Modern Life

Hybrid is here and the office will never be the same

The permanently hybrid workforce is a seismic shift from what came before. Innovative companies must reimagine what it means to go forward to work and build a productive, creative, future-proofed workforce.

By Heidi Mitchell — March 10, 2022

Think back on the past two years: A sudden lockdown. A never-ending series of pivots. Plans to return to the office. Plans scrapped. A brief reprieve with the introduction of vaccines — followed by new variants. And at last, a vision of the future that accepts this virus as a fixture of our lives, one that requires new thinking, novel approaches, and creative strategies. Because, let’s face it, hybrid isn’t temporary. This paradigm shift is permanent.

But what about the office?

The office was once the place that gave us much of our professional identity and a sense of belonging to something larger. And while productivity has gone way up in the past two years (58% of executives report improvements in individual productivity across their organizations), working from home works great for some people, and not so great for others.

The pitfalls can be countless: There is the loss of professional interaction, new employees who aren’t learning the nitty-gritty of how to complete tasks in an office environment, the difficulty of making work friends, a lack of flexibility from bosses and managers, and the list goes on. Just look to the Great Resignation for how challenging hybrid work can be. From the start of the pandemic through November 2021, more than 3.9 million workers quit their jobs each month on average, far above typical levels. That mass exodus is a clear sign that people are seeking a workplace that fits their needs, schedules, and values.

Illustrations by Peter Arkle

For companies that don’t get hybrid “right,” the stakes are high. They risk hemorrhaging talent amid this moment of low unemployment and high job demand. They also risk not attracting the type of future hires who will help their firms grow.

But this is not a moment for panic; it’s a time to reimagine the workplace, from physical buildings to ongoing learning to the interactions that help workers thrive — all enabled by technology.

As organizations look to formalize a hybrid model that works best for them, the most successful are operating much like entrepreneurs: testing out ideas and spaces, redesigning the hiring process, and listening to employees’ concerns and needs.

Why the office

Recent studies have shown that 61% of employees want to work from home three days a week. But still, many are itching to see their colleagues in real life. Research has also shown that 87% of workers feel that the office is critically important for building a sense of community and collaboration. “People miss those informal chats with coworkers,” says Tammy Allen, a professor of industrial-organizational psychology at the University of South Florida. “They want to come to the office not just to get a break from the kids, but to have those human connections.” As Molly Fischer wrote in New York magazine, “I miss ducking into empty conference rooms to debrief. I miss being told to shut the door.”

But not everyone is going to get what they want all the time. An employee who has a large house, a home office, and doesn’t lament their hour-and-a-half commute might feel differently about what they need from the office than someone who is working from their bed or living room sofa in a small space or has multiple roommates or children.

A Gen Z employee who started their job remotely might not want to go into the office ever because they enjoy the flexibility, while a midcareer employee might be missing the ability to get work done in a focused environment free of leaf blowers and Amazon deliveries, as well as their office culture and work friends. “We make a lot of assumptions about what ‘home’ is for people,” says Lisa Finkelstein, a professor of social and industrial organizational psychology at Northern Illinois University, “but there are so many variables.” 

The key is to optimize the office so it nurtures, engages, and is fluid and flexible. Successful hybrid offices need to create a culture where remote and in-person workers don’t operate within a two-tier system, where those who get in-person time are first class citizens while those working from home are considered to be literally “phoning it in.” 

To get to that sweet spot of productivity and a sense of belonging, leaders need to arrange their hybrid workforce so that the office doesn’t mimic the work-from-home experience. “We want people to feel like a commute is worthwhile, that it provides enjoyable connections with coworkers,” Allen says. 

Thought has to go into why leaders are bringing people into the office, what they hope will happen during those in-person days, and what the markers of success should be. Employees are increasingly saying that the office is the preferred space for all sorts of work and tasks, including collaboration and deep thinking. Before teams come in, there should be a plan for what activities they are doing together.

© Garrett Rowland, Design by Gensler

Spaces designed to encourage virtual and in-person collaboration, original art (here, a mural by Mosher and Sentrock), and specified outdoor areas are redefining office life.

“You can’t just say, hey, this came up, let’s go to the conference room,” says Robin S. Rosenberg, CEO and founder of Live in Their World, a program to upskill employees to address issues of bias, respect, and other soft skills. “People should come to the office to be acculturated, particularly new hires; for team deepening; for collaborative work; or just to have chance encounters.” 

