As companies around the world begin slowly transitioning back to in-office work after a year (or more) of working largely from home, the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is: What will the return to office look like? With 1 in every 2 workers saying that they won’t return to jobs that don’t offer remote work after COVID-19, the only answer we can think of is: with the support of hybrid systems and tools.

At Owl Labs, we’ve always known that the future of work is flexible. What we didn’t realize is just how quickly that future would become our present. After a year of working from our home offices, our kitchen tables, even our closets (15% of people’s WFH choice!), the approaching ‘return to office’ is gearing up to be the most hybrid and flexible workplace experience we’ve ever seen.

But before you can throw open your office door and welcome employees back to work, there are a few things you can do to outfit your office with new tech, setups and protocols that best support your newly flexible employees and hybrid teams.

Creating Hybrid Workspaces to Support Your Flexible Employees

Employees’ needs are constantly changing, so doesn’t it make sense for office workspaces to change along with them? The static, cubicle-centric offices of yesteryear are no longer compatible with the modern employee. As employees continue to evolve past the classic 9 to 5 clock in, clock out worker, their needs and professional expectations evolve as well. 

You wouldn’t keep a fish in a tank that it has grown out of, instead you acknowledge it’s growth by giving it a new, bigger tank with ample room for exploration. Similarly, you don’t want to keep employees stuck using outdated tech and navigating tired workflows. Instead, give them room to explore and the opportunity to reach a new potential by providing them with updated in-office tech tools for their new flexible work-lifestyles.

Turns out, when you give people autonomy and allow them to choose where, when, and how they’re most productive...they’re more productive, happier, engaged, focused--and the list goes on.

Need we say more?

What are Hybrid Workspaces?

Hybrid workspaces or hyflex workspaces are areas in your office designed to support employees with hyflex (hybrid or flexible) schedules. Hybrid workspaces are reiterations of classic office workspaces, recreated to meet the needs of every employee. Hybrid workspaces are less about demolishing your current office and building a new one from scratch, and more about redesigning your structures and policies to best support your flexible employees.

Benefits of utilizing hybrid workspaces include:

  • Creating an optimally supportive workplace environment for your employees regardless of how frequently they work in-office
  • Reducing the cost of day to day operations— fewer employees working from the office full-time means less in-office resources are required
  • The ability to tailor workspaces and tech tools to the specific needs of each of your hybrid teams
  • Fostering a progressive professional atmosphere for all employees regardless of their schedule

What are Flexible Employees?

If flexible work is the future, flexible employees are the present. Flexible employees are workers that do not work on the standard 9 to 5 schedule. Instead, flexible employees have schedules that more accurately coincide with their responsibilities, collaborative needs and personal lifestyles.

The most common examples of flexible employee schedules are:

  • Core hours— when employees have a few hours each day where they are available for meetings and team communication, but reserve the rest of the day for independent, uninterrupted work. 74% of full time workers agree or strongly agree that they should have core hours.
  • Meeting free days— days where employees have no scheduled meetings allowing them to have deeper, uninterrupted work sessions. 80% of full time employees agree or strongly agree that there should be a day a week with no meetings at all.
  • Compressed work week— also known as a 4 day work week— when employees fit 40 hours of work into less days than the standard 5. For example, an employee could work for ten hours Monday through Thursday and enjoy a three day weekend every week.
  • Daily flexible schedule— the most flexible of them all, a daily flexible schedule policy allows employees to create their own schedule each week depending on their current projects and responsibilities.

Creating a Digital Hybrid Workplace

The “office” no longer means the space within the four walls of a shared headquarters. The office is a concept— it’s the meeting place for ideas, a place to share accomplishments and a source of support in reaching business goals. Think about what employees need when they are home that may have previously been provided in the office— camaraderie, IT support and general tech questions from a coworker sitting beside you. How can these things be translated for the “virtual office”?

  1. Maintain an active company intranet where people can share projects, accomplishments, and company initiatives.
    Use company intranet software and tools like Notion, Microsoft SharePoint and Yammer, to create a space where employees can document instructions, company lore, internal strategy, successful projects, failures and more. This serves as a virtual bulletin board and can also include onboarding materials and videos.
  2. Use cloud-based software to manage documents and store data.
    Cloud-based is the new “GoToMyPC” for a remote desktop. More and more companies are turning from VPN or accessing desktops from home to entirely cloud-based solutions. With the ability to access projects and collaborate from anywhere, all company files and tools should be accessible from any location and device.
  3. Identify a dedicated IT team member (or members) to support employees working remotely.
    Transitioning to remote work is a challenge and for those not savvy or comfortable with software or technology, it can be stressful not to have someone for simple questions about things like video conferencing software or new devices. Designate an IT team member to support remote workers and provide phone, Slack/chat and email options. Make sure to offer live support for employees during all working hours, especially if employees choose a flexible schedule.
  4. Provide digital security training and resources for employees.
    A huge concern for companies is their cybersecurity. As important as your IT team is to maintaining this security, make sure employees feel confident in their ability to detect phishing attacks, send confidential documents and manage confidential information digitally. The first line of defense for cyberattacks is limiting exposure, so your employees can be your biggest asset in keeping a safe virtual workplace.

