Over the past two years, a lot has changed about the ways we work. According to Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index, even the “why” of work has shifted, as employees now have great expectations when it comes to what they get out of work and what they’re willing to give in return.
In my mind, the most compelling finding is that the employees who went home to work in 2020 aren’t the same employees coming back to the office in 2022. To be successful well into the future, employers need to get reacquainted with their people and strike a balance as they strive to find a new normal.
From an employee’s perspective, the notion of flexibility is anything but flexible—it’s become non-negotiable. While many organizations prepare to reopen their doors and welcome employees back, others are left questioning the value of the office. And who can blame them? After two years, we didn’t just survive remote work—we got pretty good at it.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to be gained from an office—quite the opposite. Our research shows it plays a critical role in strengthening workplace relationships, satisfaction, and engagement. Not to mention the ways it facilitates problem solving and innovation.
Related: Putting wellness over work
But achieving these benefits in a hybrid world isn’t a given. Getting it right requires flexibility, new norms and radical intentionality. For example, I might still be going into the office most days – but at what time and who I’ll see there will flex based on my team’s needs and the type of work I need to tackle that day.
So much about how we work has changed—shouldn’t the office, too?
Rethinking the office starts with intentionality
Faced with constantly evolving conditions, organizations have been stuck in the “messy middle” of hybrid—not quite fully remote, not quite fully hybrid. And employees are feeling the pain. Half (51%) of hybrid employees are considering a switch to fully remote in the next year, which indicates they’re not yet convinced they really need to head into the office to get work done.
One of the biggest frustrations employees cite is ambiguity. More than one-third (38%) don’t know when or why to come into the office, yet only 28% of organizations have created team agreements that help answer those fundamental questions. In clarifying the “who, why and where” of in-person gathering, leaders set their people and teams up for success.
The ‘who’ of the office
At its best, the office is a place for in-person collaboration, team building and serendipitous connection. At its worst, employees navigate the rush hour commute only to find themselves alone in a sea of cubicles, joining video calls all day and missing the convenience of being down the hall from their refrigerator.
Much of the value of the office lies in the magic of human connection – and that magic requires more planning in a hybrid world. Coordinating at the team level, or across key partner groups, maximizes the value of in-office time. For example, parts of my team are going to try making “Team Thursdays” a priority (yet entirely optional) in-office day to help achieve critical mass and recreate some of what we lost in remote work. We’re also making it a best practice to indicate whether we’ll be in-person or remote when RSVPing for meetings, and clearly designating on calendars when we’ll be at home, in the office, or in transit.
The ‘why’ of the office
Historically, the office was where employees would go to punch the clock. Today, it’s up to leaders to ensure the office is additive to the employee experience – one that makes them feel productive and connected. Managers should work with their teams to define the best ways, times, and occasions to come together in person.
For some teams, this might mean prioritizing team connection to rebuild bonds or help new hires feel immersed in team culture. Others might prioritize in-person time for creative brainstorming or solving complex problems. And this will likely vary between hybrid and remote employees as well—hybrid employees could commute to weekly team meetings, while their remote colleagues may visit the office only once a quarter for team planning ‘on-sites.’
The ‘where’ of the office
While the office of the past was a purely physical destination, today, leaders must place equal weight and focus on the digital and physical office experience.
The meeting room of 2020 was centered on the in-person experience. In hybrid, we’re designing for those not in the room–giving everyone a seat at the table. Reorienting in-room seating to face the video display places participants face-to-face. AI-powered camera technology creates individual video streams for everyone at the physical table, adjusting in real time as people move around the room, and zooming in on those speaking. Designating someone to moderate the chat, watch for raised hands and those coming off mute helps ensure every voice is heard.
Making the hybrid office work isn’t just about getting back in a shared physical space—it’s about getting in a shared headspace. Leaders will need to be intentional about fostering connection, creating team agreements, and rethinking the physical space. It will require new norms and flexibility to adapt and learn along the way. The office isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution anymore—and I believe that’s a good thing.
Jared Spataro, a corporate vice president at Microsoft, heads the company’s Modern Work team, which is looking at the future of work and the technologies that will get us there. His team also works to deliver new products and features within Microsoft 365.