Hybrid work is expected to be the new norm. Pulling it off successfully will come with challenges.

Hybrid work is expected to be the new norm. Pulling it off successfully will come with challenges.

Most companies have publicly committed to some version of a hybrid workplace in a post-pandemic world, after nearly two years of remote work that many employees have come to prefer over the office.

Beyond the management complexities that’ll likely come with hybrid work, company leaders are tasked with figuring out how to make a semi-in-office, semi-remote workforce equitable. That includes redesigning or reconfiguring office spaces to accommodate needs of employees, including those most reluctant to come back.

A recent survey by CBRE Group Inc. (NYSE: CBRE) found, of 42 clients managing 350 million square feet of office space, 63% are changing up their design to keep up with new workplace needs. A majority reported they will use space-utilization data and mobility programs to learn more about how the office will be used, and allow employees to work more easily outside of the office.

Kay Sargent, director of the workplace practice at St. Louis-based architecture and engineering firm HOK Group Inc., said everything is still very much evolving. While hybrid is the increasingly popular choice for employers, some clients have said it can be the worst of both worlds: employees in the office on Zoom meetings all day with remote co-workers.

“We really need to rethink what is the purpose of the workplace — why am I coming to the office?” Sargent said.

Collaboration has been cited as a key reason among employers for encouraging return to the office, but there may need to be critical mass of employees in the office on a given workday for that to be successful, Sargent said. That would require mandating which days people are in the office. Many employers are opting, at least for now, to give employees choice about which days they’re remote and which they’re in the office.

Adding fuel to the fire: retaining and hiring employees in a fiercely competitive labor market.

Priorities have shifted since the pandemic, too, with more workers putting emphasis on, as an example, time spent with family — and the flexibility remote work affords that — since early 2020. A reluctance to return to commuting and myriad other factors also have a lot of employees wanting to work remote permanently.

Rebecca Humphrey, head of the workplace practice group at Savills North America, said a lot of companies are nervous about making the wrong decision when it comes to workspace changes.

“People are still hesitant to come back,” she said. “People are still putting temporary plans in place. People are hesitating to spend money on physical space, design and reconfiguration.”

Some companies have started piloting different workplace strategies, including design changes, with a small group of employees to figure out what could be rolled out to their larger workforce or footprint, or what tweaks should be made. Others are waiting to make real-time changes once employees return to the office.

Amenities are still perceived by companies as important — but the nature of those amenities is shifting. CBRE’s occupier survey found walk-up technology help desks or stores; electric-vehicle charging stations; massage, meditation or therapy rooms; and outdoor spaces are becoming more popular.

A lot of occupiers are using tech and metrics to figure out how space is being used — and, likely, to inform how much real estate they’ll need in the future.

CBRE’s survey found 79% of companies are tracking employee-badge swipes at entry points, 56% are using visual observation, 46% monitor office Wi-Fi log-ins and 26% are using sensors in rooms and desks.

Humphrey said a hybrid workplace has been perceived by some as an easy solution to match employees’ desire to work remotely, and employers’ desire to have them back in the office. But, she continued, hybrid work actually requires a lot of detail and nuance to be successful — and to ensure it’ll be equitable.

“It’s a complex dynamic, where you really need a lot of time spent making sure you’re doing it the right way, so you’re in a position of success,” she continued.

For companies that’ve already begun piloting design changes and hybrid workplace strategies, surveys done by Savills show employers that treat going back to the office like a light switch — an immediate flip back to how things were pre-pandemic — aren’t being received well, Humphrey said.

Companies allowing flexibility or employees autonomy over, say, when they return to the office are being better received, she continued.

Technology, and how it’s used, is also taking new precedence. Sargent said some clients are considering conference room setups with a U- or trapezoid-shaped table, with a camera that focuses on the individual speaking at a given time, instead of a series of small, individual screens at once. Microphones for all in-person participants, so remote workers can hear clearly, are also being considered.

The acoustics and technology of the post-pandemic office will be critical, Humphrey said.

For employees that may prefer to work remotely forever because of their specific needs — neurodiverse individuals, for example, or working parents, especially moms — employers that want those individuals in the office at least part time will have to make adjustments to accommodate them.

Sargent said companies are looking at ways to make spaces more inclusive. That ranges from all-gender bathrooms, to workstations with adjustable sound and lighting for people with sensory sensitivities, to having a range of closed-door and open-space options available for employees to use.

Humphrey said, three or four years ago, fewer companies were giving consideration to employees’ voices compared to now. But with people willing to walk away for another job in today’s competitive labor market, it’s forced more executives to listen to their employees.

For a lot of companies, there’s still a lack of understanding about how to use design and space to accommodate a potentially wide range of employee needs, Sargent said.

“We’re at a really critical point right now,” she continued. “Never has there been as much attention on the office and workplace as there is right now. We have an opportunity to advance the way we’ve worked for decades and make a huge leap forward.”