From the early days of the pandemic, most businesses focused on how to return to their offices quickly and safely. But as shelter-in-place orders persisted and the challenges of reopening surfaced, the conversation shifted. Should we return to the office? Some companies, like Okta, transitioned to a remote-first company, with no set plans to return to the office. Others, like Zoom and PennyMac, are eager to get back to the office but want to wait until it’s safer to do so. Samsara had no choice but to bring critical employees back to the office due to safety concerns of doing their jobs at home. And yet, employees aren’t ready to go back to the workplace; 66% don’t feel comfortable returning to the office so soon.
Companies and the employees they serve are battling these decisions in real-time. This is causing a dramatic shift to take place in the industry. Only 63% of U.S. jobs need significant onsite presence, meaning the remaining 37% can be performed entirely at home. Forecasts show that by the end of 2021, 30% of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week. This is causing company leaders to reconsider how they structure their companies and the workplaces they inhabit.
As we look toward this uncertain future, workplace leaders must expand the focus of their return-to-office plans. How will you create a new work landscape that helps employees thrive in their jobs and accomplish the work that matters most in the short and long term?
We don’t know what workplaces will look like in 2021. But we do know that work will be less tethered to a physical space, and collaboration will be even more critical. Employees may not go to an office every day, but when they do, companies will strive to provide the best work environment. This means that “the workplace” is evolving to be more inclusive of homes, Airbnb’s, and coworking spaces. Technology allows us to connect these spaces together, creating a unified place where we complete our work: the workscape.
It’s time to rethink your company strategy as it pertains to this new future of work.
The following workscape framework is broken down into five steps, which we dive into in more detail in this guide.
- Understand your workscape
Most organizations are no longer limited to just “in the office” or “100% remote.” Expand your options by understanding the many variants that are between these two extremes. At the same time, explore the link between intangible work experiences and the tangible workplace.
- Analyze your work activity
Deconstruct and reconstruct your understanding of how your company does work. What types of work are essential to your company? How do individuals do the work? How do teams collaborate to accomplish goals? Which activities need to be done in person, and which can (or should) be done remotely?
- Adapt your approach to work
If your workscape is changing, and your work activity analysis reframes how you operate, you must adapt your company’s approach to work as well. The bulk of your effort will focus on four elements: culture and team, internal infrastructure, communications architecture, and workscape design.
- Reshape your environment
Now it’s time to return your thinking to the physical office. Consider how you can make changes to your built environment to accommodate the changes you’ve made above. Think about how you can rearrange furniture to create different types of space. Invest in technology to help you better use the space you have.
- Inform your real estate strategy
Real estate is the second-largest cost for most companies. How does that investment change now or in the future? Will you renew a lease in 18 months, or explore flexible spaces? Do you have the right amount of square footage to support your new way of working? How does your long-term strategy shift?
1. Understand your workscape
Companies generally fall into a few buckets. Remote-first, meaning that they expect employees to work remotely. Office-first, meaning that they expect employees to work from an office. Or, somewhere in the middle, where employees can choose whether they go into an office or not. No matter which group you were in when the global pandemic hit, most companies became remote-first. If your employees can work from home, they probably are right now.
As we start to think about what post-pandemic life will look like, companies in the office-first group must ask themselves: how far back should you go?
Many companies are considering a hybrid position, where some employees will be in an office, and some will work remotely. The difference now is allowing employees to shift between the corporate office and their kitchen table. There are many variants of hybrid work that should be considered to determine the right match for your culture and company. Do you expect employees to commit to how often they will be in the office? Must they reserve a space, or can they come and go as needed?
Even the physical office can flex in this hybrid landscape. Traditional, regional locations with a single office in a metro area can be supplemented with micro-offices (smaller, flexible workspaces distributed in an area), or on-demand offices, like coworking spaces and cafés. Genentech, in South San Francisco, recently adopted a hub-and-spoke model developed by LiquidSpace, where employees are given the option of working at five pre-vetted flexible on-demand spaces around the Bay Area, saving some employees over two hours in daily commute time.
In the past, these two components were thought about in isolation. And while they operationally remain independent, the tangible workscape supports the intangible elements of our work experience. They need to be considered together when exploring alternatives to the traditional approach to work.
Slack used to be office-first, preferring that employees be physically in the office to foster a culture of collaboration. But once they went fully remote, they realized that there was a misperception about how they thought about the workplace. Erin Figueroa, Sr. Director of Operations at Slack, shared, “When we went remote, we realized pretty quickly that San Francisco was no longer our headquarters, but the product, Slack, was our headquarters. That’s where work happened before, that’s where work is happening now, and that’s where work will happen in the future. And I think once we reconciled that, it unlocked the potential of the company.”
