Last week I spoke at the CIPD conference on the subject of the hybrid office. I called the presentation ‘beyond watercoolers’…. largely because I am tired of that particular, overused metaphor. I was asked to think about what changes we need to make to office environments to fully enable hybrid work. This blog post is a summary of that presentation.
In recent years it has been a common at HR conferences, especially when talking about future of work, to say that work is a thing that we do and not a place that we go. This comment can be traced back to a paper from the mid-1990s, but this idea only became close to realisation in March of 2020 – and even then for around half of the working population. We have had the ability to work more remotely for a long time, but this did not become reality until it was forced by crisis. And now that we knowledge workers can return the office our first thought seems to be….. how do we change the office– rather than, do we need it at all? Because if the last 18 months has taught us anything, it is that the location of work matters much less than we thought.
But first let’s deal first with the hybrid office.
We do need to adapt offices to support hybrid work. We need spaces that enable and encourage face-to-face, informal conversation. But this is about so much more than hanging around watercoolers, which is after all just a way of describing casual and unplanned interactions. We also need to support deeper interactions, more valuable interactions. Coming together with purpose. Our work spaces play a part in this. But – and we cannot overlook this, so do online spaces too.
The goal of the future office surely must be to create a place where employees can do their best work. Where they can be effective doing all forms of that work. We can say this should always have been the goal of our offices, but too often we had a one size fits all mentality. The hot desk, the open plan office, the cubicle – take it or leave it.
Instead of assumptions, we need to begin with talking to people – asking them what do you want to come into the office for? How do you want to work when you get there? We need to understand how people intend to use the office – and then what happens in practice as hybrid moves from something that is abstract to reality.
From a design point of view hybrid demands the office to have a variety of different spaces within it that can adapt to these different needs. Although one of the key ideas of hybrid is allowing people to focus on collaborative work whilst in the office and focused, independent work at home, in reality it will never be this neat. So first of all we need to create spaces that support both. Spaces for teams to spend time together, and places for people to spend time on Teams. Large spaces for big groups and smaller spaces for 121s.
Our design should begin with the principle of meaningful face-time (see my hybrid working model elsewhere on this blog). We need spaces that support collaboration, networking, relationships and both intentional and accidental conversation. We definitely need to include in the mix rooms that support hybrid meetings, including all the relevant technology (along with good facilitation) that can ensure these meetings are inclusive.
All of these elements necessitate new design and possible investment. Some of these changes will be needed in the short term; others may only become known and needed as we introduce hybrid at scale and our understanding of it deepens.
In my conference presentation I borrowed an idea (and a graphic) from Neil Usher, author of The Elemental Workplace. Before the pandemic Neil discussed what makes a great workplace. This included comfort, choice, inclusion. Somewhere to get a decent cup of coffee, store our things and have access to natural daylight. A sense of control over that space. I suggest that nothing about these important elements of workplaces has changed post pandemic. All of these things still matter in the hybrid world – and a lot more than we sometimes recognise.
But of course in the hybrid world we cannot forget that we now have two work spaces – we have our home and we have the office. We need each of these elements in both of these spaces too. We cannot focus just on office environments but need to ensure our employees can work effectively, comfortably and inclusively in both places.
This leads me neatly to my next point…..
In my presentation I reflected on ideas from a 1990s academic paper in which the writers drew a distinction between work places and work spaces. They defined a space as a physical space. In contrast, a place is where we act – how that space is used. Place includes digital spaces. It is a broader definition; in this idea of workplace two people, both working from their respective homes, are still working in the same work place.
Now, we add the home to this list. Maybe in the future we will also see more third spaces like co-working hubs being included too.
In a hybrid world I believe that we need to be careful of distinguishing between home and the office too much. Because they are both about one place. Digital, office, home…. But one organisation. One purpose, vision or values.
If we think only of redesigning offices we might be focusing on the wrong thing. We need to think about it holistically. Effectiveness in both places. Ease of connectivity, connection with others, purpose and engagement. In ALL our working places and spaces. Maybe then we won’t be talking about flexible work, or hybrid work or even asking ‘where are you today’.
A successful hybrid office will respond to the needs of those who use it, and will adapt as those needs evolve. A successful hybrid workplace will connect people wherever and whenever they are working. It will have purpose and focus on contribution and outcomes, not hours at a desk. A successful hybrid workplace will enable wellbeing, productivity and inclusion.
It will also, probably inevitably, include a fair few watercoolers.