The Great Return & The Hybrid Workplace

The pandemic’s peaks and troughs and ebbs and flows have caused a massive headache for managers and employers around the world. From organising entire workforces suddenly working from home, with all the technology, communication and project management issues that entailed, to trying to figure out when exactly people would be (or, at time of writing, will be) returning to the office – if at all.

The shifts in attitudes from employees have been drastic and ever-changing. From delight at the new working arrangement, to despair at finding the space and peace at home limited - especially when spouses or partners and kids are involved - back to cautious enthusiasm for a new way of working in the future.

Now businesses are caught between the two worlds of employees coming into the office some days and working from home on others – a hybrid.

Big Organisations Leading The Way

Whether or not this work style becomes the norm is up for heated debate. A Boston Consulting Group study showed that 75% of employees who have worked remotely, are at least, if not more productive on task-based work as they were beforehand. But, although the BCG report spins it as a positive, only around 50% say that they are at least as productive on those collaborative tasks that normally would be performed in conference rooms. So, perhaps we will see a split emerge based on tasks and collaboration.

Whatever the arguments, organisations such as Google and Microsoft are spending huge amounts on reconfiguring their workspaces to accommodate this new hybrid era. In the UK alone, Google has budgeted £730m for this two-year project – no small amount - so is obviously taking things seriously. The company sees the need for a less dense work environment – more space, fewer people at any one time – as well as dedicated areas for collaboration, covered outdoor workspaces and ‘inclusive meeting rooms for hybrid working’. It anticipates its workforce eventually returning to the office for three days a week – which is probably a model many other companies and employees will be comfortable with.

The new look office may need a new term to describe it. We’re suggesting ‘resicomm’ or perhaps ‘resicorp’– part residential, part commercial or corporate: we’ll let you choose. But essentially, the workspace itself and the furniture within it will mimic the benefits of home working, whilst retaining a working atmosphere where stuff must get done.

What will a hybrid workplace look like?

So, what are the key aspects of workplace design, furniture and tech that will ensure this hybrid environment succeeds and is effective?

Certainly, the very Victorian way of working, with serried rows of desks in big open-plan spaces will fade and disappear. That old stalwart, the hot-desk will have a resurgence, but there will be far fewer desks in the office. There will also be spaces designed for teams, for collaboration, learning, socialising and for focus. Research has shown that unstructured collaboration, away from the meeting room, is a key for business success, so organisations will need to provide the environment that fosters this kind of working. Perhaps outdoor spaces and comfortable furniture will blossom, reminiscent of the homes many of us have worked from for many months.

Biophilia & Wellness

Flexibility and a more natural, biophilic design ethic will be key parts of the hybrid office. Wellness – in all its forms, physical and mental – is a fast-growing aspect of the working environment and studies have proven bringing aspects of nature, or even nature itself, into the workplace can have hugely positive effects on everyone involved.

Natural Environments

Mel Haarer, founder of wellbeing provider Connect & Care NZ believes water, planting and disconnection from distractions like cell phones will play a part.

In-built water holders in desks which measure and encourage the two-litre drinking recommendations may appear – as well as moving water-features, providing both auditory and visual stimuli. Perhaps we will see more built-in and freestanding plant holders in and around work areas to encourage positivity and improve air quality. She also suggests a dedicated place to hide your cell phone whilst you work. Out of reach, out of sight, out of mind.

WELL Certification

A sign that wellness is becoming vital in the workspace is the WELL Certification building standard, which is growing globally. The certification has been applied to over 35,000 projects in more than 100 countries and is less about the actual building and much more about the people who use buildings. Its aim is providing healthy spaces that advance wellness and well-being with 10 core concepts that support mental and physical health.

Technology and The internet of things

Tech will proliferate and be far more integrated into the spaces and even the furniture. Rather than having to partake in Zoom, Meet or Teams sessions from your desk, it’s far more likely that there will be dedicated areas for these meetings, with large, eye-height screens, one for each remote participant, to mimic a real-life meeting. High quality projection equipment and cameras can provide participants with good quality images, as lifelike as possible.

Scrum engage

Technical solutions may also be used to measure utilisation. Furniture is an increasingly valuable asset for businesses and analytical tools embedded in the furniture can help managers identify usage and keep areas optimal.

PLN Group recently carried out a study with Silverdale School, where sensors were embedded into the furniture. The project was designed to understand students’ time on task as well as discover which pieces of furniture were popular and which were not - even which parts of multi-person furniture were popular. On one bench seat which had four squabs, it was found only three seating positions were regularly used. Further investigation revealed the fourth seat was more exposed to view from teachers, whilst the other three were partially hidden from view.

Expect this kind of functionality to be far more integrated into technology platforms in the future, within the strictures of privacy considerations of course.

Separation without Isolation

Individual pods for one-on-one virtual meetings might prove more attractive. Integrated screen, small desktop and comfortable seat within an enclosed, or more likely, semi-enclosed space to avoid isolation would seem to be a suitable format.

Pods in general will proliferate. PLN Group has historically seen offices place around one pod per twelve desks, but that number is now dropping below ten. As PLN Group’s Blair McKolskey points out, “…pods give enough privacy for task and concentration. They are also a powerful tool for those that wish for personal space in a non-confrontational way.”’

Although less of a response to the hybrid office and more a growing trend towards work environments that help with wellness, resilience and reflect the biophilic design
trend, the flat grey office environment will be seen less and less.

It’s been understood for many years that colour can and will affect mood and more recent studies have demonstrated a link between certain palettes and productivity, creativity and positivity. Broadly it’s been seen that the following colours and moods go together.

  • Blue – Productivity, Confidence, Focus
  • Yellow – Optimism, Creativity, Energy
  • Red – Urgency, Efficiency, Energy
  • Green – Calm, Alert, Peaceful
  • White – Clean, Modern, Open
  • Orange – Friendly, Cheerful, Successful
  • Purple – Luxury, Wisdom, Loyalty
  • Black – Control, Stability, Intellect

Materials will follow those biophilic principles too. Textured and natural materials such as wood and stone, or synthetic materials that replicate natural surfaces will appear in these new offices and the sleek, smooth surfaces we're used to will diminish.

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Words by Paul Bondsfield