After an unprecedented period of disruption and uncertainty on almost all fronts, business leaders around the globe are grappling with how to welcome employees back to the office, even while the pandemic rages on in many parts of the globe.
The office we used to know is a construct of the past. Hybrid work models that allow employees the flexibility to commute into the office on specific days for specific purposes are now the de facto strategy for many companies.
This past spring, Google announced its hybrid strategy, which will see about 60 percent of employees visit offices a few days a week, 20 percent shift to new locations, and 20 percent work remotely. Microsoft has shared a playbook that breaks down its return-to-work strategy in terms of social, human, and knowledge capital, and reimagined space that delivers equitable, inclusive experiences. Even the IMF is going hybrid (as detailed in a recent webinar), exploring data-driven solutions to manage peak times, understand the office space, and decode what is needed to entice workers back to campus.
Citigroup, Ford, Lockheed Martin – these companies and many, many others are embracing a hybrid strategy. An unexpected outcome of the mass global work-from-home experiment in which we’ve all been forced to participate has been the recognition that offering employees more choice and flexibility with respect to how they work doesn’t necessarily equate to a drop in productivity or efficiency.
A more predictable outcome: employees are more motivated than ever to find a workplace culture that embraces a more modern set of expectations for the workplace. Back in 2017, a report by Gallup showed that 37 percent of staff would switch companies for a more flexible workplace. That trend has now swept through industry, with a recent survey revealing that 74 percent want the ability to decide whether to visit the office at all.
If hybrid workplaces are the model for the future, how can companies position themselves for success?
Five steps to ensure a successful hybrid transition
Readers of this publication will know the pieces needed to transform a workplace: policies, resource allocation, modernization, technology investments and growth strategies, to name a few. Yet these elements historically live in silos with HR, Facilities, Operations and IT running independent programs.
The key to going hybrid is to break down those silos and holistically co-create new workstyles, new office designs, and new approaches to work. The next model for the workplace must be informed as much as possible by the collective. Any unilateral decisions will put employee morale, motivation, and performance at risk, especially among employees of the younger generations. So how can a company most effectively transform its workplace to support these emerging expectations of workstyle?
One: Determine and design the office’s purpose
People want to use offices, but not every day. Offices are no longer simply a place to perform work; they must serve a purpose. Determining that purpose in 2021 means understanding needs and expectations, and how that space can best support productivity – floor to floor, room to room, desk to desk.
In a hybrid work model, expect your employees to visit the office for specific reasons. Even if some teams are assigned certain days of the week, the ideal approach is to have your newly-united departments figure out how to design the office to best support why employees are commuting in (rather than when). Perhaps more importantly, they need to figure out how the same facilities within the office can support the different needs of different teams and functions.
Different teams have different needs, and therefore different patterns of office behavior. The legal team, for example, will use workspaces in a way that the sales team does not. Data yields key insights here: how often people are using designated seating areas, if there are more assigned desks than needed, if overflow space offers value in building a highly adaptable environment, and much more. Analytics reveal not just what a company needs out of its offices, but can differentiate between the needs of teams within the same company – and thus pave the way toward identifying and operating flexible workspaces.
In short, consider the office not a vessel to house employees, but as a place with purpose-built resources, services and collaboration opportunities that people want, when they need them.
Two: Leverage and update the existing real estate footprint
Beyond disrupting the office by reimagining it as a service model, now is a prime time to take a holistic approach to understand current and future real estate needs.
For some time, empty corporate centers had companies seeking to cut costs and shrink real estate where possible in order to rebound from the pandemic. Whether operating a large campus, full towers or multi-office sites, the hybrid workplace means that square footage needs may be lower than pre-pandemic. But with market conditions and high vacancy rates putting commercial tenants in favorable bargaining positions, this fall may in fact be the time to bolster one’s real estate footprint – in order to not just recover from COVID but instead accelerate out of it.
The past year has presented the opportunity to rethink how real estate supports the growth and productivity of the employee base. Now is the time to think about long term growth plans and the most cost effective way to provide the facilities needed to support them. The traditional ‘brute force’ method of scaling one’s facilities may not always be the right approach. Co-working spaces, flex seating models, and remote work are all alternative strategies that can have a very different yet beneficial impact on operational costs.
