Most businesses will adjust to the post-pandemic world by going virtual to some extent. It might be that the majority of employees work remotely at least some of the time, or maybe only something like 10% will have that option. Even organizations that try to return to a pre-pandemic set up will almost certainly adopt some sort of hybrid office set up.
Some employers might be reticent, wishing to “get back to normal” as quickly as possible, but many employees have expressed a desire to have a remote option as part of their regular workflow. Competition for talent will eventually drive organizations to adopt more modern processes and technology tools in the years and decades to come.
A lot of these changes will be employee-led, but companies will soon see the benefits of having a hybrid office environment. One example is the actual physical space. Fewer people in the office on a given day means you don’t need as large a venue. And a smaller footprint means lower rent and utilities costs. Even before the pandemic, there was a push toward non-traditional office arrangements like hotdesking and office hoteling.
Hot desking grew out a desire to reduce or eliminate cubicle farms, which studies showed lowered morale and engagement. In short, it means no one had an assigned desk or area – you take whatever space is free that day. The drawback was that sometimes an employee could spend 10-20 minutes at the start of the workday looking for a place to sit, which is not terribly efficient. People also prefer having a place that’s “theirs”, so often the same people would sit at the same place every time and feel very uncomfortable if that space they’d mentally taken ownership of wasn’t available. Office hoteling is a variant of this, but instead of a free-for-all, people reserve a particular workspace in advance.
Again, there is certainly some financial sense to this. A 2020 report by global commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle shows that organizations average 40-60% space utilization on any given day. That’s a lot of wasted real estate being paid for. In expensive cities like London and New York, the cost of one desk is $18,000 a year, whether it’s being used or not. So, an office with 200 desks that’s only being used 60% of the time means that 80 desks are not being used on average, which costs that organization up to $1.4 million annually.
The hybrid office is the fastest growing way to approach these issues. If some of the workforce is operating remotely each day, then the company can downsize its infrastructure, keep all its employees happy and save money. We will still have offices, but they will be smaller and more flexible, configured for a shifting workforce. Instead of fully equipping each desk area with everything it might need, enable employees to be more self-sufficient.
Each person has a laptop and can access remote colleagues (or even people in different parts of a building or campus) using apps and business communication platforms like Microsoft Teams, Slack and SharePoint. Everyone essentially becomes a mobile office unto themselves. If any printing needs to be done, a couple of WiFi printers per floor should be sufficient. The only thing they can’t carry around with them is the coffee maker. (But that’s why we invented cafés with WiFi.)
People will still sometimes need to gather in groups for meetings and training sessions, but almost certainly a few of those participants will be remote. Open plan collaboration spaces for training or brainstorming can be modular and reconfigurable. You’ll probably still need one or two large conference rooms, but most other meeting spaces can be redesigned as small huddle spaces for quick meetings of a few in-person participants (though you can have as many people coming in online as you like – there’s no additional space needed for them). If you ever do need a really large room for something (like the CEO is retiring and everyone wants to be there in person), it’ll actually be cheaper to rent a space somewhere for that one-time event, instead paying for it every month.
And, as funny as this may sound, more flexible work environments are cleaner. Meaning there’s less clutter because people don’t hoard things at their permanent desk areas because they don’t have permanent desks. They also generate less trash and use fewer resources, like printer toner, coffee pods and office supplies. Letting people book space in advance can also help with hygiene. Using a reservation system of some kind for office hoteling means that you can make sure a space is cleaned and sanitized before the next occupant arrives.
These technology-led changes will affect nearly every aspect of organizations, from the public-facing to the very top. Lobby or reception areas might be able to transition to self-help kiosks or touchscreens that include answers to common questions and detailed wayfinding. This can then free up that worker who was simply manning a desk – surely that person can be better used elsewhere?
Virtual C-suites and managers can interact with employees remotely, and even be available more often. Instead of scheduling a meeting and a meeting room to ask three questions of a manager, an employee can just zip off a chat message and get a response in less time. The concern that technology may drive people apart is unfounded – it can actually give more people access and allow managers to keep in more regular touch with their workers.
Although employees prefer personal interaction for some tasks, a lot of the day-to-day can be digital. A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers shows while a plurality of people prefer face-to-face communications for things like problem-solving, performance reviews and giving feedback, when it comes to things like dealing with HR and benefits, or getting IT assistance, more people would rather do those tasks digitally. It’s also worth considering that as the world around us becomes more digital, people want to improve and increase their digital skills. An organization that makes it easy for workers to get those skills will benefit in greater employee satisfaction and loyalty.
Back in 2014, Harvard Business Review found that workers who can control their environment and how they use it are more satisfied with their workplace and their jobs, are more innovative and creative, and perform better. This trend has just increased in the ensuing years. It’s thought that the hybrid office approach also helps eliminate silo mentality, since people are interacting with one another more that in a cubicle farm. Today, when people come into the office (instead of working remotely), they want that connection and sense of belonging. If they’re just going to sit in a cubicle isolated from everyone else, then why even bother coming in at all? (Unless that’s how they prefer to work, of course.)
Just as the space itself becomes more flexible, a hybrid workplace approach can actually engage more employees by allowing them to work in the way they like best. Scott likes to sit off by himself at a desk, but Fatima prefers sitting on a couch by a window. Variety is the spice of life, and that’s just as true at work as it is anywhere else. Just like you probably have a number of options in the break room to accommodate a wide variety of diets and preferences, modifying your environment to different workstyles is only going to benefit the organization.
Just a few years ago, Accenture found that the trends companies are seeing in CX (customer experience) are being mirrored in the realm of EX (employee experience). Companies with good EX outperformed the S&P 500 by 122% and were 21% more profitable. They said the time of hyper-personalization was upon us, and it’s all being led by technology.
Out in the wider world beyond the workplace, technology will continue to drive change in the ways people interact with one another and their surroundings. In their social lives, people will continue to communicate and connect using apps and social media from just about anywhere they care to be, and we can expect AI, AR and VR to become more commonplace fairly soon. These CX trends will continue to inform and shape EX as well. After all, it seems kind of silly to make people use methods and technologies at work that are less up to date and efficient than they ones they use to browse recipes and talk to their grandmother while at home or sitting in a café.
So, a hybrid office looks a lot like the traditional office, except with fewer desks (that aren’t necessarily assigned to individuals), more modular setups, and fewer employees on site on any given day. There may be a few more apps being used, but that was always going to be the case as technology constantly adapts to meet new workflows.
The biggest difference may be the shift from caring about where or when, to who and what. Employee experience, satisfaction and retention will trump being at a desk from 9:00 to 5:00. Organizations will funnel budgets to tech and training versus rent and furniture. And employees will put their energies toward productivity versus commuting. That’s a win-win for everyone.