The hybrid office is the new post-pandemic workplace. With employees increasingly splitting their time between working from the office and from home, a “hybrid” office allows employees to work effectively from both locations. Throughout the pandemic, organizations have learned that their employees can be trusted to work from home and be productive without a central office. This is already leading to a more distributed form of working that will continue to shape organizations in the future. The hybrid office is touted as being a more efficient way of working, boosting employee satisfaction, promoting a better work-life balance, enabling connectivity, and reducing the costs associated with office space and facilities. Sounds great, right? So what should you consider when setting up a hybrid office?
COVID Impacts on the Workplace
Before jumping into how to go about setting up a hybrid office, it is worth taking some time to examine the underlying factors driving many organizations to consider this new working arrangement. The following five factors stem from our experience during the pandemic:
- Employee Autonomy – by being forced to work from home during the pandemic, employees have gained a sense of autonomy, which is a key employee motivator. Many employees report that they would like to hold on to this newfound independence.
- Employee Expectations - many employees will be reluctant to come back to the office full-time because they have changed their expectations about work, learned how to use new technologies that make remote work possible, proven that they can be productive outside the office environment, and developed new habits to help them blend work and home life. In addition, employees have saved money on work-related expenses (transportation, clothes, meals) and saved time and reduced stress by eliminating their commute to work.
- Home Office Isolation – even though employees have been successful working from home, the majority of them would still like to return to the office for at least part of each week. Working at home can leave employees feeling isolated and many crave more connection to their workplace and coworkers.
- De-densification – given social distancing concerns during the pandemic, employees are reluctant to come back to offices with close working quarters. Employees desire more enclosed spaces and more separation (de-densification) between workstations.
- Focus vs. Collaboration – employees who have a dedicated and well-equipped home office set up can work from home on tasks that require focus and concentration. So, with the capability of performing focused work from home, the workplace can be designed to promote employee connectivity and collaboration instead.
The above factors support the need for workplace change. All workplaces will need to wrestle with these factors to greater or lesser extents as employees return to the office, whether the employees are working in the office full-time, remote full-time, or in a hybrid split between the two.
If your business is pursuing a hybrid office, the following considerations can help you implement a successful transformation.
1. Hire a Professional
Transforming office space is one of the most impactful changes you can make in the workplace, and what’s required goes well beyond rearranging doors and desks. To help you navigate the transformation, the first step is to hire a firm with strong space planning and programming skills. Such services could come from a specialty consulting firm or an architectural firm.
A word of caution: if a firm claims that it has a post-pandemic office layout ready to implement, hire with caution. The industry is working feverishly to figure this out on the fly. Many great ideas are being circulated but the environment is constantly changing. You do not want a predetermined solution, but one that is uniquely suited for your organization. Don’t let trends and fads be a substitute for good design.
2. Change Management is Critical
So, what should you look for when selecting a firm? Given that the hybrid office is people-centric, one key requirement is for the firm to have a participatory style that engages employees in the space planning process. After all, they are the ones who will need to work and thrive in the new workplace.
Enabling this participation requires a team with both knowledgeable facility planners and change management professionals. Change management goes hand in hand with design and will serve to promote an informed design solution.
The role of change management is to help facilitate communication with all stakeholders and to draw out resistance so that issues can be resolved at the beginning of the process, thereby avoiding costly mid-design changes. Change management can also establish a communications plan and help to identify training needs.
Examples of ways that a change management professional may engage the workforce during space planning include a combination of surveys, focus groups, interviews, small group meetings, charrettes, and/or space planning workshops. Participation in the space transformation process can help employees adapt to the change.
3. Process of Discovery
Because the hybrid office will be both a different way of working and a tailored solution for your organization, the firm you hire should go through a discovery period to learn about your organization through interactions with leadership and employees. Initially, it may be challenging for employees to see beyond the current pandemic situation. It is important to discuss how the organization has changed, as an understanding of the more improvised changes necessitated by the pandemic can help guide future decisions about setting up a hybrid workplace.
A sample of issues to address include:
- What has worked well during the pandemic and what has been a challenge?
- What concerns do employees have about reopening the workplace?
- How has your organization communicated with employees during the pandemic?
- How have you been able to maintain a sense of identity and promote culture?
The answers to these types of questions will help you discover key elements that need to be considered during the design of your hybrid office.
