Designing a hybrid office for productivity

hybrid office design

It wasn’t long into the pandemic lockdown that many companies realized the traditional office was no longer feasible. Some companies, like San Francisco-based Salesforce and Pinterest jumped headfirst into changing policies to make remote work permanent, even post-pandemic. Others, like Facebook and Microsoft, began preparing for a hybrid work environment where employees split time between remote and in-office work. 

Based on my own remote work experience, the many tales of co-workers and friends, and the most relevant research on productivity in the workplace, this article takes you through conceptualizing the hybrid office design and the tools you’ll need to set yourself up for success. From plants to conference rooms equipped with all the necessary collaboration tools, you’ll find a starting point – or a useful addendum – to your efforts to create a great hybrid workplace.

One thing leaders should keep in mind while designing a new hybrid office or planning an upgrade is the relationship between the size and shape of physical spaces and employee output. Employees have been at home for almost two years.That’s a lot of time to think and rethink their workspace. Leaders should identify the aspects of remote work that promote productivity and work to bring them to the office environment.

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The hybrid office: a marriage of design and policies

A hybrid office is designed to support the work styles of both in-office and remote employees.

Policies in this type of workplace lean toward flexibility rather than rigidity. A flexible policy can allow for work arrangements like split time between the central office and home, non-traditional work hours, and more. Policies can support productivity by allowing employees to build a work-life balance to maximize their own energy and motivation. 

A hybrid workplace physically looks like a space supportive of a number of working preferences. There may be private booths for video conferencing and calls or assigned desks for employees who work better with dedicated space. There can be hot desks for employees who split time between the office and home. Collaborative spaces can support meetings and team events. 

With so many possible configurations, where do you start with designing an office that supports hybrid work? I looked at a number of different factors that impact productivity and employee happiness to define three areas of focus when it comes to office design.

Hybrid office design basics

Office design to support this new frontier for business factors in needs like video conferencing capabilities and workspaces for employees who split their time between the office and home. One challenge to design is increasing productivity in an environment with distractions. Interruptions from co-workers or office noise can cut into crucial focus time. A hybrid office floorplan built for productivity should focus on three factors: motivation, environment, and digital tools.

Motivation

At home, many employees fell into a pattern of working that left ample room for breaks. They could seize opportunities to switch loads of laundry or take their dogs for a walk.

Productive office design doesn’t need a laundry room or a designated office mascot to give the same motivation to employees. Design can however, take into account the need for a change of scenery. A dingy kitchenette with lunch-stained plastic containers in a drying rack can become a food and beverage center with ample comfortable seating for employees – and a dishwasher. More than a place to take a lunch break, this space can provide a separation between work and eating – or socializing. 

The location of the office can also provide outlets for individual employees’ rewards systems. An office near a walking path or in close proximity to a coffee shop can provide a change of scenery that produces a positive effect on productivity. Close proximity to coffee doesn’t need to be your only option. Variety – rather than one specific environment – can contribute to overall happiness and productivity. This means any space or place accessible from an office has potential to positively impact employees. At least, that’s what a group of NYU researchers set out to prove in a study. Participants who varied their environments and experiences more on a day-to-day basis to possess more positive feelings than those participants with little variety in their day. 

According to Deloitte, companies that actively recognize employees boost engagement, which in turn can boost productivity, and the bottom line. In an article from two Deloitte consultants, they identify 14% higher performance, productivity, and engagement in organizations with recognition programs compared to organizations without programs. You might post in the #employees Slack channel to recognize employees, but don’t forget the physical space to recognize the achievements – from customer kudos to a promotion.

What does recognition look like in the physical office? Following the recommendation to consider monetary and non-monetary incentives tied to business objectives, a space can act as a permanent representation of goals each employee supports. A wall in the conference room or a display board in a communal area offer a few options.

The recognition looks closer to an org chart with a few extra layers. At the top of the organizational tree sits the overall business objectives while the departments branch out underneath with projects in each representing their own branches before individual employees are grouped into the projects they support. 

Environment

Workplace design includes the overall environment – which can help or hinder productivity. Noise and interruptions are considered environmental factors and can be helped by offering a variety of workspaces – which I discuss more in the next section on workspaces. For now, the three factors to consider are temperature, light, and air. 

In a 2004 study from Cornell, workers’ productivity was measured in separate temperature-controlled environments. Researchers found warmer workers made fewer typing errors than those in cooler environments. While not all employees prefer warmer temps, finding a middle ground where sweaters and space heaters are not required can help – whether it’s a thermostat adjustment or HVAC solutions tailored to each part of the space.

