Planning the Return to an Inclusive Hybrid Office

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Rachel Zsembery
Rachel Zsembery
Rachel Zsembery is a Vice President at Bergmeyer in Boston, MA.

Get inspired for your own return to the office plan as Bergmeyer’s Rachel Zsembery shares their three phased approach for the implementation of a new hybrid work model.

The Shake Shack NYC HQ has various collaborative working spaces that are open concept, but also multi-functional and include more private areas for zoom meetings, etc. Photo credit: Chase Daniel 

We are in the midst of a vast global re-imagining of the physical embodiment and social fabric of the workplace, and there is no better time to reevaluate the purpose of the office space as we know it. As businesses began to plot their incremental return towards occupying their physical spaces in the spring of 2021, the call for adopting a new Hybrid work model sounded with magnitude. But what constitutes a successful hybrid work model? How is it structured? How do you know which components of the plan are right for your business? And how do you need to physically evolve your workspace to support this new way of working?

We set out to answer these questions back in April, creating and sharing our multi-phase approach towards a return to full occupancy and with the integration of a new hybrid in-person/remote work model befitting of our own culture and workplace.

The California Closets Corporate Office is a great example of open office spaces and closed meeting rooms to fit the needs of their teams and collaborative efforts. Photo credit: Flagship Photo / Gustav Hoiland

Prior to the pandemic, many flexible work principles were embraced that support family and personal needs which included offering remote work options, establishing core hours to allow employees flexibility during the workday, and creating a more inclusive holiday/cultural leave policy. In contemplating our objectives for a hybrid workspace, we identified key goals to work towards which included:

  • Returning to the office with a sense of purpose of place. This meant clearly articulating why we believe that it is important for our teams to physically work together, including a focus on professional development through unstructured training and mentoring, and the ease of exchanging energy and connectedness through in-person collaboration.
  • Celebrating the in-between moments of personal connection that build trust, spark creativity, and boost morale and creativity.
  • Replacing time-intensive formalized virtual meetings with informal drop-in discussions and ad-hoc collaboration between teams. Curtail the calendar bloat we all experienced during fully remote workdays and allow more flexibility in choosing the right vehicle for each type of interpersonal interaction.
  • Providing choice in where to work – both between home and the office, and within individual spaces in the physical office itself. Ensure that every employee feels engaged whether they have chosen to work in the office or remotely on that particular day.
The Boston Beer HQ has various collaborative meeting spaces and work stations to allow private and open meeting options, flexibility throughout the office for workers to choose areas to work from, and unique design elements that make semi-private meeting areas feel more connected to the open spaces around it. Photo credit: Anton Grassl

To deliver on these goals, we created a three phased approach for the implementation of our new hybrid work model and launched the plan companywide with a considerably long runway for implementation. This five-month period between Phase One and the implementation of our third and final phase provides our staff the opportunity to provide feedback and collectively engage in the process of designing and implementing the details of our plan. This collaborative approach ensures a gradual ramp up to a level of in-person engagement that is driven by individuals’ own personal needs and comfort levels.

In phase one, Foundation, the majority of our team still worked consistently from home, and many hadn’t yet ventured back into the office. We set out through many individual conversations to understand people’s impediments for returning to the office and worked collectively to address these challenges to the best of our abilities.

In Phase Two, Test and Learn, we encouraged our team to integrate a minimum of two days per week in the office when individually feasible. We tapped into more formalized employee feedback by engaging through work streams, surveys, and open forums for discussion. These conversations included such topics as creating new or making enhancements to existing communication/meeting best practices, establishing more inclusive standards for on-boarding new employees in the hybrid work environment, and the integration of more thoughtfully designed resources for wellness and mindfulness in the workplace.

Boston Beer Company Corporate Office. Photo credit: Anton Grassl

In September, we will launch Phase Three, Return to We from Me, which is the full expression of our new Hybrid Workplace. During this phase, adherent to the guidance of our local and state health and safety regulations, all employees will be required to return to the office a minimum of three days a week. There are clear guidelines and expectations set for communication around creating a Flexible Work Schedule, and we continue to encourage all employees to work with our Director of Human Resources during Phase Two of the re-entry plan to create a Flexible Work Schedule unique to their individual needs.

