The pandemic has blown up conventional offices for 9-to-5, five days a week work. After this past year, as an extended experiment and challenge for companies, people returned to the office everywhere. However, the way we use office spaces is different from before. Now people want to either work fully remote or have greater flexibility in where they work. Companies that adopt flexible work locations and schedules will attract employees who can choose where they work.
So the challenge is – How do you bring that same remote workforce back into the office? And what will that office look like?
Now It’s time for us to reimagine the office’s role in the future of work.
Elements of a hybrid work model
The process of creating an effective hybrid working environment is challenging. As companies shift to hybrid, the purpose of the office has changed. Employees will start seeing different floorplans, functions, and technologies.
According to research from the Optimum Talk Blog, there are 5 elements to ensure success in the world of hybrid work:
- Flexibility is mandatory in a hybrid workforce
- Focus on work, not where people do their work
- A leader is a coach for a hybrid team
- Reconnect your talent with organizational purpose
- Reinventing culture to fit in the new model
But getting hybrid right will be hard. Deciding who works from the office and how often it is a complex issue will be different for every organization. It could threaten culture, collaboration, and innovation if not done well.
What is a Hybrid Office Model?
A hybrid office is a combination of remote and in-office working arrangements. Many employees must work from the office, while others can choose to work from home in a hybrid workspace. The hybrid model allows employees to retain the flexibility they’ve experienced working from home and still have the kind of in-office contact with colleagues that strengthen teams and collaboration.
In a company or an organization, certain types of roles need to be present at the workplace full-time (like a medical office worker, technician, customer service representative, auditor). In-office work promotes structure and transparency and urgency, which may increase trust between management and employees. That isn’t easy to replicate in a virtual environment, which often relies on advance scheduling for online meetings – although that’s still feasible with enough planning and communication.
Besides a full-time workplace, some departments (sales, marketing, creative, etc.) need not come to the actual office. They can then opt for a hybrid model, where some employees work in the office and some work remotely. The flexibility and freedom offered by hybrid offices have enabled many companies and employees to function successfully and follow social distancing norms even in the post-pandemic world. Famous corporates like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have adopted a hybrid office model and are remarkably successful.
However, to set up a hybrid workplace that works, a company may consider many factors, such as culture, technology, health and health being, virtual collaboration and online security.
Design approaches for a hybrid office
The Harvard Business Review recommended four design approaches to consider your hybrid strategy.
1. Braid the Digital and Physical Experience:
Bridging the gap between in-person and remote participants is hard. Remote colleagues can feel frustrated and unable to participate equally, becoming less engaged, especially for creative and innovative work, such as brainstorming. The solution is to integrate physical spaces and technology with three key concepts in mind: equity, engagement, and ease. For example, many conference rooms currently consist of a long table with a monitor at the end. In-person attendees sit around the table while remote participants are featured in a grid of tiny boxes, often on the same screen as any shared content. One way to create more equity is to give each participant their screen, placing monitors on rolling carts that can easily be moved around. Teams can pull a remote colleague into a breakout session or up to the table. Many software systems now let you split people and content onto different displays. To be fully engaged, people need clear sightlines to one another and the content. Designing for employee engagement in digital-to-physical space means thinking like a movie director – lights, camera, audio, content. We’re seeing some solutions: angled or mobile tables, additional lighting, extra speakers, in-room microphones, and easy-to-move markerboards and displays.
Another way is that more people will connect to a meeting on their devices and the technology in the room. Ample power supplies, whiteboards, and various software solutions will contribute to a more effortless, more seamless hybrid collaboration experience for people.
By aligning collaboration tools and technology, we have to make sure everyone can access with ease and use the technology from anywhere.
2. Flip Enclosed and Open Spaces
As people return to the office, the enclosed conference rooms will change. Meetings will occur more often in open spaces with movable boundaries, and individual focus will be in confined spaces like pods or small booths.
Space planning for the workplace will revolve around how teams can interact in more productive ways, regardless of where they are physically situated. In the office layout, this could mean adding more collaboration areas for informal meetings or designing a community-driven environment that will encourage both chance encounters and get-togethers.
Open collaboration spaces are inherently more flexible because they don’t require fixed features in their design, so they can morph and change as new work patterns emerge. Innovation, problem-solving, and co-creation often use agile approaches. For example, quick stand-up meetings require visible, persistent content that can be hosted in open spaces, defined by flexible furniture, easy-to-access tech, and other design elements.
Meanwhile, individual spaces will need more enclosure to provide different visual and acoustic privacy levels that people have come to expect while working at home. Video calls will happen everywhere, so enclosures — screens, panels, pods — will give people places to focus and mitigate disruptions.
3. The shift from Fixed to Fluid
Buildings are built for permanence; meanwhile, the pace of business and change continues to accelerate. We can see the tensions between slow and fast emerging in the rise of pop-ups and coworking models with demand for shorter lease terms. Most companies with real estate are asking, how much space do we need?
The hybrid future solves for a more fluid workplace that can flex as needs change. The concept of the “fluid office”, which was introduced in the Cuarderno de Tendencias del Hábitat 19/20, reminds us of Zygmunt Bauman’s philosophy – a flexible office that is ready to adapt to changes. This concept accelerates innovation and advances the organization’s culture, but it can also optimize real estate. For example, an open area that supports hybrid meetings in the morning becomes the café at lunch or hosts an event in the evening. The office emerges from a workstation to a space that encourages a network of creativity and synergy.
4. Balance “We” and “Me” Work
Research amid the height of the Covid-19 pandemic showed that full-time WFH employees saw a drop in average collaboration time. But collaboration is not just about group work; it requires solitude too. The Harvard Business Review mentions that effective collaboration happens when there’s an ebb and flow of people coming together to work as a team and then moving apart to focus individually, process their ideas and follow up on assigned tasks. Too much together time, without enough individual focus time, can result in groupthink, so it’s important that the pendulum not swing too far by designing offices that are all about the “we” and not balance the need for “me” spaces.
The Steelcase research showed that people with dedicated offices fare the best while working from home. Their productivity hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, but it’s higher than people with other types of workspaces. And their engagement levels have grown more robust during the crisis. They have better working conditions, the necessary resources to do their jobs, more visual and acoustic privacy and the right technology tools for collaboration. Employees report higher productivity levels when their home allows them to work without interruptions. Suppose we provide places with proper privacy at the office. In that case, employees should quickly move from one type of work to another without trekking across campus or getting hung up with complicated technology. We should offer people a better office than what they have at home and that means giving them the right mix of spaces for the types of work that need to get done.
Don’t “wait and see” as it will risk frustrating our employees who find that the old office is no longer what they want and lack the competitive advantages of bringing people together. If we can move forward and create hybrid workplaces that adapt, flex and thrive, we will attract and retain the best people and benefit from innovation and growth.