The hybrid company is the future. The time to start preparing is now.
After a year of home working, remote work will be part of every office's future. It's time to start adapting.
It’s a clear pattern that any process of digitalisation goes through two phases: replication and then transformation. At first, we replicate what we used to do, but with digital versions of the process. Then we transform the processes based on the potential inherent in the new technology. So it is with the workplace. But now, we all need to learn to be a hybrid company.
The workplace has proved itself a classic version of that. Despite the advent of the digital revolution, most of us still got up and travelled to work at a desk. Then we worked all day at that very same desk. Sure, the documents that crossed that desk evolved into their digital equivalents, but the form of our lives didn’t look so very different.
All that has changed. Many of us haven’t been in an office for over a year. Some are looking at many months still before we return to them — if we ever do at all. Some companies have abandoned their offices completely.
The office is not necessary for work
The pandemic has forced us to confront something that has been true for years now. The office is no longer a prerequisite for doing “office” work. We can do information work from home. And if we can do it from home, there are many other places — hotels, for example.
As we start planning for a resumption of some kind of post-pandemic normalcy, and a return to the office, many companies are preparing to embrace a hybrid model: some working from the office, but plenty of working from elsewhere, too.
This may well be a once in a generation opportunity to rethink how our companies operate. We have a chance to build a sustainable hybrid model for the next decade.
That should force us into a re-evaluation: what is the office for? What is its role in the remote working age? People do work, not places. Places are a support to work, just like technology.
The office as workspace
Is it to provide space for people to work?
The answer to this question is still “yes”, but with the qualifier “not exclusively”. While many people, particularly the older and more wealthy, have plenty of space at home to work, the younger members of the team may well not. After a year of trying to work out of a bedroom in a shared house, many will be clamouring for the chance to return to an office.
However, we shouldn’t expect that everyone wants to be back in the office full-time, nor that even the younger people will. They will have other options for working as society re-opens: from coffee shops to co-working spaces.
Home working and remote working
Remote working and home working are NOT synonyms. Understanding that will have a big impact on the degree to which your company can adopt a hybrid model. Consultants, for example, have been working remotely from their main office for decades — because they spend much of their time working directly with clients.
So, while you will probably be providing some space for people to work in your hybrid company, you probably don’t need as much of it as you did. And individuals are probably not going to be “own” their desks, either.
(Could we even see a reversal of the old hierarchy? The most senior people don’t need an assigned office because they work wherever they choose, including at home. The junior staff are the ones with desks…)
However, as Eliza Filby warned, what you don’t want is a situation where the junior staff rule, except on the day when the senior staff deign to visit the office. And so, you need to think of ways to encourage all staff to want to spend time in the office. And that brings up the next major use of offices: meetings.
Is it for meetings?
The office as bonding space
Yes. While online meetings can take some of the strain, they’re hard on the brain and deprive us of the social cues that allow us to make the most of them. More than that, gathering especially for key meetings gives the chance for small talk, shared meals and other rituals of social bonding. Companies that have experimented with remote models have found this a critical point of failure in the past. Companies that address it can make remote working deliver.
That doesn’t mean that every single meeting should migrate back to the office — but that an assessment of the meeting’s significance should help you decide which ones do. Of course, we might have to make allowance for hybrid meetings: an assumption of remote work means that sometimes not everyone critical will be able to make a meeting. So, can we blend the virtual and the physical?
This is the sort of experimentation that Microsoft is looking seriously at:
Additionally, we’ve pulled together a group of Microsoft researchers, engineers and real estate and facilities experts to prototype hybrid meeting spaces at our Redmond, Washington, and U.K. campuses. The group is investigating different meeting configurations and technologies like multiple screens, cameras and mixed reality scenarios to understand the most effective, inclusive set-up for hybrid work. It’s still early days, but we’ve explored solutions that range from simply reconfiguring existing technologies to designing exciting new Microsoft Teams innovations for hybrid work.
Social contacts drive satisfaction and innovation
However, the office is and should be more than a glorified meeting space rental business. As the Harvard Business Review put it:
…employees will increasingly be working in what we call the hybrid office—moving between a home work space and a traditional office building. The latter will become primarily a culture space, providing workers with a social anchor, facilitating connections, enabling learning, and fostering unscripted, innovative collaboration.
That cultural element is critical: it’s what moves a company from being a set of processes to being a vibrant organisation.
Many long-term home workers, myself included, cite loneliness as the biggest downside of long-term home working. During the pandemic, we’ve even been deprived of the casual benefits of company while working in a coffee shop. People will return to the office for this sort of low-level social engagement — and with that will come both the cultural glue and the innovation benefits of chance encounters.
This suggests that an office rethink is nigh. We must do away with assigned seating, and create a mix of private, deep-working spaces, communal work seating, and meeting spaces of varying sizes. If people return to traditional office spaces, with only a handful of their team members actually in that day, they won’t have either the social contact or the opportunities for chance encounters that are benefits of office life.
Restructuring your office around flexible touch-down space, and key points of social contact, like coffee machines and kitchens, will allow staff to make the most of the time they do spend in the office.
A more intentional approach to innovation
Of course, not everyone is sold on the idea that chance encounters are the best route to an innovative organisation. Now would seem to be a perfect opportunity to test that theory. Can we bring people together in more structured, intentional ways to help co-create the future of the business?
Office space that can allow teams to come together, work on project design in an unpressured way through several days, bonding and socialising as they do so, could be a core component of future corporate development.
The mentoring and training issue
How about mentoring?
This is often raised as the major objection to remote working models: junior staff depend on mentoring and training to progress in their careers. Where’s that going to come from, if not delivered on an ad-hoc basis in the office?
Well, there are several potential answers to that. Firstly, perhaps it’s time for companies to start adopting a more formal mentoring structure. Your boss can be your mentor, but it would be better to allow formal mentoring relationships across the organisation, if there are the numbers to do it. That makes a mentoring relationship less politically weighted. It can be delivered online some of the time, and gives both halves of the relationship additional motivation to spend time in the office: “I’m in on Tuesday for a big meeting, fancy a coffee and a catch-up?”
Moreover, if you’ll excuse the heresy, why does mentoring need to happen within the same company? Is there space for trade bodies to facilitate cross-company mentoring?
Indeed, if people start using local co-working spaces as well as their home office and their workplace, that offers alternatives. There’s plenty of opportunity to form mentoring and support relationships with other people in your field in those spaces, rather than within the company.
The digital platform
To make all of this work, however, we need to build a baseline of digital competence. And, luckily, the last year has forced most companies into doing just that.
The smart companies — the ones that really want to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity — will start there. If you’ve built an effective way of keeping the company running remotely, how can you reintroduce the very best parts of the in-office experience, without undermining what makes remote work work?
Very few of us, even those that really loved our pre-pandemic jobs, looked forward to our days in the office. If you manage this transition correctly, it could be that days in the office become something your staff actually look forward to.
Wouldn’t that be a pleasant shift?