As the end of the COVID-19 pandemic nears, companies around the globe are rethinking what the workplace will look like in a post-pandemic world. After a year of working from home that proved more remote work doesn’t mean less productivity, most employees want more freedom to choose where and when they work, even after the pandemic. To meet the increased demand for more workplace flexibility, forward-thinking companies are embracing a future where hybrid workplaces are common and the days of employees being tied to their desks are a thing of the past.
In a hybrid workplace model, employees decide where they spend their time in a constellation of workspaces. These workspaces can include central offices, smaller satellite offices, coworking spaces like WeWork, third spaces like coffee shops, or their homes. While every hybrid model will look different depending on a company’s specific needs, the overarching idea is the same: The future of the workplace is flexible.
WeWork recently brought together four experts in corporate real estate to discuss how companies are setting up the offices of tomorrow at this year’s first-ever WeWork Innovation Summit. Moderator Tom Osmond, chief operating officer of human resources at WeWork, was joined by leaders at CBRE, Cushman & Wakefield, Willis Towers Watson, and Okta. Watch the panel on demand here.
The panel discussed the benefits of hybrid workplace models as well as their common challenges, and how flexibility is a solution to the uncertainty of the modern workplace. Here are some of the highlights from the discussion.
WeWork: What is a hybrid workplace strategy?
Rachel Casanova, senior managing director of workplace innovation, Cushman & Wakefield: Hybrid is everything between everyone at home and everyone in the office—and by the way, everyone wasn’t in the office [before the pandemic]. We’re embracing what organizations have been thinking for the past 10 years. We’re in a time of great change for organizations. Hybrid is the best case right now. We can’t all return to the office. We’re not at a point where [the COVID-19 pandemic] is behind us, so that on-ramp will take time.
Armen Vartanian, senior vice president of global workplace services, Okta: By 2025, the vast majority of the workforce is going to be made up of millennials. Gen-Z is now entering the workforce. They have very different preferences than older generations. When you start thinking about their preferences, it’s founded on flexibility.
Really, hybrid is about coming back to this notion of providing what people want. It’s not about coming into the office and being there for X number of days. Somebody can decide to come into an office for a few hours or a day…or they can work from Starbucks. The workplace environment now is no longer just the office, but rather this ecosystem of places where work happens.
Christelle Bron, Americas agile practice leader, CBRE: If you think about the cycle of time in which an organization rethinks and redesigns their workplace, it probably happens once every 10 or 15 years. When you look at the flex provider community, they build a new space every other day. They learn and rebuild and keep on improving the space. The progress for how workspaces can adapt to what people want has improved leaps and bounds since coworking spaces like WeWork have taken off.
What’s your advice for adopting this type of model? Do you start with the physical space itself or the finances?
Casanova: It’s different for everyone. We’re really encouraging clients—as uncomfortable as this may be—to do it and figure it out. How we’ve built in the past is not built for change. We build it and assume it’s great. Even post occupancy evaluation historically has gone to the next project and not to correcting what was done wrong.
Our change programs will only work if we listen to what people tell us. There was a time when we told people what they were going to do—that absolutely won’t work now. Thinking of this as a continuous improvement cycle is imperative. As we try out this hybrid [model], we have to make sure that these are great experiences first and then we will continue to figure it out.
Vartanian: Over the past year, we have moved from a 30 percent remote company to hiring 60 percent of our workforce in markets where we don’t have offices. We’ve done that to follow where the talent is. We will have less people in the markets where we have offices. Now we’re layering on flexibility where you don’t have to come into the office every day. Utilization is going to go down.
The things we need to think about are not just financial. Think about the workplace experience. If you’re warehousing all that space for your employees to be able to flex up on any given day, how’s that office going to feel when half the spaces are being used? You’re creating dead space. That’s not an environment anybody actually wants to work out of.
The WeWork headquarters has a sense of excitement and energy that attracts people to come into an office. They want to come into a space that can’t be replicated in a home environment. [With less utilization] there’s no reason to build larger regional campuses. What we want to do is start investing those dollars into smaller locations to create a network of offices that are closer to where employees are actually residing.
Bron: What we’re seeing, too, are those on-demand solutions. I don’t just want my network of workplaces to be my office and maybe a suite or a coworking space. I want it to be the whole network. I want people to be able to book a space with a click of their phone the same way we can book an Uber and say, “Where am I going today? Where are my colleagues? Where does it make sense for us to meet?” It is a much more fluid process to consume real estate.
Digitization and booking technology is going to be key to achieving all of that. If now the employees are consumers and we treat them as such, we’re going to have to really start measuring their behavior, understand what they want, and be adaptable to everything they want.
Casanova: If we don’t do this well, those vacancy numbers will go up. The consumer mindset is “I vote with my feet,” and if I come in and I can’t find that seat, or if it’s really hard to wake up early to make sure I get a spot in my gym class, the fatigue that comes from that says I’m not coming in. And we’ll keep reducing our utilization numbers by accident.
The thoughtfulness of thinking about this as a consumer [is imperative]. What’s the easiest way with one click I can come in? I don’t care what seat number I have. I don’t want to figure out where my people are. You do that behind the scenes and help me be great at what I do. That is the real challenge right now.
How have you thought about the change management piece of all of this? How do you get leadership buy-in and employee acceptance?
Vartanian: The experience when employees start coming back en masse is going to be critical. I believe the system fails if people have a terrible experience coming into a product that is brand-new to them. They’ll demand the way they used to work because that was more seamless to them.
Technology plays a major role in this. We’re investing in mobile apps to help connect employees where they are and to be able to book their resources. My expectation is that every morning, every employee will be looking at that to see who’s coming into the office, and they [will then] make the decision for themselves if they should come in.
Watch the panel on demand here.
J. Agrelo is a freelance journalist in Chicago.