5 workplace strategies for managing the hybrid office

5 workplace strategies for managing the hybrid office
May 3, 2022
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Inspired by the strategies of the most innovative workplaces on the planet

I. Competing with work-from-home

How do you compel employees to come to the office, even when they don’t have to?

We’ve posed this question to dozens of workplace managers over the past year. Most conclude that there are two factors to lean into to create an environment employees want to be a part of — incredible experiences and employee choice.

Incredible experiences

How do you create that wow moment that's not just the design or aesthetic of the place, but how it makes you feel? — Peter Van Emburgh, CBRE

Workplaces have to shift toward a hospitality mindset. They must treat their employees like VIPs. Imagine, for example, an employee walking into the office and being given a coffee exactly the way she takes it — without even asking.

“People remember that experience of walking into a workplace,” says Peter Van Emburgh, CBRE’s Global Head of Corporate Real Estate. ”And that’s just something we’re heavily focused on. That hospitality, that white-glove treatment.”

Surveys can help you pinpoint the experiences employees crave. So, too can understanding how your space is used.

For CBRE, that means mapping out the entire journey of employees, from the point of arrival in the office to the point of departure.

Employee choice

Giving employees choice means creating a variety of spaces inside the office. Conference rooms and unassigned workstations are standard. But employees will also want the ability to go somewhere like a phone booth or couch for heads-down alone work.

An effective way to accommodate a near-limitless array of working arrangements is with movable partitions and reconfigurable furniture. Twilio calls these dynamic spaces — and they’re becoming a central part of the company’s return-to-work strategy.

“This allows more variety to meet people where they are,” says Devorah Rosner, Twilio’s Sr. Manager of Global Workplace Operations. “You’re not tied to a geographic footprint. You can build and rebuild as needed.”

II. Redefining the ”when” of work

Our homes are now part of our workplaces. — Devorah Rosner, Twilio

While most leaders assume flexibility means where work happens, the most forward-thinking workplaces know it also means when it happens.

The science against the 9-5 workday

Our circadian rhythm dictates when we're productive — and it isn’t for eight continuous hours. The human body generally has two productivity peaks in the day.

While factors like diet, exercise, and sleep patterns impact this, typically, the first peak occurs a few hours after we wake up. For the average 9-5 employee, that’s about the mid-late morning. Right after lunch, the peak levels of alertness and energy decline, hitting a low around 3 p.m. (this is a consequence of our natural circadian rhythm, not because of what we ate for lunch). After this dip, alertness increases until it hits a second peak around 6 p.m., which is followed by a slow decline (leading to when we go to sleep).

In other words, the average employee is rarely at peak performance while at the office. A 2020 study by Gartner reinforces this — only 36% of employees were high performers at organizations with a standard 40-hour workweek.

But real-time convos still matter

Working the same hours as colleagues makes it easier to have impromptu brainstorms and to get quick answers to questions. But it’s not realistic to demand 9-5 scheduled in the hybrid landscape.

So how do you support your employees’ needs for both flexible scheduling and access to colleagues?

Core collaboration hours

As part of Dropbox’s shift to a virtual-first company, they’re ditching regular working hours and adopting core collaboration hours.

Between the hours of 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. PT, employees should be online and accessible to their colleagues. Outside of those hours, employees can design their schedules however they see fit.

This makes sense in the flexible workplace. Many of the tasks we do at work can be performed on our own. Some of our best work is done when we're uninterrupted for hours at a time.

To produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. – Cal Newport, Author of Deep Work

And while it may seem that setting required hours of work is limiting, the opposite is true. By explicitly stating their expectations, Dropbox has freed their employees from the constraints of ambiguity.

If Susie wants to walk her dog at 2 p.m. today, she doesn’t have to fear being ostracized by her colleagues who chose to spend 2 p.m. behind a screen. There is no expectation of attendance beyond these core collaboration hours.

To put it simply, competitive workplaces know how to measure their employees by their output, rather than an agreed-upon set of hours.

III. Gather feedback — and data

Create a feedback loop through both qualitative and quantitative data.

Qualitative data provides context from the employee perspective. Atlassian, for example, holds quarterly employee focus groups and uses feedback from these sessions to inform space decisions.

“If people understand that you’re actually listening to them, there is a trust that is formed,” says Omar Ramirez (formerly the Senior Program Manager of Workplace R&D at Atlassian). “Then, they are more likely to give you more feedback — and that creates more data for you to work with.”

But qualitative data can be unreliable or misleading — particularly following something so cataclysmal as a pandemic. The emotions you feel when taking any survey don’t often correlate with the behavior patterns you unknowingly showcase.

For example, remote work has proven both popular and effective. But many employees can’t wait to get back to the office for some work/life separation. If you surveyed your employees in Q2 of 2021, many might have said they’ll spend more time at the office than at home. That might not be the case in 2022 when these same employees tire of the commute and office distractions.

Gather clear and indisputable data on how your workplace is used, and add context through employee feedback. Then implement those findings to improve your workspace based on how space is actually used.

