Open office bays were a disaster. Steps to transition to the hybrid work environment.

When implementing a remote work and hybrid work environment in 2012, one of our major discussion points was how to redesign the office. The executive team at Medtronic in Santa Rosa, CA, determined that 40 percent of our US workforce could work from home three to four days a week. The other 60% percent would come into the office daily to work in research and development labs, manufacturing, or access data that was too secure to put in the cloud. With this mix of at-home and in-office workers, we asked the questions many employers ask now, what is the new role of the office, and how would we redesign it?

Remote work is here to stay for about half of office workers even after high COVID-19 vaccination rates reduce the threat of the pandemic. Research shows that at least half of remote workers want to remain working remotely two to three days a week, and about 18 percent five days a week, even after a successful vaccine is distributed. These workers will want remote work even after the pandemic abates.

The Pre-Pandemic Office Bays Wasted Space and Ruined Productivity

Based on an employee survey we conducted in 2012 at Medtronic in Santa Rosa, CA, we learned that the individual cubes in our office bays were being occupied only 37 percent of the time. Conference rooms were in short supply and employees complained that our office bays were too noisy with too many interruptions to be a productive place. Research at the time supported our findings. Many studies, including ones conducted by the manufacturers that sell office furniture used for open offices, have shown that open floor plans hurt productivity and dampen employee morale. And, contrary to what was first thought, they are not the panacea for promoting collaboration.

A 1999 case study showed that creating an open office environment for everyone in a company, from research and development to marketing, finance, and human resources, led to a strong employee and managerial backlash. A more varied approach–designed to fit how each unique department works–is much more desirable. A study by the University of California, Irvine, found that employees working in open office bays were interrupted 29 percent more often than those in private offices. To make matters worse, it takes more than 25 minutes, on average, to resume a task after being interrupted. Studies frequently show that frequent interruptions lead to higher rates of exhaustion, stress-induced ailments, and a doubling of error rates. In 2011, Organizational Psychologist, Matthew Davis, reviewed more than a hundred office environment studies. He learned the following:

“Though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees in open offices experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and innovation.”

Experts we spoke with in 2012 told us that after about three years of working full-time at home, employees lose their cultural connection to the business’s mission and purpose and their social connection with their managers and teammates. While working from home frees up workers from office bay interruptions, employees, even introverts, miss the face-to-face interactions in the office. The office would still need to be our cultural and social anchor for the business. The advice we were given was to have remote workers in the office at least one day a week for staff meetings, one-on-one meetings with managers, all-hands meetings, and meetings to review large batches of data or to make decisions.

Office-Based Workers and The Redesigned Office

We realized that we had to redesign the office for two categories of workers: those who still needed to come in to the office every day and those who would come into the office at least one day a week. Both had vastly different needs.

Those who came into the office very day needed a new office design that offered them more privacy and public space for impromptu collaboration, socializing, meetings, and training. We redesigned the office with the theme of “switching from the me to the we.” While we kept office bays, we redesigned the office bays to allow more office cubes to be closer to windows and natural light. We moved conference rooms to the center of our floors. Because our survey showed that there was a shortage of conference rooms, we nearly doubled them and equipped them with high-quality video conferencing technology, so employees on both ends of the video conference had an excellent video and audio experience. Some of our conference rooms had cameras that automatically moved to whoever was speaking in the room, making the experience more like real life.

We also created a row of huddle rooms that could hold up to four employees for phone calls, small audience video calls or allow for impromptu discussions. The huddle rooms provided space to remove office distractions from the office bays and allow a close-by convenient space to talk. We also implemented new office norms, “library rules,” to keep the bays quiet.

As well, we added to the number of enclosed project rooms and dedicated them to our innovation teams or other project teams, allowing close proximity. Surrounding each project room was individual work spaces and the file storage required. If a project team worker needed to do uninterrupted heads-down work, they could move to a work station where “library rules” were in place.

Home-Based Workers and Staying Emotionally and Culturally Connected

Our home-based workers no longer had office cubes at work since they did most of their work at home. They had access to lockers when they came into the office and touchdown stations, as you see at airports, in the event they needed to get online with their laptops. As mentioned earlier, when they came into the office, it was usually for meetings. To help them set up safe and efficient home-based offices, we allowed each home-based worker to take home their ergonomically designed chair and a printer. We also paid for their broadband. (Incidentally, no one was forced to work from home).

Even after the investment in digital technology and office redesign with new office furniture, these changes to the office enabled us to move out of two facilities and save $2 million a year after the first year. Our home-based workers were 22 percent more productive, and our in-office workers gained 23 minutes a day of improved performance due to our office redesign. Our employees reported 98 percent satisfaction with the transition and better flexibility in managing their work-life integration.

New Hires

When employees joined the organization, we had them work from the office for the first two weeks to build relationships and learn from casual interactions where they felt more at ease to ask the questions that new hires need to ask but feel silly to ask by email or text. We also assigned each new hire a “coach” from their department to teach them about our culture, how decisions are made, and how to use the enterprise software for their discipline. We also added chatrooms to allow this knowledge sharing.

Training and Career Advancement

In a sensing session with prospective remote workers in 2012, one told me that she did “not want the workers in the office to believe that she was not passionate about her work and career and that she spent her day in her pajamas.” She and other remote workers were on our high potential list. We did not want to lose them due to concerns that their careers would stall because they chose to work remotely. The executive team made this our pledge: In all of our performance, pay and promotional review meetings, we ran the numbers to check for a bias against the remote workers.

We also transitioned our learning to be a mix of online and in-office offerings across our learning curriculum. Many of our in-office training events were an opportunity to get remote and home-based workers together for face-to-face learning and interactions. Our new design accommodated the necessary training rooms with video conferencing equipment and whiteboarding technology to allow for insightful learning environments.

Today, hybrid learning models are still taking shape, but progress is being made, as explained in this article on rework.com.

Team Operating Norms and Building Trust

Finally, the new team operating norms we put in place were critical for home-based and in-office employees to work well together, even on days they were not sitting next to each other. Critical for success were the communication norms to keep remote workers and in-office workers in touch with each other, and to make sure everyone participated in the ongoing discussions of work, analysis, and decision making. We required every team to set their own operating norms, which included the time expectations to respond to each other, where critical policies, procedures, updates and files would be stored, which meetings would be in-person vs. virtual, and transparent rules for decision making. We set a norm that any hallway discussion had to be shared with remote workers.

We also had each employee work out with their managers, their down time each day to ensure they did not burn out. Our guidance for leaders was to build trust and continually ask, ‘how are things going and what can I do to help?’ Unfortunately, many companies today have overlooked setting up new operating norms for hybrid workforces.

The success in vaccinating the US adult population will not mean a return to the pre-pandemic office. COVID-19 has taught us that workers can be as productive or more productive at home as in the office and they want this flexibility in their work. The new hybrid work environment will allow companies significant gains in productivity, real estate cost savings, and opportunities to provide their employees more flexibility in their day, alleviating stress.

The companies that plan this transition today and successfully implement it will be the winners in 2022.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting, managing partner of InnovationOne, and Sales Advisor to MeBeBot. He works with companies to transform HR, implement remote work, recruit executives, and develop extraordinary leaders, teams, and innovation cultures. He is the author of the highly acclaimed book, Hack Recruiting: the Best of Empirical Research, Method and Process, and Digitization. Subscribe to his weekly blogs at  www.VictorHRConsultant.com. 

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