Podcast

Designing the hybrid offices that we return to

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Posted
August 16, 2021
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17 minutes

Our guest today is Anne-Laure Fayard, an associate professor of innovation, design, and organization studies at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. Together with her co-authors, she is behind the recent Harvard Business Review feature, Designing the Hybrid Office. Today, we’ll be talking about collaboration, innovation, and technology when rethinking the office of the future. We’ll go into topics like what employees should come into the office for, how technology can create an equitable space for all, no matter where they’re working from, and what managers should be considering with the shift to hybrid.

Paul Sephton: To start off, I’ve really loved the work that you’ve done on thinking about the office of the future and the hybrid office. And I think one of the fundamental things is if we think about the office and returning to it and using it for the purposes we once did, we won’t necessarily get the full benefits of flexibility or of hybrid work. So what do you think we should be going back into the office to do?

Anne-Laure Fayard: I think that what we learned during the last year is that people can do the work, which is producing outcomes, when they’re not in the office. And a lot of people were surprised. I don’t think it’s really surprising, if we look at previous research. There’s been a lot of studies showing how a lot of the things that we were doing in the office were more than just producing the work. And in fact, even in my research on workplace and informal interactions prior to the pandemic, it was really interesting that people were already saying that they would go early in the office or stay later or find a place outside to do their work. So I think that we already knew that. What people are missing is the social connection, what we talk about, the human moments, like connecting with people.

What people are missing is the social connection, what we talk about, the human moments, like connecting with people.

Anne-Laure Fayard

But I think then there’s, even for work, there’s a lot of things that have happened in terms of knowledge sharing, tacit knowledge, building trust with people that are not necessarily in your personal network, and connecting with them and getting access to previous resources. So it’s like more of your social capital. And there’s been a lot of interesting studies by Microsoft, showing how the social capital of people have shrunk during the pandemic.

And so I think the last piece is really the organizational culture. And so a lot of companies were really worried at the beginning of the pandemic, and then they were like, oh wow, people can still work. It’s great. But I think it worked because people knew each other. They already had the trust and the social capital. After a year, when you haven’t seen people for a long time, you start losing a lot of these things. And although we can do a lot of things via Zoom or Teams or whatever, I think a lot of the little social things that are missing, you don’t bump into people, you don’t do a lot of things, and I’ve been hearing it more and more.

The last piece is newcomers. People have still been hiring newcomers. And what we’ve seen in our research, a lot of people who join new companies are like, I don’t really know what I’m part of, and it’s really hard to ask questions. And that’s something also that a lot of companies have been worried about, is like how do we do onboarding, but also mentoring of new employees? And I think that’s, for example, there’s been people very vocal, for example, in the financial industry, saying everybody has to go back to the office. And one of the big reasons was mentoring of junior colleagues. So back to your question, if we’re going back to the office, it’s for social human connection, the informal network, social capital building, and the sense of building a sense of organizational culture.

If we’re going back to the office, it’s for social human connection, the informal network, social capital building, and the sense of building a sense of organizational culture.

Anne-Laure Fayard

Paul Sephton: The informal spaces where we used to do that, like the open office, were before the pandemic criticized for being somewhere where it was really hard to get any work done. But at the same time, if we go back to the office and we’re just booked in back-to-back meetings for our full workdays, we might not get all of those human moments and social interactions which we’re talking about. So how much is it about leadership and management redefining what the office is there for as a resource, and how much of it is about actually redesigning the spaces in which we work in offices, or do the two go hand in hand?

Anne-Laure Fayard: That’s a great question. I think that there are, in fact, a few questions there, but at the end of the day, too, the overall answer is it’s both. It’s about the space, but it’s clearly not just the space. It’s about the leadership, the roles, the norms. I think just the point about the criticism of the open plan offices, a lot of the informal interaction didn’t happen necessarily in the open plan per se, but more in nearby coffee machine alcoves, like semi public spaces. So I think that it’s always a pendulum. I think we went from closed office or cubes to completely open.

And pre-pandemic, you could see already that a lot of the architectural firms were moving to what they call the neighborhood concepts. So there was already a thinking about how do we have variations? And I think that’s from the space perspective, we’re going to need more and more. And from what I’ve seen, talking with companies who are in the space of architecture or office space design, I think that’s what they’re looking at, is like, how do we get something that is modular and that allows for different types of work and that can be changed easily for people?

