Rethinking the Hybrid Workplace Model As a Community Builder

Jamie Feuerborn & Michelle Beganskas of Ted Moudis share how to use the hybrid workplace for connection, empathy, and creativity.

From Parks and Recreation to Mad Men and of course, The Office, it’s no coincidence that some of the most iconic pieces of pop culture are presented in workplaces. Offices are central to not just our jobs but also to our relationships and aspirations. However, there’s no doubt the pandemic has transformed companies’ and their employees’ relationship to offices for the years and decades to come.

Nevertheless change isn’t the same as obsoletion. So even though offices may look different and serve new purposes, they still play a vital role in creating and maintaining positive and productive work cultures, training new employees, and supporting equity within organizations.

Nevertheless change isn’t the same as obsoletion.

With 72% of companies reporting that they intend to offer a blend of in-person and remote work after the pandemic, firms are still uncertain about how to optimize and update the layout, design, and amenities within their offices. Workplace designers are starting to encourage their clients to think of their offices as more than a place to complete individual day-to-day assignments, but also as a space dedicated to hold training and alternate types of programming that boost morale and make new and long-term employees feel welcome and motivated.

“Good workplace culture” is no longer a buzzword managers claim during interviews. It is now a necessity for operating a successful business at a time when four million workers in the United States have quit in the fifth straight month. Bob Sutton, an organizational psychologist and a professor at Stanford University, believes this “Great Resignation” is largely due to employees not feeling connected to their colleagues and work. “If you’re in a workplace or a job where there is not the emphasis on attachment, it’s easier to change jobs, emotionally,” he said in a recent New York Times interview.

To cultivate a more engaged and committed workforce, workplace designers are incorporating more cafe-type spaces and soft collaboration areas to help drive socialization and spontaneity. Employees have always loved hanging out in break rooms, so why shouldn’t these more relaxed spaces take center stage, instead of being tucked in a back room?

These casual spaces are crucial for more than just chatting about the latest Netflix series; neuroscientists have proven that face-to-face encounters allow for empathy, emotional connection and the chance to pick up on non-verbal cues, which in turn help employees feel more energized and accountable. Further, MIT researchers found that face-to-face interactions outside formal settings were the best predictor of productivity.

With “The Great Resignation” leading to a higher turnover rate, executives are also focused on improving their training procedures, so their firms make a good first impression and encourage employees to stay with the team. More flexible offices that provide a space for in-person training programs as well as casual settings for new employees and managers to get to know each other can go a long way. Incoming staff learn the ticks and nuances that make their new teams gel and remain productive from observing their colleagues in action just as much from formal training sessions.

Physical workplaces are still crucial to the future of our economy, cultivating teamwork, building relationships with new hires, and most of all, boosting morale. However, working from home has provided some with numerous benefits, particularly for traditionally disadvantaged populations, such as women with childcare responsibilities. Survey data, conducted by theSkimm, suggests that women who need child care are 32% less likely to report that they intend to leave their job if they have access to remote work. It’s important for workplace designers to confront these truths and continue their commitment to creating equitable workplaces, including addressing the new challenges hybrid offices create.

For example, in a meeting that includes some folks sitting around the same table and others conferencing via video, will managers pay more attention to the points raised by colleagues they can see in the flesh? Will a recent college graduate, who is more likely to come into the office because they live in a tiny apartment and don’t have childcare responsibilities, receive more attention and training than a single father who would prefer to work at home? While these questions are top-of-mind for HR executives, they also need to drive the evolving thought process for interior designers who have the ability to rethink a meeting room layout and invest in new technologies that help everyone feel like they’re in the same space.

Of course, the pandemic changed far more than our relationships with work and the office; it also affected our routines and, in some cases, overall outlook on life. But since work is still so central to our identities, the ways workplace designers adapt to the pandemic will impact individuals beyond their time in the office. While the COVID-19 era is often associated with isolation, offices now have an opportunity to be defined by connection, empathy, and creativity.

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