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Designing the hybrid offices that we return to (Podcast)
Posted on Monday, August 16, 2021
Designing the hybrid offices that we return to (Podcast)

Aug. 16, 2021 - Our guest today is Anne-Laure Fayard, an associate professor of innovation, design, and organization studies at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering. Together with her co-authors, she is behind the recent Harvard Business Review feature, Designing the Hybrid Office. Today, we’ll be talking about collaboration, innovation, and technology when rethinking the office of the future. We’ll go into topics like what employees should come into the office for, how technology can create an equitable space for all, no matter where they’re working from, and what managers should be considering with the shift to hybrid.

Paul Sephton: To start off, I’ve really loved the work that you’ve done on thinking about the office of the future and the hybrid office. And I think one of the fundamental things is if we think about the office and returning to it and using it for the purposes we once did, we won’t necessarily get the full benefits of flexibility or of hybrid work. So what do you think we should be going back into the office to do?

Anne-Laure Fayard: I think that what we learned during the last year is that people can do the work, which is producing outcomes, when they’re not in the office. And a lot of people were surprised. I don’t think it’s really surprising, if we look at previous research. There’s been a lot of studies showing how a lot of the things that we were doing in the office were more than just producing the work. And in fact, even in my research on workplace and informal interactions prior to the pandemic, it was really interesting that people were already saying that they would go early in the office or stay later or find a place outside to do their work. So I think that we already knew that. What people are missing is the social connection, what we talk about, the human moments, like connecting with people.

But I think then there’s, even for work, there’s a lot of things that have happened in terms of knowledge sharing, tacit knowledge, building trust with people that are not necessarily in your personal network, and connecting with them and getting access to previous resources. So it’s like more of your social capital. And there’s been a lot of interesting studies by Microsoft, showing how the social capital of people have shrunk during the pandemic.

And so I think the last piece is really the organizational culture. And so a lot of companies were really worried at the beginning of the pandemic, and then they were like, oh wow, people can still work. It’s great. But I think it worked because people knew each other. They already had the trust and the social capital. After a year, when you haven’t seen people for a long time, you start losing a lot of these things. And although we can do a lot of things via Zoom or Teams or whatever, I think a lot of the little social things that are missing, you don’t bump into people, you don’t do a lot of things, and I’ve been hearing it more and more.

The last piece is newcomers. People have still been hiring newcomers. And what we’ve seen in our research, a lot of people who join new companies are like, I don’t really know what I’m part of, and it’s really hard to ask questions. And that’s something also that a lot of companies have been worried about, is like how do we do onboarding, but also mentoring of new employees? And I think that’s, for example, there’s been people very vocal, for example, in the financial industry, saying everybody has to go back to the office. And one of the big reasons was mentoring of junior colleagues. So back to your question, if we’re going back to the office, it’s for social human connection, the informal network, social capital building, and the sense of building a sense of organizational culture.

Paul Sephton: The informal spaces where we used to do that, like the open office, were before the pandemic criticized for being somewhere where it was really hard to get any work done. But at the same time, if we go back to the office and we’re just booked in back-to-back meetings for our full workdays, we might not get all of those human moments and social interactions which we’re talking about. So how much is it about leadership and management redefining what the office is there for as a resource, and how much of it is about actually redesigning the spaces in which we work in offices, or do the two go hand in hand?

Anne-Laure Fayard: That’s a great question. I think that there are, in fact, a few questions there, but at the end of the day, too, the overall answer is it’s both. It’s about the space, but it’s clearly not just the space. It’s about the leadership, the roles, the norms. I think just the point about the criticism of the open plan offices, a lot of the informal interaction didn’t happen necessarily in the open plan per se, but more in nearby coffee machine alcoves, like semi public spaces. So I think that it’s always a pendulum. I think we went from closed office or cubes to completely open.

And pre-pandemic, you could see already that a lot of the architectural firms were moving to what they call the neighborhood concepts. So there was already a thinking about how do we have variations? And I think that’s from the space perspective, we’re going to need more and more. And from what I’ve seen, talking with companies who are in the space of architecture or office space design, I think that’s what they’re looking at, is like, how do we get something that is modular and that allows for different types of work and that can be changed easily for people?

The second point you made about like, okay, but if we go back to the office and then we have back-to-back meeting, we’re not getting the best of what we want to do in the office because we know we can do these meetings back to back, remote. In fact, it might be more efficient because we would just do the meetings one after the other.

So I think that here it’s going to be where the role of management is going to be very important. If you want to get people to come back to the office in a productive manner, you have to figure out a way where as a, you know, if you’re managing a team, you don’t want to book only meetings because that’s not interesting for people. They know they can do it back from home. And then if the leadership, the senior management, is going to the office, but always in meetings, then people are going to say, well, what’s the point? We don’t have the mentoring. So I think it’s the role modeling would be super important from senior management, and talking with a few organization lately, I think that a lot of organizations are trying to convince people that it’s worth going back to the office, and it’s a lot about like, how are we going to make the experience interesting?

I think then there, it’s really important to realize that it’s not going to be a very exciting experience if it’s only going to be nine to five, or nine to six, meetings back to back. So I’m not saying that we should not have at all any meetings because having a meeting all together can be useful, and also because I think that what we forget is that oftentimes the meetings that we do face to face, what is interesting is the before and the after. That’s where things happen.

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