Loretta Li-Sevilla, head of Future of Work, Collaboration, and Business Incubation at HP, explains that the office’s key role will be as a place that builds a sense of community and drives collaboration. 

That means creating spaces for quiet, individual work and others for collaboration; making sure that hot desks are bookable and confirmed by IT to be in optimal working order; offering activities like cooking classes or yoga that serve to foster fellowship; and even possibly providing childcare on-site or expanding commuter credits. 

“You want to give people a reason to come into the office,” Li-Sevilla says.

Employee-first managing and hiring

To build the best workplace experience, everything — from creating camaraderie and energy to driving innovation and retaining talent — must be centered around the employee. Experts agree that hybrid work has to be formalized, with rules for email response times, Slack-use cases, Zoom cameras, hours on the clock, and every other minor detail we never thought about, so there is no room for ambiguity.

Illustrations by Peter Arkle

Smart hiring managers can build unique workflows around specific roles. Technology enables companies to offer contextual and personalized work experiences so that employees feel nurtured and heard and have schedules that accommodate their needs. “Someone who is a big power user, like an engineer, has different needs than a support person who may be interacting with clients all day, versus a knowledge worker,” Li-Sevilla explains. “Everybody’s looking for the best place to work. And if they find companies that aren’t flexible, they’re going to go and find another company.”

Approaching hybrid work from an employee-centric perspective will ensure that everyone feels a sense of professional identity both at home and in the office and will result in talent that self-selects into companies that align with their values and career goals. 

 

Learn more: 4 ways to make your hybrid meetings more effective.

 

Rosenberg, who leads workshops on respect in the workplace, says everyone needs to be open — and trained — to think differently about work, most especially leaders. Engaging in regular one-on-one meetings with direct reports is critical even if you have nothing specific to discuss, to learn about their career goals, connect them with a mentor, or just to listen. 

“People want to know that their bosses are paying attention to what they are doing well and that they’re paying attention to career development,” says Northern Illinois University’s Finkelstein. “Leaders should devote the same amount of time to people whether they are only online or in person so that they don’t start to feel that they are hitting ‘the Zoom Ceiling’”— when home workers are being passed up because they aren’t being recognized for their work. Such a scenario is more likely to affect women, people of color, and people with disabilities.

Remote workers’ fears aren’t unfounded: One survey showed that they are promoted at a rate roughly half that of their in-office counterparts.

“The successful manager of the past was all about making sure that you’re overseeing the output of the team,” Li-Sevilla says. “Now, the best managers are empathetic and have the social skills and emotional intelligence to be able to network.”

When everyone moves forward to work, they should expect a completely new breed of office. Designer Todd Heiser, co–managing director of the Chicago office of Gensler, a global architecture and design firm, says we should not be looking to the old office for inspiration.

The key is to optimize the office so it nurtures, engages, and is fluid and flexible.

“Let’s put the ‘place’ back in ‘workplace,’” he says. Talent, he argues, wants a workplace that provides a platform to thrive, putting flexibility, connectivity, and equity at the forefront.

“Thoughtful spaces plus smart technology should amplify the benefits of being in a room together. If we model the workplace on places of learning, we’ll hit it out of the park,” he says. 

That means thinking about the office as having “amenities” that aren’t consumable but that foster growth, such as spaces that act like college quads, yoga studios, test kitchens, and artist-in-residence rooms. That means no longer optimizing square feet but optimizing flexibility. “We have these ‘jump spaces’ in our Palo Alto headquarters that might be used for informal meetings but may be located in social areas, the cafeteria, or even outside on the patio,” notes Li-Sevilla. “We roll in mobile carts, and our technology binds everyone—both in the office and at home—all together.”

HP recently announced a collaboration with ROOM for a prefabricated office space that is purpose built for hybrid workplaces and outfitted with an HP Collaboration All-in-One PC with built-in webcam. It’s pre-installed with Zoom Rooms software, a sit/stand desk, a whiteboard, lighting for video conferencing, and walls made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate engineered to reduce outside noise. But that same room could also be a place for silent thinking or even meditation.

© Gensler and dwg

Employees will interact in areas like this roof terrace in an office building in East Austin, Texas.

Other design features that can accelerate serendipity, says Gensler’s Heiser, are open stairwells, lobbies that contain multiple spaces like a café or lounge, on-site public gardens, and terraces or roof decks. “Anything that spurs spontaneous contact will lead to some great conversations,” he says. Conversation can be engineered, notes Rosenberg, through “forced serendipity” like professional “speed dating” at lunch.

