The Hybrid Office Pivots Again: A distributed workforce continues to foster change

iStock / Irina_Strelnikova / Infadel
iStock / Irina_Strelnikova / Infadel
Published On
Jul 15, 2021

Just when you thought the office space has evolved, it changes again. Highly influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, think of a world where the central office is supported by a workforce that toggles between on-site, at home and short-leased satellite offices—hub and spokes. For contractors, expect differing power needs for a distributed workforce and more locational power opportunities. Welcome to the hybrid office.

Remote working will likely remain a permanent part of the office mix. Company executives have discovered employees can successfully work from home. It has been a revelation for many employees, as well. The size of a company’s remote workforce will depend on business fit. Nonetheless, a hybrid office structure will be a disruptor because office footprints could shrink, layouts may be altered and office culture challenged.

Working out of Washington, D.C., Kay Sargent is the director of workplace for St. Louis-based HOK, a design, architecture, engineering and urban planning firm.

“A lot of the statistics coming out now show companies have embraced this hybrid office approach,” Sargent said. “It really has been around for 20 years, depending on the business. Consulting companies like Accenture and Deloitte have used this approach for years. Now is the time to shift our thinking as we think about working.”

A change in office topology

Sociologist Ray Oldenburg first pioneered a concept that classified where we live into three zones or places. One was home, one was work and the third was a more communal space such as the store, gym, park or any gathering zone removed from the other two. He called it the “third place.” With the advent of wireless connectivity, third places could also become informal workspaces such as the local coffeehouse. Here you could plug in and work outside the office. Corporate offices then began adapting the communal feel of the third place.

Steelcase, an office furnishings and design manufacturer based in Grand Rapids, Mich., described essential third-place elements in office design as cleanliness, aroma, adequate lighting, comfortable furniture and an outside view. New office designs that promote communal and individual focus areas typically embrace a third-place ambiance. Some companies have actually brought the coffeehouse into the office. Steelcase cited Google’s Mountain View, Calif., campus as one example. Its Coffee Lab serves as an in-house cafe while offering a hospitality vibe for communal and individual needs.

The design strategy team of international architecture and design firm Perkins Eastman, New York, is exploring the hybrid office. It calls this design shift the “fourth place” that blends home, work and public spaces. Its 2020 Workplace Benchmarks Report gives some clues as to how the hybrid office space may evolve. It surmised “future projections” for the office space based in part on data and feedback from 3,285 employees in 42 Perkins Eastman-designed U.S. workplaces.

Projections included more unassigned office seating; more shared, communal and collaborative spaces; premium amenities; an attention to indoor health, including high-quality air filters and efficient HVAC systems; more touchless technology; flexible and short-term leases; and virtual, face-to-face and other technologies to support a distributed workforce. In short, the office will need to be flexible to support a workforce that is mobile, digitally dependent and wellness conscious.

The hybrid office design of Perkins Eastman’s new Pittsburgh studio will support a distributed workforce.

“We’re reimagining what the ideal workplace should be during these uncertain times,” said Jeff Young, co-managing principal of the Pittsburgh studio. “We sent out an internal survey and learned that even when conditions return to normal, two-thirds of our staff said they’d like to continue to work from home one or more days a week. We believe we will need more collaborative communal spaces and fewer individual workstations in our studio to accommodate this evolving work dynamic.”

The Pittsburgh space will also be a way for the design firm to test out new ideas developed in part by research, client roundtables and staff surveys. It will favor more hub than spoke.

“The new office is a reimagined hub, supporting collaboration, mentorship and culture-building that cannot be realized from the comfort of home,” Young said. “People can work from anywhere, but there will always be times when you need to be together to collaborate, such as when you have a design review pin-up, ideate at a whiteboard, huddle around material selections in the library or just sit down side-by-side and talk.”

During the pandemic, Perkins Eastman designers rethought the new office space for a post-COVID era. With fewer staff on-site at any one time, designers were able to reduce the space by 17% and saved a projected $1.5 million over a 10-year lease.

