the office space of the future.
EQ Office’s philosophy of spatial alchemy, an intentional intersection of space and culture, has already led to the creation of a variety of workspaces in Willis Tower.
EQ Office’s philosophy of spatial alchemy, an intentional intersection of space and culture, has already led to the creation of a variety of workspaces in Willis Tower. More innovation is on the way. The core idea is to blend spaces and provide greater flexibility for the wide variety of solutions that employees will choose for their working arrangements now and going forward.
In the near future, we will be making adjustments to increase support and encourage the ability to collaborate, concentrate or commune in Willis Tower. The rooftop terrace, on Level 4 above Catalog, is now open exclusively to tenants on weekdays, with socially distanced seating areas, and custom-designed and landscaped greenspace with a variety of plantings, shrubs and trees. More changes are planned on the tenant-amenities floors, like Tower House and Altitude, so that people can meet in small groups over coffee or a snack from the café. In the coming weeks, some furniture will be moved out to create safe meeting areas, and the space will be redesigned for collaborative pods or for peace and quiet.
In the next few months, we’ll continue to speak with tenants and survey their workforces. We’ll explore their concerns, inquire how they’d like their office spaces to change, and work with them on their plans for returning to the office — in whatever form that takes.
The transformation of Willis Tower has delivered on our goal of creating an all-season, urban destination with a core and an irreplaceable community — delivering the best of both work and life to the building’s tenants, talent, visitors and to residents of Chicago. Getting back to our workplace communities in the evolving new normal is our top priority at EQ Office, and at the heart of what we are doing at Willis Tower. We will strive to reinvent physical spaces that make people feel both safe and secure and that inspire them to be at their most productive and creative at work.
WILLIS TOWER SPOTLIGHT:
Stepping into the art-filled lobby of the newly renovated Willis Tower, a visitor will immediately understand why it has been described as the “future of work and play”:
The building has been undergoing an extensive redesign — even through the pandemic. Its amenities are meant to work together to create a sense of belonging for all tenants, beyond their individual companies, as part of a larger community. The goal is to make going to work feel like a creatively inspiring, supportive and inclusive gathering-place.
Formerly known as Sears Tower, Willis Tower is the type of workspace that so many of us are yearning to return to, after being forced to shelter in place for the spring and summer of 2020.
Last year, more than 15,000 people worked in the building every day, and more than 1.7 million people visited the tower and its world-famous Skydeck Chicago.
The historic tower is the home of more than 100 businesses. It features 300,000 square feet of newly renovated retail, dining and entertainment space, called Catalog, in commemoration of the historic Sears catalog that was known in every home across the country.
Recently, 150,000 square feet of tenant amenity spaces have been freshly built, including tenant lounges, cafés, bars, a fitness center and a 30,000-square-foot outdoor terrace and garden.