The hybrid office: How can workplace leaders embrace the future of work?
The new hybrid office is a challenge for both employers and employees. How we work is changing, as are the complexities around returning staff to the new, hybrid workplace.
We sat down with David and Luke to get their insights. We chat about:
- the pandemic’s impacts on both work and workplace management
- the ongoing shift to hybrid work
- how OfficeSpace is helping its clients reopen and ride out new challenges
- what we can expect across all workplaces as we move to a post-Covid future of work
What was on the minds of workplace leaders when lockdown first hit and people suddenly had to work from home? And how did OfficeSpace respond?
Luke: When everyone really understood that lockdown was serious and leaders needed to take immediate steps, it all cascaded pretty quickly. The focus was primarily on just trying to get people set up at home. It was important they were safe and could be productive again.
In those first few weeks, our clients were internally focused. After about a month, that’s when we started to see a tone shift. Folks started thinking about what was coming next.
We launched Distancing Planner in mid-May. We then quickly rolled out a series of other upgrades as well, like desk check-in and Safeguard. These were features designed to make sense of rapidly changing regulations and to help keep employees safe and productive.
How did you see attitudes and mindsets changing as the pandemic progressed?
Luke: By the end of summer, there was a little more stability. That’s where we started to see workplace leaders trying to figure out ways to bring back people to the office. It’s where Safeguard came into the mix, when people needed safe ways to reopen. Governments were starting to have clearer requirements, so we had a better picture of what compliance would look like.
The vaccines rolled out a lot faster than people expected. In April we really saw a tipping point in desk bookings and reopenings. People felt more comfortable to reopen and bring some portion of their workforce back in.
Now that we’re halfway through 2021, what’s the focus for the workplace?
Luke: A lot of companies are just trying to figure out what looks right for them. This is new for everybody. Reopening is the same as when everything was shutting down—there’s no playbook for this.
If you look at what facility managers historically had to do, it was more like inventory management. For example, making sure they had enough seats in the right setup to keep their employees productive. Now they’re running an operation where they’re trying to predict how many employees are going to walk in their doors. And how to accommodate them and give them clarity into a new workplace.
It’s not just trying to figure out a reopening. It’s how to do that in a way that fits your company culture.
David: I’d say the overarching umbrella in regard to the style of how people come back is employee safety. People are looking at coming back in many different ways. One core tenant that came through in our research is that employees are concerned about returning safely.
Especially if we get more restrictions. Safety’s going to continue to be a top priority as companies try to bring employees back into the workplace.
How has OfficeSpace responded to these new workplace challenges?
David: Our clients are managing the process of reengaging employees in the workspace as the winds change from one day or week or month to the next. And we’ve been helping them by developing tools that allow them to manage their space better and plan their space from a social distancing perspective. For example, they can now use Safeguard to ensure people are screened.
We also launched Office Neighborhoods, which gives workplace teams much more flexibility in how they manage their locations, as they work through what flexibility will mean to them.
What kinds of discussions are you having now with workplace leaders about the current state of their workplaces?
David: There’s a spectrum of leaders in various businesses and industries right now, with everyone taking different approaches. There are some industries, like financial services, for example, where 90% of companies will operate in the same way going forward, without much flexibility. But there are a lot of other industries where flexibility will vary by company, by leader, by culture, or by geographic location.
That variability is top of mind for a lot of leaders now. They’re dealing with the craziness of the return to the office and flexible working. But they’re also dealing with the huge talent gap that exists for white collar workers. Taken by itself the talent gap that exists right now is a real challenge. When you layer on the desire of potential employees to work in a specific way and the need to match that with the way your company operates, it’s a real challenge.
Luke: Things can change week to week. The conversations we’re having now are about when companies will reopen and how they’re going to do it. They have to reopen in the right way. A lot of the challenge now is getting the tools for flexibility like flexible seating structures, but also how to change behavior. People are used to coming into the office. So companies need to roll out hybrid office working in a way where employees feel supported.
Companies are trying to strike a balance between getting flexibility that works for their business model, and allowing for collaboration, camaraderie, and team building for their employees.
In the mind of workplace leaders right now; what are they struggling with? And how is OfficeSpace helping them manage these struggles?
Luke: We’ve had a number of round tables with clients recently. One of the big themes is the idea of adoption. Moving to a flexible workplace is a big change. It’s also a two-way street. If you want employees to adopt a flexible model, you have to make sure you have information to support them.
Workplace leaders are struggling to figure out how to strike the right balance between the structure they want and the flexibility employees are looking for.
Another struggle is making sure people have visibility around when they should and shouldn’t be coming into the office. Companies need to remove barriers to adopting the hybrid model. It needs to be easy for employees to find what they need, book desks, and feel comfortable and productive.