4. Needs Analysis
A needs analysis is an assessment of your current space and office layout to understand how you were working both before and during the pandemic. By touring your offices, space professionals can gain an understanding of how your space has been set up to accommodate work. They can also identify space requirements unique to your organization and the general size and type of space and furniture used in your office. This process will give space professionals a clear picture of how your office has operated in the past and the changes that have occurred during the pandemic.
The needs analysis should also include both analyses and discussions of trends and drivers that are impacting your organization. These trends can be translated into likely operational changes and a projection of workload. The workload projection can be used to predict future personnel that will need to be considered in your hybrid office.
Interactive small group sessions work best for these types of discussions. It is important to note that so much has changed during the pandemic that a walk-through of existing space or discussions about past work practices are, by themselves, insufficient. Discussions should yield a vision for the future of the organization in light of the uncertainty created by the pandemic. A major aspect of the needs assessment is developing a common vision that can guide the design process.
The findings of a needs analysis should deliver an understanding of the opportunities and constraints of your existing space, a trends and workload forecast, at least a 10-year projection of personnel, and a vision for the future office.
In addition, with a hybrid office, the needs analysis should include an assessment of which labor categories can work remotely and a decision on the amount of long-term remote work that your organization would like to implement.
5. Technology is Critical
The hybrid office thrives on technology. The needs analysis described above should include an assessment of what technology you have and how it has worked for you during the pandemic. Have you made additional investments in technology to help your employees communicate, perform their work, manage tasks, store their files, and provide data security?
Depending on your organization, new technologies may be needed as a way to enhance business processes and employee interactions. Examples of rapidly emerging technologies include applications for scheduling shared workstations and conferencing facilities, tracking space utilization, and managing visitors.
It is important to gain an understanding of how employees are currently using technology, any issues that your organization has had with technology during the pandemic, and your technology plans for the future. Remember to consider if additional training will be required for both employees and managers. In a hybrid office, space and technology are intertwined, and both aspects need to be carefully considered in relation to each other.
6. Space Programming
Space programming incorporates the findings of the needs analysis to develop a detailed list of the spaces needed by your organization (i.e., enclosed offices, open workstations, break rooms) as well as the quantity and size of the space overall.
Programming also assesses which components of your organization need to be located together to promote efficiency and which components can be located farther apart.
Programming involves meeting with small teams of stakeholders throughout your organization to discuss their space needs in detail, including the specific spaces and layouts needed for their personnel and operations. The end result is a program of requirements that articulates the detailed space needs of your organization.
7. Flexible and Adaptable
When developing your program of requirements, bear in mind that in a hybrid office it is important to keep the space as flexible and adaptable as possible. Instead of planning for hallways and walls, the hybrid office should be more open. The hybrid office places more emphasis on innovative furniture solutions than on the construction of hard walled offices.
Furniture pods and de-mountable partitions can be used instead of constructed enclosed spaces. Given the increasing trend towards more work-related conversations and meetings taking place over the internet, open workstations should consider both spacing and partitions to provide more audio and visual privacy than were previously part of the open office design trend.
Though the solution for each office will be unique, an overall objective is to keep the furniture and fixtures as adaptable and flexible as possible. If we are unfortunate enough to experience another pandemic or a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the office should be able to quickly change and transform for social distancing.
8. Health and Wellness
Another aspect that should be considered during space programming for the hybrid office is a focus on health and wellness. Mental health has been a top priority for organizations as we have all gone through a trying time during the pandemic. Employees will likely experience some level of anxiety or apprehension about coming back to workplaces. Designing the workplace to promote health and wellness can help lessen employee stress.
The hybrid office assumes employees will be working from home a portion of the time. This is a positive start toward promoting employee wellness by providing a better work-life balance, the chance to work without in-office distractions, and avoiding long commutes.
There are many additional ways to promote health and wellness in the workplace. The first is to give the employees workstations and furniture that will enable them to make adjustments based on their personal needs. Choice and control increase employee satisfaction. Kay Sargent, director of HOK’s global WorkPlace practice, drew a comparison between our cars and our workplaces. Most of us do not drive in our cars eight hours a day, but we have more ability to adjust our cars according to what makes us comfortable than we do our workstations. Employees will be more satisfied in the workplace if they can adjust their work furniture and surroundings to their comfort. Employees will also start to expect this, given the degree of freedom they will inevitably have when setting up their home office.
