At the end of September, we published the results of our survey of the architectural community’s plans to return to the office following the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, only 29% of respondents said their companies required all staff to return to studio work, with 15% still required to work remotely. An additional 39% of respondents were offered the choice of working remotely, returning to the office, or operating on a hybrid model between office and home.
Among respondents who had been offered the choice between working from the office, from home or a hybrid model, more than half had chosen the hybrid model. As the pandemic wanes, there is evidence that this embrace of a fully or partially remote work approach will hold up over the long term. On our jobs site, for example, there are currently 34 active job openings for remote candidates, ranging from 3D designers to project architects to human resource specialists.
This trend is reflected throughout the US economy. A survey earlier this year revealed that 99% of HR managers expect hybrid working to become a staple of the future workplace. This consensus has prompted experts to think about how companies, including architecture firms, can better organize their work environments and infrastructures to maximize the benefits of hybrid working.
For Drake University’s Alanah Mitchell, that means thinking about the pros and cons of hybrid working versus traditional full-time office work. Mitchell, who is an associate professor and chair of information management and business analytics at Drake, agrees with the consensus of the past two years that remote workers are more productive, happier and more financially secure due to the absence of travel expenses. However, Mitchell also sees office work as an important factor in building transparency and trust between directors and employees.
“Developing an organizational culture happens naturally,” Mitchell said in a recent post published on The conversation. “Casual conversations in the office — an employee walking down the hall for a quick, unplanned conversation with a colleague, for example — can lead to knowledge sharing and collaborative problem solving. This is difficult to replicate in a virtual environment, which often relies on scheduling online meetings in advance.
For Mitchell, a hybrid work model risks merging the barriers of remote employment and in-office employment. In particular, Mitchell stresses the importance of digital security, an especially important factor for architects who depend on secure connections to office servers or who are employed on confidential projects. “Home networks, an easier target for cyber threats, are generally more vulnerable than office networks,” Mitchell notes. “Hybrid organizations need to invest upfront to solve these complex and often costly problems.”
Additionally, Mitchell warns that a shift to hybrid working must also lead to a reconfiguration of how directors measure employee performance. While office work allowed administrators to observe and interact with employee behavior, a hybrid model must see administrators focus more on clear and agreed-upon performance metrics.
For companies and businesses wishing to establish a hybrid work regime, Mitchell recommends specific actions to maintain productivity, avoid workplace divisiveness, and improve wellbeing. “Coming together for the sake of a meeting leads to fatigue and exhaustion,” notes Mitchell. “Not everyone needs to be at every meeting, but leadership finesse is needed to ensure no one feels left out.” As part of this, Mitchell recommends allocating non-meeting days to allow employees an uninterrupted work block for complex projects.
Additionally, Mitchell recommends strengthening employee feedback pathways to compensate for the reduction in face-to-face interactions resulting from hybrid working. These can include one-on-one conversations, focus groups, surveys, as well as recognizing and rewarding good performance with financial incentives. Finally, to avoid a social fragmentation of the workplace between people working in the office and at home, Mitchell emphasizes the value of transparency in communication.
“Policies need to be in place defining what tasks can be done in the office and remotely,” advises Mitchell. “All employees should receive the same information at the same time and in a timely manner. After all, whether in the office or online, workers don’t want to feel like the last to know.