Canadian Underwriter

4 design concepts for the new hybrid office

July 22, 2021   by Jason Contant

Hybrid office design

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In planning their future hybrid offices, Canadian insurance industry employers will need to carefully consider office design approaches, a blog published Thursday by Harvard Business Review advises.

“By all indications, the future of work is hybrid,” wrote Jim Keane and Todd Heiser in the blog, Strategies for Building a Hybrid Workplace that Works. “But getting hybrid right will be hard. Deciding who works from the office and how often is a complex issue, and it will be different for every organization.

“If not done well, it could threaten culture, collaboration, and innovation. Conversely, a well-executed hybrid workplace can be a magnet that brings people together and helps us work better than ever before.”

The authors offer suggestions that focus on four key design concepts:

  • flip the use of open and enclosed spaces
  • create a seamless digital and physical experience in the office
  • turn fixed physical spaces into flexible areas that can handle multiple different uses
  • balance public spaces with private spaces.

The authors’ recommendations come as Canadian P&C brokers and insurers publicly start to reveal their return-to-work plans — and choice is the prevailing theme.

On Friday, Ontario-based Mitchell & Whale Insurance Brokers told Canadian Underwriter that they will be allowing their staff to return to work in any way they choose. Manitoba-based Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company echoed that approach in an interview Monday. The insurer said that at least 90% of its workforce will be considered a “flexible role,” meaning that employees can choose whether they want to work from the office, home, or a hybrid of the two, and how often.

But for those who wish to work in the office, what is the workplace going to look like?

Executive team meeting during COVID Lohacharoenvanich

Keane and Heiser are architects and office furniture designers that serve the world’s largest organizations. Keane is president and CEO of Steelcase Inc., a workplace solutions provider. Heiser is a Gensler principal and co-managing director of Gensler’s Chicago office. Heiser has an architectural background and more than 20 years of experience in next-generation workplace design.

Here are Keane and Heiser’s four design considerations for the hybrid office:

Flip enclosed and open spaces

It’s time to rethink the open office concept, the authors wrote.

For decades, as companies have grown and hired more people, individual workstations have become more open, whereas meetings were held privately in enclosed conference rooms.

As people return to offices, expect the use of these spaces to shift, said Keane and Heiser. They expect meetings to happen more often in open spaces, with movable boundaries. Individuals will start to work more often in enclosed spaces like pods or small enclaves.

“Individual spaces will need more enclosure to provide different levels of visual and acoustical privacy that people have come to expect while working at home,” Keane and Heiser wrote in the blog. “Video calls will happen everywhere, so enclosures — screens, panels, pods — will give people places to focus and mitigate disruptions.”

Braid the digital and physical experience

Integrate physical spaces and technology with three key concepts in mind: equity, engagement, and ease. For example, many conference rooms currently consist of a long table with a monitor at the end. In-person attendees sit around the table while remote participants are featured in a grid of tiny boxes, often on the same screen as any shared content.

One way to create more equity is to give each participant their own screen, placing monitors on rolling carts that can easily be moved around. Teams can pull a remote colleague into a breakout session or up to the table. Many software systems now let you split people and content onto separate displays, the authors noted.

To be fully engaged, people need clear sightlines to one another and to the content. “Designing for employee engagement in digital-to-physical space means thinking like a movie director: lights, camera, audio, content. Some solutions we’re seeing are angled or mobile tables, additional lighting, extra speakers, in-room microphones, and easy-to-move markerboards and displays.”

Shift from fixed to fluid

Most companies owning real estate are now asking, ‘How much space do we need?’

The hybrid future means a more fluid workplace that can change as needed, while optimizing the use of real estate.

At Steelcase, for example, an open area has been designed to support various different functions. It can be a space for morning meetings, transform into a café for lunch, host a town hall in the afternoon, and then be rented for an evening event.

Balance “we” and “me” work

Leaders are focused on boosting collaboration, with research showing a massive drop in collaboration time for remote workers (Gensler’s Research Institute reported a 37% decrease in average collaboration time for full-time, work-from-home employees in the United States at the height of the pandemic).

Effective collaboration happens when an ebb-and-flow exists of people coming together to work as a team, and then the individual team members separate from the group to process the ideas and follow up on assigned tasks, the blog authors write. “It’s important that the pendulum not swing too far, by designing offices that are all about the ‘we’ and not balance the need for ‘me’ spaces.”

Employees report higher levels of productivity when their home allows them to work without interruption. “We must provide places with appropriate privacy at the office, too, and employees should be able to easily move from one type of work to another without trekking across campus or getting hung up with complicated technology.”

Staff need the right mix of spaces for the types of work that need to get done. Companies that take a ‘wait-and-see’ approach risk frustrating their employees who find the old office doesn’t support new ways of work.

“Organizations [that] move forward and create workplaces that adapt, flex and thrive will attract and retain the best talent and benefit from innovation and growth,” said Keane and Heiser. “The future office will be a competitive advantage for organizations who take advantage of this moment in time.”


Feature image by Productions

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