• Pre-pandemic, most people were dissatisfied with their office space. Post-pandemic, offices may not be as essential as we once thought.
  • Hybrid working is increasingly the norm. For it to be successful, the office needs to change and continually evolve.
  • The hybrid office requires a balance of spaces, calibrated to each organization and the widest range of individuals within it.

Workplaces across the world are undergoing a profound transformation. Employers are ripping up the rule book on how, where and when people work and experimenting with something called ‘hybrid working’. It’s a change that is gathering momentum. A recent survey found 75% of workers believe that ‘hybrid work’ will be standard in their companies within three years.

So if hybrid is the future of work, what will the hybrid office look like?

What is hybrid work?

Hybrid working is an amorphous term. Depending on the organization, it may mean workers coming in most days, a couple of days per week or only meeting once a quarter. In some companies it will be a combination of all of those, tailored to individuals.

Hybrid working started long before the pandemic, with flexible working and teleworking gaining popularity first with the emergence of personal computers in the 1970s and then with the internet in the 1990s. However, at the beginning of 2020, still only 5% of work hours in America were spent at home. By spring 2020 this had risen to 60%. As of October 2021, that figure was still at 40%.

Similar trends have played out across the world. Millions of people who had never had the opportunity or inclination to work remotely were experiencing a different model, and many found they could work as effectively from home.

Offices seemed not as essential as we thought, and as companies like Twitter started to make announcements that staff could work from home forever, the reason for having them at all started to be called into question.

The office: flawed even before hybrid work

Pre-pandemic offices had become increasingly disliked. In one pre-pandemic survey 85% people said they were dissatisfied with their office environment. Whether in attempts to improve collaboration or reduce costs, offices had become increasingly open plan and higher density, sometimes less than 5m2 per person. Consequently they were often noisy, distracting and unhealthy. Also 40% of office staff suffer from poor lighting and the temperature was typically not only uncomfortable, but also impeded the performance of women.

At home people can control their noise level, lighting, temperature and privacy and optimize the environment for comfort and productivity. Little wonder that 50% of workers in the U.S. (and 35% in UK) say they would take a pay cut to continue to work remotely at least part-time post-pandemic and 25% would quit if they can’t.

However, there is one category of staff that thinks very differently. A study across six countries shows that 44% of senior executives want to get back to the office full time compared to 17% of their staff.

Is the office dead? Unlikely

So what is the case for returning to the office? In the 1980’s an MIT professor Thomas Allen discovered the power of proximity. He found that most collaboration happens within an 8m radius and drops to almost zero by 50m. The Allen Curve, which still holds true today with people emailing colleagues most who they sit closest to. This proximity becomes even more critical for new recruits and new projects, where the learning curve is steepest. Proximity also reinforces culture and a shared sense of belonging.

Research by Microsoft shows that remote work led employees to spend less time collaborating with colleagues outside their regular network, so called ‘weak ties’, and people in other functional units. Collaborating with new people often leads to new knowledge and increased innovation. Steve Jobs said it: “creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.”

So what does a hybrid office look like?

Hybrid working provides a compromise that potentially everyone can accept. It allows staff the opportunity to carry out individual heads down work at home if they feel they can concentrate better there and it provides collaboration-focused office space to ensure connection, knowledge sharing, and unplanned encounters. For hybrid working to be successful though the office needs to change dramatically.

Hybrid offices are on the rise
Hybrid work is on the rise
Image: McKinsey & Company

There needs to be a shift away from rows of identical desks squeezed together to more varied, flexible and individually controllable environments that suit all workers and work styles. There still will need to be enough places for individuals to effectively concentrate and focus between meetings and for those who can’t or don’t wish to work at home. There may be quiet rooms, bookable desks, or touchdown spaces, ideally with individual control over lighting, temperature and acoustics.

However, most hybrid offices will be set up for a smorgasbord of collaboration - planned and spontaneous, open and private, from one to one to the whole office, internal and client, face to face and with remote staff, for mentoring, brainstorming, presentations and training.

The lines will blur between work and play. Enhanced amenity and social facilities, like cafes, bars, fitness facilities are not only key to enticing staff to the office but can also strengthen a sense of belonging and shared culture, and encourage cross-functional connections and chance encounters.

The one size fits all approach to workplaces that became the norm in offices across the world will not work for the hybrid office. For hybrid working to be successful, a balance of space will need to be calibrated to each organization and the widest range of individuals within it. What works successfully for one company may be a failure for others and the same goes for different departments, teams and individuals.

Hybrid spaces need to be designed for flexibility and adaptability. As organizations consistently adapt, so their workplaces must too. Post occupancy and continued staff feedback, and occupancy and environmental sensors, can help establish those spaces that are most popular and can help rebalance, adapt and optimize the use of space over time. Ultimately the hybrid offices can become a self-learning and continually evolving ecosystem.

Organizations that have successful hybrid environments will be able to recruit and retain the most diverse range of talent, improve staff health and wellness, enhance collaboration and performance, and adapt rapidly to change. Hybrid working is not an easy option. However, done thoughtfully, it can provide the most effective way of working.