Where a company was on the physical-virtual work landscape scale a year ago is likely not where they will be a year from now. This shift will likely move a lot of companies from office-first into a hybrid work model. Therefore, they will need a plan to address the blurred lines between the physical and virtual work environment.
To help you think about this shifting landscape, consider the two critical pillars of hybrid work that are emerging:
The physical-virtual landscape that refers to the physical spaces where people do work. This includes furniture and work surfaces.
- Work experience
The culture, traditions, benefits, and approaches to work an organization offers.
Take the time to identify where your company was on the physical-virtual work landscape scale in the past, and where you want to be in the future. Then, make an inventory of your tangible and intangible elements of work and see where they overlap and diverge. You’ll want to include both of these areas in your hybrid work plan.
When we went remote, we realized pretty quickly that San Francisco was no longer our headquarters, but the product, Slack, was our headquarters. That’s where work happened before, that’s where work is happening now, and that’s where work will happen in the future. And I think once we reconciled that, it unlocked the potential of the company.
Sr. Director of Operations at Slack
2. Analyze your work activity
To determine the hybrid work environment that is right for your organization, it’s important to look at the different types of work that take place. Depending on your industry or the types of products you produce, this could impact your options for hybrid work. For example, if you operate a manufacturing plant, you may need employees who operate the machinery in the workplace every day. Yet those who process bills and paperwork can work three days a week from home. If you are a software company, it’s likely that your entire workforce can work from home. But, maybe it’s easier for your finance or human resource team to work from the office so they can access printers and shipping materials. Understanding how your employees do their jobs can help inform the type of hybrid environment you put in place.
Nicole Persaud, Safety & Security Programs Manager at Samsara, shared how they analyzed different types of work activity to determine who should work from the office and who should continue to work from home. “Since we are both a software and hardware company, we had the need for essential workers to come into the office to do certain tasks that were safer to do in the office than at home. So, we put in a lot of effort to evaluate what work people could do at home still, vs. critical to the office. Now, the workers who come into the office have the flexibility to choose the space that makes them the most productive to get their work done safely.”
Identifying essential workers who have to work from an office or lab is only part of the equation. There are other considerations for why a company may choose to move from an office-first approach to a hybrid model. PennyMac Loan Services was previously office-first, partially because they needed specific office equipment to do their jobs, but also because they wanted to collaborate in person. Amy Bernardino, Senior Vice President of Administration at PennyMac, shares how they are now re-thinking that approach based on different types of work activity, “I don’t think we’re ever going to be a hundred percent back in the office. Based on capacity models, I think 80% is the new 100%. So we’re looking at what positions can truly be work from home positions. And if I work from home full time, maybe I can check out an office two days a week or when I need to come in. But there’s going to be people who are a hundred percent in the office, people who are part-time in the office, and people who are full time at home.”
Outline the different types of roles in your organization, including locations of employees and the types of work they conduct. Then, identify who might need to be in a physical space versus who can continue to work from home for the short and long term. This will help you decide what type of hybrid work environment you want, and need, to build.
3. Adapt your approach to work
Once you have analyzed your company’s work activity, it’s important to look at the different elements of work and reexamine them in a new context. The way we once did work is not how we will continue to do work in the future.
Armen Vartanian, SVP Global Workplace Services at Okta, is working on shifting Okta’s approach to work to be more flexible and adaptable. Armen shared, “We’ve created a framework called dynamic work, where the fundamental aspect is flexibility. Enabling managers and leaders to expand their talent pool to anywhere in the world. Creating a mobile-first environment to facilitate interactions for employees, regardless of whether they’re in the office or outside the office. I think this is an incredible opportunity for all professionals in the field to think about how to arrange the workplace and workforce for the future in a more flexible way.”
When evaluating how to evolve your approach to work, there are four areas to consider:
- Culture and Team
- Internal Infrastructure
- Communication Architecture
- Workscape Design
Culture and Team
With distributed, remote, and in-office employees, it’s important to think about how that will impact your company culture. There are several considerations when looking at ongoing company programs:
How can you seamlessly onboard remote employees? Consider how you will ship gear and welcome items to an employee’s homes, conduct virtual trainings, and help them integrate with the company. Some ideas for a better remote onboarding:
- Help remote employees meet other people at your company by starting a buddy program. This could pair them with someone on a different team who can schedule virtual coffee meetings for the first few weeks.
