Workplace Design, Post-Pandemic

ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard.

If you’re like many knowledge workers out there struggling to do your job from home, juggling family responsibilities, exhausted by never-ending Zooms, you might be dreaming of returning to the office when the pandemic ends. Or maybe you really thrived without the daily commute and distracting coworkers, and you want to keep working from home.

Our guest today says that the reality for most of us will probably be somewhere in the middle. Her research shows that the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated a trend toward more flexible schedules and virtual work, but it’s also pushing organizations to rethink the purpose of the office and reinvent its structure and schedules as we start to carve out our new normal.

Anne-Laure Fayard is an associate professor at NYU’s Tandon school of engineering and she’s co-author of the HBR article “Designing The Hybrid Office.” Anne, welcome to the show.

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: Well, thank you very much for having me.

ALISON BEARD: You and your co-authors did a lot of research on what workers want and how companies expect to operate as we move on from the pandemic. What did you find?

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: So we found that of course, there was the constraints of the lockdown last March, but what was really interesting was that on the one hand, it was like, oh, we can do the work no matter what. But there was also, at the individual level, variations and people realizing that they were missing some of the social part of the office. Collaboration was harder.

And then for more senior people, or also for junior people, realizing that a lot of the things that we do in the office is invisible and tacit, and we’re learning by looking at what’s going on, or if you can ask a small question without even thinking it’s a question, and that all of this had more impact. And then at the organizational level, some companies started worrying about what would be the impact on their organizational culture.

So I think that last March, you just had to do it, and a lot of the collaboration worked well because people have worked together before. But as things start lasting, what happens to trust? What happens to information sharing? So all of these issues have been popping up.

ALISON BEARD: And so as companies think about re-entry, some have already done so and have people coming into the office a few days a week, some are planning on that in the future, what exactly are they grappling with to try to make sure that we capture what’s good about the virtual work environment, but also what we need to get back from being co-located?

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: I think that what people are realizing is, if you want to give more flexibility and you get to a hybrid model, it’s like, how do you make sure that people still mingle? We talk about a company in the article where at the headquarter, they had like a schedule where half of the company was coming two days a week and half of the company was coming two other days, and there was never any overlap. It was designed for efficiency: people who are used to work together are just coming together.

But studies about collaboration and innovation shows that one thing that is important is this serendipitous interactions. So it’s not only meeting with people that you are supposed to be working with. So how do you think about these overlaps and interconnections? And then there’s the part of the risk of people coming to the office and feeling pressure that they’re there to show that they’re working and getting into meetings or head down work, where a lot of the things that we do at the office or why the office matters, we found and has been shown also by many of our research, is more the social connections, the informal chats.

So making it clear for people that that’s okay to just have a chat. In fact, some companies have been starting thinking even of redesigning their office space. Salesforce just wrote a piece showing how they were rethinking their office to get more lounge areas and collaboration areas to make it clear that that was the reason why you were coming to the office. And then, how do you make sure that those who stay remote for whatever reason are still integrated?

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I think the other real challenge in this is personal preference. So there are some people who want to stop working from home because they need space and quiet to do that heads down work. They’re not comfortable with Zoom meetings, for example. But then your research shows that actually, that’s not the best work that can be done in an office. What needs to happen in the office is the socializing, the learning, the culture building. So how do you take into account what every employee needs, and then figure out a schedule that works to achieve what they need, and then also what the organization needs?

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: Being aware of the different needs of your employees is always important, but I think, as you said, it’s even more important in a hybrid office. I think a few companies have been realizing that even though they said, “Everybody can be remote,” they kept an office exactly for that, for people who might want to be in the office to work for a number of reasons.

One, as you say, it is like, they don’t have enough space or they’re lonely at home and they want to be able to be in a different space. Or they have too many people at home and they want to be able to focus. So I think that’s going to be a super important to take into account personalities, personal life, type of work. Tenure in the organization can also be something.

We talk about one tool, an AI-based platform that Silverstein Properties has developed for their clients. Dojo could be one tool, and there are a lot of other tools out there that can help you figure out what kind of work are people doing and what are their preferences? But I think it’s about intentionality and it’s in some ways more work, but it can also – tor me, I’m thinking that that might also lead to more inclusive and equitable work spaces.

ALISON BEARD: There are a lot of people talking about the work from anywhere future. One of our previous guests, Raj Choudhury, has studied all remote organizations. There are organizations that have said, “We don’t need to come back to the office.” Why do you argue that having some base where all employees can gather is important? Is it really true that socialization, learning, unstructured collaboration can’t happen virtually?

