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5 ways the future office must change, according to a workplace technologist

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As employers welcome workers back to the office this summer, many are still figuring out how to meet growing employee demand to embrace hybrid work. According to a recent Randstad US survey of more than 1,200 workers, more than half, 54%, say they prefer a flexible arrangement that allows them to work both on-site and remotely beyond the pandemic.

Worldwide, companies are listening and working to adapt, according to a Boston Consulting Group survey that found 93% of global companies indicate that they plan to permanently change remote work and meeting policies even after the health crisis is over.

As a workplace technologist, Nadjia Yousif, managing director and partner of BCG's London office, has seen the benefits and downsides to new tech and workflows introduced during the pandemic. Moving forward with a hybrid model, she tells CNBC Make It the future office will need to change in five key ways.

Designing the office for employee connection

Survey after survey indicates people want to continue working from home to do more focus work and individual tasks. Days spent in the office, then, will be reserved for brainstorming, meeting and socializing.

Yousif says employers should plan for their offices to be gathering spaces, not just for work meetings, but for more employee wellbeing and social engagement. That could include, for example, dining options so workers can grab lunch with a colleague, or casual meeting areas for one-on-one mentoring sessions.

She adds that the office will remain crucial for onboarding new hires so they can meet some of their colleagues in person and get a feel for the company culture through its physical presence.

Support for new hires and chance encounters

Citing an internal workplace analytics report, Yousif says her team found that during full-time remote work in 2020, people tended to do more collaborative work within established relationships, such as direct coworkers or people who've been with the company longer. This bias can make it harder for new hires to get to know other people, so Yousif recommends organizations find ways to set up intentional meetings and work sessions, virtual or in-person, for new employees.

This is a crucial diversity and inclusion issue, she adds, as women, entry-level workers and people from marginalized groups were more likely to experience job loss during the pandemic and may be overrepresented among new team hires. Similarly, Yousif says employers should be more intentional in giving young professionals and interns opportunities to network with other people at the company.

That could mean using the office space to host meetings and events. Virtually, Yousif recommends tools like Donut, the Slack plugin that pairs colleagues at random to get to know one another — think of it as the virtual equivalent of running into someone in the hallway.

Encouraging spontaneous interactions, even virtually, can help with some concerns that remote work stifles collaboration.

The right communication tools

By this point, Yousif says most organizations have figured out their suite of virtual communication tools with a go-to platform for email, instant messaging, videoconferencing, document co-creation, task management and brainstorming. With that said, too many tools can cause confusion, so she says now is a good time to do an audit of what employees are really using, and what could be improved.

As some employees transition back to an office, virtual collaboration will still be important for teams that remain spread out between locations. For these instances, employers should invest in platforms where someone at home can collaborate in real-time with an individual or a group in the office. One platform Yousif recommends for this is Mural.

Better virtual meetings

Similarly, Yousif says offices should be outfitted with technology to hold meetings that can accommodate employees in different locations. Even if a full team is back in-person, some buildings may have limits on how many people can be in a conference room, requiring some attendees to dial in from their desks.

This could very well go against the benefits of being back onsite, Yousif says, "but if you're in a meeting room with a high-quality camera that captures the whole room," it could feel just as if you're in the room participating in-person.

In the physical meeting room, Yousif says displays should be big enough to accommodate screens of virtual attendees as well as presentation materials; attendees should also be able to chime in with comments or questions without tech mishaps. At home, employees should have the right equipment to see the meeting room and presentation, too.

Meeting flexibility extends to external partners, too. Yousif says she and her team already expect to do much less business travel, even as normal travel resumes: "From a sustainability point of view, we don't want to go back to that at all. So we're now thinking, "OK, what's our model of [working] in an effective way, across borders without having to physically go to another country?"

Clearer work boundaries

According to BCG's workplace analytics research, the time employees spent in meetings during the pandemic actually decreased by five minutes, from an average of 113 meeting minutes per day pre-Covid to 108 meeting minutes per day currently.

However, the amount of time people spent communicating each day through email, instant messages or on the phone increased by a meaningful amount. Response times got shorter, and there were more messages being sent on the weekends.

As employers extend the boundaries of where people can work, Yousif says they have a responsibility for resetting and communicating boundaries of when they can work: "There's a role for leaders or organizations to play in setting more boundaries explicitly around when to be on or when to be off."

Check out:

Workers could face new burnout symptoms when returning to the office—here’s how employers can help

Apple adds 2-week work-from-anywhere benefit to hybrid office return—will it catch on?

1 in 4 workers is considering quitting their job after the pandemic—here’s why

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