The Post-Covid Workplace: Hybridization in Pain

The office was to be the major collateral victim of the COVID crisis. We were told that downtowns would be abandoned by businesses, that square meters would be abandoned, and that employees would no longer return to the office. What is the situation now that we are starting to see things more clearly?

What is at stake with the workplace?

The workplace crystallizes a certain number of issues and reducing them to “the place where people are installed to do their work” would be very reductive.

To put it simply, for the business the workplace is an issue at different levels:

  • Work organization: we do not organize ourselves in the same way at a distance as in physical presence.
  • Management and leadership: many managers are not at ease at a distance, so much so that the question of management is transformed into a question of control.
  • Business culture: if we are to believe what they say, culture only spreads when people are physically together. This topic also includes socialization
  • Finance: less offices = more savings.

What is interesting is that for employees the issues are different. It’s a question of :

  • Socialization
  • Work / life balance
  • Productivity: for some tasks, it is much better to be quiet at home
  • Collective work: as “co” becomes more and more common (co-design, co-creativity, agility with “dailys”) the office must make these dynamics possible, otherwise it is useless.

By comparing the stakes on both sides, we can already see that the compromise will be difficult, especially since it will be based on an unspoken fact: depending on which side you are on, you will not accept it for the same reasons. And when parties negotiate without agreeing on the criteria, it often leads to a result that suits no one.

The lure of hybridization

It is easy to understand that the issues related to the workplace, whether on the side of the business or on the side of the employee, go much further than a simple reflection on the real estate or the location of the employee: it is a reflection on the transformation of the modes of work, management, leadership and on the design of this place.

Nothing new: remote working has only brought to light old issues that used to be hidden under the carpet and that the return to the office should allow to hide again because too complicated to address in depth.

So rather than asking these questions the debate has become much more binary: where will the employee work? Office or home? Here a magic solution has emerged: hybrid work. It will be neither, but a bit of both according to a ratio still to be determined. And all of a sudden it becomes a debate about the location of the employee with arguments linked to the business culture because since the employee will not be 100% in remote working, the businesses think they are exempt from thinking about their transformation.

Since no one will be 100% teleworking, the office will once again become the norm and the remote the exception, so we will apply the office work model in a hybrid organization and this can only be painful.

I won’t go into more detail on the subject as I covered it at length a short while ago, but if hybrid work is a reality as a concept of dividing working time between the office and the remote, it is an illusion as a mode of work organization or management model. As long as one person is remote, the business must function as if everyone else were. It’s as simple as that.

The hybridization of work will happen, but it will be painful: because the way the business operates will not adapt, because management will not adapt, because many managers and leaders will be slow to adapt. We can hope that with time and generational renewal things will change, just hope.

The office as a work tool

If there is one thing that will change, it is the design of the workplace. As I said before, the way we work is changing irreversibly with more collective activities and creativity.

The design thinking approach is spreading, agility is becoming more widespread with its “ceremonies”: we need more spaces to meet, sometimes to create, sometimes to exchange quickly standing up in small groups… Yesterday’s office with its open spaces and meeting rooms where it is difficult to move around and stick entire walls of post-its does not correspond to tomorrow’s needs. Tomorrow’s office will certainly have less open spaces and more modular spaces to engage in these types of activities.

Of course this has nothing to do directly with the consequences of COVID, but given that the question of the future of the office arises, that hybrid work will free up space, it would be a pity not to push the reflection to the end and to think about the organization of the office.

But once again, this requires us to no longer see the office as a place where people are stored, but as a tool that they use for their work. If we see employees as laying hens, we build henhouses, if we see them as intelligences that must meet and mix, we build something else…

Let’s just keep one thing in mind: the “workplace”, yesterday the factory, today the office, was designed to allow the meeting between the employee and the production tool. Today, with the development of knowledge-based work, individuals have become their own production tool with, most often, the assistance of a mobile and connected computer. Let’s draw the consequences.

The office as a place for socialization.

One of the few topics on which businesses and employees agree is the need to maintain social contact. Although here again we see differences if we read between the lines. Where the business sees it as the one and only way to maintain and spread its culture, the employee simply sees it as the satisfaction of a need for human contact and to see their colleagues.

Moreover, the businesses that have gone to the end of the remote working process to become “full remote” do not say anything else: it is essential to organize meeting moments, at the office or elsewhere if they no longer have an office.

So the office of tomorrow, in addition to workspaces adapted to the new ways of working, will include social spaces, places where people spend time together without working.

Put like that, everything seems obvious and logical, but the approach seems questionable in the long term. Offices are a heavy financial burden for the business and the switch to hybrid work has the indirect, but appreciable, consequence of reducing this burden if the surface area is adapted to the number of employees actually present.

But if we compensate for a lower need for work space by replacing it with social spaces, we will have to justify an investment dedicated to employees… when they are not working. Similarly, the logic that one of the reasons employees return to the office is to spend time not working will be questioned by the most scrupulous financiers.

Today we are in shock and we have a 6% growth rate. What will happen tomorrow when the next crisis brings us back to earth?

A trade-off will have to be made between socialization policy within the walls of the business and outside its walls. An exclusively financial approach, but it cannot be avoided.

Le bureau comme outil d’attractivité

Finally, if remote working is becoming more and more of a decision criterion for employees, the workplace, which was already an employer branding tool, will be reinforced in this role.

But it’s not all that simple. Beautiful, brand new offices with functional workspaces and welcoming living spaces count. But not anywhere.

It is becoming difficult to impose long commutes on employees when remote working works. What is the point of questioning the policy which for a long time consisted in moving away from the city center to find cheaper square meters? Here again, it will be difficult to avoid this reflection. From the moment when much less space is needed, previously unthinkable locations become possible again and are favored by employees and candidates. And look at where most of the best French or foreign startups are located in Paris…they are not in La Défense or on the other side of the ring road…

Conclusion

The future of the workplace is not the end of the office, but different offices and different uses. Beyond the obvious reflections on hybrid work and the functionality of the workplace, there are also more financial questions that cannot be avoided.

As for knowing if hybrid work will also allow a transformation of work and management modes, this is the big unknown because, for the business, hybrid work, as opposed to total remote working, is a way to avoid this reflection.

In this series :
The post COVID business: myth or reality?
COVID has not been a change agent but an excellent consultant
The post COVID employee: an one-unseizable person market
The post-covid manager: more indispensable and lost than ever.
The post covid organization: flatter, agile, flexible and fast.
Post-covid operations: formalized, simplified, automated and people-centric
The post covid workplace: hybridization in pain.
Post COVID business culture: the great reconstruction in the mess
Post COVID business values: a lot of promise and little effect
The post-Covid Digital Workplace: ATAWAD and open to all

Image : Hybrid Work by  WD Stock Photos via Shutterstock

Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
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