Top Hybrid Workspaces Design to Support the Return to Office

Before welcoming your employees back to their newly retrofitted office, take the time to reach out to them about how their needs and expectations have changed. Creating hybrid workspaces does not happen overnight, and should involve the input of your employees— after all, they are the ones that the hybrid workspaces are meant to support. 

Send out a survey to your remote, hybrid and flexible employees that prompts them to supply you with the information you need to appropriately redesign the office. Ask them questions such as:

  • What synchronous and asynchronous tech tools do you need in order to sufficiently communicate and collaborate once we RTO?
  • Which aspects of your workspace would you change?
  • Which aspects of your workspace are already optimized and should stay the same?
  • What are the top workspace features that you would add to our office if you could?
  • Are there any areas of the office that you feel could better serve your team if they were transformed?

Involving all teams in your organization--from office managers to C-suite execs--in your office restructuring and hybrid work decisions will help you avoid major blindspots once you’ve spent lots of time and money to make changes.

The usual suspects of hybrid workspaces are huddle rooms and flex-desking. But now it’s time to run through some of the most creative, the most innovative, and the most flexible hybrid workspace designs you can incorporate into your office to prepare for the return.

Tech Rental Station

After a year of working from home it’s hard to believe that so many of us used to commute to work every day, while oftentimes lugging our laptops, keyboards and other tech essentials along with us. While we haven’t completely obliterated the idea of commuting, we do have the opportunity to halt the need to bring our own tech with us. For those hybrid and flexible employees who don’t come into the office every day, a tech rental station can be a game changer. Could this be the end of the time honored tradition of carrying our laptops around with us? (The end of messenger bags!? We hope not.) It just may be, along with being an essential resource that eases some of the burden for hybrid and flexible employees.

IT Vending Machines

In addition to live, in-person IT support and rental stations, companies like HubSpot and Salesforce have created tech vending machines to reduce support tickets and person-to-person contact for smaller tech-related items.

tech vending machine

Source: Wall Street Journal

Creative-Focused Rooms

Hybrid workplaces are designed to support a new age of hybrid communication, collaboration, and creativity. What better way to drive this messaging home than by creating creative-focused rooms designed specifically to support hybrid group collaboration? After all, this is a good reason to come into the office — developing a new app or designing your next hybrid event can call for lots of sticky notes. All over the walls. 

These creative-focused rooms have the look and feel of typical huddle rooms or small conference rooms, while being equipped with collaborative technology like smart whiteboards and intuitive video conferencing software that support the flow of group-think creativity and hybrid collaboration.

Streaming Rooms

When you are a member of a hybrid team or frequently collaborate with flexible employees, sometimes you will find yourself needing to meet virtually at the drop of a hat. Streaming rooms are— not rooms designated for you to catch up on your favorite streaming service shows during the workday as the name might suggest (except maybe sometimes??)— private rooms equipped with a monitor and video conferencing technology that is always streaming and ready for use, for those employees who need to jump on a quick video call with their remote teammate or for a last minute hybrid brainstorming session.

Nature Zones

One major aspect of the ‘return to office’ movement is easing the adjustment period for those employees who spent the majority of the past year working from their homes. During that time, those employees developed new schedules and workflows that they will not be quick to give up. To ease the transition even further, you can duplicate one aspect of the freedom of working from home into the office by creating nature zones. 

Nature zones are workspaces decorated with large windows and copious amounts of native flora that mimic the atmosphere of working from your backyard or going for a walk around your neighborhood on your lunch break. These areas come equipped with individual work areas and team seating for employees to read, work or take a relaxing break without leaving the office.

Quiet Corners

Do you remember when in-office nap pods were the latest trend? Quiet corners of the office are the middle ground between working in an open plan office and sleeping on the job that hybrid employees crave. For those workers used to working primarily alone at home, transitioning right back into a crowded workspace has the potential to be jarring and distracting. Instead, by offering flexible employees private, quiet corners to work from independently they are able to more seamlessly adjust to life in the office.

Transitioning back to office life isn’t a one and done event, but an ongoing process designed to support your hybrid and flexible employees.