The second point you made about like, okay, but if we go back to the office and then we have back-to-back meeting, we’re not getting the best of what we want to do in the office because we know we can do these meetings back to back, remote. In fact, it might be more efficient because we would just do the meetings one after the other.

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So I think that here it’s going to be where the role of management is going to be very important. If you want to get people to come back to the office in a productive manner, you have to figure out a way where as a, you know, if you’re managing a team, you don’t want to book only meetings because that’s not interesting for people. They know they can do it back from home. And then if the leadership, the senior management, is going to the office, but always in meetings, then people are going to say, well, what’s the point? We don’t have the mentoring. So I think it’s the role modeling would be super important from senior management, and talking with a few organization lately, I think that a lot of organizations are trying to convince people that it’s worth going back to the office, and it’s a lot about like, how are we going to make the experience interesting?

I think then there, it’s really important to realize that it’s not going to be a very exciting experience if it’s only going to be nine to five, or nine to six, meetings back to back. So I’m not saying that we should not have at all any meetings because having a meeting all together can be useful, and also because I think that what we forget is that oftentimes the meetings that we do face to face, what is interesting is the before and the after. That’s where things happen.

If the leadership, the senior management, is going to the office, but always in meetings, then people are going to say, well, what’s the point? We don’t have the mentoring. So I think it’s the role modeling would be super important from senior management

Anne-Laure Fayard

That’s what is missing when we do a Zoom or a Team meeting, is we don’t have this small interaction between two people or three people. So I think that maybe people have forgotten that about the meetings and that they might get that. So it’s, again, a balancing act, and it’s transparency. You were talking, again, about norms and rules. I think it’s being transparent with people about what they’re going to get in the office and what’s going to happen.

Paul Sephton: And with that in mind, we still can’t escape that before the pandemic, many companies were fully globalized, and so there would almost always have to be at least one remote participant. And I think with that flexibility now with hybrid, we’re likely going to see a situation in which there remains always at least someone dialing in. And so how do you think management and leadership should go about making hybrid work as inclusive as possible?

Anne-Laure Fayard: That’s a great point. And I think that’s something that I always remind people, is for global companies, they know what is hybrid work. They think they don’t, but we’ve all been doing some form of hybrid work. Another interesting point is a lot of people during our research noted that they used to work with just one colleague that was remote and that it made them aware of what it meant to be on the remote side. And people started, for example, changing the time of the meeting.

So it was interesting, back to your inclusion point, is that people suddenly became more aware of how they tended to leave this other person, the remote person, outside. So I heard some companies saying, well, if we have a meeting, and there’s one person, at least one person that is remote, we should have everyone on their laptop.

Paul Sephton: I’ve seen the same article. I think it was a software company out of Australia who were doing that. And it’s sort of, well, does that then add value to going into the office if you’re dialing into your meetings anyway?

Anne-Laure Fayard: Exactly. So I was discussing that with a few companies, and the pushback was like, okay, then why do we come to the office if we’re all on our laptop? So then I think then that’s where being smart about technology and thinking about ways to be inclusive is interesting. So I’ve seen a few people trying to think about like, how do we redesign spaces? So Frog Design, they redesigned their office in Austin, and to integrate better videos so that you could more easily have a smaller one-on-one video call with someone, that even their meeting rooms have been redesigned to be more inclusive of the people who would be remote.

We’ve been talking with other people who’ve been thinking of like, rather than having the big screen where you have like big brother looking at you, having smaller screens that are more movable, that you could maybe put around the table. I don’t think it’s been implemented, but I’ve read about this idea of having meeting rooms where you would have a chair for in-person and a chair with a screen, and then it would be in-person, screen, in-person, screen, so that you don’t have to have all the screens, but that it’s really integrated.

So Frog Design, they redesigned their office in Austin, and to integrate better videos so that you could more easily have a smaller one-on-one video call with someone, that even their meeting rooms have been redesigned to be more inclusive of the people who would be remote.

Anne-Laure Fayard

I think really thinking of like, how do we integrate? So there are norms. So it could be just as easy, as simple, as thinking about the time of the meeting, that it’s not always the same ones who have to be in a meeting at five in the morning or in their pajamas late at night, which by the way, I lived in Southeast Asia for a few years, and the thing that most people were complaining, who were living in Southeast Asia, when they were in global organization, was that nobody ever thought of rotating the meeting times. So I think that could be just as simple as that.

