‘Touchdown spaces’, blended meetings and proximity bias: businesses tackle practical realities of hybrid models

Illustration of people working in a conference room while on a video call.

After a year of unprecedented disruption businesses are pressing forward with the next post-pandemic challenge: the future working model. 

A total 77% of 5,500 leaders surveyed in a recent Deloitte report, said they plan to incorporate hybrid work. For many that means scrapping the 9-to-5 working-day structure in favor of a hybrid model which allows for greater employee flexibility and prioritizes creativity, collaboration and well-being. 

Here’s a look at some of the key considerations and how some businesses are approaching them: 

Establishing structured flexibility 
Whether it’s a 4:1, 3:2 or any other variation, picking how many days employees are in the office versus working remotely is a logistical nightmare. “It has to be flexible enough so people can see you’ve listened, but clamped down enough that you don’t have hundreds of people off at the same time when it may affect productivity and collaboration,” said Graeme Canter, managing partner and director of operations for media agency MediaCom U.K.

Most businesses are reopening offices in stages, allowing those keen to return for the sake of their mental health to use desk-booking tools to get a spot. Temperatures are checked on arrival still, masks worn at desks and one-way walking systems still in play.

MediaCom U.K. has capped maximum headcount at 30% for the short term. Dentsu U.K. and Ireland’s chief people officer Anne Sewell, said it will let people choose which two or three days they come in, and anticipates a maximum 60% of staff will be in the London headquarters at any one time in future.

Staggering start times is another key consideration, as employees have voiced concerns over commuting via rush hour on crowded public transport. Staff will be advised not to arrange face-to-face meetings at the very start or end of the day, added Sewell.

Independent creative agency Creature has committed to an immediate hybrid return (starting April 21) with 100% of staff in the office on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and working the rest remotely. “We have structured flexibility at the heart of our model. Many are opposed to the idea of having people work remotely on Fridays as it’s seen as an excuse for a long weekend. But maybe that’s ok.” said Dan Cullen-Shute, CEO of Creature London. “If you look after, empower and trust brilliant people, they will do brilliant things for you.” 

Real-estate changes and decentralization
Once people are no longer anchored to living in a city like London or New York by a full-time job, it decentralizes the talent pool away from the core metropolitan hubs. That’s already opened up opportunities for businesses to hire people living outside of the major cities that wouldn’t previously have applied for those jobs because of the location. 

Baking in some kind of flexibility, whether it’s on how many days are expected to be in the office, or asynchronous working hours, will be key for the retention and attraction of talent, according to a range of businesses spoken to for this article. 

Naturally, this new level of flexibility also affects office real-estate needs. “There will be no reason to go into the office to do heads-down work. No need for cube farms,” said Jeff Sharpe, principal director of U.S.- headquartered design and architecture firm Frog. “So businesses must think about how that affects their real estate and how to reconfigure their space around new employee expectations.” 

U.K.-based agency Neo PR adopted a hybrid model last June. CEO Ashley Carr closed its Buckinghamshire-based office and converted a former stable block on his own farmland in the same area to be the agency’s “touchdown space.” The agency’s 10 staffers have congregated twice a week for all-hands meetings and other collaborative work (in between U.K. lockdowns). “We don’t even call it office space anymore. Think more Starbucks than office space. I find the concept of the standard office just a lazy way to create culture. Now is the time for businesses to be more flexible,” added Carr.  

When Neo staff arrive at the stable they swap their shoes for welly boots and socks and are encouraged to take the farm dog for a walk while on meetings. “There are some who are very happy working in their onesie at the kitchen table, enjoying the lack of commute, going for a run at lunch, and have no desire to don a blouse or shirt and head to the office. And then there are those who do need a break from their kids and prefer to have more of a delineation between work and home — it’s about getting the synchronicity across those groups,” said Carr.

Cultivating inclusivity in a hybrid-work culture 
With the prospect of vaccine passports getting mothballed, businesses are mindful of respecting people’s privacy regarding whether they have been, or plan to be, vaccinated or not. “Hugging might have to wait until everyone’s been jabbed, but other than that, we’re all systems go,” added Creature’s Cullen-Shute. 

