Offices and hybrid working
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In a world where you can work from home or on the other side of the world, what does an office look like? In a previous article, we discussed the workshops organised by the Bouygues Construction Strategic Foresight team with numerous stakeholders to gain a better understanding of the transformation of working methods and their impact on the workplace. Today, we are going to look at how offices are transforming to adapt to hybrid working.
The public health crisis highlighted changes in working practices and methods, and in particular the development of teleworking, initially in a degraded form of telecommuting imposed by lockdown measures against the virus. On a more general level, teleworking corresponds to any form of work organisation in which employees can carry out at least some of their tasks away from company premises – at home or elsewhere – through information and communication technologies. First introduced in the 1970s and later facilitated by the development of the Internet, teleworking progressively developed in the 2000s and 2010s, in a very non-standardised way depending on the sector, culture and size of the company. In France, it is estimated that tasks that can be carried out at least partially by teleworking today concern between 36% and 40% of working people.
Employees at the heart of a range of hybrid models
The notion of a single standard workplace is challenged by the potential for performing certain tasks remotely: today, office, home and third place are all complementary. Companies face the choice of creating a framework which might be rigid (compulsory organisation of work times and places) or relaxed (leaving individuals free to organise themselves as they see fit), so that the diversity of locations becomes a source of opportunity rather than constraint. The correct answer therefore depends on the activity and culture of each company.
However, after a period of forced experimenting with remote working, with its negative and positive aspects, it appears that remote work will be more common than it was before the pandemic: people working for large companies whose tasks are compatible with teleworking appear in some cases to have acquired the capacity to work remotely one, two or even three days a week. In this context, it will not always be possible to hold 100% in-person meetings or 100% remote meetings, even in companies that largely favour physical presence in the office. How do you deal with this hybrid situation?
A meeting room that allows for remote access
Phygital collaboration, i.e. a hybrid mix of face to face and remote working, is a new use that is leading to changes in office layout. The need for exchanges between different sites is generally going to continue. Facilitating the interface between face-to-face and remote interaction calls for changes to be made to office spaces in order to limit the minority group’s feelings of exclusion, or the loss of communication that hybrid communication can engender.
In May 2021, for example, Google unveiled its new office layouts in an article in the New York Times. Part of the design aims to facilitate phygital collaboration. Experimenting with the “Campfire” meeting room, which has been tested in 2021, is designed to encourage equal participation of physically present and virtually present employees by providing physical seats for virtual attendees, and allowing them to be visualised full scale on dedicated screens, as if they were actually sitting there. Google’s strategy also includes large team-dedicated workspaces that can be modulated as needed to make them more or less cooperation- or concentration-oriented, incorporating dedicated screens that display the image of team members working remotely.
A space for each use and a window on other places
La Vitre makes it possible to transform a large vertical video conference screen into a window to one or more other sites. The vertical format allows you to see your interlocutors from head to toe and at close to full scale. This means that remote teams can be brought together virtually more naturally and spontaneously than through traditional video conferencing, whether for formal or informal discussions. Additional features include screen sharing of PCs, tablets and phones, and there is an instant translation service that can subtitle conversations with international colleagues in sixty languages.
In addition to facilitating remote exchanges, offices are also being transformed to create spaces dedicated to a single use. The current thinking on the “activity-based workplace” tends to support the idea that the employee is no longer restricted to using a single type of space, but must be capable of using several different spaces during the course of the day. Employees must be able to decide to occupy the space that suits them best at any given time in order to adapt to the diversity of their tasks: quiet concentration, studying documentation, making phone calls, video conferencing, teamwork in a flexible setting that allows for discussions, appointments, formal meetings, committees, brainstorming sessions, etc. The office arranged according to use is most often accompanied by a move to desk sharing: the “flex office” approach means that a desk is no longer allocated to each employee.
The office as an ecosystem of places
With this new paradigm, it becomes possible to migrate between different spaces to work efficiently. This notion goes beyond the office: for companies, thinking about the workplace is no longer a matter of designing a single building, but of offering an ecosystem of places that facilitate their employees’ work and help it flow, whether they are in the office, travelling or teleworking.
Alongside the office, the company has a duty to think about its working methods in interaction with the possibilities offered by its employees’ homes, and providing additional workplaces: in this respect, third places offer multiple value propositions, as we explained in a trend report: local third places enable employees to work in quality spaces close to their homes, while others offer serviced, shared and sometimes mobility-related solutions.
Well-being and health issues at the heart of the debate
The quality of life of employees is a strategic issue at the heart of the debate about the office and the workplace ecosystem. The pandemic has strengthened these concerns. Considering that workplaces and working methods must take account of both the physical and mental health of employees, the application of health protocols, the presence of medical services and occupational psychologists, the monitoring of comfort indicators (air quality, temperature), and the implementation of policies for inclusion, equality and balanced work rhythms all offer possible ways of meeting these challenges. The office is tending to become a space that brings people together, serves them, facilitates their lives, is welcoming, levelling and a reference point, and respects employees’ health and well-being.
From this standpoint, the essentials of good office design include natural light, reduced noise, thermal regulation and ergonomic comfort to promote health. Respecting privacy by ensuring generous space for each user working in the office also contributes to the quality of life at the workplace. Some go further: a layout featuring plants and other natural elements contributes to well-being in the office, as does the presence of spaces for socialising and informal contact.
“Better at the office than at home”
More surprisingly, art is indisputably part of improving the working environment for employees. According to a WHO report in 2019, art encourages a state of emotional well-being and reduces stress. As Professor Jean-Pierre Changeux, a neuroscientist at the Collège de France, points out: “Looking at works of art develops cognitive and creative skills.” Artistic office design also indicates that employers care about the well-being of their employees, and provides a topic for discussion and inspiration outside the daily work environment.
Which of these many trends will prove the most popular in the years to come? In order to bring their work group together in a suitable place, companies are sure to insist: ”It’s better to be at the office than at home!”
 Survey conducted by Harris Interactive for the French Ministry of Work with a representative sample of 2,004 French people aged 18 and over, November 2020.
 Observatoire des Usages et Représentations des Territoires – Edition no. 3, L’ObSoCo, in partnership with Chronos, Bouygues Construction and ADEME, September 2021. Study based on a survey of a representative sample of 4,000 French people aged 18 to 75, June 2021.