The office has changed a lot over the last 50 years, from cubicle culture to open plan spaces, rigid structures to agile working.
Now, we’re seeing the most important shift of all - towards hybrid office design. A change that not only impacts the layout of the workplace, but that represents a deeper cultural movement around how and where we work. And a path towards better work experiences for your people.
But what does the hybrid office need to look like for workers to be happy and productive?
1. Spaces for all modes of work
The hybrid office should provide a variety of different spaces to support a multitude of tasks. From taking a one-on-one meeting in a booth, moving to a desk for heads-down work, and using a meeting room for a team collaboration session - all in one afternoon.
Having an ecosystem of spaces for different activities allows people to find the best setup for what they need to get done, including connecting virtually with their remote colleagues. Hybrid teams will need quiet, private spaces to conduct virtual meetings with remote workers.
But you don’t need to knock down walls or gain more space to provide this type of environment for your workers. Products such as acoustic screens and whiteboards can be used to create boundaries around collaboration spaces. While pods and booths can provide privacy for individual work or one-on-one meetings.
2. Flexible and adaptable spaces
In the hybrid office, spaces need to be as flexible and adaptable as possible. We’re likely to see pods, booths and acoustic screens being used instead of constructed enclosed spaces. As well as moveable furniture and technology, such as digital screens, that can be rolled in when needed.
For hybrid collaboration, spacing and partitions can be used to provide more audio and visual privacy.
Google is currently pioneering privacy robots with inflating cellophane balloon walls to create flexible spaces. A gimmick? Maybe. But like everyone else, they’re testing out new ideas and seeing what works.
3. Technology is critical
The hybrid office thrives on technology. Organisations bringing people back to the office in a hybrid model will need to consider what technology they are currently using, how it worked for them during the pandemic, and identify any additional investments they’ll need to make to support workers.
Depending on your organisation, it may be that you need better video conferencing technology, or better spaces to support those video conferences. Virtual whiteboards and moveable acoustic screens are just some examples of the tools that can support these meetings.
Microsoft has introduced elaborate conference rooms with curved tables, projection equipment and specialised mics and cameras that make “in-person participants feel like everyone’s present and remote participants feel like everyone’s remote.”
Google’s ‘campfire’ conference room concept features large wall screens for those on video so all participants are on the same footing.
Technology will also be required for organisations moving to a hot-desking, or ‘flex desking’ system.
The key will be to make the journey of coming into the office and getting set up to work as easy as possible. A booking system may be adopted, where employees can log in and ‘book’ their desk for the day.
This way you won’t end up with people coming into the office and not being able to find a desk. It can also help you to limit the number of people in one space should social distancing guidelines return.
And when workers do arrive at a desk, they will need to be met with all the tools they need to work effectively. For example a monitor, mouse and keyboard, docking station for a laptop, as well as chargers and dongles.
4. Fostering a sense of belonging
The trouble with hot desking is that without their own desk, workers may end up feeling disconnected and disengaged. Having space they can call their own helps workers to feel like a valued team member, rather than just a cog in the system.
To combat this, Nicola Gillen, author of Future Office: Next Generation Workplace Design, suggests workers who no longer have their own desks could instead share desks with neighbourhood desks or team pods. This way they’ll always have a home base within the workplace. They may also be given lockers or team shelving, not only to store their things, but to instil the sense of connection they are craving.
Fostering a sense of belonging is the very essence of what the office helps to achieve. The office is a space where people can feel connected to their colleagues and to the organisation. But with individuals only spending one, two, three days in the office a week, the office needs to work harder to make them feel like they belong.
Giving workers choice over how and where they work, as well as furniture that can be adjusted for their preferences, will help them to feel that sense of belonging and value. While colours, aesthetics and artwork that are on brand and make the most of the locality, can also help people feel connected to the space.
5. Encouraging interaction
The hybrid office is a space for workers to come together in person, providing that all-important social connection that they have missed during the pandemic. But the office needs to be designed and laid out in such a way that encourages interaction.
The office needs to promote serendipitous moments; the accidental collisions that force interaction and strengthen relationships between co-workers. These moments may be down to chance, but the environment in which they occur is not. The workplace itself can provide the routes and the prompts to encourage these chance encounters and boost connections.
Take Olympic House, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOCs) head office in Switzerland, for example. The great central staircase, shaped like the five rings of the Olympic symbol, encourages people from different departments to ‘bump’ into each other and to stop and talk as they move around the office.
There are ways to create these opportunities within your existing workspace too:
- Create spaces for one-on-one conversations and impromptu meetings with modular furniture or seats thoughtfully positioned for people to stumble across as they wander through the building
- Remove coffee points in each department in order to encourage people to use the shared kitchen or breakout area
- Include bar-style seats support on-the-fly conversations as people drink their coffee, while comfortable seats will support deeper conversations
- Make use of outdoor spaces where people can go to relax or unwind
We may have reached ‘Freedom Day’, but with Covid-19 cases still high, many organisations are still in a state of flux around when and how to bring people back to work at full capacity.
But what we do know, is that the future, for many, is hybrid. And with workers only in the office a few days a week, the office needs to adapt to provide the best possible experience for when they are there.