- Have the hiring manager send a personalized gift with a note to arrive on the employees first day to make sure they feel welcome
- Consider revamping your onboarding schedule. With remote onboarding, you might not need to have everyone start on the same day. If you currently have a bi-weekly onboarding schedule, think about moving that to weekly or flexible based on your needs.
Finding new ways to engage with teams remotely is a unique challenge. Lara Owen, Director of Global Workplace Operations at GitHub, shared new programs the company has started to keep employees engaged. “We’ve been focusing a lot on the workplace experience to ensure that people are coming together and having those water-cooler moments. We launched coffee and beets; once a week we have a musician come from somewhere in the world to play for our employees. We’ve been encouraging employees to find new Slack channels, such as acapella, running, skincare, personal finance, or even yelling. We set up events that they can do virtually, whether that’s a cooking class, or ecology class, or just happy hour, an easy list. Those kinds of fun activities can ensure that you’re interacting with each other in ways that aren’t just business and serious focus, especially while you’re all remote.”
We’ve been focusing a lot on the workplace experience to ensure that people are coming together and having those water-cooler moments... Those kinds of fun activities can ensure that you’re interacting with each other in ways that aren’t just business and serious focus, especially while you’re all remote.
Director of Global Workplace Operations at GitHub
There are many areas workplace teams should revise to ensure company operations continue to run smoothly. Here are some examples of places you should consider adapting your internal programs:
What are your remote guidelines? Can employees come and go as they please, or do they need to pre-decide what days they will come to the office? Regardless of whether your workforce is remote or hybrid, document short-term and long-term guidelines and expectations.
- Will you allow remote employees to move anywhere they want? Or just within the country or state your company operates in? If they do move, how does that impact their pay, benefits, hours, and team-dynamics? Deciding if your employees can move away from a core office and communicating that decision will help align all employees.
- No matter where they live, can any type of employee work remotely? Do people managers have different expectations then individual contributors? Do we want specific roles based in a similar location? Answering these types of questions will help illustrate the various options employees have.
Planning & logistics
Once remote guidelines are in place, it’s important to determine in-person procedures as well. Do you want to have a structured or flexible policy? A structured approach would require employees to choose a fixed number of days in the office in a given period. This is helpful to the workplace team to plan for how the office will be used, control perks and budget, and better plan for in-office amenities. With a flexible structure, employees can come into the office whenever they want. This option is the easiest for employees to manage but would need flexibility in resource distribution.
The perks companies offered pre-pandemic while working from home and long-term will be very different. Companies used to provide benefits focused on being in the office. Perks included transportation credit, free lunch, unlimited coffee, and even gym reimbursement. With everyone moving remote, some companies transitioned those perks into a work-from-home stipend. This included lunch credits, Internet reimbursement, and even virtual happy hours. The real question is, what happens long term? How do you rethink perks when adopting a hybrid work strategy? Consider adopting separate benefit packages for employees who work in-person vs. remote.
The communication architecture outlines how you communicate big picture ideas and small tactical changes. How do your communication tactics change when your employees are distributed? Which elements of your architecture still work well if people are not physically together? Which components need to change to better adapt to a hybrid team? There are two main areas of communication that should be revisited:
Reconsider how you structure executive strategy sessions, quarterly all-hands meetings, weekly company meetings, and regular team meetings. Consider moving company-wide meetings or large team meetings to a fully remote format, even if some employees are in an office. If you used to schedule a company-wide in-person all-hands week, consider how you can still connect employees remotely and accomplish the goals of those sessions. Encourage employees to schedule more informal coffee chats than before and ensure they have the time to build relationships and connect, even if remotely.
Look at how you deliver information to employees, including company and team newsletters, one-off email updates, and ongoing communications. Try turning emails into more engaging forms of communication, like video summaries or Slack messages. Survey employees to figure out how they want to receive communications and if they are retaining the information you are sharing.
With some employees in the office and some employees at home, it’s important to reconsider different elements of the physical office and how they affect employees differently. Think through the aspects that you can control in the physical office. Which elements need to be adjusted for hybrid work? Here are a few examples of areas to consider:
- If you had desk phones in your office, consider converting to a VOIP application. This will be easier to manage remotely and ensure employees can still do their jobs with ease.
- Consider how you can help employees have a comfortable work environment at home. Redistribute office chairs to employees who need them or consider providing remote ergonomics screenings to ensure employees can stay healthy and productive from home.
- Rethink how you can evolve work surface to provide a more collaborative environment for hybrid work. Scope out more ipads in conference rooms or smart boards to replace traditional whiteboards so folks can contribute remotely.