As we currently find ourselves in the thick of Phase Two of our plan, we’ve gained valuable insights on what components have worked well as well as areas of opportunity to improve.

There are various collaborative meeting/working spaces throughout the expansive Boston Dynamics HQ, and no shortage of open meeting spaces as well as semi-private/private meeting spaces for any use case. Photo Credit: Anton Grassl

What is working?

  • For one thing, we learned people had forgotten how good it feels to be connected in person. Overwhelmingly we continue to find that for employees returning to the office after a long hiatus, it often only takes one small interaction of unstructured training and mentoring to remind emerging professionals and seasoned veterans what vital opportunities they were missing. As such, those seasoned veterans should prepare their calendars and their communication skills to allow more generosity and flexibility with in-person time – rightfully so, we are all collectively making up for a year-long deficit, so practicing patience and empathy are a must.
  • In publishing clear guidelines and a generous timeline towards adoption, we received feedback that this advanced approach reduced anxiety over what was to come and allowed employees to begin actively planning a flexible future that supported their individual needs. Many of us are dealing with uncertainty fatigue. If you are transparent about the pathway back and clearly articulate on what the expectations will be moving forward, that level of transparency allows your employees to be more specific about their personal questions and concerns in return. It allows them to recognize that while adaptive and flexible, your plan is underpinned by a firmly planted structure. This in turn offers a sense of security to reassure more apprehensive individuals there are contingency plans in place to solve for the potential post-pandemic variables moving forward.
Boston Dynamics. Photo Credit: Anton Grassl

Where can we improve?

Although we’ve had many successes thus far, we continue to explore what needs weren’t being met as we continued testing and focused on addressing improvements for lessons learned.

  • Elevated technological re-integration to support a fully functional hybrid workplace experience were vital considerations. Solving for the optimal collaborative environment in a hybrid office requires careful consideration of the overall design of the office space to allow for simultaneous meetings without disruption or interference. How do we adapt our environment to allow for more flexibility based on each teams’ need? Everything from the optimization of zoom-location aesthetics, acoustics, lighting, audio and video upgrades, and easily adaptable technology must be evaluated.
  • More cohesive workstream regarding proper channels of communication for every use case. What communication streams warrant a Zoom meeting vs. an email, Teams chat or all-office email?
  • Reconfiguring collaborative spaces to support hybrid meeting settings where everyone is on their individual laptops and more visible to remote team members. Ensuring that staff working remotely feel more connected to their in-office colleagues using personal devices within conference rooms rather than a camera view at the end of a long conference table has been positively received but continues to be tested as more of our team integrates into the office.

During Phase One and Two, we refreshed our office spaces to adapt for our new hybrid work model and to ensure the office would be a space worth returning to. The goal was to use the space to foster the type of interaction and community that we were craving and was born out of a collaborative and transparent design process, integrating the feedback of many stakeholder groups within the office. Within this hive of energy, we were cognizant to carve out niches and spaces for solitude and heads-down focused work.

The X4 Pharmaceuticals HQ was mindfully designed to offer small and large meeting areas for collaboration, while also offering more private/semi-private work spaces for certain use cases. The flow of the space is adaptable and offers employees connectedness throughout. Photo credit: Roberto Farren Photography

We are currently testing open conference rooms – multi-purpose spaces with flexible boundaries that invite people to interact cross-teams and away from their desk, which allow spaces to evolve as new work patterns are adopted.

Ultimately, for businesses to successfully plan and execute their own return to the office, (or any change in the structure or culture of your office for that matter), we’ve identified three key considerations to address:

  • Purpose: Why you are enacting the change
  • Plan: What you will communicate regarding the structure the Purpose-driven change
  • Practice: How you will engage your team to solicit feedback, react, and respond in support of the Plan

As we collectively evolve as a business community towards adopting a more employee-centric flexible work model, leading with the values of connectedness and community will serve as guideposts for future policy and drive the physical evolution of our workplaces.

Rachel Zsembery
Rachel Zsembery
Rachel Zsembery is a Vice President at Bergmeyer in Boston, MA.
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