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This content was paid for by Fujitsu and produced in partnership with the Financial Times Commercial department.

A bit of both: Will 2021 be the year of the hybrid workplace?

You can close a deal over Zoom,” says Gabriela Hersham, CEO and co-founder of Huckletree, a company that offers flexible and curated workspaces. “But can you build a culture?”

She asks the question because the workplace is changing — fast. Fujitsu, for instance, has announced plans to reduce its Japanese office space by half before the end of 2022. Meanwhile, more than a third of executives in a recent global report on the future of employee experience have plans to reduce individual desk space. The shift to remote working has been much-vaunted, and it is not surprising that employers are getting behind it: a greater emphasis on remote work offers them the chance to make significant cost savings from their property portfolio.

But Hersham’s words are a warning. Yes, working from home (WFH) can give employees better work-life balance, increased productivity and less time spent commuting, but it is no panacea. Not every employee feels the benefits, and the office has benefits of its own. “Coming into work is about culture building,” says Hersham. “And high-energy, face-to-face time with your team.”

The answer, then, could lie in a hybrid workplace — one that is part on-site and part remote. How can organisations support and improve the WFH experience so that it is sustainable in a world of work that also depends on offices? And what does this mean for the future of the office space?

WFH 2021: At home in a hybrid world

The suddenness of lockdowns in early 2020 showed that failure to prepare for and manage remote working could have significant consequences, including a poor sense of community and declining company culture. Many employers were not ready at all.

“A lot of companies’ disaster recovery and continuity planning was based on going from one physical location to another physical location,” says Andrew Davis, head of workforce and workspace services strategy and growth at Fujitsu. “They’d bought or rented space with a company that provides service continuity space — they hadn’t accounted for the fact they couldn’t get into that building either.”

Now, with nearly nine in 10 (88%) employees saying that they would like to continue WFH in the future, organisations need to do more to support their people. They have to create a WFH experience that is sustainable for the long term because it is more productive, enjoyable and collaborative.

Ways of simulating the office environment, such as visualisation and whiteboard platforms that allow employees to share ideas in real time, are going to become essential in 2021. “This really is how we start to collaborate more together,” Davis explains. “These tools will be powerful in the shift to hybrid working as we move to a much more asynchronous mode of work.”

For instance, virtual whiteboard platforms can give employees a range of tools to brainstorm, collaborate on and organise their ideas. These could include templates, freehand drawing, sticky notes, grouping and polling functionalities and a live chat. “By using such tools, it is almost like you are working next to each other,” says Davis. “Even though you are not in the same office.”

The 2021 office: Designed for a hybrid world

Businesses will want quality face-to-face communication post-Covid-19, and the office will need to change to accommodate that demand. This half of the hybrid workplace will need to seamlessly blend innovative technologies and spaces to foster an environment where creativity and collaboration thrive.

The space

To create an environment that sparks engaging conversations and encourages innovation, organisations have to rethink the purpose of the office. When it is safe to do so, will employees return to the office to sit down and work at their desks all day? Or will they come to connect, collaborate and be inspired? Davis thinks it will be the latter. “The future office will be much more of a destination," he says. “Rather than a working environment."

Changing this perception of the office must start with a change in layout, and 40% of firms plan to increase meeting spaces. Fujitsu has already started, according to Davis. “We were able to refurbish our London office during the pandemic," he says. “We changed the desks-to-people ratio: there are not that many desks now, because we don’t expect people to use them. We expect people to use breakout areas to sit and talk to each other, to use rooms to share ideas and collaborate."

There is also demand for more innovative office features that foster collaboration, learning and wellbeing. We've built 'Dreamscape' rooms, classrooms and meditation yurts," says Hersham. “To support the development of new products, we have also created virtual-reality studios where creators can test out their new immersive products."

The technology

To support a hybrid workforce, office technology must also evolve. In the shorter term, there is already demand for technologies that make the office Covid-safe. “Our clients are seeking solutions such as contactless access to offices and thermal imaging," says Davis.

As floor layouts change and employees work at the office on a more ad-hoc basis, organisations may find they need office-navigation technologies. These include platforms showing how many rooms or desks have been booked or occupied, as well as wayfinding solutions that help colleagues find each other in the building.

“The future is a mode where, if you have tasks you want to get done, you will probably do them at home," says Davis. “But if you want to interact with other people, to socialise and build relationships, you will go back into the office. Analytics will become really important in this environment, because you will need to know where those people are that you want to communicate with."

There will also be demand for more innovative ‘Zoom rooms’, where on-site employees can not only carry out video conferencing but also use digital collaboration platforms to share ideas with their colleagues who are working remotely.

“There's a huge opportunity now to build technology for this changing world," says Hersham. “The future workspace will be a hybrid of technologies — ones that haven't been built yet — that allow us to bring in people from anywhere in the world, while creating a great experience for those that are in the physical office."

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