As we go back in to work after the pandemic, everybody, including me, says ‘hybrid’ offices are the next thing. The idea is that offices closed by the pandemic will not reopen as they were. Basically, some workers will be in the office some of the time, working remote other times.
This spring, John Seabrooke discusses what office designers are thinking, and how this might actually work . His piece has inspired me to think a bit more about work space “design”.
The main goal of the ‘hybrid’ model is to use the in-person office time for what it is necessary and/or good for, e.g.,:
- Some meetings, especially with clients and stakeholders
- Group culture
- Training of new hires
Other activities, including many routine meetings, can be done remotely, or with some workers collocated and others remote.
- Many solo activities, including research, coding, and writing
- Routine checkins and team meetings
- Some conversations and collaborations
What Should We Shoot For?
So, what kinds of things should the office and remote try to optimize?
In my view, an in-person office space should try to maximize (in no particular order):
- Visibility and equity in decision making
- Promote group cohesion
- Positive feelings, especially in public
- Private channels for negative communication
- Hi security/privacy
- Specific facilities, i.e., shop/lab/kennels/etc.,
- Hospitality (e.g., for clients, customers)
And a remote work experience should emphasize:
- Productivity (individual and group)
- Work/life balance
- Reduced commuting, etc.
- Reduced cost of office space
What can go wrong?
Well, as Seabrooke makes clear, you can always manage to get the worst of both worlds. : – (
Remote workers can easily become isolated, lonely, and depressed. Distributed work groups can become unmotivated, disorganized, inequitable, and prone to the special digital hell of what we used to call “flame wars”.
At the same time, the in-person part of a hybrid work environment is prone to all the woes of any conventional workplace, made worse by low and inconsistent attendance.
There can be crappy work conditions, bad meetings and that special analog hell of antisocial behavior. And, these days, people sit in office working remotely with headphones on.
I would say that any in person office, but especially partly occupied ‘hybrid’ office is prone to anti-serendipity–i.e., random acts of social disfunction.
What does this tell us about the future of coworking?
I note that the coworking “industry” is whole-heartedly embracing the ‘hybrid’ space concept. This make sense because this is what coworking has always been about.
Coworking spaces are actually pretty good models for what a ‘hybrid’ office should look like. And, as I have written, it’s not the layout of the space, or any specific amenities that matter. What matters is the people and how they get along .
And successful coworking communities are generally no larger than 200 people, which stands as a guide for all office design (which Seabrooke notes, too).
A coworking space (at least pre-pandemic) has one interesting feature that designers should pay attention to: participation is optional. Unlike corporate offices, workers inhabit coworking spaces that they like, and leave when they don’t like it. This means that a coworking space succeeds by meeting the needs of its workers, whoever they are.
There can be (and have been) many different coworking spaces, meeting the needs of different groups of workers. But each one needs to work hard to recruit and satisfy a community of workers, and this is what successful coworking spaces do well.
In contrast, a company can only have one or a few in person office spaces, and workers generally don’t have a lot of choice about where to work. And this is a challenge, because everyone is different, and no single office can be perfect for everyone. (It is quite possible to be awful for everyone, of course.)
So, I would say that an organization needs to understand how its workers work, and what they like, and try to do that.
There is some circular logic here, because organizations select and shape their workers to their own ways. So there is tangled feedback of what workers are used to and what workers want.
Worse, people who don’t fit the official or most dominant ‘culture’ face marginalization and can be driven out. This isn’t good for the workers or the organization, and can easily be flat out illegal when any group is treated unfairly.
Coworking spaces deal with these issues with strong community leadership (see Chapter 5 of my book ). In a conventional office, “culture” is promulgated by managers and HR who work for management. Coworking “culture” is promulgated by leaders who work for the space, which means that the workers are their customers, not their employees.
This seems like a very significant psychological difference to me. Corporate “culture” is too often something that arrives via email from a boss. Coworking community culture is something that arrives via personal conversations and introductions.
Hmm. Which one would you like better?
So, here’s a thought.
Don’t worry too much about the layout of the office. Instead, hire people whose job is to make workers happy in the space, and specifically, to get people to like each other.
This role is inspired by coworking ‘community managers’, but can’t be quite the same. The really tricky bit is to make these people mostly responsible to the workers, not to management. I.e., this cannot be a classical HR position (concerned with enforcing policies) or line manager (concerned with meeting goals). This is something different, and it doesn’t even have a name.
Can this be done? Will it work?
But I think it might be the right way to go.
- Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking? A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community. 2018, Robert E. McGrath: Urbana. https://whatiscoworkingthebook.com/
- John Seabrooke, Office Space: The Post-pandemic Future of Open-plan Work, in The New Yorker. 2021, Conde Nast: New York. p. 40-49. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/02/01/has-the-pandemic-transformed-the-office-forever