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Here’s How the ‘Office’ Has Changed, and Why HR Should Care

empty office space

I recently had a conversation with a friend who, like many others in 2021, has been called back “to the office” for the first time in well over a year. His employer, being ever mindful of both employee requests and continuing safety concerns, has implemented a hybrid model wherein on any given work day, approximately 20% of employees are physically in the office. So, for example, in a team of five people, one of them is onsite every day of the work week.

These five team members naturally need to interact with each other regularly. They gather for quick daily huddles, team meetings, and design and iteration sessions – things they successfully managed to do virtually for 18 months. Now, however, team member Bob – after donning work attire, navigating after-school arrangements for his pre-teen, and battling the commute – is in the office one day per week for these meetups. Every Monday Bob sits alone in his office (in a mostly vacant building) and dials into team meetings via video with his co-workers who are, of course, dialing in remotely.

Why,” Bob wonders, “couldn’t I have done this from home?

Have we learned anything?

When organizations had to rapidly shift to remote work in early 2020, many leaders (who for years had delayed allowing employees to work remotely) feared a loss of productivity. Yet numerous studies and surveys have found those fears misplaced as worker productivity has actually increased. Managers who had long equated the concept of work getting done with employees arriving early/leaving late, sitting at their desks for 10 hours straight, and putting in sufficient face time realized that tasks could be completed, conversations could occur, and customers could be served via digital and other means.

And fortunately, as remote work continued, numerous organizational leaders spent a considerable amount of time listening – truly listening – to employees who expressed a desire for ongoing flexibility as they balance the demands of work, family, and well-being.

The voice of the employee, particularly as companies made plans to bring staff back to the office, took on new importance. Some workers have been eager to return to the office. Others decided that a forced return to the office is not acceptable and either resigned or started the search for new employment. And many have made their desires known, working to negotiate a balanced hybrid model with their companies.

Striking the right balance

The Accenture Future of Work Study 2021 found that 83% of workers reported a hybrid model, when they sometimes work remotely and sometimes go on-site, as optimal. The goal for employers is to build a model – focused on both business optimization and employee well-being and productivity – that is location-agnostic. In other words, a hybrid model that ensures employees can do their best work ... no matter where that work is being performed.

Employers can focus on designing a hybrid model that:

Ensures team members are all in the office on the same day for key meetings that benefit when there is face-to-face interaction or in-person collaboration.

Recognizes that some individuals may experience stress or anxiety returning to a workplace with large groups of people, regardless of the company’s vaccination or social distancing policies.

Works to eliminate feelings of exclusion that could arise when some members of a work team are on-site and some are at home.

Provides opportunities for early career professionals to interact with peers and mentors in-person to effectively build relationships, learn social cues, and experience “how things work.”

Creates an onboarding experience for new hires that includes extra on-site days at the beginning of employment so they can socialize, make connections, and build relationships across the organization.

Puts people front and center by ensuring that new work models support both the physical and psychological safety of staff.

As we’ve advanced our understanding that work is something you “do” as opposed to a place you “go,” we’re left to ponder both the necessity for and the meaning of “the office.” Do we need a physical location? Are cubicles and conference rooms and communal coffee pots important? What does “going to the office” even mean in 2021 and beyond?

We do not merely have to re-open “the office” as it existed before the pandemic. We can, instead, create something new, appealing, and meaningful. Today’s office is existential and metaphysical; it exists, in the collective sense, because people are gathering for a shared purpose.

And there’s really no need to change out of one’s yoga pants or hop on a train to get there.