A shift toward flexibility

HOK surveyed its partners in 31 countries to assess post-pandemic re-entry into the workplace.

Seventy percent of companies responded that they were still developing a plan for returning to the office; 55% were strategizing how to reduce employee density within their workplaces. It was clear a distributed workforce was here to stay. Based on the research, Sargent mentioned most companies lack a formal office mobility program. That may change.

“When everyone was forced to work from home, everyone started questioning the purpose of place: ‘If I can work from home, do I need an office?’ But not everyone can work from home. That is why third place and emerging formal fourth place work environments are on the rise. We are seeing satellite locations that offer the interconnectivity of the central office featuring maybe some audiovisual meeting tools but are not as fully equipped as the central or hub office. Satellite spaces will give employees a place to meet beyond a Zoom call and maybe as a group can interact with the central office. It’s a better office-equipped ecosystem than at home and might be favored by those who just don’t do well working from home or want to reduce their commute.”

The home office space is also becoming more formalized, notably when supported by company policy. Sargent shared some states actually require reimbursement for home offices including California, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Several others are considering or have pending legislation.

“Reimbursement could be applied for IT upgrades, desks or other office furnishings,” Sargent said. “Employees might receive a catalog with a selection of items to choose from to better set up their home office.”

iStock / Irina_Strelnikova
iStock / Irina_Strelnikova

The fourth-place office building

For Sargent, an important question moving forward is, how do we morph buildings to accommodate multiple purposes?

“Today’s office building often shares space with retail and hospitality businesses. Why can’t it also share space with other markets such as healthcare and education? We need to stop ‘siloing’ sectors and real estate,” Sargent said.

Further, Sargent also said it’s time to leverage the sharing community.

“Why do firms spend $4 million for state-of-the-art conference rooms that end up rarely being used and are likely outdated in a few years?” she asked. “There is an idea called ‘precincts’ or downtown real estate zones where amenities are shared [e.g., developments as city centers]. Hong Kong, cities in Europe and other places around the globe are developing this precinct idea. We are seeing more and more of this.”

From an interior design perspective, the hub office is undergoing what Sargent calls “space fusion” that mixes design ideas.

“In the office, we use the term ‘corporality,’ as elements of hospitality are now more common. For instance, you are starting to see the lobby of an office resemble that of a hotel,” she said. “The idea is to make the office environment welcoming, more comfortable and supported by technology, automation, better lighting and HVAC.”

“Market types, if not now, are soon becoming antiquated,” added Scott Fallick, associate director of design strategy at Perkins Eastman. “We are going to see more elements of commercial and hospitality in the office space to entice staff back to the office.”

Data reimagined

The promise of the internet of things (IoT) in the office may be more expansive.

“I call this IoT 2.0,” Sargent said. “IoT has primarily been used to monitor building operations and gather information on the environments within the space. We are now discovering other capabilities.”

Sargent pointed to better office management for facility managers and office workers. Imagine knowing what areas of an office might attract too many people, be too loud or offer the best light.

“Too loud, too hot, too cold and too much glare are the biggest office complaints,” Sargent said. “Rather than see sensors as space monitors, they take their data and transform it into mobile apps. Now employees coming into the office can better plan a meeting, see what space is available or reserve a work desk. They can specify video conferencing or other tech.”

Other capabilities could include designating heating or cooling temps for a space, activating sound-reduction controls or remotely printing important documents as you head into the office.

IoT 2.0 could advance building management systems capabilities too, Sargent shared. Air flow or lighting levels could be managed from space to space. Office spaces could be monitored for cleaning needs. Available parking spots could be identified and tied to parking garage tech.

All this change infers a nimbleness on the part of electrical contractors. They will be and are being asked to bring a collection of skills. Fiber power, sensor-laden systems and robust wireless are driving change. Now add a labor force working from various locations. The contractor might be asked to optimize a home office, connect to a central office, design and power a satellite office, or advance the technology for the corporate hub.

“We are in a Henry Ford moment,” Sargent said. “It’s time to innovate.”

How we “office” is changing once more.

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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