The Hybrid Workplace: Grappling with the New Normal

What does the workplace look like when it’s safe to return post-COVID? Workplace interior designers Amanda Stanaway from Woods Bagot and Angela Sampson from Bates Smart discuss what changes are needed to create the new Hybrid Workplace.

After the pandemic sent most people to work from home almost overnight in March 2020, many are now grappling what the workplace looks like post-COVID. With some employers requesting a complete return to work and some extending their work-from-home policy indefinitely, many more are now contemplating something in between – the Hybrid Office. In fact, according to a May 2020 survey of 8000 office-based employees across eight countries, 75% of people want an even split of office-based and remote working going forward (Resetting Normal, Adecco).

But how to manage this split? It turns out there’s a lot more to it than managing number of employees and square metres of office space. “It was easier during COVID-19 because there was equality and consistency. Everyone just went home,” says Amanda Stanaway from Woods Bagot. “Hybrid brings inconsistency. Being in the office is also about creating a tribe. If you are my employee, I don’t just want to know what you are doing, I want to know, are you okay? Are you doing your job, but also are you maintaining health and happiness?” Another issue is creativity. Stanaway argues that it is impossible to be truly creative while working in isolation. “People sitting at the desk all day brings learning by osmosis, spontaneity, innovation. How does innovation happen in the future if we are all at home?”

This sentiment is backed up by the research – 5000 employees in five countries were surveyed and said they thought remote work may lead to an innovation drought and prevent career progression (Reworking Work, Atlassian/Paper Giant). The report also shows just how much we enjoy the social side of the workplace. And this is the case more so for Australians than those from other countries – three out of four Australians missed the energy of their workplace, compared to around 50 per cent of global workers.

For Angela Sampson of Bates Smart, what happened when everyone was sent home during the pandemic was that employers were forced to trust their employees fully for the first time. And employees largely delivered on this trust. “We all proved that we could be all sent home to work and that the business could trust us to deliver,” says Sampson. Working from home suited a lot of employees who, left alone, were able to improve productivity. “For a business, the benefits of employees working from home was around autonomy and self-determination. Having the right to choose how and when you work to deliver the outcome is incredibly empowering.” The other major factor in this equation, says Sampson, is balance. If employees proved they could be trusted, employers needed to reciprocate by ensuring that workers had some separation of work and home life, rather than just feeling like they now work 24 hours a day.

"For a business, the benefits of employees working from home was around autonomy and self-determination. Having the right to choose how and when you work to deliver the outcome is incredibly empowering." — Angela Sampson, Bates Smart

That was then, what about now? How do we ensure creativity and create balance? The Hybrid Workplace brings with it many questions. Firstly, is a pre-COVID workplace still fit for purpose? There are so many factors to consider – did your workforce shrink or grow? How many will work from home and for how many days a week? Will teams come in on the same day in ‘scrums’ or will some sort of desk sharing scenario be the best option? If some staff are at home, will they need to dial into meetings? Dialling in remotely to meetings has always been a reality for those with multiple offices, but the technology needs are greater still if half the team is connecting to the meeting from home, or if there are more meetings happening than there are meeting rooms available. All of these scenarios need to be considered to allow the worker to do their best work, and to allow the organisation to optimise the real estate they have.

For Amanda Stanaway, who has been arguing for flexible working for decades, the post-COVID era in workplace design is still unknown. “What does it looks like?” asks Amanda. “Less desks certainly. You might save real estate, but spend more per square metre so you have a workplace that people want to come to.” Amanda points out that Atlassian announced a huge investment in a new workplace building and in almost the same breath announced the permanent option for employees to work from home – two facts that seem contradictory. And the truth is that nobody knows what the Hybrid Office will be. “You can’t assume people will work a certain way. It is going to be way more diverse than ever before. Managing that and getting it to work as a cohesive whole is a challenge. You don’t know what you’re designing for.”

“You can’t assume people will work a certain way. It is going to be way more diverse than ever before." — Amanda Stanaway, Woods Bagot

For Angela Sampson, the biggest takeaway from COVID-19, and from society in general right now, is the need for respect, diversity and empathy. If you truly respect your employees and their differences – maybe they are introverts who work better at home – then creating a workplace to get the best out of them works for everyone. “For so long we’ve been trying to push people in a sausage machine – we all go to work, we all go home,” she says. “I think what COVID showed us is you can achieve the outcome in a different way. Different people bring different things to the conversation. And we are more grateful now when we can physically be together. We’re not all the same but diversity makes us rich.” 

Design has a huge part to play in making the Hybrid Office the best it can be and the Koskela team is working on a range of furniture and interior design solutions to make the transition as smooth as possible. This means creating modular acoustic screening systems and booth-style furniture options that not only enable acoustic and visual privacy for focused or collaborative work, but also feature technology integration such as screens and speakers. For previously open-plan spaces, these options provide flexibility, offering a semi-architectural modular system that provides an inexpensive, easily wired-in alternative to building more meeting rooms. They will help employees get the most out of coming into the office. Plus, they have been designed with lifecycle thinking, so can be serviced, which makes them an investment for the long haul.

So what is the hybrid workplace? It’s a lot more than just interior design. It is a creative response, a new way of thinking about how we work, a way of grappling with the new circumstances of life post-COVID. The answer to the question of how and when we return to the workplace is as diverse as we are. But, what the hybrid workplace proves is that, regardless of all the positives and negatives of working from home during a pandemic, the new normal will be something else again – it’s just a matter of finding the right balance.

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