The hybrid workplace needs to work for everybody

After talking to Kristi Woolsey, a BCG Smart Environments Group consultant, I get the sense that many companies may be missing the boat when it comes to settling on hybrid workplace plans.

hybrid workplace by celia ong via shutterstock
Celia Ong / Shutterstock

I met last week with Kristi Woolsey, a consultant with BCG Smart Environments Group who helps companies balance the corporate need for employee oversight and workers desire to keep working from home. There’s a growing concern that executives and employees are getting out of sync: executives wanting their people to return to the office, while many, if not most, employees prefer to work from home. 

Woolsey is a physical space architect with a background in behavioral strategy as it relates to product placement in stores and customer management. This is a unique skill often used in retail to maximize store yield; it requires a deep understanding of how people can be successfully motivated (and manipulated). I was fascinated to see that same skill being applied to the ongoing need to have a hybrid environment to retain employees and keep them relatively safe and productive. 

Here are some of the things I learned from Woolsey. 

Open plan/cubicles aren’t working

Offices are largely used for collaborative work or to provide a sense of being a part of something — a team, if you will — instead of feeling isolated and alone at home. Thus, going to work to sit isolated and alone in a cubicle, or in an open space with distractions and no privacy for the team to work in, isn’t a viable solution. Conference rooms or huddle rooms may not be ideal, either, depending on the project.  What appears to be needed is a flexible space where people can come together personally and virtually, a place that can be adjusted for engagement and isolated to avoid distractions and annoyances. In particular, the space needs to be able to conform to worker needs, not, and is usually the case, the other way around. 

This suggests cookie-cutter approaches are going to be less than ideal between companies and even between teams; workers in different industries collaborate differently, and company culture might require an approach to collaboration that varies among that company’s peers. 

With many companies rushing to implement hybrid workplaces, consultants who may be working with them need to understand the company, its unique culture, and its industry before offering up proposals.  They also need to understand the breadth and uniqueness of working teams. A team working on software will typically require a different room layout and capability than a group working on something physical, like a car. 

The metaverse looks promising, but has a long way to go

Woolsey was excited about the metaverse as a potential tool, but acknowledged there isn’t yet a single tool she could recommend that would move collaboration there successfully. Wearing virtual reality (VR) headsets hasn’t proven broadly popular, and the rendering capabilities of the tools aren’t where they need to be. But the idea of placing on-premises and remote workers in the same digital environment is compelling and could eventually make work-from-home better than coming into the office for most people. 

But until the uncanny valley problem can be solved, and the annoyance of headsets is reduced so employees will actually use these virtual tools, the metaverse remains a platform with potential. But it’s a long way from meeting that potential now. 

Key tools for productivity

For managers who want to know what’s going on with employees without becoming invading their privacy, Woolsey recommends Trello. She also recommended that managers be transparent with their employee measurement approach and needs. Project milestones should be numerous and form the basis of more regular employee status events so employees never get into deep trouble and managers can do better ensure the timely completion of projects — particularly high-value efforts. She also recommended tools such as Slack, which can be used effectively to ensure communication channels remain open between employees, both workers and their bosses. 

And finally, she recommended a virtual whiteboard like Miro to keep people who are either remote or  in the office working together in a coordinated way.

Solving the hybrid work debate

The new hybrid model that’s emerged for employees — some days at home, some days in the office — isn’t working well and could collapse. A lot of execs want employees back at their desks, but aren’t as eager to come back themselves. The result? Critical employees looking for jobs with other companies.

Understanding how a company works, how its employees collaborate, the unique projects under way, and corporate capabilities and culture can yield a custom-designed solution that works for everyone. It could optimize productivity, regardless of what’s going on with the hybrid work requirements we are now dealing with. 

This hybrid model can be done successfully. BCG and Woolsey seem to have a uniquely viable process for getting to the best solution for both workers and their managers.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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