The idea of the oﬃce has been undergoing constant change throughout the past few decades, and the hybrid workspace is the latest. Hybrid is feasible because technology has enabled work anytime / anywhere and freed the workforce from the traditional constraints that dictate where work happens.
Long before the concept of a hybrid workforce was born, i.e., back in late 2019, the concepts of an agile workspace, hoteling, hot desking, and activity-based working had taken hold and were becoming standard ways of designing and using oﬃce space.
Then the pandemic hit. In the early part of 2020, the world collectively decided that COVID-19 represented an immediate health danger. Most countries went into lockdown, and everyone whose job did not require in-person contact shifted to working from home.
After developing and deploying vaccines in developed countries, companies are planning for or have started a return to the oﬃce, starting with a new workplace strategy.
Since the COVID pandemic, the Hybrid Workplace has emerged as the leading workplace strategy for companies in 2021 / 2022. But what is a Hybrid Workspace Strategy?
Organizations are now thinking about moving beyond the reactionary, pandemic-driven remote work response towards a purposeful plan for the future of work. The opportunity, now, is to build on what we learned in 2020, to create a workplace that combines the best aspects of in-person collaborative work with remote work, an approach called “the hybrid workplace”.
More than 52 percent of U.S. workers prefer a hybrid work model, which allows employees to collaborate and socialize in the office and keeps the beneﬁts of ﬂexibility and work-life balance they have enjoyed while working from home. Therefore, a purposeful and thoughtful approach to hybrid work is critical for leaders looking to attract and retain diverse talent.
As organizations develop a new strategy for the hybrid workplace, they should consider several issues. These include understanding and appreciating the role of oﬃce space for collaboration and organizational culture, changes needed in workplace design, the use of technology in managing the hybrid workplace, and the need for new management practices.
Do we still need corporate oﬃce space? Remote working was more successful than imagined, so the idea of entirely virtual companies is not limited to internet-only businesses. Over the past 20 years, companies, typically in technology ﬁelds, often engage employees who work remotely. So while there may be some completely virtual organizations, the oﬃce will continue to serve essential, but different than previous, functions for most organizations. Here are ﬁve reasons why oﬃces will continue to be necessary.
In Designing The Hybrid Office, researchers Anne-Laure Fayard, John Weeks, and Mahwesh Kahn discussed the limits of remote communication. “When communication takes place remotely, the connection is severely weakened and nonverbal signals are harder to pick up on, even when people can see each other on a screen. In human moments people are often energized and more likely to empathize with each other, which supports organizational culture and collaboration.”
While Zoom has proven surprisingly adequate for routine meetings, some activities need the beneﬁt of in-person interaction. When face-to-face, we pick up the nuances conveyed with body language and facial expressions. For example, strategizing and brainstorming, creative and design work, and being empathetic while discussing painful or diﬃcult topics are done more eﬀectively in live, face-to-face settings.
In the 1970’s MIT Professor Thomas Allen published an environmental psychology research study that found face-to-face communication decreases exponentially in relation to distance. More recently, while researching how ideas are exchanged between employees of different departments, MIT Professor Alex Pentland found that physical proximity drives the cross-pollination of ideas in random encounters, which plays a significant role in innovation.
Microsoft found in a recent study that due to pandemic-induced employees working from home, departments were becoming more siloed, with team interactions and connections diminishing. According to Dr. Nancy Baym, senior principal researcher at Microsoft, “When you lose connections, you stop innovating. It’s harder for new ideas to get in and groupthink becomes a serious possibility.”
Organizations with virtual or hybrid workplaces will have to consciously find other ways to create unstructured encounters to encourage exchanging ideas.
For most positions, observed behaviors from on-the-job training provide the essential knowledge required to succeed. This real-world knowledge is most effectively obtained through interactions in an informal, unstructured environment rather than what you learn from a book, video Zoom, or class. This transfer of inherent knowledge is accessible in person but difficult when working remotely.
Fayard, Weeks and Kahn describe the office as a schoolhouse. “Much knowledge can be codified, efficiently scaled and distributed by knowledge-management systems, but the really critical knowledge in most organizations cannot be made explicit.”
