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What’s an office good for, anyway?

What’s an office good for, anyway?

The transition to hybrid work raises a lot of questions about physical office space, such as, “What's an office actually good for in a hybrid work context?”

Credit: Christin Hume / Unsplash

Office space—its design and the concepts that drive that design—are a major contributor to company culture, employee satisfaction, and productivity. The ideal hybrid work office for your company is yet to be fully determined, but what we do know is that it’s the place where employees get what they can’t get at home.

One little-appreciated fact about working from home (WFH) and remote work is that everybody’s workspace is different:

  • Family members, children, roommates, visitors, neighbors, and others may cause constant interruptions for some employees. An office can provide an oasis where those workers can work in silence without interruption.
  • Some remote workers have slow consumer connectivity options. An office can offer high-speed fiber access to the internet.
  • Home offices can make employees feel disconnected, isolated, insecure, and depressed. Occasional days in an office can erase those feelings.
  • Home offices are almost never great places for business meetings. Restaurants and coffee shops may be less than ideal, too—especially when discussing sensitive topics like mergers, intellectual property, business secrets, and competitive analyses. A physical office can provide a professional, provisioned, and acoustically secure space for proper business meetings.

Central offices can provide all the things that home offices cannot for most employees, without provisioning individual office space for every employee.

Primarily, the office of the future is a social, communicative, and collaborative space designed to satisfy the psychological need for employees to feel connected. It’s also a place for managers, supervisors, division leaders, and team leaders to have sensitive conversations with staff, such as performance reviews. And it’s a central hub that houses shared equipment and other resources.

As companies return to work and downsize office space, it’s a good time to reimagine the physical office space altogether—and the IT infrastructure that powers the entire company.

One way to envision the possibilities for the hybrid workplace of the future is to compare it to existing and well-understood gathering place types, such as:

The coffee house model

The original coworking space emerged in mid-17th-century London in the form of public coffee houses. These establishments were used by businesspeople, journalists, and politicians who gathered to meet, read, debate, and gossip. (Their legacy today can still be seen in the form of Lloyd’s of London, the world’s largest insurance market. “Lloyd’s” was actually the name of the coffee house where the organisation began.)

The model here for hybrid work is the idea of providing a simple, optional, employees-only coworking space with just the basics—tables, chairs, and internet connections. And coffee.

The gentleman’s club model

When the coffee house craze faded in the mid-18th century, and upward mobility enabled more male citizens to aspire to become “gentlemen,” hundreds of private social clubs sprung up in London. These functioned essentially as members-only coffee houses, but with far more services, including bars, libraries, game rooms, reading rooms, fitness centers, social spaces, and even guest rooms where members could sleep.

The hybrid work office version of this model is a coworking space with social spaces, a game room, food and drinks, fitness centers, daycare centers, and—crucially—high-speed internet, videoconferencing spaces, high-quality printers, and other high-tech office equipment that is too large, expensive, or shared to be installed in home offices.

Both the coffee house model and the gentleman’s club model would make offices primarily spaces for social interaction, meetings, and collaboration.

The hotel model

“Hoteling” is a model in which employees reserve desks, cubicles, call rooms, conference rooms, and other facilities in advance. Employees with reservations “check in” and “check out”—a process that blocks out or frees up the space reserved.

This model enables companies to limit the amount of office space they provide while offering equitable but occasional access to all employees. For example, a company with 3,000 employees might need to provide office space for only 1,000 employees, which all employees have access to a third of the time.

“Hoteling” will be encouraged by an ecosystem of tools purposely built for reserving resources via a process of checking in and checking out (most commonly, no doubt, using biometric solutions).

While physical security in offices will be important, most companies will dispense with the perimeter approach to cybersecurity—firewalls, for example—and instead embrace a zero-trust model where every employee and every device will be individually authenticated each time they connect, regardless of whether or not employees are physically in the office. All employees will be provisioned like remote employees.

If done right, the office of the future will lower costs, raise employee work flexibility, and provide employees everything they need to succeed.


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