Redesigning Your Spaces to Enable a Smooth Return to Office

January’s headlines have been filled with companies compelling their workers to return to the office. For example, News Corp’s CEO Robert Thomson remarked: “Attendance is an absolute imperative... The spontaneity and serendipity of a dynamic office environment are crucial in creating and in iterating, so in-office attendance is vital to our future success.”

But while executives are eager to have everyone together again, many employees are reluctant to forgo the flexibility of remote work. Setting aside complaints around commute costs or concerns about childcare, employees remain vocal that they feel more productive at home.

It’s likely that some employees feel they’re more productive at home because their last onsite experience was lackluster. As compared to executives working onsite, Individual Contributors (ICs) have seen ~40% fewer close collaborators when they’ve tried returning to the office. For those returning to buzzing offices where colleagues are also back in-seat, we’ve seen a rise in complaints about noise levels and a lack of meeting rooms.

The RTO Paradox

With return-to-office (RTO) mandates, many executives are imploring employees to come back to work in the office just like they did before COVID, without fully appreciating how employees’ office time has fundamentally changed.

For an individual employee, the hybrid work model means it’s less likely that you’re in the office with all of your peers on the same day. As a result, even when you come into the office, you’ll still need to be on video conference calls for most of your meetings to connect with colleagues located elsewhere.

The challenge is that your office is most likely open plan, which wasn’t designed for a workday centered on hybrid collaboration. On many teams, it’s inconsiderate (or at least against team norms) to be on Zoom calls in an open-plan space. So, you’ll need to use a telephone booth to dial into that Zoom meeting… but so does everyone else. If the telephone booths are full, you’ll need to duck into a meeting room… but, again, so does everyone else. So you end up with a “Choose Your Own Adventure” where you can: (a) use a 10+ person conference room to take a Zoom call by yourself, (b) resort to taking your call in the corridor, or (c) suck it up and dial-in from the open-plan space, averting your eyes from the dirty looks of your now-distracted deskmates.

Net-net: It’s become a headache to figure out how to get work done in the office. So many of us would prefer to continue working from home where we control the noise, we can join a Zoom call whenever we want, and we don’t have to deal with the mental (and physical!) load of picking up our laptop and shuffling to a new space every hour.

Cracking the Code

Employees are telling us that their needs have evolved and our workspaces must catch up. To address those concerns, we’re seeing a handful of companies take a data-driven approach to workspace design – moving beyond surveys and occupancy analyses to marry physical and digital collaboration data to understand how work is really getting done.

Recently, we partnered with a global technology company to determine how they could redesign their HQ campus to better support how people are working in the office today. Before the pandemic, working collaboratively on a project meant meeting up in-person to whiteboard and discuss ideas. But since employees returned over the summer, they’ve seen some of this activity shift online, particularly as the team has become more distributed geographically. They came to us hoping to understand what a typical day at the office looks like now, whether their “anchor day” onsite policy made sense in practice, and how they might entice more people to return to campus.

To get our arms around the problem, we combined HRIS information with aggregated badge & work data to get a better picture of how people were actually collaborating. By combining physical proximity with digital frequency, we could then begin to understand and predict how meeting rooms were being utilized, which areas of HQ were highest occupancy, and how closely concentrated collaborators were with one another.

Combine space & work data to understand how people work in the office

Once we had all the data in one place, we ran analyses by building, floor, and meeting room to see when areas were under- and over-capacity. Plotting those findings by daypart let us understand what times of day were the big “pinch points” where employees were struggling to find meeting rooms or being asked to shuffle between buildings / floors repeatedly. With a holistic view of how work is being done, we could then help the client’s Workspace Design team prioritize which spaces to focus on first and which interventions to test based on the data.

Poor utilization of existing meeting rooms

With this client, we found that many large conference rooms were being underutilized. It was common to see 10+ person conference rooms half full, with a handful of people in-person dialed into a video call to connect with the rest of the group on Zoom. Based on the data, we recommended the client refashion about half of their larger conference rooms to create smaller 3-4 person meeting rooms and add in more individual booths for focus time.

Recommend changes to spaces to accommodate trends

One of the key problems customers face is "friction" in implementing their return to office strategy. They implement a flexible strategy and ask people to come in at least a few days. But people have a poor in-office experience because the space makes it hard to work and/or the colleagues with whom they collaborate most closely aren’t around. If they don’t feel their time in the office is valuable, employees will come in less... which exacerbates the problem, leading to even lower in-office density, even more Zoom calls, and inconsistent on-campus overlap with peers.

This reinforcing loop is a major challenge for many organizations that have implemented flexible RTO strategies.

So how do you fix it? Remove the friction! Work rhythms have changed due to an increasingly hybrid workforce; work spaces must now change to meet those new needs. Some questions you’ll want to consider:

  • How is your office space integrating onsite and remote workers? How do you need to adjust your meeting facilities to account for intra-team Zoom calls?
  • How do you ensure hybrid workers feel a sense of belonging when they’re in the office? What’s your approach to hoteling workstations versus named desks?
  • Are you confident that employees being compelled to return onsite will be able to remain productive in your current space? Do you have the right mix of conference rooms, breakout spaces, telephone booths, and lounge zones to support your peak periods?
Understand how people communicate between buildings

Once you’ve built a plan, you’ll also want to communicate it thoughtfully. No one wants to waste time searching for a meeting room, so be upfront with employees around the problem that you’re trying to solve, the solution that you’re testing, and how you’ll measure if that solution is working. We heard of one company that was posting its “Zoom room” stats so everyone could see what % of the day large conference rooms were being used for video calls. In our experience, employees appreciate hearing that you’re piloting changes based on real data.

How’s your company workspace feeling right now? Has your office design changed post-pandemic or does it feel pretty much the same?

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