Modern Life

How the new hybrid office will adapt to you

Devices designed for hybrid work combine the ease of working from home with the value of in-person collaboration.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — January 25, 2023

An employee on a hybrid schedule walks into a conference room on an in-office day with her laptop in tow. The display and speaker in the room connect to her computer automatically, greet her by name, and the lights dim to her preference. There’s no fumbling with equipment or IT pro on hand. The call starts with the click of a button or simple voice command.

The screen fills with faces of attendees in the room and joining remotely — everyone appears in the same sized box on screen. Afterwards, the employee finds a hot desk for quiet work. As she approaches, the desk lifts to the exact position for her height. It’s the new era of hybrid work, one where employees want a customized experience in the office and an environment that feels as convenient and comfortable as whatever setup they have at home. 

“During the pandemic, people figured out how to have optimal work settings at home,” says Beau Wilder, global head of future customer experiences, hybrid work solutions at HP. “Now, we’re bringing these optimal setups back to the office. The onus is on companies to adapt to their workers versus the other way around.” 

Research shows a majority of employees (72%) want a consistent, uniform experience between their remote and in-office work setups. Companies are finding that staying competitive in a job market where workers still have ample choice requires adapting the office to employee preferences, with work experiences that feel seamless, inclusive, and engaging for those on-site and off. 

“In this workforce revolution, the workplace you create is now a defining differentiator,” says Joe Galvin, chief research officer at executive coaching organization Vistage International.

From generic to bespoke

Until recently, hybrid has been mostly about scheduling — working at home on some days and in the office on others. Now, it’s evolving into a more cohesive experience, customized to employees’ preferences and designed to create the best of both worlds. New and emerging technology is critical to this transformation and to helping organizations “earn the commute.”

“For the actual office space, that means moving forward with spaces designed to accommodate people both in and out of the office,” says Alanah Mitchell, associate professor and chair of information management and business analytics at Drake University. “Maybe we have to completely rethink what the office space looks like.”

The new bespoke experience means an employee’s laptop could function as their entry badge, so that their work identity (and all the tech that comes with it) is portable. It also communicates with everything from office furniture to lighting so the office experience is customized to the employee’s comfort. “That space becomes theirs without them having to do anything,” says Wilder.

Andy Rhodes, senior vice president and general manager of hybrid work solutions at HP, notes that successfully navigating transitions — from home to the train to the office, for example — is also important for hybrid workers. 

Bluetooth headset systems or wireless earbuds can help them move from place to place while taking important calls, while accessories like the newly released HP 710 Rechargeable Silent Mouse and the HP 350 Compact Multi-Device Bluetooth Keyboard allow for easy switches between devices while maintaining custom settings and preferences.

“Employees don’t have to lose productivity when they transition,” Rhodes says.

From remote to emotive

Technology can effectively bring all workers into the same space or workflow for efficient, immersive, and inclusive collaboration — no matter where they are. 

Research shows that meeting in person can lead to more creative ideas over video calls. So, whatever companies can do to make hybrid meetings feel more in-person and authentic for everyone involved is key.

“The onus is on companies to adapt to their workers versus the other way around.”

— Beau Wilder, global head of future customer experiences, hybrid work solutions at HP

For remote employees, one hurdle has been so-called in-room bias, a phenomenon that happens when in-office colleagues in the same physical space tend to dominate a meeting. Technology that gives remote employees a richer experience from afar and a more “present” presence with colleagues in the office creates a better balance.

More companies will equip conference rooms with large monitors so attendees in the room can easily see the faces of workers attending remotely. Large monitors can even allow for life-sized images of remote attendees, growing their stature in the room.

“It’s no longer good enough just to be able to see everyone in the conference room,” says Rhodes. “It’s about making sure that everyone shows up in an equitable fashion.”

During video calls, remote workers get better video and sound through meeting displays like the Poly Studio P21, which includes a screen, camera, microphone, speakers, and lighting. Poly’s AI-driven camera frames speakers individually so everyone — in the room and at home — shows up on screen in their own frame. Cameras automatically identify and focus on active speakers and can follow speakers in real time as they write on a whiteboard or show a prop.

“It's about bringing everybody up close and personal so we can all read each other’s facial expressions and body language,” Wilder says. “That’s so critical to make sure we’re connecting on a human level.”

That level of connection also requires eliminating distractions so everyone can see and hear each other clearly and focus on the work at hand no matter where they are.

Poly's Acoustic Fence blocks ambient noises outside conference rooms in-office, while NoiseBlockAI makes sure extra noise in the conference room — like the hum of an AC — doesn’t overwhelm remote participants. Acoustic Fence technology also helps remote workers using headsets keep kitchen appliances or noisy dogs inaudible during meetings to focus on the speaker, not the noise.

With a physical whiteboard, remote participants’ view can sometimes be obscured. Whiteboard Owl renders presenters transparent when they’re at a whiteboard so remote participants can clearly see. Notes are also captured in real time.

Owl Labs’ Meeting Owl 3, a 360-degree camera, microphone, and speaker system creates split-screen video feeds that help remote employees experience the room in the same way as those sitting in it. For example, the system can place a remote attendee on screen in between two in-room attendees talking, creating more of a feeling of in-the-room participation for those joining from home.

Illustrations by Satwika Kresna

From dispersed to immersed

Optimizing the office for hybrid work will not only require these types of new technologies, but it also means reconfiguring conference rooms for better hybrid meetings. For instance, in-person attendees might need to sit in a row to be captured on camera instead of facing each other seated around a table. Technology that makes use of all the cameras in a room makes it possible for remote workers to choose who they want to see close-up by clicking on the person’s image. 

“It’s like being able to direct the movie,” Rhodes says.

Holograms or 3D digital likeness technology can bring employees working remotely into a conference room to present. Additionally 3D holograms of shared screens, avatars that can detect and reflect body language and facial expressions, and of course, virtual reality, create new ways of collaborating virtually while maintaining the emotional connections of in-person interactions. With Meta Horizon Workrooms, for example, team members collaborate using virtual whiteboards while wearing a VR headset or joining from a regular video call.

To be successful, Gavin says, companies have to prioritize technology training as they continue to adapt their office spaces for employees. "We need technology that improves the experience for digital participants when they’re the minority," he says. “It’s a changed dynamic, and I do think that it’s going to unleash workforce productivity.”

Mitchell sees more companies embracing these types of immersive and collaborative technologies over the next several years, and also expects advances in managing hybrid work calendars and in tools to help people expand their professional networks. 

“This may be the most innovative decade for collaboration technology,” she says.

 

READ MORE: How to make the most of in-person meetings for hybrid employees