Redesigning the office for post-Covid hybrid work

Though many companies have successfully made the long-term switch to remote working, many workers are realizing just how much they miss going into the office. A recent survey by JLL reports that nearly three-quarters of employees would like to have access to an office, with a majority of those workers preferring a hybrid model that allows for working from home a few days a week with going into the office for the rest of the time.

This shift to hybrid work means that the office itself will need to evolve. With the majority of work happening remotely, the actual office will no longer serve as a work space, but rather as a culture space, a place that can serve as a social anchor to facilitate connections, enable learning, and foster collaboration. According to Gensler, the top reason that employees want to come to the office is “the people.” In essence, the office serves as the conduit for doing what’s hardest to do from home: socializing and connecting with other colleagues.

The pitfalls of a hybrid model

Companies that do adapt a hybrid model of work, however, need to be aware of the pitfalls of having both remote and in-office workers. GitLab’s CEO Sid Sijbrandij calls it the “worst of both worlds,” pointing to the tendency of hybrid working to create two fundamentally different employee experiences between those that work completely remotely with those that come to the office, particularly if leadership resides primarily at the office. Many executives may default to old habits of rewarding attendance (“being seen” at the office) rather than rewarding output and productivity.

For hybrid work to succeed, businesses will need to adopt a remote-first mentality that sees the physical location of work as being completely unnecessary to an employee’s success. Remote-first means that working remote is the default, and that the office is simply one of many tools for employee engagement and productivity, rather than a core tenet of the work philosophy.

The office of the future

With a remote-first mentality that sees the office as a place of culture, connection, and collaboration, workspaces will become less about dedicated work environments and more about flexibility, engagement, and community. Here are some of the key design trends to facilitate the hybrid offices of the future:

Flexible spaces designed to accommodate modes of work

Herman Miller’s Living Office concept

Hybrid work is about giving employees the flexibility to work where they feel most comfortable and productive, whether that’s at home or the office. Within the office itself, this means creating flexible spaces that accommodate various work styles and needs.

Herman Miller defines these as “Modes of Work,” which make clear distinctions between casual chatting and deep conversation, co-creating and urgent huddles, and creating and contemplating. By understanding these subtleties, companies can develop distinct office settings that accommodate these different work modes, allowing employees to move freely between spaces depending on their needs.

The key here is flexibility in moving people, not furniture. Despite the popularity of hot desks, modular furniture and movable partitions, it’s rare for employees to recreate the space around them. Instead, create distinct areas for your company’s most common modes of work, and encourage the hybrid worker to move to the setting that best accommodates the mode of work they are doing for the day.

“Zoom Rooms” and enhanced video conferencing setups

Google’s Room Design Guide

Pre-pandemic, the hybrid conference meeting where some attendees gathered in a meeting room while others dialed in remotely were often a nightmare for those that were not in the office. In many cases, conference room setups are simply not designed for hybrid collaborations. Poor A/V systems can make it difficult for remote employees to hear and be heard, cameras not designed for larger rooms can cut off participants from the video, and tools like whiteboards aren’t typically designed to be both in-person and virtual simultaneously. These poor conference setups can contribute greatly to the two-tiered employee experience between in-person and remote employees that companies should avoid.

As companies embrace a new reality of hybrid work and hybrid meetings, conference room setups will need to adapt with smart technologies and design that help facilitate more inclusive meetings for all. Through programs like Zoom Rooms and Google Meet Hardware, companies can now get recommended A/V setups for various sizes of conference rooms, including equipment like wide-angle cameras and speakers with background noise reduction, as well as touch displays that allow for easy dial-in to a conference call (no more plugging in someone’s laptop!), multi-screen sharing, and digital whiteboards for real-time collaboration. There’s even talk about using holograms to bring remote employees into the room.

Not all businesses will need state-of-the-art technology, however. Smaller businesses that may have only a handful of people in the office at any particular time may want to look into investing in quiet pods and conferencing booths that allow for individuals to take video calls.

From “Me Space” to “We Space”

Example of office Lego wall from the Mozilla Tapei office

In a traditional office, it’s not uncommon for employees to personalize their own workspace with family photos and personal touches. But with the hybrid model of work allowing employees to work remotely more often, it likely doesn’t make sense to have dedicated workspaces in an office.

To maintain that element of humanity and personalization, companies will need to shift their mentality from “Me Space” to “We Space.” Instead of tailoring spaces to an individual’s needs, allow teams to personalize zones or “neighborhoods” with interactive elements such as photo collage walls, bulletin boards, or even a giant Lego wall. The goal is to encourage and foster a sense of community and belonging, which is much more difficult to do while working only remotely. For companies that have distributed workforces with team members working remotely 100% of the time, make it a priority to bring the entire team together at regular intervals at the office (if possible) or provide travel stipends that allow them to visit the office as needed.

Office design with inclusivity in mind

Ultimately, the success of hybrid work will depend on how company leaders can maintain high levels of productivity and engagement irrespective of where work is completed. While physical offices will remain an important element to facilitating company culture and collaboration, they will need to be designed in a way that enhances connection between all employees, and does not create a rift between employees that work in office vs. those that work at home.