How to design hybrid workspaces for organisational agility

Article – 9th May 2024

2024 revealed a continuation of the push-pull frictions between employers wanting staff back in the office and employees remaining reluctant to relinquish the enhanced work-life balance that homeworking provides.

We may be beyond the worst of COVID-19, but its fallout is ongoing and remains a headache for most business leaders.

For all employers, reaching a state of optimal hybrid remains a huge challenge, not least as the UK is experiencing its most tightly squeezed labour market in decades. The ONS has reported a significant rise in the number of people of working age now classified as economically inactive[i], with approximately 200,000 people between the ages of 45 and 59 falling into this category. On top of post-Brexit migratory losses and a gradually ageing population, hiring and retaining staff has become increasingly problematic across all industries and sectors.

To add insult to injury, successive survey data shows that UK workers are unwilling to compromise on hybrid – they’ll up sticks and switch employer in the quest to find their ideal hybrid work preference.

In 2022, Internet technology leader Cisco surveyed 28,000 full-time staff working across 27 markets to better understand hybrid work preferences. It discovered a staggering 71% of workers wanted a mix of homeworking and office working moving forward, with only 8.6% wanting a return to the office full time[ii]. The same research revealed six out of ten reporting the quality of their work to have improved and their productivity to have increased as a result of working remotely. Almost 80% reported improved work-life balance, citing flexible working schedules and reduced commuting times as causal factors.

This data reflects the pre-COVID uptick in demand for more flexible ways of working across the knowledge economy at large.

For organisations who own their real estate or who have invested heavily in post-pandemic office redesign, this reality is problematic.

How does an organisation balance fixed asset ROI with a workforce set on working at least part of the week remotely?

How to design hybrid workspaces for organisational agility ​

And more importantly, how does an organisation successfully encourage its staff back to the office without being misconstrued as overbearing, dogmatic and uncompromising?

As with all aspects of business life in the 2020s, there’s no one simple answer. The complexity of hyperconnected globalised markets has given rise to very different attitudes towards work, most of which are highly individualistic. We’re at the end of one-size-fits-all employment.

On the other hand, those employers willing to adapt to the new world of work will yield significant gains in the near term. By committing to the delivery of a richer employee experience and leaning in to decentralised planning, ambitious firms will naturally attract higher quality talent, avoid unnecessary and costly staff churn and enjoy the benefit of highly motivated teams.

And it’s this holy grail of high staff engagement that will augment business resilience. Committed co-workers will naturally leverage their collaboration skills to collectively problem-solve the many thorny market challenges that the 21st Century presents.  

Reaching a state of optimal hybrid is the first step on the pathway to organisational agility and business sustainability within the future work landscape. All agile success is, of course, contingent on the readiness of those involved to shift activity fluidly and adaptively. It relies on engagement and motivation.

Creating working conditions that help staff successfully manage their boundaries when working remotely, while curating compelling in-office experiences that underscore team effectiveness, is the new leadership prerequisite.

In the post-pandemic world, we need to think differently about the office and what we do when we convene there. Leveraging the best of recent discoveries in the fields of psychology, neuroscience and behavioural economics, we need to redesign work so that it works for the many, rather than the few.

In a Times article published in February 2023, London Business School Professor of Management Practice Lynda Gratton shared her thoughts for organisations struggling to adapt to the hybrid work era[iii]. Having studied the future of work for at least a decade, her advice was straightforward – to focus on what motivates people.

This is a much-studied area in psychology. In the 1980s, US academics Edward Deci and Richard Ryan published their theory of human motivation and presented three commonalities. In essence, humans want three things to feel effective and that they’re achieved something. They want a sense of autonomy – to feel they’re in control of their surroundings. They want mastery – to feel a sense of becoming more skilled or competent over time. And finally, they want relatedness – to feel a sense of belonging and connectedness with others.

In the context of hybrid work, this means feeling able to choose how best to deliver one’s work, feeling one’s career pathway is progressing, regardless of the location of work, and feeling a sense of community with one’s co-workers.

These are indeed great starting points. For us, the most viable way to achieve hybrid and optimise the use of office space is to focus on two things.

First, invite your team members themselves to co-design their hybrid work arrangements. This naturally involves a companywide conversation about the activities best suited to remote work and those that work better in person. It requires deeper consideration of team dynamics and investment in becoming a better team player.

Second, prioritise the office as a place where colleagues are invited to re-connect with one another and re-build their relationships. By focusing on the pro-social aspects of teamwork at a pace that feels uncontrived, individuals will naturally re-align around the shared purpose of achieving organisational goals and objectives.

The future of the office isn’t about doing the same work as could be done at home. It’s about creating and curating an optimal destination experience for a generation of workers who expect the post-pandemic office to be memorable and enticing.

Most of all, it’s about designing a shared space to let the interpersonal magic happen that underpins the performance of all high-performing teams.

 

[i]              https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peoplenotinwork/economicinactivity/articles/populationchangesandeconomicinactivitytrendsuk2019to2026/2023-03-03

[ii]                https://www.cisco.com/c/m/en_us/solutions/global-hybrid-work-study.html

[iii]               https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/my-best-advice-for-managers-get-back-to-basics-rlqzc27l6

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