Credit: Courtesy Anne-Laure Fayard

It’s increasingly clear that most businesses will be able to safely return to their workplaces by the end of the summer. But how those offices should be configured, given flexible and hybrid work approaches, still largely lacks definition. 

To understand what research tells us about how to best design workplaces for hybrid organizations, I spoke with Anne-Laure Fayard, associate professor of innovation, design and organizational studies at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Fayard, who researches collaboration at work, recently coauthored a Harvard Business Review article titled “Designing the Hybrid Office.” Here is a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity:

How can organizations tell whether hybrid arrangements are right for them?

It’s about realizing that hybrid has, in itself, various forms. If you’re thinking of ‘everybody be back to the office’ to ‘remote’, then even within ‘hybrid,’ you have flexible hybrid—two days together, or whatever. So I guess hybrid can mean anything and nothing. And in some ways we have to remember that we’ve been doing hybrid for a long time, to a certain extent. A lot of people during our research highlighted that the reason why they were so effective at working from home was because they were already doing it, not to that extreme, but to a certain extent.

It’s important to remember the range. There is no one answer. It’s a question that an organization has to be asking themselves in terms of the kind of work and how much collaboration they really need. In previous research, I’ve seen organizations trying to create these open offices while people were looking desperately for meeting rooms to do their work, because they were doing much more heads-down work. A lot of the critique of the open plan office was: I go early when there’s no one so that I can do my work.

Thinking about the kind of work in general, the kind of work people are doing—it’s not necessarily direct collaboration, but it’s implicit collaboration across teams. That’s super hard to realize. And the onboarding and informal learning of how to grow your employees? It’s not only the onboarding, like I want my junior colleague to be spot on. But if you want to grow talent within your organization, how do they learn the small things? I know a lot of the banks mentioned that; there was a lot of learning for junior bankers by just listening around. But there’s also a lot of work on apprenticeship. That’s something that had come up a lot with organizations, but also with some people who were just starting.

And what does it mean? How do you learn your job, but also what does it mean to be part of this organization? If you’re thinking of IBM or Yahoo, deciding to go back to when we weren’t completely remote a few years back and saying that we need to have people coming back to the office—there’s something about feeling part of a culture. So it’s also figuring out how do people feel part of that culture. And if you look at the very successful fully remote organizations, they still bring people back together a few times a year because they want to give people a sense that they’re part of something.

There was a small consultancy that we interviewed in Paris and the CEO was saying that after the lockdown in the spring, when the senior management team was discussing do we ask people to come back or do we let them choose—he said I want people to come back at least once or twice a week, you know, managing safety and everything. Because he was like, we can work remotely, but in six months or a year, we’ll lose the company because of the culture. Remembering also that hybrid always requires potentially more work to keep the glue and the sense of of identity. Even in your newsletter, you were mentioning work on loneliness. There’s the individual loneliness, but there’s also this sense of being motivated to work towards something.

What are some of the best practices from your research for hybrid work?

It’s still a work in progress. People are all trying different things. But if you get people to come back in the office, if it’s just to squeeze in all your meetings and do heads-down work during these two days that you’re in the office, you’re missing the informal and connective types of work that people seem to be missing when they say they want to go back to the office. You want to make it clear that it’s not necessarily for formal meetings, because a lot of the formal meetings we might be able to do by Zoom. Encourage people to realize that you might be in the office and chatting with people half of the day, but in fact rebuilding trust, understanding, learning how to do things that you didn’t know, getting a sense of who is doing what. If you’re thinking of Zoom, this screen with all these little windows—sometimes you’d like to reach out to one of the windows, and it’s hard. And I think that’s what the space is doing.

Because the risk is people are going to think, I have to be in the office because then I will look like I’m working or I might see the senior management. One of the co-founders of Quora was saying that he makes sure the whole leadership is not going more than once a month so that people don’t feel like they have to.

The other thing that they do that is interesting is to still leave the office. The hybrid office forces us to recognize the diversity of needs of people, whether it’s personality needs—you might want to be with people to feel like you’re working—but also personal needs. You might not have the space, or you have too many people in your apartment, or all these things. And recognizing that and living—we used to have only one option, go to the office. But if hybrid is hybrid, it should be a highly flexible hybrid to a certain extent, or maybe a more human-centered hybrid.

Also, how do you get people to mingle? Because if you design hybrid and say, ‘Oh, it’s only going to be people who work on a specific project,’ you’re missing one piece of going to the office, which is you might meet someone who is not working on your project and learn something from them. It’s like this company we mentioned in the paper where they split the week half and half, and people never met. So you end up with two companies in parallel. And you lose the serendipity and the overlapping.

So how do you think about that? One thing that people are looking at is saying that everybody has to be there on Wednesday or Tuesday There are some people who look at more complex time schedules, either with Excel spreadsheets or more AI-based technology. That’s a work-in-progress, but it’s important to keep that in mind and to realize that you might have to iterate and learn. I think that’s what organizational culture is always about. Work is always about that, it’s like resetting us—that’s the name of your newsletter—it kind of gave a reset, and it’s hopefully a good opportunity for organizations to reset things mindfully.

Some companies are using technology to analyze the connections between people and the use of space. Does that seem like it’s helpful?

It seems like the people who are using it find it kind of useful. Gensler, the architecture firm, has their own types of technology to map out things. A lot of these things are still about how do you make sense of data and what are the decisions you’re making with this data? It’s a tool to collect the data; it gives you more data, but it depends on what kind of questions you’re asking and then how you interpret it.

Should the physical design of offices change for hybrid work?