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: It’s not completely impossible. There’s been a lot of research, and I’ve been studying online communities for a while, and they’re able to do great things, including creating a sense of identity and social socialization. If you look at a lot of the fully remote companies you see that all of these companies have some planned events for, at least one or two times a year, a reunion of everybody.

Plus they have a number of ways that … So it depends, because either they have an office where people can come, or they have local satellite types of office, or they have ways for people who are located in the same geography to meet. But all of them create these … still have this physical meeting for exactly the same reasons. If you look at their websites, blogs, and write-ups, socialization, culture, and learning. So I think that that’s the reason why, even if you go fully remote, if you look at what the fully remote successful companies are doing, they’re still doing some of this face-to-face interaction at some point. We also, at the end, Alison, there’s a lot of work in cognitive psychology and neuroscience is we’re still embodied people and so there’s a lot of things that happens that are tested and that are still very hard to do via technology.

ALISON BEARD: We have heard this idea about the need for random interactions around the water cooler in the stairwells for a while. I guess my question is, and this has always been an issue. How do you engineer those kind of interactions through design or scheduling such that we make sure our office time is worthwhile?

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: There are a few things that you can do and then I think it’s, again, iteration and context, and it’s a mix of physical features and organizational features. So I think that the space is not enough, you have to have activities around and also you have social norms that are continuously embedded.

So I think it’s about finding a mix between having spaces where people feel where there’s enough traffic that you can meet. That’s the reason why people think about water cooler or coffee machines or staircases, because these are places where you have usually high traffic. But what we found in previous research is that you also want to have enough privacy. So there’s a lot of studies showing that if it’s too high traffic, people just say hi, but they don’t linger to have a conversation.

So you have to have this kind of in-between spaces or semi-public spaces. So there have been some studies and we found also in our studies, that kind of alcove areas or a hallway that has a little bit of an alcove side, people might linger there more. So there’s this kind of balance between openness and privacy.

And then there’s the organizational culture, the permission. Is it okay to stay a little while, is it okay for me to stand by the coffee machine of a copier machine and having a chat with you for a few minutes or does it look like not working?

So I feel like that’s something that is very important. And I think it’s going to be even more important with the hybrid office. So if you tell people to come back to the office or that they can choose to come back or not, it’s like, what’s the pressure people are going to feel like they have to go back to the office because maybe senior management will be there or maybe they won’t look like that they’re very motivated. I’ve seen a few senior managers starting thinking about that – how do we role model so that people feel comfortable deciding to stay remote or going back to the office.

ALISON BEARD: In the article, you also talk about the International Olympic Committee Headquarters in Switzerland that was actually built before the pandemic, but with a lot of these ideas already in mind. So is it possible that many companies – their existing office structures – can facilitate the hybrid office model with just minor modifications? It’s not going to take a huge investment?

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: Oh, yeah. I think that for the companies like IOC – the International Olympic Committee is a great example, but they’ve been doing the office design that quote a few other companies have been doing to focus on collaboration. So I don’t think in fact, that the office space for those who already have been thinking a lot about this, supporting collaboration and interaction, will change that much. Where you will put more effort is really looking at cultural norms and making sure that the technology is flexible enough.

I think that the case of IOC was for us, it was really interesting because here you are a company who builds this huge, magnificent building, and has to close it only a few months after opening it. But then as we talked with them, what we realized was that all the work they have done to build that office was what helped them be able to transition so smoothly to being all remote. So rethinking, as they had to think about the building and bringing… They had four different offices that they put all together in one big office. They had to think about technology, making sure that everybody had a laptop, an easy Wi-Fi access that you could share documents and then they started thinking about policies about working from home.

And so all of these things where the basic infrastructure, both organizational and technical that help create the right environment for moving all remote. And they’ve done a little bit of that in the summer when things were getting better in Europe, where people started coming back, and it seems to have been a quite smooth transition.

ALISON BEARD: I’d love to talk a little bit more about technology. Obviously the ability to transition between home and work is key to this hybrid office model. You also talked about technology that can help organizations figure out who should be where, when. So tell me a little bit about how that works.

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: The idea here is to be able to collect a lot of data.

ALISON BEARD: How does it practically work, though? Do you have trackers on people? It sounds a tiny bit Big Brother.

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: Well, so that’s the point that I wanted to make, and I think that’s always the issue, is surveillance. And I think that that’s also something that had been coming up a lot. Some companies we talk to – a good Excel spreadsheet when you’re not too big works quite well to figure out some of these things. So the way it works, there are some sensors in some cases, and then you have companies and employees have to agree for example, to share their calendar, email tracking and things like that. So clearly there’s a… It’s important to take into account privacy and getting people to make sure that they agree with that.

ALISON BEARD: And you talked about cultural norms too. How do managers need to operate differently in this new hybrid office world?

