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What does the future “hybrid” office look like?

It might not look like anything we’re used to. And that’s OK.

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A woman wears a face mask and tank top while standing in an open-plan office. Photo credit: Southworks

To paraphrase a classic British comedy sketch, the office isn’t done. It’s just resting.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of life, but nowhere is that more clear than in our shuttered skyscrapers and darkened cubicles. In 2020, it might seem that the concept of going to an office — that bedrock of productivity for the past century — is a thing of the past. There are aspects of the office environment that we’d taken for granted: like the camaraderie, close teamwork, and catch-you-in-the-hallway responses from colleagues. By comparison, working from home has exacerbated feelings of alienation and isolation under quarantine. Technical snafus during videoconferencing have delayed vital meetings. And with many parents and children home together all day, plenty of employees also have found the all-important search for work/life balance to be more tenuous than ever.

When it comes to our newfound attitudes about the work, the studies tell us the story. In May 2020, Xerox conducted its first Future of Work survey and found that 82 percent of employers, on average, expect to be back in the office within 12 to 18 months. As for what employees think, The Harris Poll, on behalf of the job site Glassdoor, discovered that most people miss office life. Roughly 70 percent of millennials and Gen Z workers are eager to return — but the architectural firm Gensler found that very few workers are willing to go back to the office for five or more days a week. Even when offices “return,” that means few people want them to come back exactly the way they were before.

An empty, modern, open-plan office. Photo credit: monkeybusinessimages

How to take back the office

What eager employees miss, according to the Harris/Glassdoor poll, is on-the-job socialization: the kind of in-person water-cooler talk that just can’t be replaced via video chats. Collaborating with coworkers, which 46 percent of people surveyed claimed they missed, was reported as a big factor. Employees from any industry can tell you that a good brainstorming session is much easier when you’re all in the same room.

In the Gensler survey, respondents cited socializing and connecting as major things they miss about the office, with the top response being scheduled, face-to-face meetings with colleagues. This shows that some form of structure can be a boon to one’s satisfaction and well-being. (No doubt the uncertainty of the pandemic itself, with its recurring surges and no practical end date, is contributing negatively to the national mood.)

Workers wear protective face masks in a socially distant office, with hand sanitizer at their desks. Photo credit: vichie81

Are “hybrid offices” our future?

Working from home full-time has taken some adjustment. But it’s also enabled flexibility, freedom, the elimination of a commute, and the establishment of a much more casual environment — all from the increased safety and comfort of our own homes. For years we’ve known about the work-from-home experience, and the technology to support it has been there all along, but it’s never been implemented on such an unprecedented scale. Now, offices (and workers) across the country are left to consider: what’s next?

Xerox’s Future of Work survey found that more than half of global businesses intend to change their WFH policies within the next year. It’s this attitude that’s led to the rise of the “hybrid office”: commute to the office every few days, stay home the next. Relatedly, the World Economic Forum recommends that reopened offices carry no greater than 30-percent occupancy, and for those who’ve grown accustomed to the benefits of both environments, that seems like a pretty good idea.

Every company needs a modern IT infrastructure, and hybrid offices make that even more obvious: employees are at their most productive when they can easily access what they need from cloud-based platforms. Whether it’s digitized documents that they can collaborate on, or automated processes to help workers access what they need.

Ultimately, technology will be the key to keeping workers connected. Digital transformation is the path forward, through cloud-based suites such as Xerox’s Intelligent Workplace Services. Its ConnectKey suite of apps encompasses everything a modern business needs to stay relevant. From analytics to pinpoint paper-intensive processes to automated workflows that enable team collaboration, systems like IWS can allow information to be easily accessed and organized, and can also help reduce paper filing, scanning, printing, and handling.

The key component here is access. Although we used to think that working at a centralized location was the only way forward in productivity, the right kind of tech allows employees to access and collaborate from anywhere: at home, in the world, or even, say, at an office.

An empty glass conference room in an office. Photo credit: Blend Images LLC

Office or not, here we come

What will employees expect tomorrow? They’ll expect anything but “the old ways.”

We’ve had ages to grow accustomed to the traditional office and everything it symbolizes. Adulthood, financial success, an environment that encourages development and growth, and the delineation between the world at home and the world at work. With 24/7 access to email and productivity software on our phones, resetting one’s brain is more important than ever. But the home office has given employees the flexibility to do whatever feels safest, most productive, and most convenient.

The fact is, the hybrid office will be our future. With companies like Xerox delivering a modern “work experience,” it’ll be technology that saves the day in the end — customized to every brand, and even every employee hard at work.

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