By Cyndee Miller
I’m headed back to my office for the first time in six months—taking the train and maybe even collaborating with my team IRL. I’m not going to lie. It feels really, really strange. Like most companies, mine is opting for hybrid: three days in, two days working from home.
It’s looking like the next norm—and it’s not hard to see why. A study from HR consulting firm Mercer found 94 percent of U.S. employers reported productivity was the same as or even higher than it was before the pandemic. And employees—now accustomed to the flexibility—are less likely to compromise. A March Boston Consulting Group survey found that 89 percent of workers from across 190 countries said they’d prefer a job that allows them to work from home at least occasionally. Yet that same study found that only 1 in 4 workers would switch to a completely remote model if they could.
“A lot of companies underestimate the power of workplace,” said Kahn Yoon, director of international projects at global workplace design firm M Moser Associates in Singapore.
“Whilst I’ve enjoyed working from home to a degree, once I started coming back, I also realized how much I missed having collaboration with colleagues and having those innovation moments,” he told Projectified®.
Okay, so clearly Yoon isn’t alone. Most people want to spend at least some time in the office. But what does that actual physical space look like?
As we wrote about in PM Network, at first the focus was on “pandemic resistant” offices. Salon Alper Derinbogaz, for example, revealed plans for a single-story office building connected by open-air and semi-covered walkways and terraces—perfect for outdoor meetings.
Guallart Architects took pandemic-proofing to the next level with its proposed Self-Sufficient City in Beijing. The project aims to eliminate any disruption to daily life in the case of future lockdowns by designing and building a mixed-use community with supercharged amenities, like a communal greenhouse for food production, solar-paneled roofs to produce energy, an on-site co-working office and 3D printers and rapid prototyping machines to produce everyday goods.
They’re super interesting concepts, but what about the good old offices many people are heading back to right now? To safely transition from the home-office back to the office-office, leaders will have to reboot their thinking about how to work—but also the purpose, role and design of the workspace. And that requires lots of pilot projects, lots of iteration—and probably saying good riddance to the once ubiquitous open office plan. (As someone who did serious time in one of those arrangements, I will not mourn its loss.)
“It’s really time to rethink the open plan,” said Todd Heiser, principal and co-managing director of Gensler’s Chicago office. “For as long as I’ve been doing this, individual workstations have become more open with ever-increasing density, and I think as we return, these spaces really need to flip. Meetings need to happen more in the open, and focused work probably needs to be reconsidered,” he said on Projectified®.
Even Google is rethinking its famously open offices. The New York Times dubbed one of the concepts as “Ikea meets Lego,” creating team “pods” with chairs, desks, whiteboards and storage units on casters that can be arranged—and rearranged—however the group sees fit. The company is also trying out a new meeting room called Campfire that intersperses in-person attendees with very large displays of virtual participants in a circle. It sounds weirder than it looks and could actually help remote team members feel like they’re part of the action.
For its Working from Home, Working from Work project, architecture firm Woods Bagot proposed keeping employees remote for “solo activities” and saved the office for team activities. That makes sense to me. Because let’s face it, brainstorming on a Zoom call is … rough. For Kahn, that means “more meeting spaces, more open collaboration spaces—because you always rely on serendipitous discussions that spark a bit of that innovation.”
But he also acknowledged that offices are going to have to compete with work from home. So along with boosting collaboration by tricking out the office with the right technology, companies would be wise to invest in biophilia so you “don’t feel like you’re in a big sort of a factory of desks.” Uh, yeah, that just doesn’t seem like an effective way to foster that kind of innovation we all keep saying we need more of.
Will hybrid teams working in hybrid offices be business as usual in the future? How are you help reimagine your office as an incubator for new ideas?