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Maybe also rethinking of choosing a time where maybe if it’s not just one person, but it’s a mix, so it’s like, what’s the threshold for being all remote? Is it like 1, 2, 3 people? And then again, thinking about the technology so that we can have a meeting where those who are remote are really integrated and are not just forgotten very quickly.

Paul Sephton: Well, how would you advise management these days in terms of how they think about technology when it comes to implementing these changes? We’ve seen on the one hand reports about video fatigue and the challenges that we have with that. But on the other hand, it seems like the virtual HQ will rarely be the headquarters of the future, compared to a physical space. And so the office will become more of a resource.

Anne-Laure Fayard: I think that the video fatigue comes from the fact that we, if you are all day long on video, I personally think that we don’t necessarily need video all the time and that just using audio can work. And in fact, sometimes for people for inclusion, it might be easier to not be seen or not see themselves. So I think that also a lot of research on video fatigue shows that it’s also about we kind of end up seeing ourselves all the time at the same time. I mean, you could remove your image and things like that, but it kind of adds up, like you have to think about it.

So it might be also rethinking the features of some of these video calls. You know, you were talking about the HQ, the virtual HQ as the HQ of the future. So if you’re looking at what company who are like fully remote, if you look at how they’ve been doing that, they’re all still, not all, but several of them still have a physical HQ where people can meet, but if not, they all have a once a year or twice a year gathering for people to share best practices, to get to know each other, and build a shared culture or sense of identity.

And then they have smaller events around teamwork, or if people are based in the same location, they can either have a shared co-working space or organized meetings. So I think that could be the thing. And I was reading, there was someone saying, well, it might be that the cost of real estate, the footprint of the office, is going to go down, but then business trips is going to go up because you’re going to have to get people to meet more often. And it could be that it’s not going to be about cost, but it’s going to be different costs that are going to be added to that.

Paul Sephton: And do you think that there’s a way in which leaders should be preparing a toolbox on how to bring their teams back into the office? Should they be maybe advising them all to come in on the same day? Should they be advising for breaks mandated between every single meeting, or longer lunch breaks? What are some of the key considerations that any team leader or business leader should be having in at least for now the ways in which they consider and then instruct their teams to come back or guide them at least into the office.

Anne-Laure Fayard: First of all, you have to provide some kind of transparency and guidance, because I think a lot of managers feel like they have no clue how to manage business, really stressful, and there’s quite a lot of anxiety out there. So I think that providing that guidance to managers is important.

And second of all, I think that for people to come back, what I’ve been seeing is a lot of people are like, I’m not sure what they’re planning. And so it’s creating also some anxiety for people. And I was reading recently a survey where people were saying that they would rather change and work for an organization that had, first of all, more flexibility. But second, also, that transparency in terms of what it would look like really mattered to them. So just for that matter, it’s important to have the toolkit.

First of all, you have to provide some kind of transparency and guidance, because I think a lot of managers feel like they have no clue how to manage business, really stressful, and there’s quite a lot of anxiety out there. So I think that providing that guidance to managers is important.

Anne-Laure Fayard

It’s interesting, because if you’re looking at like, you know, in the eighties, nineties, there was a lot of research on global teams, and people ended up building this toolkit for how to manage a global team. And if you look at what it is, there are a lot of similarities in terms of helping people figuring out what kind of technology to use, if it’s a one-on-one versus if it’s a brainstorming, versus if it’s for coaching purposes. The email might not be the best. Having a chat might be better. So a lot of these things might happen in terms of technology, but breaks and all these things, I think it’s super important.

Interestingly, if you look at what the fully remote companies have been doing, they have a lot of that. They really encourage their employees to not be online all the time, which is, by the way, what we’ve seen happening in a lot of organizations during the pandemic, is that people started working more and they didn’t feel entitled to take these breaks. But if you’re looking at these companies who had their people fully remote before, they were already saying that to people, you need to take lunch breaks, you have to go out, you can’t be more than a number of hours on online.

So I was talking with a few people and they were saying, well, you know, people will learn and they will emerge. I think it will emerge. We’re going to learn. It’s just a new way. But I think it’s useful for the moment to have some templates and then adjust it, depending on the team.

