The new hybrid office – what will it look like and how will you fit?

30th December 2020 Off By Vanessa Tierney

2020 revealed cracks in the world of work as we knew it, and paved the way for a more agile workforce that could work from home, in the office, in a co-working space – or a blend of all three. Now, the buzzword on everyone’s lips is ‘hybrid’: but what will the new hybrid workplace really look like?

Twitter were the first to nail their colours to the mast: back in the spring of 2020 they said that their employees could now work from home forever if they wanted to. Of course, Covid was the catalyst, but remote-working advocates pointed out that what Twitter – and then a multitude of other brands who jumped on board – were doing was merely accelerating the inevitable.

High-speed internet and a suite of robust tech tools have meant for some years that people could work from anywhere – as Abodoo clients will readily attest. When millions of people were forced into doing so, there really was no going back.

The hybrid office – a bit of this, a bit of that

Over the past few months, studies and surveys have shown that the majority of workers don’t want to abandon the office completely. They want to work in the office for a couple of days a week, work at home a few days and then take the weekend off. It’s been termed the ‘3-2-2’ approach: three days in the office, two at home and then Saturday and Sunday in the garden.

But hubs and co-working spaces have proliferated too, and many a remote worker rather likes spending the odd day in the company of others at a local co-working space as well as their home office. The final ratio might end up being more of a 1-2-2-2, then. Whatever it turns out to be, flexibility is the way forward, and the new workforce for many organisations will be a hybrid version of what they once knew, with a blend of in-office and WFH employees.

How will the hybrid workforce actually function?

If that’s the back story, the next bit is where it all gets a bit more complex. Because no one, really, knows how this hybrid team is going to function – or what it is going to look like. Depending on who you speak to, the 2020 lockdowns were cast-iron proof that anyone could work from home with no discernible drop in productivity… or a barely-tolerable necessity in which those involved would like to avoid at all costs in the future.

What’s important to reiterate, however, is that for most firms, there’s no going back. Pandora’s box has been opened. People want to mix it up, and they like the idea of this new ‘hybrid’ thing. Why wouldn’t they?

For managers and HR, though, the hybrid workforce represents a multitude of challenges. These include:

* How to actually ‘manage’ a team that isn’t always there in the office.

* How to get employees who are in the office to play nicely (so to speak) with their colleagues who work from home. No manager wants a ‘two-tier’ system to develop.

* How to keep remote workers ‘on brand’ and supportive of company values and vision.

* How to stop remote workers from feeling isolated and, worse still, developing mental health issues.

Rewriting the workplace rule book

Companies large and small are trying to come up with ways to answer the above questions, many of them rewriting the rule book so that their new hybrid team can operate effectively. There are tech solutions that have sprung up to help – some of them trying to replicate the ‘in person’ experience via virtual reality headsets.

Among the options are platforms which map users’ faces onto a 3D digital avatar. So long as participants are using a Hololens or Oculus Quest VR headset, they can then enter a virtual meeting and look around at colleagues. But is the world really ready to embrace VR headsets as part of the ‘going to work’ experience?

Ericsson, in its new ‘The Dematerialized Office’ report thinks that sensory immersion like this might be on its way – but not yet. In the not-too-distant future (we’re maybe a decade off, according to an article in CNBC), lightweight AR headsets that you can see through and, therefore, wear all the time will be more readily available, but until that point, you may struggle to convince managers of a large organisation to invest in a thousand VR headsets (at hundreds of Euros a go) for his/her dispersed team members.

It is precisely because of this obstacle that Yonderdesk – full disclosure: an Abodoo partner – went down a much less fiddly route. Director Ben Wainwright reasoned that few remote workers would want to wear a VR headset for a meeting, and set about creating a platform where in-office and at-home workers could feel a sense of togetherness (the ‘being there’ aspect especially important for the at-home cohort) without any wires or expensive gadgetry.

Picture a digital floorplan designed to mirror a business’ existing office and an avatar for every employee – whether at home or in the office – and you get the idea. Remote workers can be given their own space (be that a room or a desk) in the office, and everyone can see at a glance who is where, who’s doing what, who’s in a meeting with who and more. Demonstrations with new clients are going down extremely well – watch this space.

Microsoft, who knows a thing or two about tech, came at things from a similar angle when they introduced a new ‘Together’ mode for Teams, which superimposes participants’ faces onto a shared picture (such as a conference room). It doesn’t do much more than that, but it’s a nod to how much we value that sense of ‘being there’ even when we’re not.

The offices of tomorrow

What’s under no doubt is that the offices of the world are in the throes of some serious change. Ericsson’s report envisions huge disruption by the year 2030, with such things as a digital workstation that transforms with each task, a virtual cake from a colleague that you can even taste and the ability for people to visit stores and warehouses virtually.

The first of these three predictions will be facilitated by a new “internet of senses” – which all sounds pretty exciting – and the idea behind it seems to be that at-home workers want the in-office experience (birthday cake, coffee smells) without actually going into the office.

In fact, a survey of more than 8,000 people for the Ericsson study found that respondents wanted to see the business they work for investing in employees’ own home offices rather than fancy corporate HQs.

Like it or not, online video meetings are here to stay – almost 60 percent of people see an increase in these on a permanent basis. Side note: anticipating this was why Yonderdesk invested time and energy into making its video meeting experience more user-friendly than other big-name options and introduced useful features such as a virtual hand-raise. It helps to minimize all those annoying ‘everyone butting in at once’ moments.

Hybrid offices – a positive change

Offsetting all this misery of more and more video conferences is the news that hybrid workforces will be good for the environment, according to Ericsson’s report. Virtual offices, of course, reduce the need for so many people to commute in.

In the short term, we’re in uncharted waters – managers and HR leaders have never truly had to grapple with this conundrum before. Their goal today is to work out what will be the best solution for them and their teams, ideally seeking out an answer that will foster collaboration, reduce feelings of isolation, maintain an equilibrium between in-office workers and those based at home and, of course, maximise productivity.

Like it or lump it, managers need to accept that the hybrid office is here to stay. For employees, that can only be a good thing. This strange, new, rather exciting blend of what we once knew and what we really want out of life is finally there for the taking.