When the only thing standing between someone and their workday is a flat place to set a laptop and a decent wifi connection, the competition for where and how someone works on a given day is fierce. Corporate offices are up against home offices, the couch, coffee shops, cars, and even the school pickup line to win the affection and attendance of hybrid workers.
The office clearly still has an important role to play in company culture but tethering employees to an office is very much a relic of life pre-COVID. Up to 90 percent of companies are adopting some version of hybrid work this year, even if return to office plans have gotten blurry at times. These companies recognize the option to work remotely is an expectation rather than a reward for top talent, much like a 401k and employer-sponsored healthcare.
Even when employees do come to the office in 2022, that doesn’t mean they’re reverting to their former 9-5 lifestyle. People may pop into the office for a day of client meetings but will dial into a team call from their car to beat the traffic home. They’ll meet a co-worker for lunch and a planning session after working on a big deliverable at home that morning. In short, employees are empowered, not beholden, by hybrid work.
Think collaboration, not concentration
If people may not even be at their desk for a full day when they venture in, it begs the question, what do employees need a corporate office for anyways? According to Alana Collins, Head of Real Estate and Workplace at Zoom, it’s all about engagement. “We are looking at offices as hubs for collaboration and customer-facing showrooms. Most heads-down work will be done at home.”
Most people aren’t mourning the loss of office distractions, but they do miss their co-workers. According to a survey from Indeed, 73 percent of employees miss socializing with their colleagues in person and 45 percent miss in-person meetings. These feelings are less about moments of spontaneous innovation or stronger productivity and more about a basic human need for interaction.
With this renewed focus on team collaboration and engagement, companies are creating both new jobs and new budgets to usher in the next phase of the office. Workplace experience managers and/or employee experience managers are now tasked not only with creating in-office experiences that employees find valuable, but also ensuring that people feel connected and can thrive wherever they choose to work.
The employee experience may have been an unspoken responsibility for managers previously, but it’s now an explicit part of the job when you consider the all-time-lows most companies are grabbling with in terms of employee tenure and job satisfaction. For this reason, culture or engagement budgets are trickling down to smaller teams within an organization rather than being solely held at the department level or above-mentioned workplace experience managers.
And like with most elements of hybrid work, flexibility in how, when, and why in-person team engagement activities happen and the level of influence employees have in these decisions will ultimately determine their impact on team happiness and belonging.
Workplace redesign? Let employees decide
While this new purpose of the office is clear for most companies, the locations and designs of these spaces are less certain.Instead of trying to predict the future of the office, Collins highlights the importance of experimentation, “We didn’t just go right in and say ‘this is what the new office will look like.’ We still haven’t really done that.”
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Instead, Zoom is launching proof of concept offices in its Denver, London, and Amsterdam to help determine how to best redesign their spaces for the future. Each office will be a bit different and undoubtably each location will get different feedback based on their workplace needs. One of the biggest things that office designers have to consider is the mix of different types of space. One of Zoom’s proof of concept offices will breaks down into 20 percent fixed desks, 20 percent movable furniture, 50 percent rooms designed specifically for hybrid collaboration, and the remaining 10 percent communal/kitchen space. But even this has flexibility built into it and could change based on feedback and usage data.
Like any good experiment, Zoom is emphasizing observation and testing. “We will be surveying and meeting with our office champions across these regions to talk with them about how to improve these experiences. We want to see the proof that these concepts work before we start making big adjustments,” explained Collins.
This agile-inspired approach to the reinvention of the office is another way for companies to give their employees the power of choice and invite them into the design process when nearly every aspect of the office could be reconsidered. Some of the big changes include the ratio of permanent versus hotelling desks, new movable furniture, hybrid meetings technology, and expandable conference rooms that can expand and contract based on what’s happening on a given day. Much like the hybrid work policies forcing these changes, the space itself has to be flexible.
An unspoken requirement for hybrid work is ensuring that people feel like they are a part of the team no matter where they open their laptops. This ensures that hybrid and remote employees have the same access to promotion opportunities that primarily in-office team members do. Hybrid work environments with this level of employee empowerment are a big step up from just surviving in a remote-friendly company to creating a workplace culture that transcends physical location.
The office isn’t dead, but it certainly is evolving as it finds its place in the new workplace mix. The good news for corporate office leaders is that they don’t have to have all the answers about what the office will become. Most employees will expect the opposite: an acknowledgment that the world has changed and a willingness to reimagine the office together, not in a vacuum.