To Be Or Not To Be…In The Office? This Is NOT The Question

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Alexis Kim
Alexis Kim
As the leading workplace design strategist for SmithGroup’s national Workplace Practice, Alexis Kim has devoted her nearly 20-year career to seamlessly melding the built environment with the human experience. A respected thought leader and change agent, her work is rooted in the premise that strategic design solutions can (and should) contribute to a client’s success. Alexis possesses a unique expertise, deftly understanding of the evolution of work, the generational differences that impact work, and how evolving lifestyle preferences will impact the way people seek to work in the future. She has applied these skills to create innovative solutions that have helped Fortune 500 clients solve complex business and space challenges.

Now it is time to invest in a system of change that helps your company move beyond ‘to be or not to be…in the office.’

Borrowing from Hamlet’s soliloquy, “to be or not to be…in the office” seems to be the most common communication theme these days when it comes to reimagining work. One may argue, however, that is NOT the fundamental question that needs to be asked, nor should it be the main consideration for organizations today. As constant and often dramatic changes continue to occur in life and work on any given day, organizations should implement a holistic system of change enablers that can help drive long-term success.

Communication: Connecting Beyond Words

Communication is one critical component of a successful change management strategy. But importantly, the type of information that is communicated is far more critical than the simple act of sharing information. When employees understand the WHY behind a new initiative, the change management and adoption processes goes much more smoothly. Similarly, if a new initiative receives pushback, it is critical for leadership to understand WHY employees are struggling to embrace the transition.

Image courtesy of SmithGroup

A common movie trope shows characters wildly misunderstanding another character’s motives, resulting in heartbreak or hilarity. These characters are often in constant communication but are missing the WHY driving the actions of others. For example, in the movie Shrek, Princess Fiona tries to hide that she is an ogre because she feels like an “ugly beast.” Shrek perceives this secrecy as her pushing away because he is an ogre and feels hurt.

When people don’t fully understand someone else’s motives, they tend to fill in the gaps with reasoning that fits their own narrative. In psychology, this is called the illusion of transparency, where people tend to overestimate the degree to which their mental state is apparent to others. People also tend to overestimate how well they understand others’ thoughts and emotions.

…Employees should have a clear understanding of WHY this change is needed both for the organization and for themselves personally.

For example, an organization may be working to convert to desk-sharing in the office, and employees may be having a hard time with the new program despite many forms of communication explaining the reason for the changes. When managers dive in to learn what is hindering the process, they come to realize that employees are experiencing change overload because they also just went through a big software change and a company reorganization. As a result, they can determine that the desk-sharing initiative may be better received if the roll-out is delayed by a few months or, at a minimum, if the pace of the roll-out is slowed down.

A robust change management strategy can help to avoid some of these misunderstandings and miscommunications. Additionally, the organization’s readiness to accept change should be assessed to ensure the timing is appropriate to launch initiatives. Planning teams should also gauge the type and level of support will be needed for a successful transition. Before, during and after the process is in place, employees should have a clear understanding of WHY this change is needed both for the organization and for themselves personally. When leadership is open to understanding employees’ mindsets and motivations, they can better address sticking points and guide the initiative to a successful outcome.

A System That Enables Change

We know that communication alone merely informs employees of changes that are being made and the reasons that are driving these efforts, but it does not necessarily address how changes will, or should, impact those who will ultimately be most influenced by the changes. When adopting hybrid work, regardless of the form, the stakes are much higher for the change program with a greater degree of complexity. Only addressing physical changes within the workplace or how the physical office will be used when people ‘show up’ is simply not enough. We must recognize that the physical workplace will need to be supported beyond its physical boundaries and must include a myriad of systems that will work cohesively and in harmony: physical, operational, organizational, and cultural.

The hybrid work system will require potential changes in the following key components, at a minimum:

  1. Policy changes coordinated with senior leadership and Human Resources teams
  2. Technology assessments and strategies for hardware and software upgrades
  3. Leadership training and support to help supervisors manage, lead and grow distributed teams in both physical and virtual worlds
  4. Training programs and resources to instill best practices, process and protocols that resonate in hybrid environments, addressing both/and not either/or
  5. Cultural engagement programs with investment and resources for different scales and methods of inclusion
  6. Physical space realignment and use upgrades that align office environments with strategies
Image courtesy of SmithGroup

Understanding how each of these components can support the changes that an organization is planning will begin with understanding the impact of each to the greater whole. For instance, how many of us have fallen victim to being a virtual participant in a hybrid meeting only to be ignored when you raise your virtual hand until long past the topic of conversation only to give up? How many of us have been a focus of a video conference in a room because the camera was stuck on capturing the wrong individual, not the actual speaker, therefore creating a disconnect and awkwardness for both in-person and virtual participants? One could argue this is due to a lack of sufficient technology, however, fundamentals of effective meetings – regardless of hybrid, virtual or in-person – will not be solved simply through technology. Success begins with creating and learning new habits and protocols for conducting meetings, enacting processes that promote engagement and inclusivity as much as learning new tools and technologies.

Success begins with creating and learning new habits and protocols…

What policies are in place to enable productive remote work? What guardrails are in place to protect those who are working remotely to ‘turn off’ when not feeling well in lieu of continuing to stay available to avoid harmful perceptions from colleagues or managers? What tools and training are needed to raise team leaders to move away from visual management to outcome-based leadership styles when working with distributed teams? How can managers be empowered and enabled for success by not being overburdened with managing teams and deliverables, as well as coordinating flexible work schedules? How are virtual connection opportunities emphasized to be just as important as in-person connection opportunities when addressing professional development, mentorship, and growth?

These are just a few examples of why assessing and addressing all aspects of an organization’s operations and culture is key to understanding the appropriate level change required to effectively enable desired results. The key is to start with a holistic view of the workplace beyond its physical environment and to take an inclusive view of all participants who will be impacted by the new workplace that an organization wishes to create.

From Managing To Mobilizing

Many organizations are still contemplating how they will adopt hybrid or remote work. There is a misconception that the change to hybrid work will officially begin when the company finally decides how many days employees need to be in the office. We would argue that transition to hybrid work has been here for a while already with new habits and haphazard protocols filling in for the lack of a broader support system addressing a range of components.

A system is defined as a group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole. An organization must determine its willingness to tackle all of these elements when assessing its physical workplace and hybrid work model to truly enable success. As architects and designers, we know that a physical environment requires different parts to work together to perform at its best—including architectural, interior, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, structural and more. When a space’s function needs to change, we wouldn’t simply change the carpet or lighting alone and expect it to perform optimally for a user. As we consider the changes occurring now, we need to look further than simply managing the transition with communication but consider all of the forces that can help mobilize the change effectively.

Image courtesy of SmithGroup

It is not an easy task to successfully implement a hybrid work model and all of its complexities. However, it is not impossible and, if done correctly, organizations will yield better outcomes than simply sticking with what they have and hoping for the best. The journey starts by connecting with stakeholders within your organization beyond directional communication. This requires an honest assessment of current and ideal future states best suited for the organization, followed by efforts that identify which aspects of the organization will enable the desired transition. It also requires a mind frame that asks how best to mobilize a system of change beyond simply messaging it. The change toward adopting and embracing hybrid work began a long time ago. Now it is time to invest in a system of change that helps your company move beyond ‘to be or not to be…in the office.’

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