ROOM’s VP of Workspace Strategy and Design says companies should reimagine what an office space can provide its workers, and explains why flexible work options are an act of kindness.
At Owl Labs, we build amazing hybrid-friendly work experiences with our intelligent video conferencing collaboration tools. We sat down for a series of conversations with workplace leaders about how hybrid work fits into the future of work, and how to best support employees during times of transformation. Subscribe to hear from more innovative leaders and look out for new conversations in this series.
Alejandra Albarran dedicated her career to mindful workplace design long before the pandemic hit. An interior designer by trade, and the designer of the original ROOM Phone Booth, part of ROOM’s suite of modular products for the workplace, Albarran has expanded her skills and her scope to focus on workplace strategy. “How to actually plan the space, and how to utilize that space, in very smart ways so that you can provide the best experience for the company and its people,” she explained.
She says that now’s the moment to embrace change and invest in creating a workplace experience that actually makes the day-to-day better for employees.
She’s urging workplace strategists to create flexible hybrid work policies, and to build physical spaces that accommodate every employee — including those who aren’t in the office.
Two years of work-from-home has turned the world of workplace planning on its head. “People now know that they can have the autonomy to work where they want to work from and still be as productive as expected,” Albarran shared. “So now our physical spaces have to support these hybrid work models.”
In the past, management felt more supervisory, and it was assumed that for an employee to get work done, their boss would have to be sitting nearby. Albarran says this has shifted dramatically. “Today, it's more about trusting. It's about autonomy and it's about accountability. It's treating people as grownups, which we are. That’s been really nice. It’s not that it wasn't there before, but now it's just more clear.”
Leadership styles have had to evolve dramatically since 2020, and both managers and employees have ramped up their communication skills, checking in with each other more frequently.
“One thing I had to learn is how to communicate more clearly and be much more direct,” said Albarran. “It's just about keeping a very open channel of communication, with quick check-ins as well — even just a quick Slack message.”
And this two-way communication extends to workplace planning.
Going from fully remote work to encouraging employees to come back to the office a few days a week is not without its challenges. “It's so important to plan a very flexible and adaptable workspace,” said Albarran. “Companies and their people change, right?”
Her planning process always starts with a research phase, with a lot of surveying and listening. She first checks in with the company to learn its leaders’ goals and priorities. “But then I always have a survey for the employees as well,” she said. “I need answers to understand what people actually want. Because sometimes what the company wants is not the same thing that the employee wants, so it's important to listen to both sides and try to create a balanced space that works for all of them.”
With the continued impact of the pandemic and the evolving nature of employees’ needs, checking in frequently and adapting when something isn't working is crucial. “I always suggest to keep surveying and keep interviewing and keep gathering data, because it's important to understand how a space is moving and if it’s working, because there’s a chance that it’s not. And the good thing is that you can change it and make it better, but you need to know. So just have very open communication between both the company and employees.”
“It's okay to make mistakes too,” she said. “Maybe you say, ‘I want everyone to come three days a week’ and that doesn't work out. It's okay to backtrack and say, ‘Hey, okay. That was a mistake. Let's try something different.’”
Albarran says companies these days are faced with a challenge: “They do want people back into the office — but how do you do that? You won't bring them back by forcing them to come back, because that's not a good strategy. So people are now actually wondering how we can make better workspaces,” she said. “And I think it's a good moment to talk to leaders [about it].”
Every employee is different, and workplaces are starting to reflect that. While many have been thrilled with the convenience of working from home, some found that working from home is a challenge. That’s why ROOM kept their offices open throughout the pandemic. Some months the space laid empty, and at other points, people came in more frequently. But it was important to Albarran that the space stay available.
“I know that there was one woman who just didn’t have the right conditions to work from home, so she’d come in every day. Even though it was the worst of the pandemic, she would still come into the office. And I think in that way, providing a workspace for people is an act of kindness from a company.”
With a hybrid workplace, the office won’t often be at capacity, so there’s plenty of room to rethink how spaces can be set up.
“In one office, you have to provide different types of environments that go from community spaces where you're going to be connecting with people — which is why we're going to come back into the office — but also spaces for solo work, and where you can have private calls,” shared Albarran.
She defines these different spaces as “hot spaces”, which are loud, collaborative spaces, and “cold spaces”, where people can be heads-down. But Albarran also thinks about what falls in the middle. “That in-between space is really important. Open areas for collaboration, a warm-up or cool-down space outside of meeting spaces for that quick touch base before or after the meeting, and some targeted spaces for wellness as well.”
Hybrid meetings can be a little awkward. There’s discomfort being the only virtual attendee at a meeting, or the only person calling in from the office. And often there’s a bumpy first few minutes of setup while onsite employees can chat while a virtual attendee is being patched in, missing out on little snippets of conversation or even major decisions.
“Meeting spaces have to come with technology enabled so you can have a very successful hybrid meeting,” she said. Zoom, Google Meet, Owl Labs cameras, ROOM Phone Booths, and platforms like OfficeTogether can all facilitate this kind of collaboration and inclusion, she shared.
It’s also going to take practice to conduct meetings that are as inclusive as possible, she said, because hybrid work is here to stay. “Everybody needs to get used to this. We need to be more aware of the people that are not in the room and more respectful to them as well.”
After two years of working from home, employees are starting to make their way back to offices in order to connect with their teams, meet coworkers they’ve never met, and to feel the joys of camaraderie. And with hybrid work, they also get to keep some of the convenience of remote work.
“It's really nice to get together when we do get together,” says Albarran. “We're doing more of our Thursday drinks after the office and everybody stays afterwards because we haven't seen each other in so long. Being together again has been really nice — and being separate and then together again, there's an extra added understanding of the value of togetherness.”
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