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Community Impact Is a Key Strategy in Returning to the Office

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our ongoing exploration of how design is responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As companies begin to plan a return to the office, many are focused on critical questions around safety and physical distancing. But there’s another vital, often-overlooked factor that should be an integral piece of any company’s office reentry strategy: community impact. Community impact work extends beyond people’s day-to-day job responsibilities and helps fulfill the fundamental human need that our work has meaning and purpose. Working for others who may be less fortunate provides a focal point during the challenging re-opening process and will strengthen a company’s culture long after this crisis passes.

We all can identify aspects of the “culture” of our workplace. Descriptions such as “hard-charging,” “laid back,” or “entrepreneurial” may come to mind. But beyond these general descriptors, almost all companies’ cultures contain some component of community outreach, which can be demonstrated in a variety of ways. For example, many companies create strong partnerships with not-for-profit organizations, some volunteer over annual days of service, and still others provide philanthropic support to causes aligned with the mission of their business.

Community service, in any form, is good for the communities where we live and work, good for the reputation of our businesses, and especially good for our people. Gallup’s Employee Engagement Survey and the Cone Communications Millennial Employee Engagement Study concur that employees desire “purpose-driven work” and consider it a priority in job selection, company loyalty, and retention.

In this very uncertain time, many of us may begin to feel disconnected from our company’s culture as we approach our fourth month of working from home. Although the new workplace may look and feel very different from the one we left, the community impact aspect of company culture serves its purpose from near and far, as the work of giving back to those in need in our communities has meaning and fulfills the innate desire to help during this extreme health crisis.

Here are a few guidelines for incorporating community impact into your office re-opening strategies:

1. Lead now. Don’t wait.

While anytime is a good time for leaders to engage in community impact activities alongside colleagues, right now it’s more important than ever. At a time when we’re all facing a variety of new stresses in our daily lives and when needs in our communities are increasing, reaching out to help others through community impact efforts can help raise morale and provide people with enriching activities that add the important component of “purpose” to our stay-at-home lives.

Recently, we had a robust discussion about whether to delay our annual month of service, known as Global Give Back Month (“GGBM”), which was originally planned for June. Given the hands-on nature of the team volunteer activities we were planning, we considered delaying the event by six months or more. But support to carry on quickly grew, as did the creativity of our colleagues and their intentions to ramp up support for their communities through “GGBM Remote.” Our Co-CEO’s recently announced that GGBM will, in fact, take place in June. Many offices are already organizing their plans to give back to their communities in a meaningful way, such as Gensler Houston’s book drive.

2. Be visible and lead by example.

It’s critical that leaders invest their own time as clear and active supporters of community outreach activities. Many leaders in our offices are sewing face masks or 3D-printing face shields for frontline healthcare workers alongside colleagues in their offices. Other leaders have participated in (and served as anonymous benefactors for) events like fundraiser Bingo nights, the proceeds of which purchased meals for healthcare workers. Setting these examples of leadership and commitment encourages everyone to get involved and increases the impact for the deserving organizations supported.

3. Let the grass(roots) grow.

Let the organic efforts that have undoubtedly sprung up within your organization in response to the pandemic grow and thrive. Acknowledge the entrepreneurial efforts of individuals in your workforce, shine a light on their volunteer work as a best practice, and encourage others to engage in their communities as well. A week after our global teams began to work from home to help stem the spread of COVID-19, we asked our colleagues to let us know what they were doing to give back to their communities, even if their activities were virtual. We now have a list of over 125 different activities that we have compiled into a resource for all of our colleagues to share. The diversity of these suggestions is inspiring — everything from donation of blood and platelets, to contactless grocery delivery, to the design of an architecture-based Amazing Cities for Kids coloring book and a “grown up” version, too.

4. Incorporate community impact into your culture in a way that is genuine and lasting.

Start activities now that can continue and grow once you are back in the office. Our “artists” who are painting colorful murals onto the boarded-up facades of local businesses grew this idea from a research project into its full iteration of mural-painting. Color Speaks, as it has come to be known, has fostered stronger relationships between our colleagues and the business owners they work with, with the community-at-large, which has reaped the benefits of the beautiful streetscapes, and even with the other Gensler offices that have adopted the idea for their communities. It’s likely that these relationships will thrive and grow as people return to the workplace and that new, collaborative projects may arise from these new relationships.

Everyone recognizes the tremendous need that exists for volunteerism and philanthropy, particularly in a time of humanitarian crisis. But the value of giving back to our communities in ways that are generous, creative, and draw upon our colleagues’ strengths and interests is truly multi-faceted. No re-opening plan is complete without community impact’s potential to demonstrate positive and long-lasting benefits on our workforce and our culture.

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