Project Management Institute

Hybrid Working & The Future of Corporate Office Design

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT

COVID has forever changed the way we work—with a new hybrid style emerging. But as more people head back to the office, it’s up to designers to reimagine those spaces in ways that encourage collaboration and innovation—no matter where teams are.

TODD HEISER

The future of office is going to be really dynamic with work and place being uncoupled. Redefining the office is the best place to bring people together, especially for those whose jobs rely on in-person collaboration or specific spaces or shared resources, is really important. Physical and virtual experiences really have to be fully integrated because digital systems will continue to shape the seamless level of connectivity and personalization.

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.

When you’re forced out of familiar spaces and routines for an extended period, you’re able to see things differently—to evaluate elements you once took for granted and look for opportunities to improve. That’s happening right now, as many people around the world start returning to their offices after a sudden and in some cases prolonged time away.

But the office is changing. At first it seemed that most of those changes would focus on safety: touchless elevator buttons, socially distanced seating, improved ventilation. Turns out that’s just table stakes. There’s a bigger change happening.

Hybrid work, where some people continue to work remotely a few days a week while also making regular appearances in the office, is likely to become a new standard. And design teams will need to figure out how to transform the standard office space into much-needed hubs of collaboration and connection. A February survey from mega job site Indeed found that 45 percent of people working from home said they miss meetings with their co-workers, and 46 percent said they miss those on-the-fly side conversations that were natural and routine in the office.

We’re speaking today with two people working on projects that are reimagining office space for the post-pandemic world. Our first guest is from global architecture and design firm Gensler—Todd Heiser, principal and co-managing director of the company’s Chicago office.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

We’ve just come through … well, quite a year, right? Many people have been isolated from their co-workers but discovered the potential of remote work at the same time, and as a result it seems like the future of the office will look different. What do you expect those changes to look like?

TODD HEISER

Out of the pandemic, I think this notion of choice, autonomy, and health and well-being, they’ve just become paramount for individuals and teams to perform at their best. People needed to feel safe, they needed to feel healthy, and they needed people to value them. And so, from health checks to touchless security to emotional security to improved air systems, I think owners and users of spaces are really focused on healthy buildings and experiences.

And that’s only going to continue to be pushed harder than ever, right? We want to be in spaces that make us feel vital, and we could talk about outdoor spaces. I think we’re seeing a huge shift. They’re becoming a big part of our buildings and our workplaces of the future. 

STEVE HENDERSHOT

Assuming that remote work plays a larger role in the future, when people do come together at the office, there will be a greater focus on making that experience communal and collaborative. Yet—some people, maybe lots of people, are still going to feel a little nervous about all that together time. Outdoor space might be part of the solution, but how else can companies make spaces that foster connection while also making people feel comfortable?

TODD HEISER

I think to create the future we want, we have to work together and meet in the middle. The way that I think about it, we have to look at our spaces, and first you’ve got to understand that every person is made up slightly differently. Actually, everyone has things that they love and things that they hate. And I think you have to start at that emotional core of people to understand, really, what are they comfortable with? That involves a series of basic questions.

Who? It’s actually understanding who is coming together and understanding what kind of relationship do they have with each other? I think we have to ask ourselves, What? What are they going to be doing in this space? Are they going to be collaborating? Are they going to be just simply sharing information? Can we actually change how we share information?

I think when we look at the who, the what, the where, the how, those things I think will define what settings are appropriate. I talk a lot about we’re going to need to curate our day in a very different way coming out of this pandemic, and I think that’s going to be more true than ever. We’re going to really match a space to what we want to accomplish, and maybe that means we’re going to be a lot more purposeful about how we do things. I hope that’s what occurs.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

What about this idea that we’ll end up splitting time in the future? Are you hearing that there’s some consensus that we’ll be headed to a three days in the office, split-staff sort of thing, or what does that look like?

