From home to hybrid office: What work will look like now and in the future

After months of meeting and collaborating from a distance, employers are reimagining what it means to go to work.

from home to hybrid office2
HP, Inc.

Just a few months ago, Erin Bury hated the idea of working remotely.

The serial entrepreneur, CEO, and self-described extrovert understood the potential cost and time savings, which is why she offered flexible work options to her staff. But she’s long felt it just wasn’t for her.

“I felt like I was missing out on stuff at the office,” says Bury, who most recently co-founded the online estate-planning platform, Willful, with her husband. “I never felt more productive at home.”

Soon after the coronavirus forced her company to go all remote, however, she started to notice benefits, like getting to wake up later, not having to commute, and being able to better manage her time. She’s also been thrilled at her team’s ability to adapt amid what has turned out to be the busiest few months ever for her business.

“This has definitely made me think about how feasible [remote work] is,” she says. “If you set up the conditions for it from the beginning, it’s absolutely a great way to run a company.”

Bury is just one of many remote work resistors who has been pleasantly surprised by the experience of the past few months, and one of the many business leaders who’s changing their remote working policies as a result. In an HP survey conducted in the U.S., China, and France, more than one-third of the respondents said that after offices reopen, they’ll prefer working remotely more than they did before. A recent Gartner survey of over 200 human resources leaders found that 41% of employees are likely to continue working from home at least some of the time after the pandemic, which will require businesses to revisit everything from cybersecurity protocols to human resources policies to talent management strategies. 

“It’s like trying to go back in time and un-know something. You can’t,” says Tracy Keogh, HP’s chief human resources officer. “There are things we know now, and because of that, things will be different [moving forward].”

From HR policy to corporate strategy

While remote work has long been considered a concern mainly for the human resources department, Keogh says the current situation offers organizations the opportunity to explore bold new strategies companywide. She recommends that business leaders experiment and discover what might be possible in a more remote future.

“You need to look at it in light of your business and consider ways that it could give you a competitive advantage,” she says. “For example, maybe flexibility and mobility allows you to hire more people, or reach people in a location you couldn’t access otherwise.”

Prithwiraj Choudhury, associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, agrees. He suggests that while many are anticipating an eventual “return to normal,” business leaders need to recognize that the post-pandemic workplace will be distinct from the workplace of just a few months ago, with new challenges to face and opportunities to seize.

“This is an ideal time for companies to have that strategy discussion,” he says. “Now that we’ve experienced remote work and the new normal, can we make remote work more strategic by trimming our real estate costs? Or by expanding our hiring to more countries and emerging markets? That’s the real opportunity.”

The future of work is hybrid

While not everyone will continue to work remotely after the crisis is over, Alex Konanykhin, the CEO of remote people management solutions provider TransparentBusiness, believes that there will be enough demand to forever change the form and function of the traditional workplace. 

In the month after stay-at-home orders began, Konanykhin says TransparentBusiness saw an 800% jump in web traffic, as companies scrambled to adopt work-from-home policies. 

Rather than all remote or all on-site, he suggests a hybrid model will become the norm, as demonstrated by a number of early adopters who allow staff to reserve shared space when they need to collaborate in person.

“They treat office space like hotel rooms; not a permanently assigned space, but a space where anyone can enter whenever they need to collaborate with people in person,” he says. “This pandemic is going to make it the new normal for a majority of companies — at least those that are doing computer-based knowledge work.”

The new office: both of them

Employees who do return to work amid the ongoing pandemic will notice some significant changes. Face masks may become mandatory, hand sanitizer dispensers will likely be ubiquitous, and workers will be positioned six feet apart. They may be required to pass temperature checks on their way into office buildings, and hallways may adopt one-way traffic signs. There’s even talk of returning to cubicles.

To maintain physical distancing standards, workspaces won’t be able to accommodate as many people, meaning many will continue to work from home some of the time with access to the office on designated days. “You’re going to have a mixed model moving forward that actually supports employees in the most optimal way,” Keogh says. 

That means organizations will have to ensure remote employees have enterprise-quality hardware they need to stay productive, and employees who have carved out temporary workspaces at home may need to think beyond dining tables and couches to optimize working conditions for the long term. Companies will also need to educate remote employees about cybersecurity and how to keep business data safe outside of the office.

Connecting with co-workers in new ways

As employees remain dispersed across home and traditional workspaces, companies will also need to find ways to replicate the serendipitous connections and collaborations that come from casual conversations, lunches, and after-work social gatherings.

“You don’t have the same ability to pop over to someone’s desk for five minutes, so you just have to be more intentional about culture and conversations and meetings,” says Bury from Willful. “We do a weekly lunch hangout, virtual co-working sessions, and Friday ‘demo days’ like we would in the office, and we’re doing more game days virtually.” 

At HP, employees have been accelerating their use of virtual reality, for work collaboration and for fun.

“We’re using VR hangouts together to create virtual ‘watercooler moments’ for our team,” explains Joanna Popper, HP’s global head of virtual reality for location-based entertainment. “We’ve met in virtual spaces that look like a boardroom, a presentation room, and even the surface of Mars.” 

Popper adds that in the future, meetings and social gatherings in virtual reality will likely replace two-dimensional video conferencing more broadly, with VR headsets becoming an integral tool for remote and hybrid teams. It’s one example of how the challenges of the moment could accelerate adoption of new ways of working in the near future.  

“In weeks, we learned that we could do things at home that would have taken us years to learn in a different way,” Keogh says. “There are a lot of things that we’ve learned through this that will become standard operating procedure in the future.” 

Learn key strategies for making remote work more secure.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.