- It’s likely that your network security infrastructure needs to change to be inclusive of hybrid work. How can you ensure all employees can access tools, documents, and applications they need without putting the company at risk? Take a look at your current network security set-up and see if you can evolve that for hybrid work, or if you need a new solution.
Moving to a hybrid work model will change how your company operates on a day-to-day basis. The needs of your employees will be different, and so are the needs of the business. Document the other areas of your workscape that impact employees, and see if there are ways to create an inclusive experience no matter where they are completing their work.
4. Reshape your environment
“Now that everybody is remote, what do we use our offices for? Instead of having 16 main offices, do we have more offices, but single floors, city hubs? Do they become community brand building centers? We’re taking this opportunity to relook at what the purpose of the office is and how will we use them going forward. “ – Erin Figueroa, Sr. Director of Operations at Slack
Once the policies, logistics, and company culture are reconsidered, it’s time to return your attention back to the physical office. With fewer people in the office at a given time, there are new considerations for how you use your spaces. Restructure your office to accommodate diverse types of work. This includes moving furniture to create different kinds of space or investing in technology to help you better use your area. If you used to sit departments together, instead, you can assign different desks to people each day. Or if you use to have an open floor plan, instead segment off quiet, focus areas for individual work. Make adjustments that align with the activities employees come to the office for, like collaborating, focusing, socializing, and reflecting.
Alana Collins, Workplace Manager at Zoom shared, “I think the office will evolve. I think it will adapt, and folks will have flexibility, and also appreciate the office for what it has to offer. I think it’s the workplace team’s role to make it more like an EBC (executive briefing center) like come to the office for a great experience.”
One way to make these decisions more tangible is to design a floor map. Take a look at your existing format and see if your current set-up will match your future needs. If you are keeping the same office space but downsizing the number of desks, for example, you could use the extra space to create additional collaboration areas. Based on the different types of activities that are done in the office, you could color-code your new floor map to designate those areas and ensure your space is well balanced. Then, look at the furniture, art, colors, lighting, plants, and proximity to windows, to see if you need to adjust anything. Instead of sitting departments together in your floor plan, consider adjusting to neighborhoods based on factors such as cross-functional teams, types of work, or even arbitrary. This will help you determine how the physical environment will maximize employee and work experiences.
Re-evaluate your physical office space. How can you ensure employees can stay at a distance and still have the flexibility to collaborate when they need to? Evaluate how you can change the layout, furniture, and benefits to better meet the needs of your employees in a hybrid environment. Sketch out how you want your workspace to look to determine what changes you’ll need to make. Imagine the employee and visitor experience. Role-play what a day in the office will look like, from commute to entry to work to exit.
5. Inform your real estate strategy
Once the rest of your workscape framework is determined, the last and one of the most crucial decisions resolves around real estate. Deciding if you want to keep your office space, or completely change your physical strategy, is critical to your future work culture. Here are some things to consider when building your real estate strategy:
- How much sq feet do you need? You will likely need more space per employee than before, so ensure you have enough room for the people that want to come in.
- What type of office do you need? Some will choose to keep their large, regional offices, while others will use alternative spaces. Micro-offices scattered within a city, dynamic workspaces, or partnering with coworking networks are a few options. Another option is on-demand workspaces, such as work cafes or individual bookable spaces.
- Where should you locate physical offices? Surveying your employees to find out where they want to live, and if your office strategy aligns with that is an excellent place to start. Downsizing your headquarters while building more satellite offices might be one approach. You can also cancel leases, and shifting to co-working spaces might be another option.
Thinking through all five of these areas and answering these crucial questions is only part of the equation.
From here, take this framework and fill in the details as they pertain to your organization. Document your plans, including the underlying strategies and tactics for how the work will get done, and present it to your leadership team. Once you have sign off, put your plan into action, but be sure to communicate these changes with employees along the way. Identify the key milestones and your target timeline to ensure you are hitting your goals. With how quickly things change in the current environment, ensure you set up a feedback loop to iterate on your plans and re-evaluate your company’s needs quarterly.
While shifting the mindset from a return-to-office plan to a hybrid work plan isn’t easy, it will benefit your employees and company in the long run. It’s important to consider the short and medium-term decisions you can make to support employees while working from home. Developing a framework to help guide decision making and help you plan for the future will also help employees decide their personal plans and make relocation decisions.
Real estate planning takes time, discussion, and oversight. Start planning 12 to 36 months in advance to make smart decisions that can benefit the company for the long term.