TODD HEISER

Well, long before the pandemic, I think we always realized that we would transition to hybrid work. The fundamental role of the office is shifting from really a place that brings people together to collaborate, to build personal, professional relationships, and to really connect with a company’s unique business, mission and purpose. New behaviors, technology and policies really are going to be required to allow flexible and virtual work to thrive, and we’re also going to need to support coaching and mentoring and a more equitable and inclusive experience.

There’s going to be a range. I think some people will want to be in the office five days a week. I don’t think that’s going to go anyplace. I also think there are going to be people who want to be in the office one day a week. We did work for a lot of consulting firms pre-pandemic that Friday was the day that everyone was in the office. The office was buzz-y, and the first four days of the week—Monday through Thursday—people were out with their clients. I think we’ve been saying for years choice should drive a workplace experience. I do think it’s going to change the quality of those spaces or the kit-of-parts, if you will, of what an office is going to look like. I think that every meeting space is really going to need to be video capable. Virtual meetings are going to be a little more difficult because you’re going to have these braided technologies of people physically and remotely connecting.

And I think this is going to be especially true in creative, generative meetings, where people may be talking at the same time, using whiteboards, referring to collateral, reviewing tangible products. Remote participants, if they’re working away from the office, they may feel frustrated and unequal and become less engaged because they don’t feel part of the collaboration. And I think that’s probably going to drive people back to the office. We’ve seen that actually in the initial beta that people feel like the thing that’s missing most right now is collaboration. But I think choice is going to drive the office of the future. I think certainly we are going to have a braided technology or hybrid technology we talked about.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

What about the spaces themselves? I can imagine a few very different drivers pushing people back to the office: You’ve got the desire for contact, which aligns with open-office formats, but then another is, “My home office has not been working for me, and I need a private, quiet space where I can concentrate.” For that matter, I suppose there’s a third set of folks that have loved working remotely, but their company leadership is pushing for a return to the office. How do you go about the task of accommodating all of the above?

TODD HEISER

The space for me is one of the most exciting things. I think we’re going to see really incredible progress in space types. I think we’re going to see smart conference rooms that really respond to the people in them. I think you’re going to see AR [augmented reality], VR [virtual reality], and IR [implanted reality] integrated into conference settings and really make the experience dynamic. I think that once people get a taste of this, although people are saying now, “I don’t want any part of this,” I think they’re going to be really excited to collaborate that way. Years ago, people loved the idea of a hand sketch in my work, and now they love to see the space. They love to be able to walk through it. It doesn’t mean either one is better. People would say both. I think we’re going to see that integrated technology is going to become a big driver.

I like the idea also of these connected cafés—you mentioned actually what kind of spaces will emerge. If you think about the last 10 years and the types of spaces that were created for the work world, we talked about these cafés. They had ping-pong tables or pool tables and espresso and fizzy water, and they were the place to come together. I think now, when you actually think about that café and you realize what could this be actually for people sitting at home? Well, I think you could use people’s Instagram feed as a conversation starter. You can get proximity mixes. You can understand people who are on-site and off-site. You can create portals for coffee meetings and secondary workspaces. So, I think the promise of space is going to be really exciting because it’s really going to marry the physical and digital world into these third spaces.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

How has your experience over the last year changed how you approach office design projects?

TODD HEISER

It’s really time to rethink the open plan. For as long as I’ve been doing this, individual workstations have become more open with ever-increasing density, and I think as we return, these spaces really need to flip. I think meetings need to happen more in the open, and focused work probably needs to be reconsidered. We’ve talked about partitions, walls and even doors. People ask, “Open or closed,” and I always say, “Both.” In the past year, employees would report higher levels of productivity if their home allows them to work without interruption, and that means we’ve got to provide places without interruption at the office, too. But it doesn’t have to look exactly like an office.