Office lighting is a combination of natural and artificial sources. While you can’t always adjust office layout to have natural light touch each corner of the workplace, artificial light can help make up the difference. Avoid fluorescent, or other harsh artificial light, when possible and consider more moody lighting schemes for collaborative spaces. A paper in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that dim illumination – compared to the typical levels found in offices – can positively impact creative output. One architect even suggests color-changing bulbs to follow more closely the circadian rhythm of humans. 

In an article on ventilation, researchers set out to show that air quality can impact productivity. With several experiments, they showed a change in productivity when removing air pollutants in the work environment – up to a 9% increase. Aside from air purifiers and more frequent exchange between indoor and outdoor air, offices could benefit from live plants when it comes to air quality. While only a few species can claim to help reduce air pollutants, the presence of green in an indoor environment can help bring the benefits of nature indoors boosting mood and productivity.

Digital tools

Even in the physical space, digital tools are crucial to maintaining the hybrid functionality – and productivity – of the workforce. Employees in the pandemic discovered a number of tools to stay motivated and on task while working from home. Ranging from time tracking apps to project management apps, company leaders should support the tools that will bring organization to teams split between home and office. 

After all the projects are painstakingly templated in Asana, ClickUp, or some other management tool and the Pomodoro timer desktop version is downloaded, it comes down to appropriating focus time to hit that productivity sweet spot. Focus time is important because it combats the task switching that can eat up as much as 40% of your productive time. An app like Clockwise finds that focus time for you – amidst office commutes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, daily standups, departmental meetings – and keeps it safe from distractions. 

A fourth focus that is touched by each of the three above is the environment in which employees can maintain good habits while breaking bad ones. A hybrid office itself provides some productivity benefits – especially for those who feel motivated by the presence of others like in this study. When working from home, employees have the opportunity to go from desk to couch to kitchen table – and even to the coffee shop down the street. In a hybrid work setup where some days are spent in the office, the workspaces provide the variety that can help maintain focus. 

A hybrid work setup also allows employees to separate tasks into buckets for the office and home. Separating tasks in this way tracks with the study’s findings that people were more productive doing mechanical or repetitive tasks in group settings but less productive doing more mentally taxing tasks.

With these focuses in mind, it’s time to consider the kinds of workspaces to fit a hybrid office. 

Choose your workspaces

What do the physical workspaces look like in the hybrid workplace? It’s a mix of collaboration spaces and workstations conducive to productive focus time. A hybrid workplace should complement the setups that workers have been building at home since the pandemic started – and in many cases long before 2020. 

A Stanford researcher and his then-graduate student set out to quantify this productivity when they found 500 volunteers from a travel agency to divide into two groups: those who conducted their call center job in the office and those who did so from home. The resulting paper details the increased efficiency – 13.5% gains compared with in-office workers – and an increase in engagement. 

One finding researchers were not prepared for was the widespread desire of the work-from-home (WFH) employees to return to the office. Half of the 250 WFH study participants decided to return to the office. This gives even more support  for the idea that the workplace can be the complement to remote work. 

Assigned desks

In a hybrid environment, it’s possible that some roles require a dedicated workspace. The employees that find the most productivity with assigned desks will vary based on the organization. You may have employees who prefer to work in the office full-time. You might have them assigned in a hierarchy based on role seniority. You may also choose to accept requests from any employee who finds designated workspaces crucial to doing their work well.

Hot desks

The rest of the individual workspaces can be hot desks. Make sure to use a booking system that allows employees to dedicate a space for themselves for the day. This can give employees a sense of their own space where they can leave their laptops to attend meetings or take breaks throughout the day.

Conference areas

Conference areas in hybrid workplaces are more than seating and a table. Hybrid work means employees can participate from more than just squeaky office chairs. Video conferencing capabilities are a must in conference rooms and tools like digital whiteboards for brainstorming can round out the hybrid meeting style.

Private spaces

A hybrid office supporting all types of work includes spaces like modern phone booths for Zoom calls with clients and meeting rooms on a smaller scale than conference areas where smaller teams can connect.

Digital spaces

With almost everything on the cloud, it’s easy to find digital solutions accessible at home and in the office. The difficulty comes with finding tools that fit teams’ working styles while avoiding clunkiness or poor user experience. Aside from obvious tools like email suites and operating systems, size up your digital messaging platform (Slack, Microsoft Teams, etc.), select a project management tool, and weigh productivity tools that work for the whole team – like Clockwise

Meeting the needs of the hybrid workforce means marrying the best aspects of in-office and remote work. Leaders can look to the design of these new offices to find the productivity many employees found working from home while spurring teamwork and social ties among team members. By taking into account the factors of motivation, environment, and the digital workspace offices can transform to meet the needs of a changing workforce. One hot desk at a time. 

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