Do you remember the first office you worked in? If you were like me, the office was one of the considerations for where you would work. Where was it located? What was it like? Were there offices/cubes? How did it feel? I still remember walking into the elevator after one of my office interviews and thinking this is where I want to work every day – there was a buzz, an energy, an excitement, and an indescribable sense of team. Fortunately, that place became where I “went to work”. 

If we truly examine the past twenty years of “work” for a large majority of employers, although some flexibility has been added, the office was designed and seen as the place where we work. And, if it wasn’t where we worked, it was still the central hub and clearinghouse for all work being done. It was part of the employee value proposition. It’s where the leaders, systems, resources, and technology were anchored. It’s also where employees collaborated, company culture was cultivated and teams met. Even up through 2019, most offices played a major role in production, profitability, and significant work activities. 

Fast forward to one year ago, when offices were closed and the “work” displaced in a matter of days for some and in a matter of hours for others. The forced acceleration to elevate workforce health and safety immediately changed the office’s role in the work equation. 2020 became the year where it was virtually proven (pun intended) that work could be done from anywhere. The office took a back seat, and the proven success of remote working and the ability to maintain production and productivity has caused some to question the need for offices altogether. 

The good news is that most research on worker viewpoints coming out of the pandemic shows hope for offices. Employees want them and see the critical role the office can play in collaboration and relationship-building – they just don’t want to have to be in the office all of the time. In fact, in a recent PwC US Remote Work survey, over half of employees (55%) responded that they would like to be remote at least three days a week. This shift in employee perspective coupled with the paradigm shift about where work gets done has many leaders going back to the drawing board to re-think the role of the office. 

So, what’s next? For most companies, it is clear that some form of hybrid work ecosystem will be the “new norm”. The hybrid model will include employees who are physically working in the same space and employees who are working remotely. It also allows for the flexibility to move between those two options, perhaps working in the office as needed and remotely when desired. But there are still big questions about the hybrid model and how to truly maximize relationship building, team affiliation, culture, collaboration, and innovation within such a fluid system. 

For hybrid to work, companies must continue to evolve their view of the office. It is no longer the central place for work. It is simply one tool within the ecosystem and scope of how we work. Thus, it is incumbent upon leaders to take a fresh look at how this tool fits and is used – to re-imagine the strategic role of the office for their organization and their team. 

As you look forward to the future and how you might reshape your work ecosystem, consider these strategic questions:

  • What is the purpose of the office? Why do team members working successfully remotely need to come to the office?
  • What role does the office play in the production of your work? Does the work require the physical space? If not, what aspects are most effective when workers are physically present together?
  • What role does the office environment play in your desired culture, communication, and employee experience? How might you use your office to enhance the employee value proposition? What is valuable enough to create a “pull” so your people want to come into the office versus “have” to come into the office?
  • What role does the office play in your customer experience? How can or should the office be used to create memorable service moments?
  • Who needs to be in the office and when? Are there essential, “non-negotiable” time or activities (e.g., team building, collaboration, critical discussions or meetings, etc.)?

Unfortunately, there is no one-size fits all answer to these questions. They can only be answered by the leaders of each organization, considering their mission, vision, values, culture, and strategy. Talk about them with your leadership team. Engage some of the key influencers and high performers in your workforce. Get their thoughts. Re-imagine “the office” through a thoughtful assessment of its highest and best use in the present and the future. Finally, after you’ve worked through the discussion and determined the role of your office(s) in your work ecosystem, communicate that to your entire team. Help people know what to expect and why it is important. In short, help them start to engage successfully in your “new normal”.