Home Office or Corporate Office: Where Is Everyone Going? How to Build a Hybrid Workplace

By Adam Segal, CEO of Cove

Remote work has become the norm for nearly half of working Americans, a major shift from what we had seen before the pandemic. Now that companies have gotten experienced remote work at scale, both companies and employees have awakened to its benefits. However, that now the vaccine is starting to be distributed, the possibility of a safe office return seems more promising. With that in mind, what’s next for workspaces - remote work, a hybrid workplace, or back to business as usual? There is an incredible opportunity to innovate and reimagine workplace strategies, and organizations should strike while the iron is hot.

What is a “hybrid workplace?” Over the past two decades, workplace methods of communication have increasingly migrated online with a heavier reliance on video calls, real-time chat, and document sharing. A hybrid workplace accounts for this reality — that is we can leverage modern tech tools to enable dispersed team to collaborate and succeed while also ensuring in-person, collaboration time. Overall this approach reorients workplace models around productivity rather than work, giving employees a choice about where to work so they can best meet their individual productivity goals. When executed well, a hybrid approach unlocks the best of both worlds – higher productivity with less time commuting, coupled with better in-person engagement. 

The hybrid workplace model was not born during the pandemic; any company with a work-from-home policy prior to that had a hybrid workplace. For example if your company had a work-from-home policy prior to the pandemic, then you had a hybrid workplace. Now, the definition is evolving and the key difference to a hybrid workplace will be that office design and scheduling flexibility will become core elements of a work experience, rather than a perk. From the companies we work with at cove, we’ve already seen that organizations are looking to reduce office space and the number of dedicated desks as people spend less time in the office. This can also lead to a hub-and-spoke model, whereby the hub is the office and your home is a spoke. Quite simply companies are designing spaces that cater to this new normal of work, not only building areas with dedicated desks but also constructing more collaboration spaces so that when people do come in, they can easily collaborate rather than just move their laptop from their home desk to their office desk without any advantage after the commute.

As one example, Search for Common Ground (SFCG), a global nonprofit with nearly one thousand employees, took a fresh look at the office in 2018. The team traveled, often met offsite, and were not always in the office. To create a “new normal” of work, SFCG reduced their space by over 50% — removing dedicated desks and enabling more employee flexibility. “Having a completely open floor plan [without dedicated desks] has helped us ensure both sufficient space for staff in the great majority of cases, but also great portability in this time of Covid,” says Brad Fondak, SFCG’s Senior Manager for HQ Operations & Safety/Security. “We believe that work is not necessarily somewhere to go, but what you do, and having this type of work environment has made work from anywhere a reality.”

This is undoubtedly a paradigm shift, but is an inevitable move reflective of recent technological advances. Policies and work environments should not change overnight, but business leaders should begin planning how to make this transition to a hybrid setup. While there is no hard and fast rule because no two companies are alike, the approach should account for what makes an organization unique. Business and HR leaders should gather data, create policies, track implementation, and constantly assess its effectiveness.

Listen to your people

If your organization is succeeding remotely, then the employees who are performing well and creating that success are your greatest asset, and their opinions should be taken into consideration. Interviews and surveys are a great first step in getting their feedback, and do not have to be exhaustive. Brief online surveys and interviews with several employees from each department will provide great insight. Collect data by department too; individual behaviors should be looked at in context of the team as a whole. A group of outliers might not impact policies unless all of the outliers are on one team whose function requires special attention. If you are trying to determine how to create a successful hybrid work model, ask questions such as: How do you commute to the office? How long is your commute? What is the ideal number of days you would like to work from home in a given week? What is your level of interest in returning to the physical office? How productive are you when working from home? What are you looking forward to with regard to an office return? What are your biggest concerns for an office return?

Create policies specifically for a hybrid workplace

Team members’ preferences and data should help determine policies by giving guidance into the current landscape. Rather than being restrictive, policies should define the whitespace around flexibility for employees. Policies can be broad and set by each team, or for the organization overall. If every team is building its own policies, provide those managers with clear parameters so they have a clear starting point looking at key areas of impact.

  • Office attendance: Determine if this will be required or optional, and if there will be set days where they have to come in. Let team leaders decide how many days they need team members in the office, and have them clearly define goals for the in-person days. Also, make sure benefits for all employees are equal, regardless of how often they come into the office; success should be measured on productivity and not office attendance.
  • Local workspaces: Working from home isn’t best for everyone, but that doesn’t mean that a long commute is ideal either. If people want a place to work, will localized options be made available so people can work closer to home, either through satellite offices or stipends towards coworking memberships? Reducing the main office footprint may result in enough savings to offset potentially new costs around options for localized work.
  • Working hours: Will you stay true to the 9-5 or give people flexibility, as long as they get their work done? Companies working across time zones have considered “online hours” already to give time for everyone to collaborate, and then offering flexibility outside of that.
  • Option of fully remote: Fully remote work has become a reality, and companies will get questions about these policies, especially given that in many cases, people have moved out of big cities into smaller suburbs. Hybrid workplaces account well for fully remote team members, but there are distinctions between a fully remote culture and one that has office requirements that businesses must iron out before making a decision.

Create an office that aligns with policies, don’t build policies for your space

Company policies will eventually correlate to the office layout. If the average employee will come in one to three days a week, optimize the office space accordingly. A redesign not only takes resources, but is also symbolically significant and should therefore be part of an overall transition plan tied to the company’s future. That said, if your company wants to make an immediate change, small adjustments like moving furniture can have a large impact with little to no cost. By looking at employee behavior and survey results, companies can make a decision about how to move forward and plan for these three key puzzle pieces.

  • Dedicated desks: Feel free to move away from the concept of one desk per employee if most employees won’t come in every day. This provides an opportunity to reduce square footage and -- as a result -- save on rent, but can also create a way to repurpose space more effectively.
  • Private spaces: There must be spaces in the office that can be a resource for people who need space for distraction-free calls and focused work time. Providing private spaces like small conference rooms and phone booths can help employees focus without distractions when needed. By layering in technology, companies can implement reservation systems so that employees can save their seats in those spaces so they are available when they need them.
  • Collaboration zones: The ability to collaborate is a major advantage of in-person work, and this should be supported by an office design. Create spaces where employees can come together formally and informally. This can include conference rooms, breakout spaces, and kitchen/social areas.

Equip your employees for the transition

With a hybrid model, work-from-home still plays a key role, and companies must make sure employees are set up for success when working remotely. Providing access to the right tools is critical, but it’s not only about a laptop or server access. In fact, from the surveys we have conducted at cove we learned the top two items that people miss at home are a great office chair and standalone monitor. Companies should build a list of “must haves” and ensure that teams have those readily available.

Manage your people around productivity

There are many important considerations for managing the logistics of a hybrid model, but this also requires a new way to manage employees. Good management comes down to three main factors — communication, expectations, and feedback. While these do not require an in-person culture, they all necessitate management training; make sure managers are able to make this transition not only with their technology, but also with how they mentor less experienced staff.

While a simple solution does not exist, a well-built hybrid workplace will ensure that a company is ahead of the curve in supporting the workplace of the future. It is important to note that the office is not gone; it has evolved into a dynamic place for work, collaboration, and engagement. Hybrid workplaces give employees more control over where they work, and it is the responsibility of a company to unlock its full potential through a plan that helps create an organization designed for the future.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.