(Photo by .Shock/iStock by Getty Images)

We now see it everywhere: offices no longer look like offices.  If one had to name a successful example of post-Covid office design, the new LinkedIn flagship office in Silicon Valley would immediately come to mind: with 50% of the desks gone, it resembles a university library more than our idea of corporate headquarters. Just don’t call it just an aesthetically-minded overhaul. “The LinkedIn redesign is phenomenal. When you look at what LinkedIn is doing, it’s all about feedback from employees and culture,” said Tami Pauly, the head of people experience at Condeco.

It is no secret that how we use the office has changed tremendously, and, being instrumental in managing the people and the places in which they work, Pauly is keen on shaping conversations around return-to-office policies. “We want to include the voice of the employee and balance the needs of the business and the C-suite. It’s a timely conversation for me and for everyone in HR,” she told journalist Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza in a From Day One webinar titled, “The New Role of the Office in an Era of Hybrid Work.” Among the highlights:

The Need for a Good Reason

There’s a strong consensus about future work arrangements: 85% of workers surveyed by Condeco want more flexibility. At the same time, they want their time in the office to be purposeful. “They want to make sure that when they get away from working from home and remotely and solo, that there is going to be that opportunity for collaboration,” Pauly said. “So in going into the office, what they’re not looking forward to is just going in, putting on [their] headset, not really engaging with anybody else, and being on Zoom, Teams, and similar video-call platforms back-to-back.”

Yet Condeco’s internal research found that only 25% of employees said they want to remain fully remote. “What we don’t want when we go into the office is the uncertainty of, ‘Is there going to be a spot for me? Will there be an opportunity to collaborate? Is it easy for me to go there? Will I be alone?’” At Condeco’s offices, for example, they’re redesigning and resizing for different purposes, including collaboration among teams that fly in every couple of months for specific projects. “We also have to define the outcome: What do we hope to get around that time in the office? What we’re finding is that people want to be there, but [when managers say] ‘Hey, come in there times a week,’ that’s where we’re finding pushback,” Pauly said.

Ironically, the office has also become a preferred location for deep-focus time, which flips the script of what the situation was like before the pandemic, when one’s home was seen as an interruption-free environment. Experience has proven otherwise.

A Boon for Cross-collaboration and Quality Time 

Regardless of one’s line of work, it’s important to have the brainstorming, the team building, and to be able to go in and collaborate with colleagues beyond your own department and your own team members. “What we’re finding, and what’s even more crucial, is the opportunity for cross-collaboration,” said Pauly. “Here, we think about returning to the office and how the new office plays a role in what we do as an organization for any company. I think we’ve done a fairly decent job of staying connected virtually with our own team members, because we talk more frequently. You’re brainstorming, you’re sharing best practices, you’re working on projects together,” she explained. “When you have to get something done outside of your own intimate group, we’re hearing that thought-process collaboration is so good done in person.”

Tami Pauly, the head of people experience at Condeco (Company photo)

We can consider feedback as part of the collaboration process, and, in Pauly’s findings, employees are looking forward to giving and receiving feedback in person, both between peers and when it comes to hearing from their manager. “As we’re heading towards the fourth quarter, a lot of companies do performance reviews during that time,” she said. “So, to just see body language and social cues that you wouldn’t necessarily see or feel over video, I think to to be able to know that I’m going to go in person and have a performance review from my manager is really intriguing to me as well. It’s something that I personally would much rather do in person than over a video call.”

The Welcome Evolution of HR

The way Apple handled its return-to-office policy is a cautionary tale not in the contents of said policies, but in its execution, with management and employees butting heads. “Top-down mandates are not working,” said Pauly. “We need to have clarity around what policies are. We need to make sure we can execute upon that, and that everybody from top down declares what they expect.” Calling these initiatives policies and framing them as such is wrong as well. “It sounds like a dictate,” she said. “There does still need to be flexibility, and a reason: What we’re finding is not that employees are refusing to go in, but we want to make sure there’s going to be an outcome around it.”

This view reflects how much HR changed in the last decade. “We used to be very focused on enforcing policies and supporting disciplinary actions and things of that nature,” said Pauly. “A lot of companies in all industries are moving more towards that people-centric group, so it’s more about, ‘How do we support? And how do we change as our environment changes in the workplace?’”

But Wait, There’s Pinch of Cubicle Nostalgia

While it would be tempting to say that all office layouts and design are headed towards a university-library approach, à la LinkedIn, the truth is, the cubicle farms and their water cooler fostered a lot of lasting work relationships that evolved into friendships. “There’s still a need for that–there still is a need to have true workspaces that you go in and that you are just focused on getting work done, while still being able to support building lifelong friendships, right? Friends who are going to be in your in your wedding, are going to see you through many life changes. That is the biggest reason for us to think very clearly about what our return to office looks like, and how we’re going to utilize our office to support our employees long term.”

Editor’s note: From Day One thanks our partner who sponsored this webinar, Condeco.

Angelica Frey is a writer and a translator based in Milan and Brooklyn.