That’s a thing we’ve been trying to solve recently by working with Density. Who is physically present for meetings vs. who is shown on the calendar invite? — Omar Ramirez, Atlassian

Qualitative and quantitative data help you identify which spaces are working and which are not so that you can design even better spaces in the future.

IV. Flex seating + change management

A 1:1 desk-to-employee ratio isn’t likely a part of the new workplace. Employees won’t spend all day at the office, let alone at one specific workstation.

Unassigned seating is the logical answer, even for companies that had historically preferred a 1:1 ratio. Twilio’s 27 offices worldwide, for example, were 100% assigned seating before the pandemic. Not anymore.

We are moving to a 100% hoteling model where every desk is a reserved desk, so you have a space that is yours, for the days that you go in. — Devorah Rosner, Twilio

While unassigned seating likely makes business sense, change is hard to endure. Humans, by nature, like a sense of ownership. We come to associate our desks as an extension of our identity.

So, how do you help your employees manage this change?

Understand (and respect) the employee perspective

Employees crave predictability because the alternative (uncertainty) leads to stress. Arch O. de Berker's research discovered that uncertainty is more stressful than knowing for sure a predictable outcome.

In other words, it’s more stressful not knowing if you’ll be late to a meeting than knowing you will be. Now imagine coming to the office — after an historic pandemic — only to barely recognize where (or even how) you work. This drastic change can make it hard for employees to adapt. It might encourage them to spend more time at home than in the office.

Nida Mehtab, Bay Area Lead for Workplace Strategy, Experience Transformation and Change Management at Advanced Workplace Associates, says change management is about leading employees gradually to your desired result.

You can do this by offering employees a variety of work experiences and letting individual managers choose how to introduce these changes.

It's really important to think ‘how do I bring my employees along this curve?’ Frustration occurs when you don’t respect that certain expectation of predictability. — Nida Mehtab, AWA

Rosner didn't ask Twilio employees whether they wanted to switch to unassigned seating. That decision came from the top.

However, she’s also not dictating how each of Twilio’s 27 global offices should manage this transition. Instead, she’s leaving it up to each office.

“What we don't want to do is adopt a one-size-fits-all model,” Rosner says. “It's not for me to say what this office or another office should do, because every team is different, every site is different.”

V. Be iterative … and AB-test

Your workplace is constantly changing. Your employees aren’t sure what relationship they have with your office. Will they come in daily? Stay all day? Sit at a workstation or roam?

Even if they know the answers to these questions today, those answers will likely change over time. In the post-pandemic era, employee behavior will be dynamic. How do you make sure your workplace experience matches the changing needs of your workforce?

AB-test your workplace.

Let’s walk through our own experience of AB-testing an underused meeting space in our San Francisco HQ.

AB-testing our conference room (before)

We ran an AB-test in one of our conference rooms pre-pandemic. It began with a hunch: one of our meeting rooms appeared chronically empty, but we had no idea how often or why.

From that hunch, we made a hypothesis: If we made the space more inviting, more people would use it throughout the day. Then, we set out to test our hypothesis.

For that, we needed a baseline (we pulled a utilization report from our Density dashboard).

Data confirmed our hunch: The room was designed for four people, but in a typical workday, the room was empty or used by just one person for 96% percent of the workday.

AB-testing our conference room (after)

We brought in furnishings from other lounge areas around the office, including a plant, lamp, and soft seating. We wanted to encourage in-person group meetings while not abandoning the room's value as a space for video conferencing.

Then, we measured the real-time use of the space. Shortly after the redesign, we saw a substantial peak in utilization. But that data could be misleading. People flock to new experiences. We extended the test to see if space occupancy remained high. After one month, the trend continued to show people use the new space design.

A few months later, data concluded that the redesigned space had 246% more visits in the past quarter than in the previous quarter.

Now that we knew that our team liked the new design, we wanted to find out why — so we surveyed employees. The overall consensus was that with the new design, meetings felt more relaxed and welcoming. Employees wanted to use that space because it helped them collaborate and brainstorm.

Every space is testable

We tested one space, but every space and configuration is up for testing. Is no one using your soft-seating? Relocate it or replace it with workstations. Is your conference room always in use? Add movable desks that let teammates create impromptu scrum spaces.

The most effective way to manage the new workplace is to adopt an iterative, scientific mindset for testing workplace design. Each test brings you closer to supporting the evolving needs of your employees.

Like us, you can start with one room, one hypothesis, and one test. From there, expand to other spaces. Redesigns don't have to be expensive or resource-intensive. Swap out furniture from one space to another.

AB-testing is a powerful way to breathe new life into underutilized spaces and experiment with new configurations before making more significant decisions (like buying or shedding space).

As you embark on AB-testing your space, remember the most critical components:

1. Create a hypothesis
2. Establish a baseline
3. Reconfigure your space
4. Measure real-time utilization data 5. Get employee feedback for context 6. Keep on testing

Most importantly, develop a willingness to experiment and learn. The new workplace is dynamic. You must be, too.