Even before the pandemic, leaders were rethinking what was necessary in a modern office. Many organizations had brought in food, drinks, and other perks to maximize productivity and cohesion. Sometimes, this meant building entirely new campuses. There was plenty of debate about the merits of open offices and ergonomic furniture.
But now, a hybrid format—where employees are only in part-time—is causing employers to again rethink these spaces.
Workplace perks like ping-pong tables, roof decks, and “cold brew and beer on tap” will no longer be as appealing to employees accustomed to a more flexible work style, says Frank Weishaupt, the CEO of Owl Labs, a company that makes tech solutions for hybrid teams—and is hybrid itself.
One of the other things his team has given up is personal desks, opting instead for “hoteling” or “hot desking.” “The only rule we have is not to leave anything on your desk overnight,” says Weishaupt.
Reserving desk space in advance can make it easier to establish boundaries between head’s down work and collaborative occasions. It can also help companies and team members know when certain employees will be in the office.
Technology that helps with booking office time have helped organize workers’ returns. Check-in and reservation apps, like Robin, can help with booking space, while communication apps like Slack and Notion can help with communication for all workers, regardless of location.
“A strong sense of community is what matters,” says Weishaupt. “The world is unpredictable, and it’s mostly about remaining calm, steady, and having the courage to pivot from [initial] strategies to meet new opportunities and challenges.”
How often individuals decide to come into the office will depend on employees’ needs and what role the office plays for each worker. Anne-Laure Fayard, an associate professor of Innovation, Design, and Organizational Studies at NYU’s Tandon School of engineering, says it’s about thinking about the office as an evolving space, rather than assuming it’s intractable and fixed.
“Modularity is essential. [Companies can] think about ways to allow small groups to informally connect in a semi-private space,” she says. “[But] it’s key to think about how to combine the physical and the virtual experiences and make sure that both groups have an inclusive experience.”
For many, the office is still a useful place. After all, offices—like schools and other places people spend much of their time—serve as an integral gathering spot or hub, even only a fraction of workers are coming in each day.
How small this fraction will be will vary by company. For workers whose home environment is too crowded or distracting, the office is a great place to get work done, and offers the benefits of in-person connection.
Fayard says she’s heard of a manager in the finance industry who’s “looking forward to going to the office to do head’s-down work,” because he has two small children at home. From her point of view, it’s not so much about “which parts [of the office] to keep or not, but mostly how the office can…nurture relationships, informal learning, unstructured collaboration, and serendipitous encounters.” These tenets of great company culture make the office space worth it, she says, no matter how much workers can get done remotely.
Even the much-derided open office style can have a new life, with some company leaders restyling the familiar long rows of monitors and scrunched queues of workers to incorporate more intimate, group-friendly areas. Fayard refers to this reinvention to include more “principles of closeness and individual spaces,” such as through specialized “neighborhoods,” differently-sized meeting rooms, and quiet areas, like phone booths, for tasks that require intense focus.