Woman and man wear masks while working on laptops outside.

Humana is opening outdoor office spaces to give employees the ability to work together safely in-person as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Outdoor office spaces offer a comfortable and safe alternative for employees who crave the camaraderie they had in their pre-pandemic workplaces and missed while working remotely.

Though many offices remain limited to essential workers or closed altogether, companies are innovating to improve employee well-being without compromising workplace safety by creating face-to-face connections outdoors.

“We as humans like to interact with other people. Our culture is built on collaboration, and building relationships and bonds,” said Douglas Edwards, senior vice president of Workplace Experience for Humana, which opened an outdoor office at a public park near its headquarters in Louisville in mid-September.

After months of working remotely, employees want to meet in person again and connect like they used to before the pandemic while remaining safe. “There has been a tremendous amount of pent-up demand for people to see each other. Now, they have an opportunity to do that but to also feel safe,” Edwards said.

Humana associates have enjoyed safely re-connecting amid the autumnal colors and crisp fall air. It is a great time to be outdoors in Louisville. “The associate response has been amazing,” Edwards said.

Outdoor offices like Humana’s are a natural evolution in employers’ efforts to make workplaces safe post-pandemic. Commercial designers are incorporating outdoor workspace into new buildings and converting open-air places such as terraces, rooftops and patios into functional offices at existing workplaces.1

An innovative response

Humana’s outdoor office is 20 miles east of the downtown campus at a shady spot in The Parklands of Floyd Forks. Always looking for ways to better support associates’ health, Humana created the outdoor office so that associates would have a safe space to connect with teammates.

“It was an idea that came up organically. A teammate said that they had an idea that would fit with the way we do things at Humana,” Edwards said.

Like outdoor dining spaces, the fresh air gives people a sense of safety. “We wanted to bring that philosophical approach to the office,” Edwards said.

Humana will keep the office open as long as the weather permits. “At some point, it will be too cold outside, but demand for it is high, and people are comfortable now,” Edwards said. Humana is exploring additional creative solutions to provide outdoor elements to employees during the winter months.

Humana doubled the size of its outdoor office within a few weeks of opening it due to high demand. “We can safely support up to 150 people at a time with social distancing in place—with 2 sessions per day, we can support 300 per day,” said Brad Keller, director of workplace strategy for Humana.

Open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, the outdoor office has limited capacity to keep employees safe. Humana divides workdays into morning and afternoon sessions for additional safety.

Individuals or groups can reserve workspaces at the outdoor office. “We are already finding that smaller teams, of 6 to 12 people, are coordinating to be onsite together,” Keller said. “We also have large enterprise leaders who have booked an entire session for their teams.”

Humana prioritized safety in designing the outdoor office so that it could accommodate groups and meetings, including having 8 feet of space between associates. “The main area is roughly the size of a football field,” Keller said.

The company also has safety protocols as if the office were indoors, such as taking employees’ temperatures before they enter and reminding them to wear face coverings and keep safe distances between them while working. The outdoor office complies with the state of Kentucky’s Healthy at Work, opens new window guidelines as well.

Designed to shelter employees from the elements, the outdoor office has three large tents, lots of picnic tables, Adirondack chairs, working tables, water stations, local food trucks, and 2 large oak trees for shade. It also includes Wi-Fi, charging stations, air-conditioned restrooms, and fans and heaters so Humana associates can connect and work comfortably and safely.

Humana associates have taken to social media to share their appreciation for the company’s open-air solution. “They’ve thought of everything! I’m appreciative for the innovation to enable performance and social connections during a challenging time for our city and nation,” London Roth, Chief of Staff to Northeast Medicare President for Humana, wrote in a LinkedIn post.

Associates can enjoy walking trail meetings as well because the outdoor office is located by trails. Humana partnered with The Parklands of Floyds Fork, opens new window to bring the outdoor office concept to life.

The social connections that associates forge at the outdoor office can help combat the loneliness and social isolation that many feel during quarantine. “It’s done a lot to improve well-being holistically,” Edwards said.

Though the outdoor office in Louisville has been well received, Humana has not decided whether it would open it again in the spring. Nor has the company decided if it would expand the concept to other markets. Much will depend on the pandemic and how employees feel.

Opportunities and obstacles

Edwards suggested that companies consider employee demand for in-person collaboration before opening an outdoor office. “You don’t want to create something that you won’t need,” he said.

Edwards suggested that companies maintain strong safety protocols if they do open outdoor offices, such as by including sanitization stations, as Humana does. “Don’t assume because you’re outdoors that you can relax in terms of wearing a mask or doing temperature checks. You should continue to apply the same rigor that you would put into any type of safety protocol in the COVID-19 era.”

Companies will need to work with local officials if they want to open an outdoor office on public property. For example, Humana worked closely with the city of Louisville to initiate its outdoor workspace. “Humana’s dedication to their employee’s health and well-being has spurred an innovative solution to a complex challenge,” said Dr. Sarah Moyer, Director of the Louisville Metro Department of Health and Wellness.

Businesses should anticipate common challenges as well, such as how they would protect employees from bad weather and provide them with internet access and other needed technology. They should also be prepared to address less obvious issues that could arise, like how to deal with planes flying overhead or nearby construction work when bringing the indoors out.

But companies can improve the employee experience while increasing workplace safety if they do their outdoor office right. Humana has seen how comfortable employees can become, Edwards said. “It gives people that psychological safety to say, ‘My interactions with my teammates are as safe as they can be.’”

Source:

  1. Ashley Fahey, “In Wake of Covid-19, Designers See Trend Toward Outdoor Workspace in Future Offices,” Charlotte Business Journal, September 11, 2020, last accessed January 13, 2021, https://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/news/2020/09/11/outdoor-workspace-office-covid-19.html, opens new window.