Companies are re-evaluating the purpose of the office. HOK’s Beate Mellwig and Kay Sargent explain how to put in place an effective hybrid work model that balances employees’ “wants” with the needs of the business.
How is your company’s return-to-office (RTO) going? We’ve all seen surveys reporting on the latest workplace preferences of knowledge workers. Factors like age, gender, job type, geographic location and industry can skew the results. What we are discovering across many survey results, however, is that about one-third of employees want to be completely remote; one-fifth would rather always be on-site; and nearly half favor a combination of the two.
That’s what employees want. To find out what their leaders prefer, our WorkPlace group organized a series of roundtables and meetings with members of the C-Suite and heads of corporate real estate in North America and Europe. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of what these leaders shared about remote work doesn’t align with what they have been saying to their employees.
What Are Employers Thinking?
Most everyone agrees that the productivity of knowledge workers remained constant or even increased during the work-from-home phase of the pandemic. We know that people can do good work from outside the office. Productivity, however, isn’t the only factor to consider.
The often-unspoken concerns of today’s leaders focus on the possible adverse effects of full-time remote work. Their top fears are:
- Depletion of social capital and company culture.
- Reduced ability to innovate, which is essential to their survival.
- Exacerbation of diversity, equity and inclusion challenges.
- Preference is given to on-site employees (proximity bias).
- Hindrance of professional development, coaching and mentoring.
- Decrease in quality of work due to isolation or multitasking.
- Mental and physical well-being of the workforce.
If not addressed, these factors can have a devastating impact on a company’s long-term success and employee careers. The problem is that many workers are unaware of remote work’s potential side effects, and business leaders are reluctant to be the bearers of bad news.
Workforce Calling the Shots
Despite threats of a recession, the “Great Resignation” that began during the COVID quarantine has not subsided. According to PwC’s latest Global Workforce Hopes and Dreams Survey, one of every five employees plans to quit this year. The war for the best people is on, and knowledge workers are feeling empowered.
The talent war explains why many leaders are keeping their reservations about remote work private. They’re afraid that asking all employees to return to the physical office will motivate them to seek “greener pastures” where they can work from home.
Remember that the “Great Resignation” started while everyone was working from home. This experience left many people feeling isolated, disconnected and anxious. Allowing people to continue to work entirely remotely isn’t likely to ease those feelings. It may even aggravate them.
Just because staff can (or want to) work remotely doesn’t mean they should. Some leaders quietly fear that remote work programs are “living on credit” and that the bill—negative consequences for the individuals and the company—will eventually come due.
Make Hybrid Work for You
COVID altered many aspects of life, including the nature of work and the workplace. There will always be “only in the office” and “never in the office” companies in the future. Sandwiched between these outliers are the 70% who are embracing a hybrid mix of remote (home and coworking space) and on-premises work. A hybrid paradigm that strives to balance the best of both worlds—convenience and collaboration—might be here to stay.
Hybrid work environments, however, are the most difficult to implement. Consulting giants like Accenture, McKinsey and BCG, whose employees have traditionally spent a significant amount of time outside the office, are among the few large companies that have been doing a version of this successfully for years. But very few have experience implementing a formal hybrid workplace on the scale we’re seeing today.
When poorly implemented, hybrid work has often been described as “the worst of both worlds.” We‘ve all heard employees complain about returning to the “same old office” when there haven’t been any significant physical changes to give them a reason to be there. Others gripe about spending most of their days in the office on video calls that they could have more easily joined from home. Yet the quality of the workplace experience has never been more critical.
Enlightened executives are focusing less on mandates and more on creating environments that entice employees to come back into the office. To optimize hybrid work and create a win-win scenario, leaders must convey the “why” behind their workplace decisions. There is no single solution, and businesses cannot “just do” hybrid. Instead, “plan your work and work your plan,” as the saying goes.
Begin by researching how your employees work and the environments and tools they need to perform their best while preserving a healthy work-life balance. Meet them in the middle by balancing what they want with the features and policies that your organization requires. Determine whether setting fixed days in the office or employing a more flexible model best meets the needs of your business, customers and staff.
Recognize that managing the diverse experiences of remote and in-person workers to be as equitable as possible is uncharted territory. To keep people engaged, you will need to rely on your HR team’s skills and your C-Suite’s backing. Take this opportunity to reexamine your work processes, management style and employee communication programs. Stay flexible and make quick changes as you see what works and what doesn’t.
Give Choices and Control
Your physical office must provide welcoming, inclusive spaces where employees can have experiences they would not have at home. They are looking for opportunities to connect in person with colleagues and to take advantage of various amenities and services.
More companies are considering “free choice” work environments with fewer dedicated workstations and a broader range of alternative work settings and shared amenities. Free-choice space enables employees to select private or collaborative workspaces that best suit their needs for the day.
In 2016, HOK partnered with CoreNet Global to produce a report on the state of coworking. We discovered then, and continue to find today, that employees who have options about how they work when in the office feel more engaged than either fully remote workers or those who are always in the office. They don’t take either location for granted and are in command of their experiences in both. Giving your employees a little trust and control can reap significant benefits.
A piece of advice about free choice: In the workplace, one size misfits all. The ultimate goal is to create a comprehensive ecosystem of workplace options from which everyone can choose settings that are best for them. If the environment you create is too rigid, generic or homogenous—and doesn’t support your people who are neurodivergent or highly sensitive to their environs in this post-pandemic world—it’s unlikely to fulfill anybody’s needs. For example, building rows of identical benching work points with the same furniture and lighting levels would be a mistake. Zoned spaces are also essential so that noisy activities are not adjacent to quiet areas.
One increasingly popular perk is “lifestyle studios” that support hobbies employees picked up while working from home. Activities such as gardening, cooking, spending time with pets and reading could be part of a lifestyle studio. When they interact with like-minded colleagues in these settings, people begin to build stronger relationships and feelings of belonging. These lifestyle studios, along with special amenity areas like podcast rooms, maker spaces, and well-being and contemplation rooms, also can act as magnets that pull employees back to the office.
Many companies were caught off guard when COVID sent people home to work. Though workplace designers can’t predict the future, we know that technological advancements like artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) will continue to disrupt the workplace. We can help companies be future-ready and avoid surprises by designing flexible spaces that can handle unforeseen changes. Approaching the workplace as a central hub of activity as part of the hub-home-spoke model will enable it to be easily adaptable in the future.
This Is That Moment
People living through a historic moment often underestimate its magnitude. For the workplace, this is that moment. The entire planet is reconsidering how, where and when we work. Designers must seize this opportunity to fix what was broken and redesign the workplace to meet the needs of both people and the enterprise.