People can default to assuming a mobile app will be the easy answer to this problem. But we’ve seen that that’s not always the case. A lot of times, employees just don’t use the app. Mobile can certainly be a path, but it’s not the only path.
A third struggle we’re hearing from clients is uncertainty. People realize the workplace strategy they open with is probably not what they’re going to finish with. I’m working with one large tech company whose real estate team says their best guess for planning is six months out.
From that perspective, they want the ability to iterate. They want the ability to try things within reason and to respond to signals they’re getting from their employees. OfficeSpace is helping them by providing tools and analytics to make those types of determinations.
David: One thing we’re seeing in conversations with clients is communication with employees is key in the new, flexible workplace. They need to make sure all employees are informed on how, what, when, and why. And that is a big challenge.
Luke: We’re working to help make communication easier by providing real-time floor plans. We’ll be launching additional features soon to let everyone really understand who is in the office. This will help employees build a sense of community. Because if they can see other team members who are booked to come in, employees can know what they’re walking into on any given day. That way they ensure they’re coming in when they can be their most productive.
Ultimately, we’ve found that the easier you make it for workplace leaders to help keep people connected, the more willing they will be to take those smaller, necessary steps towards a more flexible work environment.
As the needs of the workplace have changed, the hybrid office is becoming known as the future of work. How are you seeing that playing out in offices today?
David: The definition of flexible and hybrid, and what these terms mean to companies and industries, is still pretty dynamic.
One thing we’re seeing emerge fairly consistently in conversations with clients is the office is not always the default location where people need to go. For the majority of industries that are able to embrace flexible work, the office is becoming more of a destination. Employees don’t go there just because they have to be there. They go because there’s something they’re trying to accomplish. Whether that’s collaboration with another team or within their team, planning, reviews, brainstorming and similar activities.
I think it’s always important to highlight that we often talk about these issues from the office perspective or from the company perspective. But every company’s dealing with employees who are trying to figure it out.
This is new for a lot of people. Employers don’t have everything figured out yet when it comes to the hybrid workforce, and the employees don’t either.
So how do remote work employees deal with feeling ‘FOMO’ when they’re not in the office? How do they book a desk or know when they should or shouldn’t go in? How do they know what tasks they should go in for? Ultimately, hybrid office workers will need a lot of help and guidance as they transition to flexible work and find their work-life balance.
The tools we’re designing around communication and visibility will help with these issues. There may be some tension initially between employees and employers as their desires for a certain style and application may not match. And from my perspective, that’s totally ok. I think workplace style is becoming just another qualifier that people consider when they’re searching for jobs. And employers will have to be clear with their candidates about the way they work.
We’re all different in how we like to work. So I think both leaders and employees are going to have to figure things out. And that may create some tension and some turnover, which can be healthy.
You’ve spoken about four emerging hybrid office workplace models that you’ve seen emerging. Can you walk us through them?
David: First, I’m always quick to say that none of the work models we’re seeing emerge are better or worse than any of the others. They’re just different. And you have different models for different reasons. In the financial services industry, which is heavily dependent on the apprenticeship model, employees typically need to be around other people for face-to-face interactions. When you hear a company like Goldman Sachs say they are planning to go back to how things looked in 2019, there’s a reason for that. And it makes sense for their business.
Hybrid office models
That’s an example of the traditionalist hybrid office model, in which companies are trying to return to the pre-coronavirus, full-time, traditional office as much as possible.
On the other end of the spectrum is the pioneer model, who are becoming remote-first. Pioneers are often in the technology field, with a lot of knowledge workers who can work independently successfully—and who may have a home office so that they can work remotely without commuting to the office. They’re probably also those who have invested more heavily in good collaboration tools like and simple solutions like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Slack that allow their remote workers to engage in the right way.
Pioneers will use their space primarily for meetings, facetime, and more group-oriented activities. And they may still have a finance team or certain other teams that need to be in a physical office. But for the most part their focus will be on remote working.
And then you have a big section in the middle that has what we call the architects and the nomads. The differentiation between those two is whether they’re taking a heavily-controlled real estate-first approach to flexibility, or an employee-first approach.
The nomad model lets employees define what being flexible means to them. This contrasts with the architect model, where employers want to redefine their workspace and maybe shrink their real estate footprint as their primary goal. Therefore, they have stricter parameters in how they’re going to allow people to be flexible.
There’s a really broad range of possibilities and hybrid office environments that different companies are experimenting with. We can expect to see companies move through different models as they try to figure out how to maximize productivity and engagement.
Regardless of the model they choose, companies have to know what’s working and what isn’t.