It depends what kind of office you have. If you had only closed offices or cubicles, yes. If you already have a space that was designed in thinking about collaboration, you might want to add a few more things, but not necessarily that much. In the case of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), they designed an office that aims to create this interconnection and collaboration. So I don’t think they need to redesign their office—they have the right office. It’s more of figuring out what is your current layout and how much does it support informal interaction. Salesforce wrote about how they’re rethinking the whole design—it’s quite close to what we were envisioning, with more spaces where people can do more informal work and chat, and you still want to have a few places where people can still take a phone call or do heads-down work.

In previous research we were looking at spaces. There are three dimensions that lead to collaboration in spaces. In the physical space, it’s the balance between privacy and what we call propinquity, which is basically traffic and openness. You want to have a space where people can meet and see each other, but you also want to have enough privacy so that people can have a conversation. What’s interesting is that in our studies and in other studies, people found that if you have something that is too open—you had this company that at some point created more of an airport-type space. What they realized is people would meet, but they would just say ‘Hi,’ wave, and that’s it. If they had a conversation, they would go and do it in a more private space. So it’s about finding this semi-public space, an alcove or think of a booth in a coffee shop where you’re not enclosed completely, but you have some kind of privacy, you can talk like what we’re missing in Zoom. That’s what you might want to think about, places where people can share resources. But it’s not also too weird. Like I have a reason to go to the space and I can meet. So it can be coffee; I studied copier machines because it’s a great place where people can be standing there doing something. Maybe this kind of thing.

You’ve studied collaboration. Is there anything that we’ve learned from this last year, in terms of how people collaborate effectively or not?

A lot of the people who say that they had distributed work experiences, it was always a group and then others who would join. For the first time everybody was distributed to a certain extent, but also distributed as in isolated. It’s not like two offices working together. People were forced to be more transparent, and there’s a lot of coordination work required to be able to make things smooth.

But also if you talk to people, there’s been a lot of thinking about how do we still build a social glue? Whether it’s the icebreaker on Zoom, even if people are Zoom fatigued, there were all these kind of ways. We interviewed Frog Design, which was on Slack, but they had this office manager who kind of became the remote culture. A facilitator trying to create this sense of community. I was talking with them and they were wondering how much would go back to in-person and how much would stay remote, or a mix of the two. I think they’re going to keep a hybrid model. So it’s about realizing that we can be creative in terms of finding ways of reconnecting with people.

The last piece is that because everybody was on the same page, it made people realize the difficulties that some of our counterparts who were the remote people before were facing. At least some of the people I talked to were like, ‘Oh, well, I’ll remember.’ Hopefully they will. But it kind of highlighted also all these dynamics that people have talked a lot about before, like time zones and a lot of things that if you’ve worked remote you know. It’s the simple things that create the most problems. And now it became clear for everyone. The question is what are we going to do with it when things calm down, go back to normal, or a new normal or whatever the term is we decide to choose.

It seems to me that this hybrid and flexible work is going to create a lot of extra challenges for managers, particularly mid-level managers. Are organizations underestimating that?

The thing is it’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of invisible work. If you look at the nineties when people rushed to virtual teams, one thing that they realized is that it’s not only because we have the technology—it can work because in fact, there are people who are using the technology. A lot of the managers had to spend hours on the phone, no email, to try to connect people. It’s exactly what you’re pointing out. Someone has to do the glue and maybe it means that we have new jobs, but we have to be thinking of it.

It’s also training. That has always been an issue. You get people who became a manager because of their technical skills rather than their managerial skills, because they were great performers. And then we’re like, ‘Oh, and because you were so good at doing this, are you going to do something that is radically different?’ It’s a radically different job with like a lot of extra emotional layers. If you could also be an anthropologist and a psychologist and this and that, to understand all of these things, and also a specialist in communication. Potentially having maybe some training on facilitation, maybe new roles—it was interesting to me that the role of the office manager, at least at Frog, was changing and becoming the cheerleaders of collaboration. It could be that we’ll see also different needs in terms of rethinking the kind of work that people used to be doing.

What happened in the nineties with virtual teams?

With the internet and video conferencing, everybody was like, ‘We’re going to do virtual teams and we’re going to outsource’ and this and that. Then you have all these horror stories of, for example, telling people in India to do the work and they don’t do it well. Because it’s, you know, it’s more complicated, it’s about power dynamics and about relationships, not even thinking about also how you work. There are many studies of how virtual teams were not always successful because oftentimes people thought, now we have emails and we can do a few video conference or teleconference calls. It’s not the same.

So either a manager not knowing how to do it, or realizing that it’s a lot of work to be doing it because you need translators and people who kind of connect. People might think, ‘Oh, but now it’s not like, outsourcing.’ They think it’s just cultural differences, but still there are a lot of other differences. We don’t know what’s happening in people’s lives. If people have kids who are still in remote schooling, that’s going to be something to be thinking of.

That happened in the nineties, with virtual teams and people saying ‘Oh, we have the technology, we can do it.’ It it seems to me that now it’s like, ‘Oh, we did it because we were forced to, it worked in terms of productivity so we can keep doing it, I guess.’ But the problem is how long can people do it? All the reports on mental health and burnout and isolation makes us worry about how long can we do it, as a group of human beings.

If you look at surveys of employees, people feel very unhappy and unappreciated. If you had to grade the performance of most managers, it would be a failing grade right now. We’re dealing with it because the situation is extreme.

It’s a crisis mode, but you can’t live in a crisis forever. What it showed is we’re very resilient and we can move to a crisis mode and be quite efficient. But a crisis mode is, by definition, normally counterbalanced with something else.

The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive our briefings by email.