I’ll tell you one thing that I think is going to dramatically change is the demand for traditional conference rooms. I think a lot of those meetings are probably going to take place virtually, even when people are on-site. And so I think the future of an office is really going to look more hospitality driven. Innovation, problem solving and co-creation often use agile approaches. We’re going to need to solve for quick standup meetings that require visible, persistent content. And so I think gathering with tools for generating ideas, sharing, exchanging information in open space is going to be a design challenge. I think that’s going to be defined by flexible furniture, easy to access tech and other design elements. People are going to be able to roll up their sleeves and use what’s around them to activate their bodies and brains.

In general, I think the hybrid future solves for a lot more fluidity in a workplace that can really flex as needs change. Those are the things that I’m thinking about—things that accelerate innovation and advance the culture of an organization and frankly ensure that our real estate is always optimized. An open space that supports a hybrid meeting in the morning, that might become a café at lunch, that hosts a town hall in the afternoon, that becomes a space for the community at night—these are really the workplace of the future. I think when you link that to what are the behaviors that those types of spaces drive, what do those spaces look like? And then, what’s the output of those spaces psychologically to the people that use them? That for me is really exciting to think about. I think it’s going to really change what an office looks like. I hope it does.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Many of the design changes we’re seeing were spurred directly by COVID, but companies are also looking at this as an opportunity to really drive a change in culture. That’s something we discussed with our next guest, Kahn Yoon, the director of international projects at global workplace design firm M Moser Associates in Singapore. Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt spoke with Kahn about how workplace design is changing and what that means for future projects.

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HANNAH SCHMIDT

COVID-19 forced a lot of people to work from home, maybe for a few weeks, others for several months. So, how do you think the pandemic’s disruption of the world of work will change the role of the office, especially now as you’re having these conversations with clients who are maybe looking to change their office after the pandemic?

KAHN YOON

Yeah, that’s a million-dollar question that everyone’s been asking. I guess when we go back to look at the role of office traditionally, it’s to communicate with co-workers, whether it’s your boss, your colleagues, to have instruction and collaborate, and then actually do the work. And that repeats itself. But if we look at what are some other things, other than just producing work itself, there’s socializing, sense of belonging, there’s mentoring. There’s lots of more intangible things that are associated with working in an office, in a space together. So maybe people will stay home if they need to do focus work and only come to office if they really want to collaborate.

The office environment should naturally cater for more of that collaboration and less of the individual work. That’s our prediction in moving forward, and that means the space requirement may reduce, but also clients need to think about what are some of the areas that we need to enhance in order to support those other activities that we need more of.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What are you seeing as maybe some of the areas specifically in the office that are going to need to shift more to accommodate this change

KAHN YOON

Definitely areas of collaboration—more meeting spaces, more open collaboration spaces—because you always rely on serendipitous discussions that spark a bit of that innovation. Also, I think a lot of technology will play parts, and if you want to jump into a call with your colleagues, because some of your colleagues are working from home, all of that whilst you have an open collaboration, I think dealing with that audio will need to be looked at so that you’re not disrupting a whole lot of other people that are around you as well.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What do you think this means for the next set of projects that we’re going to see? Are we going to see a lot of offices revamping, or are we going to see a lot of offices maybe transferring to different locations, either smaller or ones with different amenities? What do you think is coming next?

KAHN YOON

If I look at the number of clients that have come back and have worked through with us what they’re after, I still would say it really depends a lot on the companies and their culture. But, overall, I have to say they are looking at reducing their footprint because if they had part of their function, their employees, was made up of a certain percentage of more admin-focused work, and they’re realizing that as long as trust is there, they can work from home and really there’s no loss of productivity. They are looking at that, but some companies are looking at this as a real drive to change their culture as well. If they were trying to instill more of that collaboration and innovation, they see this as an opportunity whereby providing a lot more of those support spaces that we’ve just mentioned, that would encourage their staff as well.

