In this segment of “Office Optional with Larry English,” Larry has four tips for how to structure your organization to be a hybrid-friendly environment.
After compensation, the No. 1 thing employees care about in 2021 is flexibility. This comes from a global study of workers by The Future Forum, a Slack consortium, which found that overwhelmingly, knowledge workers want flexibility in their schedule (93 percent) and where they work (76 percent).
For most companies, the office will be key to achieving that balance. But not the office of yesteryear. As companies hammer out their hybrid workplace strategy, they’re rethinking the role of the office, envisioning a new model for how it energizes workers and reinforces culture.
“No one wants the office to go back to how it was pre-COVID,” says Ira Sharfin, CEO of Continental Office, a commercial design and workplace solutions firm. “People want choices in where and how they work. They want to use the office for collaboration, socialization, mentorship and inspiration.”
This insight comes not only from Sharfin’s work with clients but also from a recent Continental Office survey, which found that while 85 percent of employees want the choice of remote work, 76 percent also want the office to remain a part of their work experience.
Sharfin offers the following tips for reinventing the office for 2021 and beyond.
Dig into what your employees actually want.
Before making any decisions about how the office will be used, Sharfin suggests that companies gather data from employees. What’s important to them? How do they work best? How do they see themselves using the office? Likely, you’ll have some employees who want to come in full-time, others who want to be remote full-time and a large chunk who want a mix.
Quartz, for example, recently decided to let employees work from anywhere. But the company still had a year left on its New York City office, so before reopening, it surveyed employees to see how they’d want to use the space. Not surprisingly, 0 percent wanted to come in full-time, but some did still want the option, with most saying a few days each week would be ideal. Quartz used that data to create a new framework for how the office is used.
Expand your concept of flexibility.
Flexibility isn’t just about the choice of working from the office or home. It’s about having choice within those settings, as well.
Sharfin suggests companies think about redesigning the office to give employees different work environments – think a mix of shared workstations, couches or lounge seating and private phone booths. Making these changes will likely mean reducing cubicle and private office spaces. This shouldn’t be a problem, as most employees will not be using the office for 100 percent of their future work modes.
Upon reopening, Quartz did away with assigned seating, opting for hot desks so employees could have options for where they sit, who they sit by and even whether they use a desk at all.
“The people who say they don’t want to ever come back to the office, it’s because the office is uninspiring,” Sharfin says. “Instead, think of the new office like an adult student union. There’s a vibe, there’s people working with their headphones in while others are meeting. Those are the types of spaces that people gravitate toward, because they feel good and they’re inspiring.”
Give people space to be human.
When people work from home, they can step away from their computer, take a break to meditate, re-center or take care of their mental health. Working from home allows employees to be human, rather than automatons.
The office needs to allow space for employees to be human, too. Sharfin says many companies are installing a wellness or respite room, which can be as simple as outfitting a small office with some inviting furniture and soothing lighting. “These rooms are important to show people you care, and it doesn’t take a lot,” Sharfin says, noting that leaders may have to model using the room to help employees feel comfortable taking breaks in the office.
Invest in tech to make the office hybrid-friendly.
Technology is more important than ever in a hybrid workplace. For one, technology allows distributed workers to seamlessly collaborate, whether that means through a platform like Microsoft Teams or software that facilitates meetings with a mix of on-site and off-premise workers.
Technology can also make the office a more inviting place to work. “It’s important to allow people to easily plug in, no matter where they’re working in the office,” Sharfin says. “The less friction you have for using the office, printers, etc., the better.”
Luckily, Sharfin says there are many inexpensive ways to make the office hybrid-friendly. If companies get rid of dedicated desks, for example, a simple app can let employees reserve a workstation or a conference room for the day. Sharfin says some companies are also letting people see who has booked space so they can more easily plan to come in when their teammates or work friends will be on site.
Can you afford not to redesign your office?
Companies may be hesitant to dive in to redesigning their space. After all, if there’s anything we learned in 2020, it’s that the future is unknowable.
Although it does require an investment to start evolving the office, Sharfin says getting started doesn’t have to mean overhauling the entire space or making permanent changes. “You can test changes out in a small area and use prefab interior products to create conference rooms and offices, which would be easily convertible,” he notes.
Plus, there’s a very real cost to getting it wrong – namely that many employees are already looking for greener pastures, and it costs a lot to recruit and train someone new.
“Companies need to invest more in workplace strategy,” Sharfin says. “They need to step back and think more broadly about the purpose of the office. What do you really need and what do your people need? Is your space inspiring people and helping them do great work and share ideas?”