The hybrid office is a post-pandemic workplace designed around the concept of employees dividing their time between the office and home. The hybrid office is human-centric in that it incorporates wellness, mobility, and flexibility into the office environment. While corporations have been adopting these themes in various forms for many years, government offices have been slower to embrace these concepts.
Now that employees are returning to work after the pandemic, government departments are competing with private industry to attract and retain talent. Many departments are rethinking their need for space and starting to consider the hybrid office. However, many are concerned that the hybrid office is not appropriate for public service. After all, your local county department is not Google or Amazon.
This article addresses some of the reasons government offices may be slower to adopt flexible and mobile space arrangements, why I believe the hybrid office is right for government, and three strategies to help promote the transition to hybrid space.
Slow to Change
As someone who has participated in workplace planning both before and during the pandemic, I have observed firsthand that many government departments are slow to change. This is not to say that departments are opposed to change. Instead, I have found that they tend to be steeped in tradition and bound by rules and regulations that can hinder innovation. They may also be unaware of the opportunity to save space and costs via the hybrid office, as well as the ways space design can promote employee wellness through the use of daylighting, natural features, fresh air technology, etc.
In addition, many departments are still paper dependent. Reducing the need for paper and storing files online is a critical step in transitioning away from a traditional office set up. The pandemic has prompted many government departments to start this process, but I have found that they are still “figuring it out” and holding on to archived materials that may no longer be required by government regulations.
Upper management may also be reluctant to change the organization’s culture. Moving to a hybrid office changes access to personnel and the way managers supervise, communicate, and manage the work effort. It is understandable for managers to be concerned about productivity because the work cannot be as directly observed when employees are not in the office. This can be of particular concern for government organizations that provide direct services to the public.
Hybrid Office: The Right Fit for Government
While these concerns are valid and understandable, it is important to consider some of the benefits a hybrid office can have for your government organization. I believe that you can have a hybrid office and still be available to the public while offering a high level of service. As a matter of fact, I believe the transition to the hybrid office can actually reinvigorate your workforce and provide a more forward-thinking feel for the public you serve.
I’ve been in many government offices that badly need maintenance and do not project a positive image for the department or its mission. We can all picture the cubicle farms and piles of manuals and boxes piled up in an old office that hasn’t been refreshed in 50 years. What kind of message does this send to the public about the services that are provided?
By contrast, transitioning to a hybrid office with clean open spaces, adequate daylighting, plants and other natural materials, and modern workstations can transform both the perception of the public and the spirit of the employees.
Such offices exist today in government agencies and departments, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The future office of the government should have these features as the standard.
As I mentioned above, government organizations are competing with private industry to attract and retain talent in a job market that highly favors the employee and job-seeker. Working from home is a major benefit that most office employees have come to expect. This arrangement allows employees to achieve better work-life balance and to save on costs associated with commuting. If the mission and job function is conducive to telework, you are fighting an uphill battle if you try to force people to come into the office five days a week.
And the benefits of telework don’t stop with the employee. Working from home can provide employees with uninterrupted periods to focus on getting work done, which can boost overall organizational productivity. There are many interruptions in the traditional office, from the chatty coworker to the loud meeting occurring down the hall. The home office can provide more opportunity to focus uninterrupted.
While the home office tends to provide time for greater focus, the hybrid office provides time to collaborate with coworkers and to focus on customer service to the public. Important face-to-face meetings and public-facing activities can be scheduled for this in-office time. While it requires some coordination to make this happen effectively, I believe this mix of working from home and coming into the office can energize employees to focus more on customer service while interfacing with the public in the hybrid office. Of course, phone calls and email from the public can be taken whether at home or in the office.
I believe the benefits of the hybrid office far outweigh any potential downsides, and I hope by now you are becoming convinced, too.
3 Ways to Promote Change
If you’re considering moving to a hybrid office arrangement, I offer the following three strategies to help you break through the resistance and successfully transition from traditional to hybrid office space.
Visit a Functioning Hybrid Office
The first thing I recommend is to visit hybrid offices that are already up and running. There is nothing like seeing an office firsthand and talking with the personnel working in that office to help someone become more educated on and comfortable with hybrid office concepts.
To do this, I suggest a tour (ideally with another government organization, but a commercial workplace is also an option). Commercial furniture showrooms can also be good places to tour and learn about the latest in flexible office arrangements, workstation types, and collaborative spaces.
It is important for government personnel to see how an office is set up, how technology is being used, and how hybrid organizations schedule and share workstations and collaboration rooms. It is also helpful for government representatives to hear firsthand how the transition was planned, how resistance was handled, and how the hybrid office supports the public service functions, along with any insights on productivity and morale. I have found this type of conversation to be eye-opening, and it will typically help government office managers understand and feel more comfortable with hybrid office concepts.
Reduce the Paper
Government departments should continue to reduce paper. Paper reduction and electronic file management are important hurdles that must be crossed to promote mobility. Consider the following:
- Imaging and scanning – start with current documents as they come in and work backwards in time to scan older files.
- Archiving – make sure you are up to date with archiving documents. When conducting space planning efforts, we often find that departments are holding onto files much longer than needed.
- Electronic Systems – implement systems that enable the public to complete electronic filings, paperwork, and online research. Such systems streamline processes and add convenience for the public.
- Online file storage - store your files and work materials on an office shared drive or in the cloud to enable remote access and the ability to back up your work.
After reducing paper, you will be surprised how uncluttered and open a traditional office will feel. This is a critical step in making the hybrid office transition.
Communicate and Set Up a Prototype
Once the decision to transition to a hybrid office has been made, it is important to engage all managers and employees in space planning activities. At the outset, town hall meetings, surveys, focus groups, workshops, and other written and verbal communication can be used to keep employees informed and engaged. The more employees are updated, consulted, and trained throughout the process, the more likely they will be to embrace the change.
As the space transition nears, it is advisable to set up a prototype space so that employees can practice using the new space and technology. This gives them a very tangible feel for what it will be like to work in the hybrid office environment. Such a space could include different types of workstations and furniture for both focused and collaborative work. The space could also include example home-office setups, demonstrating economy and efficiency for both small and large home office environments.
Employees should be encouraged to try the furniture, workstations, and associated technology. Their feedback should be solicited for any decisions (lighting, comfort, ease of use, etc.) that have not yet been finalized. This provides an opportunity for employees to gain a comfort level with the new space design while also providing feedback on their preferences. But keep in mind that it is important to communicate what is negotiable and what is non-negotiable. It defeats the purpose to ask for feedback for decisions that have already been cast in stone.
It is also advisable to have managers visibly work from the prototype area. This will communicate a very clear message regarding management support.
The lessons learned from the prototype will likely influence design decisions for the overall space project. Take this opportunity to test your larger project concepts before investing all the time and money in furnishings and features that do not pass muster with the people who will be using them.
Government Office of the Future
The future government office will look very much like corporate offices with an emphasis on catering to their public mission. I am not expecting foosball tables and nap pods, just a clean, bright, and open office with appropriate government decor and sufficient counter, reception, and meeting space to accommodate public service.
The hybrid office can boost employee morale, support a better work-life balance, reduce the size of office space through workspace sharing, and improve public perception. There is a lot to gain by going hybrid and it is my sincere hope that the government will embrace this opportunity as employees return to work.