What data can you get to really understand employee experience and well-being in addition to the efficiency and effectiveness of your space? That will be a really big part of what OfficeSpace can help with going forward.
How does the Office Neighborhoods feature support the hybrid office workplace?
Luke: Neighborhoods was a response to what most of the pre-pandemic workplace software was missing.
If you look at older options, they relied on having one of two approaches to organizing the hybrid office. First, they rely on having an employee in a seat, in a one-to-one relationship. Those two become almost interchangeable from a tracking/reporting/use perspective.
Second, they give you a group of seats, but they’re all open. There’s just a group of employees mapped to a group of open seats. This does give you more flexibility but a lot less visibility.
Our idea around this is that people need both. They need better visibility from a workplace side of how space is being used. They also need flexibility, because as we’ve discussed, everyone has been organizing their workplaces and hybrid office layouts a lot differently.
One of the big pieces of feedback we’ve heard from our clients is that facility management roles have gotten a lot more operational in the past year. Facility management teams are being asked to do a lot more than they had to before. And so one of the big ideas behind the Neighborhoods feature was taking that operational load off and simplifying it.
Office Neighborhoods provides flexibility to configure what fits your office, whether that means you want a team or department to sit together in dedicated seating, you want to offer flexible desks or bookable desks, or you want to set an area up as a tailor-made zone. It gives you the ability to configure all that however you want.
But the key is that it also gives you visibility around employees are using seats. For a facility management or real estate team, it lets them plan and better understand their space in a very detailed way, rather than at a floor or department level which may be less meaningful or more difficult to change.
And finally, Neighborhoods does this in a way that takes the burden off FMs by offering the ability to automate who’s on the list or to delegate things that are normally at the FM level down to the teams as much as they want. By removing this operational burden, hopefully you can get back time to focus on the bigger picture of ensuring your employees are productive.
Ultimately this new feature will focus on giving your employees what they really need, instead of spending too much time on things that don’t have value, like assisting employees who can’t get a desk booked.
Can you tell us about some of your clients who are doing cool or interesting things while reopening and adapting to the hybrid office workplace model?
Luke: There’s a lot of heroes among our clients. People are really trying to figure out how to make the hybrid office model work for their employees.
We have one tech client who figured out how to make things easier for their employees by printing out QR codes for every desk in their New York City office when they first reopened. When employees came in having forgotten to book a desk, they could just zap the QR code and book their desk right there.
We like to pride ourselves on being customer-led in how we think about and develop software. Similarly, we’re seeing a lot of our clients be employee-led in how they think about their plans for reopening. They’re really thinking about what they’re going to do and the impact that will have on their employees, and trying to weigh all tradeoffs and benefits appropriately.
Based on what we’ve seen throughout 2020 and what’s happening with the hybrid office through 2021, what will be the continuing theme for the post-pandemic workplace going into 2022? How will OfficeSpace continue to offer support?
Luke: One of our big focuses is really helping provide better visibility around who’s in the office. We think that’s a central idea. We have some very exciting things coming up in the next couple of months around it.
Our goal is to give people some more new tools both in seeing where they can find colleagues, where they can find seats or conference rooms, and when people are next going to be around so they can book in-person meetings with them.
We’re also looking at a lot of integrations in the near horizon. This includes better integration from a reporting perspective. This will give employees an easy journey into the hybrid office, and employers an even better understanding of how employees are using the space.
David: We’ve been inspired by how we’ve seen our clients respond to this crisis in unique ways. One of our tech clients in California set their parking spots up as bookable desks. This allows people to book a parking space as well as a desk. And that’s worked really well for them. These types of novel uses have actually led to some things that could be good integrations for OfficeSpace.
Luke: We’ve had biopharma companies doing cool things, too, using our software to book lab equipment. So there’s been a lot of interesting ways leaders are using the application to provide flexibility and visibility to people.
Dave: I think this is exactly where we’re going—integrating other valuable employee uses in and around the hybrid office and being able to bring more functionality to the end user, who is the employee.
Whether it’s through partnerships or through our own development, we’re interested in exploring and facilitating how employees engage with and within their workspaces.
And in general we’re seeing a lot more need for measuring employee engagement, which the hybrid model can complicate. I believe that companies and workplace leaders are going to be curious about how effective and efficient they’re using their real estate, but not at the expense of employee engagement.
So we’re going to be working on ways to help measure and track employee engagement both when they’re working remotely and in the workplace.
Recent media coverage of OfficeSpace and the hybrid office
- Better Workplaces for All
- Returning to the Workplace Safely
- How companies are finding new ways to make returning to the workplace safe
- The Four Types Of Organizations That Will Usher In The “Future Of Hybrid Work”
- Remote, hybrid or office-based? Employers are making big decisions about the future of work. This is what it might look like