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Reading the Room: Office Edition


Photo of people working together in an office
Image: Flamingo Images -
Even though the concept of hybrid work has gained wide acceptance, we’re still a long way from any consensus on what post-pandemic offices actually should look like. Many enterprises have gotten behind the idea that employees should divide their week between home- and office-based work, and the high-level distinction seems to be that home is for more individualized, focused work, while the office is more for collaboration.
But these boundaries will be fluid; people will still do lots of videoconferences from home, and will need to do “heads-down” work at the office. So, thinking about the latter, how should enterprises design offices for the workers and the work that will be there?
This blog post from the design company Haworth discusses a long-term study the firm made of an unnamed global technology company’s offices, where a mix of collaborative and focused work took place. One of the key findings was that the spaces that work the best are “legible” — that is, they “provide configurations that are easy to understand and navigate.” In practice, that means spaces that give users control, via flexible workstations, technology plug-ins, or furniture that’s easy to move around, the post’s author, Priya Manoharan, writes.
In contrast, “The least used spaces were those that lacked technological advancement, were highly enclosed private or open public settings, and rooms that could not be booked in advance,” Manoharan writes. “The uncertainty of how the spaces would impact workstyle and experience made people less willing to use them.”
The author also cautions that enterprises shouldn’t be dogmatic about what kind of work goes on in the office. “People who were not pressured to do focus or collaborative work but instead had a self-guided, balanced approach to work reported feeling more engaged and invested in the workplace,” Manoharan writes.
All of this suggests a more nuanced approach to the office of the future, avoiding the perception of strict bifurcation when it comes to collaboration and focused work locations. This could be challenging if the enterprise has already set forth the basic hybrid work dichotomy where “focus equals home” and “collaboration equals office.”
The idea of legibility seems like it would help here. If an office space is going to be shared among collaborative and focused workers, and the mix of these work types may change on a day-to-day basis, employees will need the ability to organically make those spaces work for them in a dynamic way.
“Reading the room” is something we all need to do as social beings in all our contexts. We’ve been out of offices for over a year, but when (some of us at least) get back, reading the room may take on a whole new meaning.