We have entered irrevocably into an era of hybrid working. It’s no longer a question of whether should we work at the office, or should we work at home; both are now admissible as part of an ongoing trend that is likely to stay with us indefinitely. This article looks, particularly, at how hybrid office design can meet the challenges of changing dynamics in the workplace.
Enter the Hybrid Workplace
Evidence is starting to emerge that workplaces that adopt a hybrid model early are most likely to thrive. In fact, a recent ONS survey showed that 85% of UK working individuals favoured a hybrid approach of both home and office working. Similarly in the USA, 52% of US workers preferred a mix of both. And it’s not just a passive sentiment. The number of searches for jobs offering remote work has increased threefold in 2021 in comparison to the year before. On a more local level, London tube passenger numbers are regularly around 60% of pre-pandemic levels. That includes the 25% boost since the lifting of restrictions on the 19th of January 2022.
What has changed for employees following the unprecedented disruption of the global pandemic is the way the working population consider work-life balance, well-being, and flexible working. Business owners and directors consequently need to address these concerns and make the appropriate changes to their office design and layout to accommodate hybrid working. This is one trend that’s likely to stay.
1. How Do You Define a Hybrid Office?
Hybrid office design can be defined as one that simultaneously allows for face-to-face collaboration and remote work. This collocated style of working is different to an agile office (or agile workplace) which creates dynamic spaces for employees, but only within the face-to-face interactions of the physical office.
While the hybrid office is by no means a new concept, the Covid-19 pandemic has given fuel to it. It has changed the dynamic to one where employees move seamlessly between home and office work environments. But it also requires a different set of solutions and ideas, some of which include:
- Wi-fi enabled spaces for connecting with staff working from home
- Technology to book meeting rooms and private spaces
- Configurable office furniture that is easy to move around
- A combination of team-working collaborative spaces alongside private spaces
2. Does A Hybrid Office Mean a Smaller Office
Hybrid design typically involves the reconfiguration of existing office space and furniture to create more collaborative and flexible workspaces. The key principle of hybrid design is to create spaces that transcend physical and social barriers. But that doesn’t necessarily mean less space. A communications agency we worked with in London reduced their number of desks from 200 to 100 while retaining their existing space. What they achieved was creative desk layouts and breakout areas for increased flexibility and dynamic working that allowed for collaborative engagement. The space also included a new booking system that provided the client with a feature-rich cloud-based booking of workspaces and meeting areas. Similarly, Adtrak, a digital marketing agency in Nottingham, reduced its number of desks from 120 to 70 while retaining around 100 staff. The space was essentially reconfigured to include hot-desking areas, social areas, and meeting rooms designed for videoconferencing with remote working staff.
3. How the Office Acts as a Social Anchor
The global pandemic forced us to communicate at a distance. With it came significant advances in digital communication that transcended the physical office. However, in doing so it also stripped away what Edward Hallowell calls the human moment – those face-to-face encounters that allow us to express empathy, emotional connection, and cognition with the world around us. Psychology and neuroscience studies have shown that environmental factors – the type we find in human moments – play a significant part in how we process signals and learn new information. During the pandemic, scheduled Zoom and Teams meetings replaced the simple act of wandering over to someone’s desk to ask a question. Similarly, natural breaks that helped to manage the ebbs and flows of a day became replaced with back-to-back meetings.
4. Weak and Strong Ties in a Hybrid Workforce
Remote working tends to add structure to the relationships we have with others. An online meeting will have a fixed number of people attending at a fixed time. What face-to-face conversion provides, in addition, are serendipitous conversations and relationships.
In 1973, Stanford sociology professor Mark Granovetter coined the term ‘weak ties’. In the context of a workplace, these are links – or ties – to other people that you work with directly or indirectly. You have strong ties to your colleagues or team. In contrast, weak ties are members outside your team that you wouldn’t normally have a formal meeting. They might also be visiting clients, suppliers or members of the public that you engage in conversation. For example, a colleague who passes your desk might provide some unique information or a different way of thinking about a problem. And it’s not just the office where these weak ties come into effect. Visiting trade shows, and external visits to clients and suppliers is a great way of learning new information that is sometimes lost while working remotely.
5. Remote Working, Innovation and Productivity
Discussion about remote working and the impact on innovation and productivity in the workplace has become a hot topic In the wake of COVID 19. The orthodox view of the office as the sole place for innovation has been somewhat overturned by the pandemic. In a European survey commissioned by Microsoft with 9000 individuals (management and employees), it found 82% of executives said that productivity had remained stable or improved as a result of remote working.