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You’ve been asking a lot about inclusion. And so what is interesting is one company I was talking with, they were saying like the professionals, it was a law firm, most of them feel okay to go back to the office at least a few days a week. But what they realize is that the administrative staff who lives further away from the office, so it costs them more to go in terms of time and paying for their commute, and then also the implication for managing their kids and their family, there’s much more resistance to be back to the office.

And so it was interesting because the management was very aware. They were like, these people are as essential. When you think of a law firm, you think of the lawyers, but they’re very important, too. So how do we make sure that these people want to come back, at least a little bit, but also how do we explain to the partners that maybe their assistant won’t be there when they’re there?

Paul Sephton: And you might also have, I’d imagine, situations in which people with parenting responsibilities are struggling with that flexibility or needing it more. And then you have perhaps junior managers or people who are new hires and trying to onboard themselves, or perhaps senior management, on the other hand, wanting to be there a lot more. And so you end up with sort of different groups of the workforce completely missing each other or not getting the benefits of that cross-pollination.

Anne-Laure Fayard: Clearly. I think that’s what I’ve seen, and each organization I’m talking to have different setups. So it’s really interesting. We tend to think, oh, the junior people might want this and then the senior might want that, and then family. But then you have so much more variations across. So one company I was talking to, they assumed that their junior people would want to go back to the office because they have this cool open office, but they realized that the junior people were like, yeah, we think it’s cool, but we also like our flexibility and being able to go upstate and spend time out.

And then they realized that the senior manager, in fact, longed to go back to the office because they like the space and they like the time. And in that company, it was more of a people in the middle who had kids, who wanted to be able to stay at home more. But then there are also cases where people have kids and they can’t concentrate. And so they want to go back. So I think it’s really figuring that out. And so I think also it’s realizing that the flexibility, or the needs might evolve.

For me, it’s really about space, technology, and organizational processes. And it’s this interaction between the three things, that the hybrid office and hybrid work will be successful.

Anne-Laure Fayard

So first of all, not assuming as a manager that you know. So what I’ve seen recently was a manager who was saying, like, he did a survey among his team members. And so he thought, they had like a, kind of a, their schedule is like every quarter, they have a week of intense work. And so he assumed that everybody would want to be in the office for that week. And he did a survey and he realized that people say no, because that’s the week where we work 16 plus hours per day. So we don’t want to add the commute to that.

We can do it heads down there, and then just the last day of that crunch week, we can meet to clarify points. And so he’s like, okay. So he shifted his whole scheduling, but he was very surprised. And he’s like, “Oh, it makes sense. But I never thought about that.” Because he thought that’s the week where everybody is doing intense work. So I think that making sure that we check our assumptions about the needs is also very important.

Paul Sephton: You mentioned the fact that it’s going to be an iterative process and something which keeps on evolving. What ingredients do you think … There’s something like a survey for a team. Is there data we should be trying to rely on, as well, and maybe using technology to see how our spaces are being used, or do you think that we will permanently have completely customizable workspaces, or that it’s something which we will be figuring out and then shift to a slightly more permanent fixed type of set up in office once we’ve established what we need from the hybrid office?

Anne-Laure Fayard: If you think that, you know, the fact that needs and people and society and organizations are always shifting, you could have this utopian view, that we’ll have this ongoing iterative, flexible things. I think in practice, it’s very difficult. And also, human beings tend to lighten routines, and things tend to fossilize. So the same way last March, everybody was like, oh my goodness. And then people get used to it. Hopefully organizations will keep some opening for checking in so that we don’t get, again, fixed into something.

You won’t prevent things from shifting because that’s what organizations are about. And so I feel like even when a manager thinks that they have a certain, for example, organizational culture, the reality of the culture is much more different than whatever values that are posted on the website. So it’s the same thing. So I think it’s using this opportunity as a way to get as much things right, and right might just be having some possibility for changing things on a regular basis.

Paul Sephton: Well, hopefully with the right workplace redesigns and technology and management, we’ll be able to make hybrid a great success.

Anne-Laure Fayard: Yeah, I think if you have the three words. For me, it’s really about space, technology, and organizational processes. And it’s this interaction between the three things, that the hybrid office and hybrid work will be successful.

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