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Exclusive commentary: reinventing for collaboration

Hybrid working creates a need for reinventing office workspaces as collaborative hubs – better suiting teams and employers as we all align to the ‘new normal’ – explains Richard Cobbold, CEO of Interaction.Works

According to net zero commuting specialist Mobilityways, just 4 percent of us worked from home before Covid-19 rolled in. That figure rose to 49 percent over the last year. Looking forward beyond the pandemic, 26 percent say they want to stay there. So what does this movement towards hybrid or ‘blended’ working mean for the future of the workspace?

Much is being written in the press about how the pandemic has changed our working habits for good in the giant Work From Home (WFH) experiment. We are presented with our big companies divided between those embracing the change as an opportunity to reduce running costs, and those worrying that WFH will eventually erode the sense of collective endeavour that builds teams, loyalty and underpins long term productivity.

As ever the truth is most certainly somewhere in between. I’ve not come across any business yet that has publicly mandated all their staff returning to full five days post-pandemic and equally no one is busy saying that the ‘office is dead’. So hybrid working is, in some form, here to stay.

The key for us as workspace designers is to find a way to do right by both parties, so that this change can deliver the significant positives that employers and employees want. In my mind at the heart of this is the idea that hybrid working is worrying less about how much time is spent working at home, but more about the tasks you do and the location you do them in. In other words, organising the right work to be done in the right place and providing the right workspaces and technologies to support it.

Getting this right would allow company bosses to maintain long term productivity and cut costs by reducing ‘desk space’. One of my large corporates tells me they are expecting day-to-day on-site staff reductions of up to 40percent in its HQ. Their newly appointed ‘Chief of Work’ has designated the home as the place where employees complete their actual day-to-day work, whilst in parallel their corporate office is where teams gather for specific purpose-based collaboration. In other words, they are maximising the value of bringing their people together by focusing that time on teamwork, cross fertilisation and innovation.

Effectively they are turning their office into a venue, a destination overarchingly designed to build teams in, to convey corporate values, unlock innovation, boost long term productivity and stimulate socio-professional cohesion. Let staff at home concentrate and at work collaborate.

This kind of thinking has the potential to drive massive change for space providers – a move from rows of desks and chairs, to large scale open collaborative facilities and branded corporate showcases. Spaces designed to deliver immersive and engaging experiences that power the hybrid teams of the future.

The opportunity for the AV and UC industries is that this means massive investment in new technologies. Both enabling people’s homes for their personal needs and deploying the high value technology experiences that underpin the corporate teams’ needs.

For large companies this will be money well spent. There are some fantastic group collaboration and showcase technologies out there combining state of the art interactive displays, collaborative software and highly secure cloud-based co-working. For the smaller companies, where the infrastructure costs are a barrier, we see an exciting opportunity for co-working hubs to tool up and offer the possibility of sharing the investment costs of high-end collaboration technologies across multiple users.

The idea of ‘servitization’ is large scale operational technology provided as a service – where access to complex system is done in a highly flexible, pay-as-you-consume basis, with no long term capital commitments.  Who knows, but evolving new tech-enabled multi-corporate communities focused on innovation, centred around the hybrid ideal could even serve to unlock further unforeseen productivity and collaboration gains.

Whichever way we look at it hybrid working is set to be a lengthy journey rather than a ‘once and done’ switch over for most organisations.

Despite the suddenness with which it has been forced upon organisations, adapting routines and habits to the long term will take time. To understand what that journey might look like, I drew on a hierarchy of ‘5 Levels of Online Working’, as defined by Matt Mulenweg, inventor of WordPress and founder of the multi-billion dollar tech firm Automattic.

Automattic, which employs 1,200 people today and has never had a permanent office, admits that even after many years it has only reached Level 4 on his pyramid. However, at that level his organisation is working way beyond where most businesses are now, stuck in ‘Zoom Fatigue’ land at Level 2. Levels 4 is where the social capital rewards start to be felt, but they are built on the platform of Level 3’s ‘better equipment’.

An interesting example of the opportunity presented by culture change in the home working sphere was from a client who spoke of how by organising specifically ‘social only’ online sessions, employees felt more able to share their stolen insights into the home lives of their colleagues. They may have seen a background pet or a set of golf clubs, or had to interrupt because of a school run. Whilst in the meeting environment this was seen as an embarrassment or inconvenience – when drawn across the social environment it quickly became a new layer of commonality and connection. 

Achieving insights like this will require both workers and executives to evolve, continually testing the edge where enriched, more flexible working patterns push against lost productivity, team cohesion and the erosion of a companies’ Social Capital.