Lessons Learned on the Path to a Hybrid Workplace

Tammy Jones, director of human resources at Cushing Terrell. Photo courtesy of Cushing Terrell

Shuffling from the bedroom to the in-home office, by way of the coffee bar in your kitchen, is about as short and efficient a commute as you’ll find. We’ve all enjoyed the benefits of this abbreviated “trip to the office” since the knowledge worker community was almost universally sent home just over two years ago. But now, as we begin to “live with the pandemic,” and gathering places such as collaborative workspaces resume full occupancy, how do we convince ourselves to get back in the car, or on the bus, to head back to the office? Or better yet why?

Like anything, work-from-home is not a perfect solution, and it’s not for everyone, and certainly not for everyone all the time. Aspects of a home office setting work quite well and suit certain roles, personality types, or lifestyles. Other aspects make focus time, collaboration, and creativity difficult to wrangle.

As a design firm, we’ve not only faced this predicament as a consultant, but also as an employer. As such, we’ve kept careful tabs on some of the pros and cons that have repeatedly emerged across a variety of knowledge-worker firms.

Working from home and hybrid work situations aren’t entirely new concepts. But with the onset of the pandemic, adoption rates skyrocketed out of necessity. Easing into the idea became a non-option, leaving most companies without much of a plan, and typically without a policy. Which brings us to our first key learning:

A Flexible/Hybrid Work Policy is Critical

The ability to choose a space designed to meet the specific needs of a task or activity is something offices provide that most at-home environments do not allow for. Photo by Andrea Calo

Cushing Terrell is a multidisciplinary design firm with offices and projects across the nation, so we were already accustomed to doing at least some aspects of our jobs remotely long before the pandemic dictated it was necessary. We had most, if not all, of the tools in place to support a dispersed team. But the vast majority of our team was assigned to and worked within one of our thirteen offices; so, while we had the tools and the workflow, what we didn’t have was a formal policy to outline company expectations.

About a year into the pandemic, our HR team, in partnership with firm leadership, went to work developing a program in response to questions from our team members and as a way of better understanding their needs. The program we eventually drew up is called WorkSmart, a flexible work arrangement designed to acknowledge and embrace flexibility in our work environments and preferences. Our team members get to choose if they would like to work remotely, operate with a hybrid schedule, or work in the office full time. This program, built on a more formalized HR policy, ensures our team members can select the work situation that suits them best, while at the same time providing a framework upon which we can evaluate team member distribution and associated needs.

With our flexible work policy now formalized, we have the guidelines needed to establish how and where we conduct business, but we’re also inevitably left with the question of how to make the best use of our office space. Sure, technology has made work from home possible, but the office experience still has many advantages. This brings us to our second key learning:

Offices Provide Agency

Agency, in addition to the innate collaborative aspects of shared workspaces, will increasingly define the next generation of office design. Photo by Marco Zecchin

Our in-house workplace design experts have spent many years working with dozens of clients to leverage this benefit of agency in the office. Even the most basic workplaces tend to have a variety of spaces designed to cater to anticipated needs of those who work there. For example, an office may have independent workstations for focus time as well as conference rooms ranging in sizes to accommodate group work or private meetings. Some may include an even wider array of space types such as outdoor workspaces, tranquility rooms, and classrooms or libraries, among others. This ability to choose a space designed to meet the specific needs of a task or activity is something most at-home environments do not allow for.

We know from firsthand experience and by way of designing for the needs of our clients that this agency, in addition to the innate collaborative aspects of shared workspaces, is what will increasingly define offices from now on, and will be the reason employees will largely continue to desire at least some time spent in the office.

And finally, key learning number three:

 Communication is Key

Team member-to-team member communication took on renewed importance during the height of the pandemic. In order to maintain work-life balance, individual accountability is critical. Photo by Sean Fleming

“Not a new concept,” you may be thinking. And true enough, but with so many new variables and factors to consider, whether team members have opted to remain at home, return to the office, or somewhere in-between, there is now a need for more and better communication. For our remote team members, our internal data would indicate that increased attempts by supervisors to touch base frequently became a key factor in employee morale and retention. Additionally, communication from the leadership level to all of our team members on a consistent and expected basis took on new value through the worst of the pandemic.

But perhaps most importantly, team member-to-team member communication took on renewed importance. With remote work adding new variables to the work-life balance, we learned that individual accountability was critical. There is no longer as much structure as our work environments once offered, meaning things are getting done at different times and perhaps in different intervals, but they are still getting done. Our team’s productivity has not suffered in remote/hybrid settings, and that can be largely attributed to our team members’ “team” attitude driven by personal accountability and autonomy.

As we now settle into what will most certainly be a permanent hybrid work model, we continue to track what is working for us as a design firm, for our team members, and for our clients, and what may yet need to change. And while change isn’t always easy, it’s exciting to be embedded within an industry that facilitates change in our spaces all the time. The next generation of workplace design is now upon us.

Tammy Jones is the director of human resources at Cushing Terrell. With a comprehensive approach and staff of more than 400 employees spanning 30 disciplines and seven markets, the firm offers clients unrivaled partnerships, service, and value.