How hybrid work is revolutionising the physical office – Business Chief North America

Physical office strengthens collaboration, culture, cohesion

Socialising is one reason employees do want to return to the physical office, to build relationships, collaborate, and feel connected to the company culture – something many have missed over the last few years. “With hybrid working in place, interaction among workers dwindled and can be a challenge when it comes to keeping the culture of the company alive,” says Christine. 

And the numbers back this up. More than half of employees who left their job in the past six months say they lacked a sense of belonging, a recent McKinsey survey found. It’s an ongoing concern for business leaders who fear hybrid/remote working can lead to loss of culture, connectivity, and cohesion, and ultimately, a loss of top talent. 

For business leaders, employee mental health and physical wellbeing is now firmly on the corporate agenda, says Tim Armstrong, Global Head of Occupier Strategy and Solutions at Knight Frank, and “many have come to value the social importance of the office above and beyond providing a physical space for work. It has expanded beyond the traditional notion of being just a place for work.”

While Tim acknowledges that hybrid working is a global trend that is here to stay, he believes the office will remain important for companies to promote collaboration and communication of ideas between employees. 

“Physical collaboration and social interactions are fundamental to the creation, curation, and sustenance of a corporate culture; it’s what distinguishes the function of the office from remote settings. That’s not to say that working from home cannot be collaborative – it can, but the ease of that collaborative effort is improved with physical proximity, and stunted by the unnatural form of video calls, which have also shown to further marginalise minorities.”

Christine concurs, adding that when communications are virtualised, task-oriented exchanges and brainstorming activities might be limited as people may find it hard to visualise, especially visual learners, and it can be more difficult to gauge colleagues’ responses during discussions. 

Collaborating in a physical setting not only facilitates brainstorming, explains Christine, it also “allows people to be engaged in spontaneous exchanges and minor decisions” preventing problems such as the ostracisation of employees from bigger conversations and more important decisions.

The new office design will focus on collaboration

Christine predicts the design of the office in a hybrid future will likely provide a curated blend of environment, from meeting rooms to working pods as well as breakout spaces that promote collaboration and connect employees, with the requisite digital tools that enable hybrid work styles. “Whatever is envisioned of the hybrid office, it should remain human-centric and continually place occupants at the centre of this evolving concept,” she says. 

Describing the future office as an “attractor and cultural hub”, Sebastian Mann, Executive Director & Head of Design at CBRE APAC, explains that as the adoption of hybrid working tends to lead to focused work or back-office functions being performed remotely, the reimagined office will ultimately become a location for discussion, interaction, and collaboration. And as such, office design will need to be “exciting, interactive, and engaging”. 

He predicts the end of the open plan office and a switch from traditional space allocations towards unassigned and collaborative spaces for unscheduled catch-ups, and communal spaces for socialising. “Organisations are starting to appreciate the value of an office environment that brings people together – the office as a destination,” he says.

Take global accountancy firm BDO, which recently sank £8 million to repurpose its UK office spaces to better accommodate hybrid working, inclusive of more areas to work collaboratively, “as we know we need a working environment and culture that attracts and retains the brightest, most ambitious talent”, says Martin Gill, Head of BDO Scotland. 

Similarly, following its commitment to a hybrid working model, Deloitte has begun to roll out new transformations to its UK offices, which will see the introduction of more collaborative spaces. According to Stephen Griggs, managing partner UK at Deloitte, “the flexibility of our hybrid working model has changed the purpose of our offices” and the “feedback from our people has been that they want to use our workspace for collaboration, connection and networking”. 

No one size fits all – employees will be part of the redesign

There is no one-size-fits-all workplace model, however, as it will vary by sector, department, and even employee profile, explains Tim. “For example, financial firms that deal with confidential data would probably need more private offices, which can be reserved by the staff, while some types of business services companies can fully operate on hot desking as they do not require fixed seating or private offices.”

Furthermore, companies must recognise the needs and roles of their employees and plan office spaces based on their needs, says Tim. “For instance, client-facing roles or business-critical operations are still best undertaken from the office. If a company has such requirements, offices should be making considerations to cater to these.”

Tim recommends organisations look at the number of days employees are coming into the office, their reported levels of productivity, and their preferred facilities and amenities in the office. He points out that sensors can be used to track the real-time utilisation of space. 

It is a process that is both individual and ongoing, as organisations experiment with what works for them. What is essential, say all experts, is that employees are involved, and that the space remains flexible to ensure adaptability to change. 

And that’s exactly the approach Google has taken with Bay View – an approach that is both flexibly focused and employee-centric. The process began with a deep dive into Googlers, with the design growing from there and ultimately prioritising the experience of the people in the building over the exterior form.

“After talking to Googlers about what they need from a workplace, we found that they are happy, productive and creative when they come together in teams, but need spaces that are buffered from sound and movement to get deep-focus work done,” David Radcliffe, Google’s VP of real estate and workplace services, says. 

The result – a collaboration of Google’s design team, Googlers, and two of the world’s most in-demand architectural studios (BIG and Heatherwick) – is a space that balances employees’ desire to come together as teams with an environment that enables deep-focus work. 

And along with its many social spaces, including indoor courtyards designed to make staff feel like they’re outdoors, nature views from every desk, and 20 acres of open space, Google is confident in luring employees back for good. 

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