Increasingly, the smartest companies are adopting entrepreneurial practices when reconsidering the office. “Our most astute clients are thinking about the next one to five years as an amazing opportunity to test and experiment,” Heiser says. Now that we know that no one knows what the future is going to look like, he says, “maybe we don’t aim for the solution but we instead use this as a time to prototype.”

Tech as the backbone

Building the ultimate hybrid workspaces where people can connect, grow, and carve out a career requires hardware and software to pull all the pieces together.

“Technology plays a key role, especially around collaboration, because it’s important to enable anybody, no matter where they’re working, to feel like their well-being is a priority for their employer,” says Li-Sevilla. She notes that more companies are likely to adopt agile frameworks where team structures are based on projects, rather than on more traditional organizational structures. This will require upskilled leaders who are attuned to individual needs and drivers and can clearly communicate expectations — from transition time between back-to-back meetings to whether cameras are on or off during meetings.

With most employees owning several devices, companies need to consider 24-hour IT departments that can quick-fix in real time, video-enabled rooms optimized for hybrid teams, portals for workroom bookings, as-a-service models, even deployed technicians to tweak home offices.

High-quality audio and video are also now critical to get workers in the same virtual space, whether for social or professional meetups.

HP Presence Meeting Space Solutions are a suite of conferencing products and services for everything from a small huddle to a large meeting room, including an audio/video bar and a smart 4K camera with an HP Auto Framer to bring only meeting attendees into view as well as speaker tracking that follows the speakers in the room. HP Presence technology also enhances PCs and displays, recognizing that remote workers want to look and sound as good as those who are in person. Tools like these allow home workers to be as engaged in a meeting as someone at the office.

As we move forward to a permanent hybrid workforce, companies should listen to employees and provide what they need to succeed, be it technology, a safe space, soft skills, or even some fun.

“By asking what workers need, an organization is sending a signal that they care, that they want them to stay,” says Finkelstein. “That makes all the difference.”

Illustration by Peter Arkle

Building the ultimate hybrid workspaces where people can connect, grow, and carve out a career requires hardware and software to pull all the pieces together.

Tech at the heart of hybrid

Even before the current shift in how and where we work, HP created tools and technology for all workers, whether they are mobile, remote, or in the office. For 2022, new features such as AI-adjusted audio, smart cameras, bigger displays, and future-proofed designs mean these products make it easy to move seamlessly between remote and hybrid work.

HP Presence Audio Video Bar includes a 36-inch camera with 5X zoom and four unidirectional mics with a pickup range of nearly 20 feet, part of the new HP Presence Meeting Space Solutions, a suite of conferencing products and services that takes collaboration to new heights with AI-adjusted audio and cinema-quality video. HP Presence is the world’s first conferencing solution that contains ocean-bound plastic.

HP Z2 Mini G9 workstation measures just 8.3 x 2.7 x 8.6 inches. Inside that small space you’ll find next-gen Intel Core processors, including K-Series, DDR5 RAM, PCIe Gen4 SSD storage, and low-profile NVIDIA RTX professional graphics. It’s a technology solution ideal for architects, graphic designers, and anyone involved in 2D and 3D workflows.

HP Elite Dragonfly G3 is the world’s lightest and most powerful premium notebook, and it will even help you look good, too. The G3 includes AI features like an “appearance filter” to tweak your video feed and reduce noise. It has 12th-generation Intel processors that support the vPro platform.

HP ENVY Inspire 7955e is designed with home users in mind. A quiet mode assures that others sharing a home office won’t be disturbed, and it is compatible with Chromebooks, especially helpful given their popularity with schools and educators. HP+ is included, providing six months of Instant Ink and an extra year of warranty.

HP ENVY Desktop PC is a multipurpose favorite, suited to everything from emails and streaming to serious video editing and design tasks. The updated model for 2022 is future-proofed, taking a cue from HP’s OMEN PCs and laptops that make it easy to upgrade memory, storage, and graphics. It comes with the HP Palette digital workspace, which includes Duet for HP and QuickDrop.

HP Z40c G3 Curved UHD Display is part of HP’s series of Z monitors, known for their craftsmanship and carefully calibrated color, ideal for everything from design tasks to conferencing. The new WUHD display is bigger than the earlier monitors in the series, with a 40-inch diagonal screen and 5120 x 2160 resolution.