Future of work: What the hybrid office will look like post-pandemic

Hybrid working provides a compromise that potentially everyone can accept. [Courtesy]

Workplaces across the world are undergoing a profound transformation. Employers are ripping up the rule book on how, where and when people work and experimenting with something called ‘hybrid working’.

It is a change that is gathering momentum. A recent survey found 75 per cent of workers believe that ‘hybrid work’ will be standard in their companies within three years.

So if hybrid is the future of work, what will the hybrid office look like?

Hybrid working is an amorphous term. Depending on the organisation, it may mean workers coming in most days, a couple of days per week or only meeting once a quarter. In some companies it will be a combination of all of those, tailored to individuals.

Hybrid working started long before the pandemic, with flexible working and teleworking gaining popularity first with the emergence of personal computers in the 1970s and then with the internet in the 1990s.

However, at the beginning of 2020, still only five per cent of work hours in America were spent at home. By spring 2020 this had risen to 60 per cent. As of October 2021, that figure was still at 40 per cent.

Similar trends have played out across the world. Millions of people who had never had the opportunity or inclination to work remotely were experiencing a different model, and many found they could work as effectively from home.

Offices seemed not as essential as we thought, and as companies like Twitter started to make announcements that staff could work from home forever, the reason for having them at all started to be called into question.

Pre-pandemic offices had become increasingly disliked. In one pre-pandemic survey 85 per cent of people said they were dissatisfied with their office environment. Whether in attempts to improve collaboration or reduce costs, offices had become increasingly open plan and higher density. Consequently, they were often noisy, distracting and unhealthy.

Also, 40 per cent of office staff suffered from poor lighting and the temperature was typically not only uncomfortable, but also impeded the performance of women.

At home people can control their noise level, lighting, temperature and privacy and optimise the environment for comfort and productivity. Little wonder that 50 per cent of workers in the US (and 35 per cent in UK) say they would take a pay cut to continue to work remotely at least part-time post-pandemic and 25 per cent would quit if they cannot.

However, there is one category of staff that thinks very differently. A study across six countries shows that 44 per cent of senior executives want to get back to the office full time compared to 17 per cent of their staff.

Is the office dead? Unlikely

So what is the case for returning to the office? In the 1980’s an MIT professor, Thomas Allen, discovered the power of proximity. He found that most collaboration happens within an 8-metre radius and drops to almost zero by 50 metres.

The Allen Curve still holds true today, with people emailing colleagues most who they sit closest to. This proximity becomes even more critical for new recruits and new projects, where the learning curve is steepest. Proximity also reinforces culture and a shared sense of belonging.

Research by Microsoft shows that remote work led employees to spend less time collaborating with colleagues outside their regular network, so-called ‘weak ties’, and people in other functional units. Collaborating with new people often leads to new knowledge and increased innovation.

Steve Jobs said it: “creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.”

Hybrid working provides a compromise that potentially everyone can accept. It allows staff the opportunity to carry out individual heads-down work at home if they feel they can concentrate better there and it provides collaboration-focused office space to ensure connection, knowledge sharing, and unplanned encounters.

For hybrid working to be successful though the office needs to change dramatically.

There needs to be a shift away from rows of identical desks squeezed together to more varied, flexible and individually controllable environments that suit all workers and work styles. There still will need to be enough places for individuals to effectively concentrate and focus between meetings and for those who cannot or do not wish to work at home.

There may be quiet rooms, bookable desks, or touchdown spaces, ideally with individual control over lighting, temperature and acoustics.

However, most hybrid offices will be set up for a smorgasbord of collaboration - planned and spontaneous, open and private, from one-to-one to the whole office, internal and client, face to face and with remote staff, for mentoring, brainstorming, presentations and training.

The lines will blur between work and play. Enhanced amenity and social facilities, like cafes, bars, fitness facilities are not only key to enticing staff to the office but can also strengthen a sense of belonging and shared culture, and encourage cross-functional connections and chance encounters.

The one size fits all approach to workplaces that became the norm in offices across the world will not work for the hybrid office. For hybrid working to be successful, a balance of space will need to be calibrated to each organisation and the widest range of individuals within it. What works successfully for one company may be a failure for others and the same goes for different departments, teams and individuals.

Hybrid spaces need to be designed for flexibility and adaptability. As organisations consistently adapt, so their workplaces must too. Post occupancy and continued staff feedback, and occupancy and environmental sensors, can help establish those spaces that are most popular and can help rebalance, adapt and optimise the use of space over time.

Ultimately the hybrid offices can become a self-learning and continually evolving ecosystem.

Organisations that have successful hybrid environments will be able to recruit and retain the most diverse range of talent, improve staff health and wellness, enhance collaboration and performance, and adapt rapidly to change. Hybrid working is not an easy option. However, done thoughtfully, it can provide the most effective way of working. 

 

By AFP 2 hrs ago
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