Some companies’ policies, before the pandemic, required that employees work a year in the office before being eligible to work remotely. In the new hybrid workplace model, an update of the policy, particularly for those just entering the workforce, would require new employees to schedule in-office workdays in coordination with their mentors.
In a recent article, Can company culture survive Zoom? Bradford Bell, professor of strategic human resources at Cornell University, stated, “Company culture is really about the connection that employees have, number one, to a company. It’s why, emotionally, an employee chooses to work at one company as opposed to another, all things being equal.”
“I also think company culture is really important for signaling what companies value. Are we an innovation company? Are we a traditional company? What is the point of this company? How is disagreement handled here? Is seniority more important than innovation? Are rules to be bent, broken, or followed with precision? How are ideas challenged? None of this is handled or transmitted through the employee handbook, it’s transmitted through relationships.” Bell says.
How do hybrid workplaces provide this informal but essential information to employees who are not working in the office? The challenge for Human Resources and managers is to find other ways to relay this culture.
Human beings are social animals and need social interaction.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy wrote in his recent book, Together, “One of our most important sources of connection is the workplace. Given that most of us today spend more of our waking hours on the job than at home and many of us interact more with our colleagues than with our non-work friends, we need meaningful connection at work to sustain us.”
Although video conferencing and other tools provide some level of interaction, they do not emulate the connection of face-to-face communication found in an office environment.
As focussed heads-down work shifts from the office to being performed remotely in the home, the ofﬁce will increasingly be a social place for group collaboration. Changing from “me space” to “we space” will drive space use and oﬃce design changes.
Over the past decade, facility and workplace managers have observed that fewer than half the workstations in most oﬃces are in use at any given time. The hybrid practice of working from home will further decrease office space utilization, which is problematic for two reasons. First, the space utilization cost of real estate will become increasingly difficult to justify. Second, semi-empty oﬃce spaces lack that “energy” that contributes to a positive and productive work experience. Alternatively, as seen with many open office floorplans, too much energy, noise, and movement are distracting, so the key is to ﬁnd the right balance.
To maintain real estate cost eﬀectiveness, many organizations will incorporate Hot Desking. As a result, companies can provide suﬃcient workspace with unassigned seating while reducing the portion of oﬃce space used for individual work. In addition, this revamped space utilization for hybrid workplaces reclaims the lost space from under-utilized desks, increases office floor utilization, and increases the workspace energy.
Since the hybrid oﬃce’s primary function is group work, meeting spaces and meeting pods will have increased importance. New office requirements include top-quality systems for video conferencing, good acoustics, secure areas to store personal belongings, the ability to instantly reserve rooms and desks online, and multi-purpose spaces for creativity and social gatherings.
Resource scheduling and balancing are often challenging due to a lack of data on the day-to-day and hour-by-hour use of buildings and workspaces. With advances in sensors, wireless communication, and machine learning, we can easily track space utilization. Today workplace planners can analyze detailed, hour-by-hour utilization information to determine usage patterns and peak loads, providing relevant, actionable insight.
Technological developments, from digital information screens to enterprise systems integration, enhance the employee workplace experience. Some of the most requested are:
The dramatic shift to a hybrid workplace will significantly affect real estate portfolio management. As more work is performed remotely and companies incorporate staggered work schedules, organizations will likely reduce their real estate footprints. More significantly, we expect organizations to change the type and configuration of the real estate they use.
Changes will include:
This hybrid workplace revolution is as great as the agricultural or industrial revolutions. Michael Schley, the founder of FM: Systems, has said that as people and organizations, through necessity, found new ways of working due to the pandemic, this revolution has accelerated. “Workplace concepts that were experimental a few years ago have become familiar today. Organizations and individuals are more willing to consider new ways of working than ever before. The issue of how to return to work has become an engaging question for every business leader, and the need for vision and leadership in workplace management has never been greater.”
Source: IFMA Foundation’s new book, “Work on the Move 3, Building better workplaces after the pandemic.”