Hybrid Office: Digital, Smart and Real
In 2019, I didn’t see a global pandemic coming that would totally transform the world of work. But I did see a transformation to what we called the office. At the time I said: “Humans will be seeking spaces to be together, to be connected, and to be alone. Offices of the future will provide all three spaces flowing between digital and physical worlds.”
Here we are in 2021. Searches for “Hybrid Work Model” have increased 1,550%. The shift from in-person to fully remote was swift and impactful in 2020, but the shift to “hybrid office” has been more complex. Who goes to the office? When? Why? Sometimes, how? This transition to hybrid creates a unique collision of workspaces that can either threaten our workforce or create a new world of potential.
The digital office is a place where we can isolate into the work. We can turn off notifications and just focus on work. Physical spaces allow us to connect and bump into people and ideas that can transform the business. The smart office enables a business to bring the best of both worlds to their employees. And this will be a critical business skill in the very near future.
Through the Great Resignation, the demand for remote work and flexibility has increased. In fact, a recent survey by Envoy and Wakefield Research found “47% of employees would likely look for another job if their employer doesn’t offer a hybrid work model.” But not everyone wants to be fully remote. How you navigate creating an environment that enables remote and in-person teams will be a market differentiator in your talent brand. And it all starts with one simple concept: Presence Equity.
Presence Equity: You Matter No Matter Where Your Matter Is
I first encountered the term presence equity at MIT’s EmTech conference early in 2021. The concept behind it is simple: no matter where you are working you are an equal part of the team.
Here’s an example: Imagine a meeting where people are sitting around a table talking and a few participants have dialed in by phone. This is a hybrid meeting. Some people are physically present, and some people are digitally present (through the phone). If the people in the room talk constantly and ignore the people on the phone, the people on the phone do not have Presence Equity. They are not seen as equal in the meeting to those in the room because the people on the phone are not engaged and not given a chance to contribute. This might sound familiar to people who’ve been on the phone side of this example.
Having a culture that values presence equity will be a key differentiator in the future of work. Not only to retain remote talent, but also to spark innovation.
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When Worlds Collide: Digital and Physical Spaces
In modern business we work in a digital office. Tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams have become critical communication tools. Email is a standard. Business social networks like Yammer have grown to show what’s happening in the enterprise from the worker’s perspective. These tools create a digital world that enables the speed of business no matter where people are in the world. The digital office is what made it possible for many businesses to continue operations during the COVID-19 shutdown.
Physical spaces like office conference rooms, the watercooler, the coffee machine, the hallways are places where humans connect and collaborate. Pre-COVID-19, these spaces were common locales for innovative sparks and previously disconnected dots to connect. Collaboration and connection are often cited as values of a physical office. People can jump into a conference room and bang out an idea or chat about it while pouring a cup of caffeinated brain fuel and solve problems while building stronger social/cultural bonds.
In a hybrid office, these two worlds need to collide. That's where the smart office comes in. For years now, businesses have been building telepresence capabilities whether that is a complete telepresence Microsoft Teams Room or a webcam attached to an old PC. To create presence equity and connect your digital and physical offices you’ll need more than a webcam and old PC.
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Design Considerations for the Smart Office
A smart office is a space that uses sensors to bridge the digital and physical environment. Often the digital sensors, like the NEST thermostat, can adjust the physical environment. Thinking about a smart office gives you opportunities to break down the barriers between the digital and physical office to create a truly hybrid work experience. Let’s examine:
Start With the Remote Experience
When you examine the office experience, start with the remote worker’s perspective. How are they represented in a physical space? How is the audio quality of the physical space translated to their digital device? What does the remote worker see and experience in the room?
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A smart office can help with this. Focusing on high-quality video systems and audio are key to creating presence equity. Invest in high-quality cameras and microphones for your collaboration spaces where in-person and remote teams will work together. Often, remote team members are shown on a big TV or projector, but if people aren’t sharing video I’ve seen examples where a picture of the remote person is printed and taped to a chair to represent that person. Make sure you have the remote team member seen, heard and noticed in the room.
Organize Your Room for a Hybrid Experience
White boards create a challenge in hybrid work environments. Traditional white boards are often far from the conference room camera and the markers used don’t always show in high contrast to glares on the board. Structure your room, the cameras, the microphones and the white boards in a way that allows the remote team members to fully participate. Digital white boards are a great tool but often, if there is a physical white board in the room, someone in the room will inevitably start writing/drawing on it. Consider how you will enable people on the phone to contribute to the white board. Do you need a white board transcriber who is copying between the digital and physical white board? Do you just move totally digital?
The coffee room is a great example of this. Using simple tablets and Zoom, you can create a channel where people can connect with remote team members. This can be accomplished by just simply adding a tablet in the room that has a call anyone can join at any time. These small tweaks can create connection points for your team members.
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Watch Out for Isolation
Beware the temptation to just isolate the offices. While easier, it doesn’t create value and can create tension in your teams. Leverage the digital tools you have to create connection. Train your team members how to use these tools to ensure they are collaborating effectively over digital and physical spaces. Does your team know how to translate a sketch on a piece of paper into a digital image that the whole team (in-person and remote) can comment on (note: don’t just hold it up to the camera — that’s a terrible remote experience)? Training and reinforcement are critical to success.
Could the Metaverse Help?
We love new words and trends in the tech world. The Metaverse is a great example of the next generation smart office. For those unfamiliar with the metaverse, it is a persistent digital world that is social by design. Companies like Facebook are building metaverse solutions for businesses, such as Facebook Horizon Workrooms or Microsoft’s AltSpace or Spatial.io. People can experience these immersive worlds in virtual reality and leverage voice communication to create a feeling of physical connection that allows for the connection and collaboration many companies are seeking in hybrid work.
While most people think of virtual reality as only in the gamer community, the concept of the metaverse is quickly growing into enterprise organizations as COVID-19 accelerated a remote workforce and companies are grappling with the right way to “reopen.” Some predict the metaverse will create new jobs (or in the case of Facebook, is already creating new jobs) like VR architects and interior designers as the world expands and company build culture and brand in virtual reality.
The metaverse is still young but is already being used by companies like Ford, Accenture and Lowes to create new experiences for staff and customers. Using smart office sensors, the metaverse can further connect remote and in-person team members with devices like Microsoft Hololens to create a holographic representation of the person in the physical room while representing the physical person digitally in a virtual world. Talk about presence equity! While not yet ready, the metaverse is coming fast and will be a powerful tool to build the next generation hybrid work environment.
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Spaces to Be Alone and Be Together
The smart office isn’t new. But for many companies, connecting humans that are remote for long periods of time is new. Maintaining your company culture across remote and in-person team members is new. By focusing on presence equity and updating your physical office to be a smart office, you will help make this critical transformation for the future of work.
About the Author
Tim Kulp is the Chief Innovation Officer at Mind Over Machines and a member of the Forbes Tech Council. He's trying to change the world.