People

Will hybrid work model settle on 4:1 in favour of the office?

Pressures are building that could drive people to spend more time in the office, as companies search for higher levels of collaborative performance and data presents a clearer picture of future work, says Peter Smit

The percentage of people vaccinated is increasing at a steady rate and there is optimism in the air. Even if there are areas that are still experiencing horrendous numbers of new infections and having to tolerate lock-downs, there is a general feeling that things will get better….soon.

This optimism extends to the energy building around the return to office and the opportunity this represents. We see a massive opportunity to regain what was lost when everybody moved to working from home and build additional synergy and collaboration. At home, 1 + 1 + 1 equalled 3. The question is, how can the return to office assure that the result is significantly greater than 3?

Published surveys speak overwhelmingly of a preference for a hybrid model: some time spent in the office, some time spent working from home. People have become used to working at home and the prospect of less time spent commuting is a welcome thought. Many are still apprehensive about a return to office, as relatively few companies have made their plans known. How will hybrid work? What kind of constraints or guidelines will there be?

‘How will hybrid work? What kind of constraints or guidelines will there be?’

Pre Covid-19 remote work has shown that the ‘preferred’ days to work from home are Mondays and Fridays. Surprise, surprise! Organisations will not accept that they have to size their real-estate based on peak occupancy on Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and have empty offices on Mondays and Fridays. Most announcements about hybrid work arrangements are paired with the statement that this will be done with less space. So how does this work?

We believe there are elements contributing toward a 4:1 pattern, with only one day at home. This is not something dictated by organisations – there are pressures which, over time, will naturally shift people toward spending more time at the office.

Connectedness and synergy

In a pre-pandemic world, we did client work on adjacencies, who shares space with whom. When the right people shared space in a new environment, we measured increases of collective connectedness of over 35 per cent. What has happened to that increase since working from home? The assumption is that a large portion of the increase has been lost.

Many organisations are too busy congratulating themselves on how smoothly they transitioned to working from home to realise the actual impact. After all, employees agree they are being effective and productive. As people are brought back to the office, there must be value. If the people one works with regularly are not there, what is the point of coming in? Letting individuals randomly chose when they come in is like playing a game of craps.

A far better arrangement is cohorts or shifts, based on who really works with who, and based on a defined schedule. On a broader level, all people in spaces can be optimised for ‘connectedness’ with buildings and campus ‘restacked’ in order to create more synergy. Groups that get relatively little value from the other groups they share space with can be moved to another space where they have higher potential value. So track all your spaces and people and adjust, based on findings. 

Future of Work spectrum: distribution of employees

Pre-Covid-19, there was lots of discussion about the ‘future of work’. What was it? And how and why was this important? The consensus was that the further to the right on the spectrum (shown here) an individual, department or organisation is, the higher the performance level and better the results.

With data, each individual (and therefore group or department) can be placed on the spectrum. First response to work from home was that this would certainly trigger a shift to the right as people were forced to use digital tools. Countering this is the fact that many have started working more independently and less interdependently. Have people really started working in a more agile and cross-functional way at home?

The further to the right an individual is, the more likely they are to be an effective remote-worker. The irony is, they are most likely the individuals Leesman describes as those with highly complex job responsibilities, who generally see higher value in being at the office. Booking systems and capturing space utilisation assures that safe space capacity limits are not exceeded. Individuals will be upset if, on a day they want to come in, there is no space available.

Individual contributors

Organisations have many individual contributors who, when they come into the office, fit into the ‘squatter’ persona category. Typically, they find a spot (frequently the same spot everyday) and spend 80 per cent of their time there. At first glance, this is a group which is very well suited for remote work. However, since they do not have strong dynamic networks, many prefer to come to the office because the office is where they get the social interaction they do not get while working from home, even if it is going out for lunch with friend who works in another department or nearby.

Many individuals, especially those early in their careers, have missed the office as they are worried about not being visible. Several studies have shown that those working remotely are passed over for promotions or denied praise more those who attend the office.

In-person meetings

The last 15 months have been full of web-based conferences, each participant in front of their own computer. Everyone has grown accustomed to it. However, we all still vividly remember times of hybrid meetings, where being the ‘lone’ remote participant was definitely a sub-par experience. With our partner Smarten Spaces, we are developing the capability of being able to see if your meeting-mates will be in the office or logging in from home for the meeting you are invited to.

Being the lone remote participant may result in the decision to go to the office that day for an important meeting. If everyone is joining remotely, then not. As employees return to the office, it is therefore critical to see where the trends are headed in terms of the ratio of fully remote, hybrid or fully face-to-face meetings.

Personas and data-based design

In a world of data, it is now possible to define ‘personas’ based on how employees work, who they interact with and how they use space. Based on the mix of personas in a space, one can determine the space requirements. We are not advocating that one should design each space for each group, but one can definitely steer the types of spaces best suited for those using the space.

If a group using a space has a very high percentage of their primary collaborators in the same space, there is a need for a lot of informal collaboration spaces, such as booths or huddle spaces. If people work primarily with others in other areas outside the space or even outside the organisation, there is a need for more meeting rooms and tech-enabled spaces for web-conferences and calls. By integrating wi-fi-data through our partner Locatee into our data sets, one can develop multi-dimensional personas which provide vital insights that can be used in the Knoll Thriving Workplace framework.

Unlocking value of space

In summary, no matter which strategy you choose to pursue – remote first, office first or hybrid – we know that how people work is changing and how space is used will change too. Tracking the effectiveness of people and spaces, along with elements like home/office ratios, will provide the insights necessary to achieve synergy as never before.

With today’s tools and data available, there is no excuse for not knowing how your people work and use your space. If, over time, the trend toward 4:1 is confirmed, one can implement self-regulating guidelines – for example, employees are free to work remotely 4 to 6 days per month, but it is the employees’ responsibility to spread those out across different week days. Evidence-based decisions are the foundation for assuring productivity and unlocking the value of your people and optimal use of your space.

Take part in a tracking research study with Collabogence – details here.

Peter Smit is the CEO & founder of Collabogence, a Toronto-based analytics company which integrates people analytics with workplace analytics for higher-level insights
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