I think it’s an important time where it may have a polarizing effect. If companies are looking at a short-term benefit in taking the candy in front of you, if you like, and really just focus on reducing real estate in order to save money, I think it’s a short-sighted decision. Companies really need to look at how can they make the most out of this opportunity to really drive their culture to what they desire to be and so that it creates an optimum and that is high in productivity, yet it still has all of those sense of belonging and instilling the culture within the employees to make sure that it creates a positive spiral effect.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

Speaking of that culture, what are some ways that you’re maybe seeing that through office design, that people are really pushing that as they’re coming out of or transitioning to the post-pandemic moment?

KAHN YOON

One big trend is making sure the well-being is provided. There was already a focus on well-being, but I think it’s heightened because of the hygiene factor and mental well-being. There’s a lot of focus in how do we provide something in the office that’s going to kind of compete, if you like, with work from home? If people are so happy working from home, how do you get them back in the office and make sure that you’re not losing out on all those other benefits of employees coming together? There’s that big factor in employee well-being.

I would say the other part of the provision to get them back in is just organizing more of the social aspect of our work and making sure that people are engaged and to have that sense of belonging and having that camaraderie. It’s a hard one, but the companies working together with HR, they really need to look at what are the things they can instill to get people together in the office.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

Some offices that were either under construction or under renovation during the pandemic made changes to either figure out ways to incorporate more social distancing, or they’re bringing in air and surface disinfection systems. What do you see as, like, lasting design changes or office features versus in the moment, reactive changes that aren’t going to last?

KAHN YOON

Definitely the plexi screens will go. That won’t last. Focusing on air quality, such as high-rate filtering, getting more fresh air, I think that will stay. Preference for anything touchless I believe will be implemented more and more so. Strict distancing will probably go as people get vaccinated. We’ve got to understand, people forget. Once the vaccine’s rolled out across the globe and maybe in three to four years’ time, hopefully, and people consider that safe, other than the impact from actual working from home, other more directly related features to actual COVID, I believe, will be generally forgotten in those times.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What about biophilic design? This idea of bringing more green spaces or nature into the office was happening before COVID, but how are you seeing this continue in office design?

KAHN YOON

It’s interesting how the pandemic has accelerated or heightened everything that was already a bit of a trend before. Biophilia is certainly one of those. You can say that’s part of the well-being that we touched on previously. We are working on a project at the moment, and we’ve really looked into the benefits of biophilia. Not only is it mentally soothing, but it has a lot of other environmental benefits of sound absorption, of cooling the air, giving obviously fresh air. There’s a lot of natural benefit. I think people would expect that more and more so that biophilia is part of the design moving forward. I mention again, that’s another way to attract or compete with your home environment to make sure that when you come into the office that you’re still getting those benefits of being a little bit more homely, natural, and you don’t feel like you’re in a big sort of a factory of desks.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

As you’ve been working through this time, how has the pandemic changed how you personally think and are designing workplaces?

KAHN YOON

It’s not so much about how I think about designing it. I think it’s more about the company. I believe it highlights the fact that we should really go back to the first principles of talking to the company and understanding what they really want to drive out of their workplace. And that, in turn, will drive everything about the design.

I think a lot of companies underestimate the power of workplace. Of course, there is a lot of discussions around, “Oh, is the office dead? Why would you come into the office if you can work from home?” In Singapore, because COVID has been more or less under control, a lot of people are coming back, and firsthand experience that I have is whilst I’ve enjoyed working from home, to a degree, once I started coming back, I also realized how much I missed having collaboration with colleagues and having those innovation moments. If the companies really understand the benefits, then I think in order for us to design, that’s when we need to focus on, and hopefully, everything else will fall in place.

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STEVE HENDERSHOT

Once upon a time, people went to the office because they thought they had to—that was the only place where they could get work done. Turns out that’s not the case anymore, at least for many people. But this time away from the office has also highlighted something else—that people crave, and thrive on, human connection and teamwork. So while the offices of the future will be much more inclusive and accommodating of hybrid workers, the project teams designing the Office of the Future will also be well served to highlight some of what has worked in the past: the magic that happens when people come together to collaborate and innovate.

NARRATOR

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