Innovations can also occur in private spaces. In fact, since the start of 2020, in spite of millions of people globally working from home, innovation has thrived with breakthrough business models and new services and product offerings. From the growth of online grocery delivery services to the early adoption of the nonfungible token. We have continued to innovate in spite of isolation.
6. Hybrid Working and Innovation
On the other side of the argument is the view that innovation is restricted in remote settings. In the 1970’s Tom Allen, MIT organizational psychologist, famously demonstrated that as distances between employees approached 50 metres, regular communication began to break down. Face-to-face meetings or “water cooler” moments provide a greater degree of fluidity and natural interaction. Ed Nolan refers to these as ‘accidental collisions’ in the workplace. These happenstance meetings and informal chats are where unscripted off-the-cuff ideas are shared and unfiltered exchanges take place.
Creating a hybrid office environment allows for both types of innovation. On the one hand, remote workers have the opportunity to work in isolation; draft creative ideas and plans in silence, and avoid distracting thoughts in formulating them. They can also seamlessly engage with workers who are in the office or visit the office to share ideas face-to-face. The combining of these worlds (work and home) may indeed be the best outcome. It is also the most inclusive one; catering to talented staff who are not always able to travel into the office, and being flexible to those needing a work-life balance such as parents who need to drop and pick up their kids from school.
7. Factors Driving Hybrid Working
A workplace is not just a place of tasks and processes, it’s a place of relationships and team bonding. Face-to-face meetings in the office deepen professional relationships and may put employees regularly in the office at an advantage over those who are not. In Gensler’s 2020 ‘work from home survey’ (an anonymous survey of 2,300+ U.S. workers across 10 different industries), they found a number of interesting insights that point to what people miss about the office. The most crucial thing employees missed (at 74%) was face-to-face interaction with colleagues. Ranked in terms of importance other factors included:
- Scheduled meetings with colleagues – 54%
- Socializing with colleagues – 54%
- Impromptu face-to-face interaction – 54%
- Being part of the community – 45%
- Access to technology – 44%
- Focusing on work– 40%
- Scheduled meetings with clients – 40%
- Professional development/coaching – 33%
- Access to amenities- 29%
In summary, hybrid working is here to stay and we need to find ways to accommodate it in relation to office design, technology and general office procedures and protocol. For new staff, in particular, the physical office environment provides an opportunity to network. It’s a place to engage and absorb the office culture, receive mentoring, share ideas and engage in serendipitous conversations with other staff members. The challenge for managers, both now and in the future, will be creating a hybrid space that allows for the seamless flow of staff between home and office environments.
Conducting a hybrid-working audit is useful in highlighting the cultural shifts of a company. The CPID have a range of hybrid working questionnaires that are useful for unpicking prefered work patterns, health and safety considerations, additional support, as well as questions to gauge the interest in hybrid working.
In our 2 years of trialling this model at a large scale, we are starting to get a good sense of the benefits, drawbacks and how hybrid might work in different scenarios. In fact, 3 variations of the hybrid model are starting to emerge: remote-first; office-occasional and office-first.
Remote-First Hybrid Model
On one extreme there’s a ‘remote-first’ or ‘virtual-first’ hybrid working model where a majority of employees work from home while maintaining a physical office where employees can work on-site. Dropbox, which made an early shift to virtual working, is exemplary of this remote-first model. Instead of having offices where employees come in for solitary work at designated workstations, they have ‘studios’ specifically designed for collaboration, teamwork and the strengthening of connections with colleagues. This complete rethinking of the physical office, guided by smart office design, has also resulted in far more flexible office culture. The focus is wholly on people – their well-being, mental health and priorities – and how those shape around work. As the VP of design at Dropbox puts it:
The lines between work and personal lives are forever blurred for employees, so it’s more important than ever that they feel purpose in both […] this is why we’re shifting the focus of the work they do from productivity to impact
Standard/Balanced Hybrid Model
The classic hybrid model is one of the dynamic and fluid workspaces where there’s a balance between working from home and working in the office. Companies adopting this model are usually looking to create more collaborative workspaces. A recent project we completed for Instinctif Partners is illustrative of this.
Design considerations for the standard hybrid working model include:
- the creation of open collaborative spaces for high-energy workforces
- team huddle areas for sharing ideas
- areas for whiteboarding sessions
- quite zones, booths and library areas for focused work
- tables for large team sessions and collaborative work
- small informal areas for one-on-one meetings
- hybrid town halls equipped with screens for hosting team meetings
Office-First Hybrid Model
The office-first hybrid model tends more towards traditional office working, but also allows for a degree of working from home. This model is useful where international teams and members are involved, or where flexible working hours and locations are supported to maintain a work-life balance.