Bringing elements of nature indoors is another way to promote employee wellness. Natural light, plants, and natural features have a calming effect in the workplace. Such workplace features are called biophilia design, and they help to reduce stress and provide a sense of employee well-being.
Third, though the office should be designed to promote connectivity and collaboration, it is also important to provide quiet settings for employees to do focused work when needed and areas to simply relax and decompress.
Another way to promote health and wellness is to encourage physical activity. Furniture solutions like standup desks to avoid prolonged sitting can go some way towards addressing this, but it is even more important to encourage employees to periodically leave their workstation and take short breaks by walking outdoors, appreciating a view from the windows, or just socializing at the water cooler. Some organizations have designed indoor walkways around the perimeter of the office or outdoor walking trails to promote exercise and encourage walking meetings. Having a variety of spaces that encourage activity as well as quiet reflection can go a long way toward promoting employee health.
9. Alternatives and Concept Designs
Once you know your requirements, your space planning and programming firm can develop alternatives for you to consider. These could include modifying your existing space or moving somewhere new.
By applying project costs to the amount of square feet identified in your program of requirements, you can generate cost estimates for comparing alternatives.
Once the alternatives have been considered from an operational and financial standpoint, the next step is to develop conceptual designs. In large projects, this includes presenting the space in blocks on a floor plan of the building to show the size of each component and the location. This process is not unlike a puzzle that assembles all the pieces identified in the program of requirements into a pattern that complements the operations in the available space or site. These concepts should be shared with employees in a process that encourages their feedback.
The selection of furniture for a hybrid office is a crucial step. Prior to this phase of the project, visit furniture showrooms and functioning hybrid workplaces so that you have a firsthand impression of the innovative furniture arrangements that exist for the integration of furniture and technology. Potential choices can be tested in staff workshops. For example, a representative mix of employees can be presented with pictures of furniture and technology elements – from workstations to collaboration facilities to lighting alternatives – and asked for their reactions. This process can be as simple as providing employees with Post-it notes to place on the pictures with comments, or it can be online through applications like Mural or Miro. The goal is to tailor the furniture, technology, and features of the office to employee needs and the culture of the organization.
Following the workshops, present the furniture and technology plan associated with each component. This plan should show the neighborhoods within the hybrid office, including spaces for focused or “heads down” work, collaboration areas, assigned and shared workstations, special space requirements, and informal areas such as breakrooms and meeting lounges.
As with the needs analysis and the programming steps above, these neighborhood layouts and concepts should be presented to the leadership and employees to gather input and feedback. The end result will be a final proposed option of the types of furniture and technology needed to enhance operations.
10. Create a Pilot Program
Once you feel you have a good handle on the furniture, technology, and layout, create a pilot program – a small area of the office that contains samples of the furniture and technology so that employees can get hands-on experience.
Use the pilot program as an opportunity to “test drive” the features of a new office. Ask for feedback from employees and use their responses to tailor the design. You can also use the pilot program to test the effectiveness of your technology choices in engaging remote employees. It’s also an opportunity to provide training to staff on the technology (videoconferencing, file storage, data security, instant messaging, etc.) needed to support the hybrid office. Make the pilot program a real, hands-on test of how the office can operate.
Typically, pilot programs run for several months to allow time for furniture and technology alternatives to be swapped and tested.
11. Hire a Design Firm
If you elect at the beginning of this process to go with a consulting firm that specializes in space planning and programming, the next step would be to hire an architectural firm to design your hybrid office.
With the program of requirements, neighborhood layouts, and pilot program complete, an architectural firm can start the design. As with the other considerations presented in this article, the design is also an iterative and interactive process. Inevitably, constraints will be uncovered and choices will need to be refined.
The design process typically has several review points. Use these review points to make tweaks to improve the functionality of the space for your organization.
Once the design is complete, the next step is to construct your hybrid office. There will be lots to coordinate during construction and move-in, but don’t forget to take time to communicate with employees. You can post pictures or walk-through videos of the construction progress for the employees to both build excitement and engage them in the process.
Returning to Work in a Hybrid Office
The main question that many employees have been wrestling with for over a year is “How can I go back to the office and interact with my colleagues safely?” Promoting the return to work will be one part marketing and one part compassion. Some employees will be ready to return as soon as possible, while others will be more cautious.
However, if you have followed the considerations above and have engaged employees throughout the process of setting up a hybrid office, you’re likely to find that your employees are ready to take on the challenge of going back to work. This will set your organization up for success in the new WFH and hybrid office economy.