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The ‘New’ Office: 4 Models and the Tech to Make Them Possible

By Mats Röjdmark on 23/02/2021

The 2020 pandemic forced employers into crisis mode: sending workers home, deploying new technology and strategies to unite virtual teams, and negotiating new ways to engage customers in a homebody economy. Now, we enter the next phase of the “new normal.” Vaccine rollouts won’t guarantee safety in the short term, but it seems clear that our world will be at least moderately safer in the next six months. Knowing this, talent leaders must figure out what the new workplace will look like, and the new tech platforms and devices that can help make far-flung teams feel cohesive again.

Rethinking the office: A review of new models & the latest research

How times change. In early 2020, high-growth companies were in an all-out race to see who could build the most luxurious, eye-popping campus for their employees. The outdoor retailer REI famously said it was building the “most outdoorsy HQ ever” … a campus “like a summer camp for grownups.” Just a few years later, the 8-acre site is up for sale by REI and the company’s chief customer officer admitted, “If I look at what we’ve seen and learned in the four years since, [it’s that] collaboration can happen in a lot of ways and doesn’t necessarily require a single location.”

With this in mind, many companies are in the process of scuttling or at least scaling back on big, luxurious corporate offices. But what exactly will replace them? The consensus appears to come in four formats:

  1. Majority in-person: Companies like Netflix say they do not see the benefit of remote work; CEO Reed Hastings worries virtual collaboration stifles innovation and says he’ll get employees back to the office the moment it’s safe.
  2. Part-time in person: Companies like Twitter and Google say they will allow employees to work from home multiple days per week at their discretion, provided the role is doable from home and productivity doesn’t suffer.
  3. Hybrid part-time: Companies like Deloitte and EY say they will redesign some office spaces so that employees can work from home, but travel to the office for important meetings or collaborations. A big part of this hybrid format is an idea called “hotelling”  (sometimes called hot desking), where workers are no longer assigned seats, but instead choose seating configurations day-to-day to suit the moment and event.
  4. Fully remote: Few enterprise brands could realistically choose this option, but for small-to-midsize companies like Quora, fully remote working is not only doable, it’s preferred by their ranks of tech-savvy workers.

It seems like only yesterday that the tech companies were the models in doing everything they could to keep employees from leaving their campuses. Now some, like Twitter, are suggesting they never have to come back.

Peter Cappelli  ||  Director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School

A study by Gartner asked company leaders what work format they expected to endorse after COVID-19. 82% reported they would allow employees to work remotely some of the time and 47% would allow remote work all of the time — a seismic shift in attitude toward remote working.

Can technology make us feel we’re working shoulder-to-shoulder?

With so many companies letting employees work virtually at least part of the time, technology companies are racing to provide better solutions for dispersed teams.

The stay-away economy has propelled brands like Zoom, Teams, and Slack into the stratosphere, but while these platforms make work-from-home possible, they are poor substitutes for in-person sessions. That’s because there are dynamics that happen in-person that are hard to recreate on video conference calls — whether chatting quietly with your neighbor or assembling sticky notes on a whiteboard to brainstorm new ideas.  But new features and even new hardware are on the horizon and will help address these shortcomings.

The most interesting new entrant is Sidekick, a startup out of Y Combinator that uses an always-on tablet to mimic the feel of working shoulder-to-shoulder with teammates. What makes the tool particularly neat is the way it manages the (real) concerns about privacy and/or screen distractions. Your teammates will be on the screen in tiled format, but you can initiate one-on-one conversations by  muting your voice to select others, or even turn off your feed when needed. (The concept is clearer if you watch a demo video.) Sidekick is the first ready-to-launch product that gets closer to the feeling of in-office dynamics.

Not to be outdone, Zoom just announced a dedicated at-home videoconferencing system, which has a 27-inch monitor and wide-angle cameras. The new product is aimed at people who spend most of their days on video calls. And Microsoft Teams is experimenting with “together mode” — which introduces informal gathering “spaces” like virtual coffee shops and lecture halls.

For those missing work hijinks, there’s Mmhmm. Founded by former Evernote CEO Phil Libin, Mmhmm gives remote presenters tools to lighten up their meetings and insert some personality (think: funny graphics or AR-imposed costumes). The idea: Not everyone is a natural screen presenter, and Mmhmm offers new ways to inject some levity into boring meetings. Said another way: “We want to finally murder PowerPoint,” admits Libin.

From short-term crisis to long-term planning

It’s important to consider that this 10+ month experiment was not a normal one. Those who feel isolated working from home may feel this way because they are also isolated from family and friends during the pandemic. Likewise, those who eschew working in an office again may reconsider when commute times drop due to less traffic on the roads post-COVID. In other words, it’s hard to predict today exactly how your employees will prefer to work in 2022. Yet talent leaders should be prepared for a work world that is radically different from that which we knew in 2019 — and one that is still adaptable and ready to be optimized as we all navigate the new world of distanced work.

About Universum

Universum is a data-driven, insight-led employer branding agency. Founded in Stockholm, we are now active in over 60 countries, with key hubs in Paris, Berlin, London, New York, Singapore and Shanghai. We provide our clients with the research, strategy and creative solutions they need to compete more effectively for talent.