The new term for the post-pandemic workplace is “hybrid office.” The hybrid office is designed for employees to work in the office two to three days a week, while working from home the remainder of the time. Essentially, employees split their time between the workplace and a home office.
Although the term is new, the concept of the hybrid office has actually been around in one form or another for many years. The goal of the hybrid office is to reduce space, promote mobility, and increase collaboration and efficiency in an age where much of the work that employees do can be done remotely.
Wait…haven’t we heard about this space concept before? Sounds just like the OPEN OFFICE! And, hasn’t the open office been criticized for everything from increasing anxiety to reducing productivity to spreading germs? Is the hybrid office just putting lipstick on the same open office pig? The short answer is no. To find out how the hybrid and open office differ, read on.
How is the Hybrid Office Different?
There are three key differences that distinguish the hybrid office from the open office:
- A more integrated and formalized approach for working at home and in the office
- A higher space per person ratio in the workplace
- A greater focus on employee health and wellness
These differences are discussed below.
More Integrated and Formalized Telework Approach
In the open office, telework was largely performed at the preference of the employee or on an episodic basis as needed. Some employees viewed working from home as beneficial, while others rarely worked from home or did so mainly to escape the distractions associated with the open office. Even for organizations with formal telework policies, the space was created with telework more as an accommodation (and often a temporary one at that) rather than as an integral part of how the organization conducted business.
In the hybrid office, telework is here to stay, and a greater number of employees will likely telework. This is especially true given the impact of the pandemic. Now that employees have grown accustomed to working from home, and telework has been successful in most cases, it is anticipated that a higher percentage of employees will want to telework – and be approved to telework - after the pandemic ends. In addition, organizations have made the investment in the technology and policies needed to support remote work, and the benefits to both the employee and organization have been felt. Many organizations are ready for telework to be more permanently woven into the fabric of their day-to-day operations.
During the pandemic, some workforces created rotating “A day” and “B day” schedules. This will likely continue in the hybrid office to some degree. Of course, this requires having the right technology to enable connectivity, communication, and data security so that employees at home and in the office can work together seamlessly.
The key point is that teleworking will not be on a haphazard schedule. It will be more widely accepted and encouraged, and employee schedules – and work – will be planned with the goal of managing both the work and the space to maximize the benefits of the hybrid office approach.
In addition, when employees come into the hybrid office, it will be more purposeful. The purpose will be to interact and collaborate, and to accomplish tasks that are better suited to the office environment. Thus, the hybrid office will be designed for interactivity and collaboration to maximize the time employees spend together. There will be a variety of options for meeting spaces and conference rooms – similar to the open office, but with a greater number and variety of videoconferencing facilities and more privacy for the individual workstation (discussed below). Employees will use the time working from home for tasks that can be done independently or that require greater concentration.
More Space per Person
As with the open office concept, a key aspect of the hybrid office is that an organization can reduce the amount of office space per person, thereby shrinking the total amount of space needed. Since employees will be splitting their time between work and home, workstation sharing and hoteling (with sanitization procedures in place) can be implemented to reduce the overall number of workstations required. A reduction in workstations equates to a reduction in cost - a key factor in the popularity of the open office and in the rationale for the hybrid office as well.
In the late 1990s (prior to the widespread transition to the open office), office space was allocated at an average of approximately 250 square feet per person. The open office sought to bring this utilization rate down to 150 square feet or less, with more aggressive open offices reducing the space below 120 square feet per person. A key component of the reduction was to remove private offices and to replace them with hot desks, collaboration rooms, phone booths, and informal areas. This made the space “dense” with people.
The hybrid office seeks to de-densify the office by having more space per person. While this shift has been partly spurred on by the need for social distancing during the pandemic, there seems to be acknowledgment in the design industry that the office space pendulum had swung too far in the direction of reducing the space per person. As a result, the pendulum is now swinging back the other way.
However, the hybrid office is by no means a return to the traditional office with its rows of private enclosed offices and cube farms. It is more like Open Office 2.0 – taking lessons learned from the open office and designing a better way for us to work with more privacy and distancing.
Space planners believe that employees will remain more sensitive and vigilant regarding germs and personal space, and will not be comfortable in tightly packed offices. The hybrid office will have more private spaces than in the open office concept. Workstations will have higher partitions and will be spaced further apart to promote privacy.
This is not to say that the hybrid office will not provide space savings over the traditional office. As a rough estimate, the hybrid office will average closer to 200 square feet per person. The space and cost savings will come from having fewer employees in the office at one time.
Employee Health and Wellness
Some say that the open office became a hotbed for spreading germs. The hybrid office will take measures to prevent the spread of germs.
A significant part of this approach is already being developed as a response to the pandemic. Employees will be more spread out in the office and there will be more “touchless” technologies for doors, elevators, and especially bathrooms. Paper reduction and clean work services will also be promoted to kill germs. The addition of germ-resistant surfaces will also be commonplace. In addition, fresh air circulation and better filtration will help control the spread of germs.
Biophilia design, or using natural features to bring the “outside” into indoor spaces, was on the rise prior to the pandemic and will continue to increase in popularity in the hybrid office. Studies have shown that exposure to the natural environment can help us relax and focus. It is hoped that the stress of the pandemic can be lessened by natural surroundings. Such features will also help the workplace be a more attractive and welcoming space.
Examples of biophilia design include daylighting, displaying plants and other natural features, and constructing all or part of the office from natural materials. There will be more natural colors including shades of green, brown, and blue, along with more wood and stone features (and less plastic and neon lighting).
These features will also be augmented with practices that promote employees to get up from their desks and take a break. Regular breaks keep our minds fresh and help us to be less sedentary. A more natural office not only promotes productivity, it also promotes individual wellbeing.
Which Office Concept is Better?
It is my hope that this article will help to convince you of two things: the hybrid office is not just a repeat of the open office, and the hybrid office will be designed to maximize collaboration, reduce space, and incorporate health and wellness into the office design.
It’s about time that the design of offices becomes “people-centric” by promoting the needs and wellbeing of employees. The office should not be viewed as a place where you simply show up to work, put on your headphones, and try to shut out the distractions. It should be a place that promotes wellness and the ability to work from the location best suited to the task at hand.
If done right, the hybrid office will hands-down be an improvement over the open office. I only hope we will learn from the mistakes made during the open office era – that people cannot be packed into smaller and smaller spaces in an environment full of audio and visual distractions, while still being expected to function at maximum productivity. Instead, let’s take what’s good about the open office - flexibility, more natural light, a variety of workstations, collaboration, and the integration of technology - and blend it with the need for employees to have more privacy and the promotion of wellness in office design. Hopefully, the resulting hybrid office will benefit both the employee and employer through the design of space that equally promotes the bottom line of the organization and the wellbeing of employees.