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: Well, as I said, I think first realizing the diverse needs of people and making sure that you don’t force things on people when they might have strong reasons for not either coming to the office or on the contrary, they really want to go to the office. But I think it’s also about being able to make sure… For example, we mentioned that I think in the article, but the one of Quora co-founder, they decided to tell people that they didn’t have to come back to the office, but they made better decision as a leadership team to make sure that they wouldn’t go too often to the office. I think they go once a month or something like that to make sure that people didn’t feel like, “Oh, I have to go to the office because, the management team is going to be there, and so they have to see me.”

So I think that it’s about finding the right balance of going back to the office to show people that that’s okay. And again, it depends on your strategy of how much you think remote work is good for you. I was talking with a company recently and they were saying that they let people choose, they starting reopening slowly. They noticed that there were a few very senior people going back and then a lot of the more junior people. So they were like, “Either the junior people because they have smaller apartments or they just want to have a chance to meet someone.” And the senior people also felt like that. They wanted to be able to connect with whoever was around and share information. So I think it’s an interesting balance here.

ALISON BEARD: But so the middle tier is left out. Should they be encouraged to come in too?

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: It’s a one case. I think that in this case, a lot of the middle tier are people with children who for the moment are all ended up doing remote schooling, so that might be one of the reason. So hopefully if schools are reopened, you might see more of a middle tier coming back, maybe in a more flexible manner. Again, that’s part of a constraints part that you need to be aware of as a manager.

ALISON BEARD: So you did mention that the biggest challenge will be accommodating people who are fully virtual, people who are hybrid and people who are full-time in the office, and just sort of making that work and making sure no one feels left out. There are many companies that have used this period to hire people who don’t live in the headquarters city. Again, there are companies that have adopted a fully flexible policy and said after this if you want to work from anywhere, fine. So how exactly do you overcome those challenges when you have people on a team, some of whom are fully remote and some of whom are practicing this new hybrid model?

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: I wish I knew but…

ALISON BEARD: We’re all just figuring it out, right?

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: Yeah, I think we’re all figuring it out. So I think already, again, it’s back to being intentional and being aware that this is an experiment and we’re learning and taking the time to reflect and not making final decision, might be an easy way. We keep hearing about agile when it comes to technology. I think we should also be agile with our organization and kind also, so being ready to change and make sure things work out. Again, it might be creating ways for people who are fully remote or hybrid to at least meet some times, but that’s what, again, people who have been doing distributed work for decades now have been doing, is like, at some point, the successful distributed work, there’s moments where people can meet, not necessarily everybody, but at least that there are some overlap so I think that that might be one way.

I don’t know, hiring someone who is going to be completely remote but making sure that person can spend a bit of time, at least at the beginning for onboarding, because I think that’s one thing that we saw a lot during the research is like for all the new people who were hired during the pandemic, it was really hard to feel part of a company and to even get access to all the information they needed.

So I think that’s one way of doing that would be to kind of find ways of creating these moments. I mean, after that we mentioned some technology. There’ve been experiments with connecting people in the eighties, nineties with media spaces. So you can also be creative with technology. Yeah, I think it’s going to be an experiment and trying to make sure to maybe get the inputs of people who are… So I don’t know if it’s survey, if it’s workshops, but realizing that it’s something we’re all into together.

ALISON BEARD: Do you think that there are any knowledge work organizations that will go back to the way we used to be, everyone in the office full time, nine to five or longer?

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: That’s a good question. Human beings tend to go back to what they used to do even after a little while, but it seems to be it’s quite unlikely that we will not at least get some more flexibility in the work. Again, it depends, like talking with some companies when – companies that have security issues, accounting, finance, and I know people who have still kept going to the office even during lockdown because of that. They were circling in the teams but there was still this, so maybe for a few companies it would be mostly back to the office, but with still some flexibility. Maybe one day, sometimes two days depending a way. But I think it’s going to have a long-term effect on the way we work.

I think once company realize that they don’t need to pay for real estate, I’m sure some of them are going to be, and some of them are already re-sthinking, “Why would we need that if we were able to do the work?” The question, again, is what it means to do the work and what’s the long-term impact on organizational culture and just your employees’ wellbeing. I think that it’s interesting to see all the recent studies on loneliness, burnout, that is kind of climbing up with working from home types of context.

ALISON BEARD: Terrific. Well, thanks so much for being on the show.

ANNE-LAURE FAYARD: Well, thank you very much for having me.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Anne-Laure Fayard, associate professor at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering and coauthor of the article Designing the Hybrid Office. You can find it in the March/April 2021 issue of Harvard Business Review or at

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.

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