Thriving in the hybrid era: be agile and inclusive

Researcher Amanda Schneider sits in her home office in the Greater Chicago Area thinking about a word: work.

“When I say to my kids, ‘I’m going to work,’ it’s no longer a noun — it’s a verb,” says Schneider, founder of design research firm ThinkLab. “And, to our kids, it looks like we all do the same thing — stare into Zoom. I’m Zooming about legal things, and he’s Zooming about marketing things, and she’s Zooming about product development things. Younger generations are going to have a fundamentally different view of what it even means to work.”

Schneider says the hybrid era began years ago, but the pandemic has dramatically accelerated and cemented it as normal.

For those who design and build space, this means rethinking what it means to work, and the purpose of the workplace in our broader lives. 

“To me, office space is the driver of a lot of other spaces,” Schneider says, citing examples like desks at dance studios for parents squeezing in work while waiting for rehearsals to end, or restaurants doubling as workspaces when they’re not serving breakfast, lunch, or dinner. 

The pressure is on for companies and, in turn, designers to rethink how space is used. “When we’re freed up from a work location, just think about what that does for our quality of life,” she says. 

“Where we work will have an effect on where we live, where we heal, where we dine, where we play, and where we learn.”

Designing for the hybrid era will require agility

Gone are the days of permanent, fixed space. Schneider believes the most important quality of space in the hybrid era will be agility. 

“A space can’t try to be all things to all people,” she says. “Space now must have the agility to flex from Purpose A to Purpose B. Your space may be a café today, and then you clear out some tables and it becomes a yoga studio tomorrow. It’s about extending the life of space.” 

For instance, Schneider’s parent company SANDOW Design Group is now remote first, but they are also looking for a brick-and-mortar location in New York that can double as an event space and a coworking environment. It will have open areas, interactive space, and secondary spots used by employees who choose to meet in person. All of them will need to be designed to flex and adapt to changing needs and be built around employee motivation. 

“If people can get everything from their home office they can get in a workplace, where is their motivation to show up? Why would they want to go there?”

– Amanda Schneider

“It’s ironic because, as we are freed from a set work location, it actually puts more pressure on that physical location to perform.”

Schneider acknowledges that creating an effective hybrid work environment won’t be easy. 

“Hybrid is the hardest,” she says, referencing a recent podcast her company did to explore company culture in the hybrid era. “It’s much easier to create a fully remote model, or a fully in-person model. But companies are embarking on this hybrid era because it will be demanded by workers in an increasingly competitive labor market.”

Case in point: Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index reported that more than 70% of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while more than 65% are seeking more in-person time with their colleagues. 

The ability to work remotely has also led to more people looking at roles within companies in other cities. In fact, the report cites a survey showing that 41% of the global workforce is currently considering leaving their employer for other options. 

Hybrid work flexibility is turning into a competitive advantage for organizations that want to both attract and retain talent. 

What does that mean for space? Two-thirds of business decision-makers are considering redesigning physical spaces to better accommodate hybrid work environments, the survey shows.

Schneider believes organizations need to act now to design agile spaces. But it’s not the only piece of this puzzle. The most successful organizations in the hybrid era will be those that adopt and create flexible space now, and ensure they incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion while doing so. 

“In this time of incredible change, we have an opportunity to fundamentally rethink a lot of the building blocks that are not only our workplaces, but the culture our society is built on.”

Designing space with diversity and inclusion in mind

“As we look at the history of design, it was built around the haves and the have-nots,”

Schneider says. “Think about some of the historical terms we’ve used to describe space, such as master bedroom. That’s now shifting to owner’s suite. The world is becoming more aware of history and bias, as it comes out even in how we talk in the world of interior design.” 

Schneider wants to see that change.

“The hybrid era will bring new opportunities to explicitly design with diversity and inclusion in mind.”

– Amanda Schneider

For instance, in a recent focus group her company ran, participants shared stories of a New York-based university campus that had a large, lavish entrance. By watching how people used the space, the university learned that students who came from lower-income neighborhoods didn’t feel welcome going through the door. 

“It was designed with this opulent, exclusive, country club mentality,” Schneider says.

The design firm adapted the space by creating a more approachable entry experience with casual finishes that made students feel more welcome. 

“The feeling of belonging can be addressed in design, but we can’t do that if we don’t have diverse perspectives. And we can’t do that if we don’t acknowledge that inequities still exist.” 

When it comes to the workplace, Schneider says companies need to be inclusive when developing hybrid spaces. A recent McKinsey report underscores this point. It found that while overall sentiment of employees surveyed on diversity in the workplace was positive, sentiment on inclusion was markedly worse. “Hiring diverse talent isn’t enough — it’s the workplace experience that shapes whether people remain and thrive,” the authors wrote. 

Tackling inclusivity up-front not only allows for more people to feel a sense of belonging, but proves — according to studies — it’s good for business. 

Management consulting firm Korn Ferry says 87% of organizations that promote diversity and inclusion are more likely to make better decisions. In addition, 75% are faster at bringing products to market, according to the Center for Talent Innovation. 

To build more inclusive spaces, Schneider says more people must be at the table in the design stage, including people of color, women, and people who have a robust mix of lived experiences. 

“This hybrid era is going to be one of the most important for our culture and society,” Schneider says. “Every organization is working to uncover what the right approach is, but it’s not one person’s decision.”

Amanda Schneider, founder of design research firm ThinkLab, is one of six design Iconoclasts DIRTT interviewed on why adaptable design matters.
Amanda Schneider, founder of design research firm ThinkLab, is one of six design Iconoclasts DIRTT interviewed on why adaptable design matters.

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