Overall, the conditions are such that businesses can consider real estate as an advantage, not as a burden. In rationalizing real estate, ask key questions: What options are actually on the table? Is growth achievable within one’s existing portfolio? What do the next five or 10 years look like? How could existing office space serve more employees than it does now? How can it be used to bolster employee experience, productivity, and teamwork?
Three: Deploy modern technology
One thing is certain: COVID shattered any final resistance to adopting new collaboration technologies, and in fact accelerated the digitization of many industries by several years.
Cloud-based collaborative technologies have evolved dramatically. Tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams/Rooms and Cisco Webex are a standard part of the toolkit now. Effective meetings are no longer limited to whoever is physically present in the office, with virtual whiteboards, embedded video conferencing, and other tools available to connect teams from anywhere. For those times when being in the office makes sense, employee experience apps can help staff plan an office visit in advance to get the most out of their time spent, combined with desk and resource reservation systems that minimize contention for limited resources and ensure in-office time is productive.
Tech can also support a safe and efficient use of hybrid office space and empower employees to work smarter. First, set in place a way to gauge how employees are using the space. Indoor location intelligence platforms can yield an array of insights about your staff and facilities, breaking down how often people visit the office, how long they stay, how they interact with different teams, where they tend to work independently and collaboratively, and what their unique needs may be (e.g., legal and sales teams mentioned in step one).
Such data can be used to redesign workspaces to be highly functional, assign resources with precision, inform policies, ensure safety measures are in place, and rationalize that real estate portfolio.
But it’s essential to avoid unwise investments in such tech. If you are building a flexible atmosphere built on trust, don’t go for elements such as laptop activity software or seat sensors. These can be seen as heavy handed, and can breed mistrust, while still failing to deliver the resolution of data needed to truly inform decision making.
Four: Roll out your hybrid workplace the right way
Ultimately, people are key to a successful hybrid strategy. During the pandemic, many managers shifted to performance-based management styles and relied on staff to be self-directed. As we move toward the hybrid workplace, this new workplace dynamic will fundamentally change how we define roles, set expectations, conduct work, and achieve accountability.
Rolling this plan out the right way begins by giving employees choice in how they’d like to work. Years before COVID, a “Work Styles” program by TELUS (a major Canadian telecom) did this to great success, enabling staff to choose between various levels of in-office or remote work arrangements. Based on expected hybrid numbers, TELUS launched open-concept offices and eliminated assigned seating. While productivity, satisfaction and engagement scores rose, the move proved that the office is a desired work location: 20 percent of those who chose remote-first arrangements quickly shifted back to a more in-office role.
And when it comes to expectations and accountability, it’s important to measure performance against quantifiable objectives. This may, for some, require a cultural shift. The way we manage employees must be embedded in a hybrid work program, and must be underpinned by agile goals, ongoing feedback, flexible metrics and employee incentives.
Five: Ongoing communication is key
Communication, transparency, and trust are foundational to a strong hybrid strategy. Companies need new levels of understanding and teamwork between employees and their managers. This new workstyle comes after 18 months of unprecedented stress, burnout and uncertainty. Ensuring an open dialogue, managing different personalities and working styles and being supportive are now table stakes.
Expectations must be set to eliminate confusion and ensure a streamlined return. Early on in a return-to-work strategy, each employee and manager should set clear preferences, objectives and responsibilities, with specific, measurable goals in mind. This can include everything from work hours and days in the office to performance objectives during transition and the best ways to stay in contact.
Don’t lose sight of structured communications like daily huddles, whether 1:1 or in groups, as there are fewer run-ins in the hallway or impromptu discussions. Regular points of contact maintain the bridge, and it’s a proactive method to address employee issues upfront rather than having them linger.
One chance to make a first impression
The pandemic presents a new opportunity to reset how to structure spaces and policies to suit a new era of hybrid work. Businesses have a newfound responsibility to ensure employees are welcomed back in a way that imparts trust, increases productivity, and promotes a deep sense of culture. The time is now to chart a course with a collective mindset, and put in place the steps needed for long-term success.
Written by James Wu, CEO and Founder of InnerSpace.
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