But a bigger risk to the future of the hybrid model is proximity bias. “Organizations should not lose sight of the possibility that virtual workers may feel disconnected or left out,” said Erica Volini, Deloitte’s global human capital leader. “This was a common problem for remote employees prior to the pandemic, and we want to ensure we use the lessons learned during the past year to keep from slipping into old habits.” 

It’s likely all businesses adopting a hybrid approach will have a video element to every meeting so that certain members of a team or project are always involved and not forgotten. These “blended meetings” will become a common feature, according to MediaCom U.K.’s Canter.

“Technology will play a big part here. There will still be people working remotely or who may have moved to the country,” said Frog’s Sharpe. “It’s our obligation within the office to use technology and use behavior to provide the right tech and tools to bring that person into the collaborative space. More importantly, it’s about ensuring people have the mindset to ensure everyone is at the table and included.” 

3 questions with Amy Rodriguez, executive director, Shareworks, Morgan Stanley 

How much has the pandemic negatively affected the equity compensation gap for women?
The pandemic has exacerbated the gap in equity compensation. We know from our latest report with Rebel&Co., that women were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic: 156,000 women lost their jobs by December 2020 in the U.S. alone. The bottom line is that fewer women in the workforce translates into fewer women advancing to leadership roles, which then results in fewer women earning equity compensation. What’s important to note is that equity compensation can account for 27% of an individual’s net worth with the ability to dramatically increase their socioeconomic status — that’s a big opportunity, and right now it’s missing many women.

What shocked you most about the report’s findings?
The gap in equity compensation between working mothers and working fathers. Of all the individuals who were granted 4% to 5% of their compensation in equity, only 25% were working mothers, compared to 60% of working fathers. We know that those individuals who are receiving 4-5% of their compensation in equity are most likely senior-level roles. This statistic reflects an ongoing dialogue about potential lack of access to opportunity in some private companies. In 2021, the unfortunate reality remains that fewer women occupy those upper-level roles and even fewer working mothers. And only 12% of equity compensation recipients are people of color, compared to an average of 42% white participants. 

How can organizations really move the needle on this?
Equity is a valuable talent recruitment and retention tool, playing a role in aligning vision and effort while giving talent actual skin in the game. To date, equity distribution is often based on a combination of title and role and perceived performance metrics. In order for equity to be diverse, representation in those roles and the way we’re measuring performance must also be diverse. Without that lens, policies that often accompany equity can create unintentional obstacles for participants. For example, vesting schedules with a stop vesting provision that activates when taking maternity leave has a disproportionately negative impact on women. First, evaluate the policies around equity distribution. Ensure the distribution policies are promoting equal access, and that the distribution criteria are dependent on metrics that are transparent and measurable to the organization. Second, evaluate hiring and promotion policies to ensure access is provided to a diverse candidate pool. For leadership, consider including measurable D&I goals that work to create alignment on equity and diversity at organization and strategic level.

Numbers don’t lie

  •  62% of 11,161 U.S. and global travelers said they feel personally concerned about contracting Covid-19 while traveling.
    [Source of data: Criteo’s latest travel report.]
  • 74% of 1,000 U.S. adults said their companies have not invested in their mental health needs since the onset of the pandemic.
    [Source of data: All Points North Lodge mental health report.]
  • 24% of 23,852 U.S. parents and 28% of 3,203 British parents surveyed, are worried about vaccines’ long-term impact on children’s development.
    [Source of data: Global consumer research platform Piplsay’s latest report.]

What else we’ve covered

  • “I saw firsthand what a toxic workplace can do to human beings,” said media and marketing veteran and Deep Focus founder Ian Schafer. As co-founder and CEO of start-up Kindred, which has won $8 million in funding, he is on a mission to promote workplace diversity, equity and social consciousness on a global scale.
  • Collaboration tools such as Slack, Microsoft Teams and Zoom have been lifesavers for businesses, but they have also left people with less time to perform the actual job they are paid to do. Many employees feel constantly distracted and many feel burned out.
  • There’s nothing new about businesses using co-working spaces for staff, but now businesses are putting aside individual employee budgets for co-working space. It’s a trend tipped to become a post-pandemic norm.

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