Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most office workers were accustomed to open-plan offices, even if they didn’t realize how bad they were for productivity, satisfaction, and even collaboration. After a year and a half of working remotely, many people don’t want to return to the office — for a myriad of reasons.
In response, companies are experimenting with a hybrid work model in which employees work from the office part-time and work remotely the rest. For example, working in the office 2–3 days a week and working remotely the other days, or alternating weeks in the office with weeks at home.
The move to hybrid work presents a unique opportunity to capitalize on the advantages of office work and those of remote work to create a better work experience than either one by itself.
The Hybrid Work Opportunity
The primary advantage of remote work is that it fosters deep work. Deep work — a term coined by Cal Newport in his book Deep Work (2016) — is work that is cognitively demanding and requires high levels of concentration. Examples of this are writing, programming, and learning. This type of mental expenditure is more important than shallow work — such as responding to email or scheduling meetings — which can be (and often is) done while distracted, is easy to replicate without extensive training, and produces little value.
In his pre-pandemic world, Newport recommends the hub-and-spoke office design to achieve a state of deep work at the office. It chiefly features individual (soundproofed) offices connected to common spaces in a way that encourages people to encounter one another. Private offices could also be used for collaborative deep work, in which colleagues work together on a complex problem in a state of undistracted concentration. Thus, the hub-and-spoke office uses separate spaces to optimize for three activities: deep work; collaborative deep work; and serendipitous encounters. Open-plan offices mix these activities together into one place, and in doing so, accomplish none of them well.
I’d also add one more goal: teambuilding. It’s important to nurture relationships between employees. Strong ties at work lead to improved collaboration and increased job satisfaction. In-person interactions are essential for team building.
It strikes me that the new reality of hybrid work allows us to create an effect similar to the hub-and-spoke model without completely renovating the existing open-plan offices. Instead of trying to accomplish all of these goals in one building, the hybrid model could optimize each environment for its specific goals — remote for deep work; and the office for collaboration, teambuilding and serendipity.
Remote Work is for Deep Work
For those of us fortunate enough to have a good office setup at home, deep work should be batched into the days you’re remote. On these days, shallow work should be avoided as much as possible. There should be no meetings. Work with your team and company to set expectations that on deep work days you won’t check email, chat messages, etc.. (Or that communication will be minimal and at specific times of the day.)
If remote work is when you do deep work, and deep work is how you should be spending most of your time to be successful in your job, then ideally you should be spending a greater amount of time remote than in the office (i.e. 2 days in the office and 3 remote instead of the other way around).
Redesigning Open-Plan Offices for Collaborative Deep Work, Serendipitous Encounters, and Teambuilding
The office should be optimized to create spaces for collaborative deep work, to promote serendipitous encounters with other people and to facilitate team building. The office should also provide space for deep, individual work for those who don’t have access to a good remote space for deep work.
Optimizing an existing open-plan office for these doesn’t have to involve major refurbishment; but instead can be accomplished by shifting or adding furniture and designating areas for different types of work.
In a world where most office workers are doing their deep work remotely and coming to the office for the specific purpose of meeting and collaborating, they don’t need their own assigned desk at the office. Doing away with individually assigned desks opens up space for:
- Assigned deep work space for those that need it. This area should be put in an isolated part of the office. Each desk could have some space around it and possibly even portable walls to approximate a private office. People working in this area would hopefully be respectful and not make noise. This setup may not be as ideal as private offices, but where those are not feasible, this would be an improvement for deep work over the existing open-plan layouts.
- Next to this area, as a distraction buffer, could be ad hoc, unassigned deep work desks since, even if you are not in the office to do deep work, you sometimes just need a quiet place to think.
- Past that area would be the sea of ad hoc, shallow work desks. These could be smaller and closer together (assuming it’s safe to do so) than the deep work desks (i.e. chairs at shared tables.) They could be nearer to meeting rooms and common areas, as distraction isn’t as detrimental when trying to do shallower work. But you still wouldn’t want to explicitly encourage talking and collaboration here as they’re providing some buffer for the deep work desks.
- On the periphery of the shallow work desk could be smaller, informal common areas for socializing, shallow collaboration and serendipitous encounters.
Meetings and Meeting Rooms
One of the big challenges will be to find space for both collaborative deep work and for meetings without constructing new rooms. Meetings and collaborative deep work share many of the same constraints: They involve multiple people, create noise and distraction for those around them, and often require whiteboards or screens. Thus, they are vying for the same spaces: the existing conference rooms. The obvious first step is to eliminate the unproductive meetings (which should be done anyway), but some amount of meetings are inevitable.
The Case for Remote Meetings
Although the main goal of remote work is deep work, ironically it may be good for meetings too. Firstly, by taking meetings from home, you’re not using the valuable real-estate that could be used for in-person, collaborative deep work. Over this past year we’ve had to get good at video conferencing, and in general, I don’t think they’re any worse than the all-in-person meetings of the past.
But even if we consider all-in-person and all-remote meetings equal, blended meetings can be worse than either. For instance, when a large enough group is in person together, those dialed in remotely can often get left out of the conversation. So if it’s not possible for you to get everyone in the same room, it would be more fair to make it remote-only.
The Case for Meetings at the Office
If the goal is to clearly delineate between home being for deep work and the office for being, among the other goals stated above, the place where you do your shallow work, then having meetings at the office makes sense. Meetings often break up the day into inconvenient, small blocks of time, in which it’s hard to do deep work, so you might as well have these blocks at the office to catch up on your shallow work or catch up with your coworkers.
If you Feed Them They Will Come
If you want employees to interact in-person for serendipitous encounters and teambuilding, you need to give them a good reason to come to the office. Depending on your view on remote versus in-person meetings, collaborative deep work may be the only reason left. This is a good use of office space, but it’s unlikely to attract a critical mass of people back at once unless a lot of their work is collaborative (which may be the case for some jobs). And without that critical mass, it’s hard to get those side effects of in-person interactions that you’re looking for.
You could host activities at the office that both bring people together and explicitly promote interaction. It could be as simple as catering lunch or more structured events such as inviting an employee to talk about their professional and personal background. These events can give you a lot of bang for your rapport-building socializing and insight-generating encounter buck over a normal in-person meeting.
The shift to hybrid work presents a golden opportunity to rethink how and where we work. We need to thoughtfully optimize each environment for different types of work, and I see remote work as the natural place for many to do deep work and for a reimagined office to foster collaboration and team building.
If you want to learn more about deep work, I wrote a whole post about Cal Newport’s book.
If you’re currently stuck in an open office, you’re not going to get work done anyway. Trust me. So you might as well embrace distraction with some pointless nonsense.
Thanks to Abigail Pope-Brooks for editing and feedback.