SPONSORED BY
Return to work

Employers are trying to lure workers back with offices that feel like living rooms

Halfway through 2022, these companies are trying out new visions for what an office can be in the pre-post-pandemic era.
article cover

Grant Thomas

· 4 min read

As the pandemic catalyzed the age of remote work, in-person office norms—like wishing your colleagues a “happy hump day” or fruitlessly searching for your elusive stapler—eroded faster than Freddie Prinze Jr.’s leading-man status after the early aughts. Employers soon discovered they could maintain productivity with distributed teams, and many workers enjoyed being remote: A November ADP survey of almost 33,000 people in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Australia found that two thirds of workers would sooner quit their jobs than return to the office full-time.

To avoid incurring the wrath of Beyoncé, some companies are now thinking outside the cubicle, riffing on what purpose an office should serve amid an increasing appetite for hybrid models. For Tiffany Millar, workplace experience director at AI developer Augury, the RTO decision was shaped by a question: “How do we make our office a destination and a tool” for fostering the interpersonal connection that might get lost while working remotely?

HR Brew spoke with leaders at three hybrid companies, all of whom are attempting to take the office beyond its traditional moorings and evolve it into an incubator of corporate culture, camaraderie, and casual collaboration. In other words: “a destination” that evokes the casual vibe of your living room.

Hybrid era. “Leaders are thinking about offices very differently than they ever did before,” by engineering a “more digitally focused environment,” Rose Gailey, partner at executive search consultancy Heidrick & Struggles, told HR Brew.

Today’s video-messaging tech is enabling some companies to redesign their physical offices to better facilitate collaboration in hybrid setups. “People still need to feel connected, no matter if they're physically in the room or at home,” Millar said. “A lot of that has to do with having video conferencing systems [with] applications where people can both write on the whiteboard physically in the space and virtually.”

from our sponsor

Solutions for an uncertain moment. During the mid-year review cycle, successful HR pros will be the ones who can offer concrete solutions. As companies face org changes and rising healthcare costs, Eden Health offers health benefit solutions that meet high employee expectations *and* lower healthcare expenditures. Get a personalized ROI analysis following a demo.

At life-insurance provider Ladder, “all activities have been designed with an in-person and remote component,” the company’s VP of people, Cassie Bradley, explained in an email. “AI whiteboards allow real-time whiteboard sessions via Zoom, smart cameras focus on the speaker in the room so those dialing in feel a part of the conversation.”

What about the physical space? Office designs that are intended to promote collaboration are, according to Gailey, about creating “the right kind of space to take advantage of that moment.”

“Collaboration requires connection, it requires conversation,” Gailey said. “And so a lot of the spaces we’re seeing opening up are much more casual, much more comfortable, and to some degree informal.” She added that even in traditionally buttoned-up industries like finance and professional services, offices can now come with an “infusion of that informality.” Ladder’s new corporate HQ, for example, which opened in June, has ceilings festooned with hanging plants and spaces that “feel more like comfy living rooms” than traditional conference rooms, Bradley said.

Augury seems to have taken inspiration from your local hipster coffee establishment, incorporating long tables where workers from different teams can sit. “You start to foster this connection with these family tables,” Millar said.

Sarah Hamilton, VP of global human experience at Workhuman, a maker of human capital management software, is thinking about the office in similar terms. “How do we make it not an office, but more an experience and a communal place for people to want to come to everyday not because they have to, but because they want to?” The company, she said, plans to outfit its forthcoming Framingham, Massachusetts, headquarters with a barista and a gym—the latter of which is already offered at its offices in Dublin, Ireland.

But what about everyone else? A June report from Placer.ai that measured foot traffic in 200 Chicago, San Francisco, and New York office buildings found office attendance is still far lower than pre-pandemic levels. In May, monthly attendance in San Francisco was down 67.8% compared to 2019, while New York and Chicago were down 40.6% and 45.7% respectively.

Nonetheless, workers are looking forward to a hybrid future: According to a March Gallup survey of 7,762 adults employed full-time in the US, 53% anticipated working hybrid in the future, and 59% said hybrid was their preferred work setup.

It seems some workers are already nearing their final “destination” (at least when it comes to work).—SB

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SammBlum on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Sam for his number on Signal.

from our sponsor

Solutions for an uncertain moment. During the mid-year review cycle, successful HR pros will be the ones who can offer concrete solutions. As companies face org changes and rising healthcare costs, Eden Health offers health benefit solutions that meet high employee expectations *and* lower healthcare expenditures. Get a personalized ROI analysis following a demo.

HR is challenging. HR news doesn’t have to be.

HR Brew keeps you effective in the fast-changing business environment.