Watch the full discussion with Brian Chen, CEO & Co-Founder, ROOM; Anna Levine, CCO, Industrious; and Andrew Kupiec, President, Agile Real Estate & Experience Services, CBRE

As the U.S. emerges from the COVID-19 crisis and heads back to the office, a new leadership mindset is in order—one that embraces experimentation, authentic communication, and flexibility. Corporate decision-makers who adopt this new way of thinking will be better prepared for the challenges of a hybrid workplace and workforce—including planning for capital expenditures and reviewing real estate portfolios, preserving culture, ensuring safety, fueling productivity, and implementing company-wide change.

Key Considerations

The future of work will require testing and learning.

The future of work is flexible. Yet we’ve grown accustomed to planning for physical space, whether it’s a long-term lease, financing, design, or architecture. Today, the built world is all about experimentation. Leaders must be willing to move fast and fail when building a hybrid future. That includes examining real estate portfolios and capital expenditures, and solving for employee happiness, engagement, and productivity. The future will require pivots, such as the ability to reorganize office space on the fly with modular meeting rooms, or creating pop-up offices for workers in the suburbs, or implementing reservation systems to book desks at headquarter offices. Smart leaders will adopt a new test-and-learn mindset for physical space.

Culture will require more intention.

Concern and debate are bubbling up within many Fortune 1000 companies over how to preserve and build a hybrid culture. Does the CEO lead that culture change? If top executives work only from the corporate office, while everyone else has a choice of where to work, will it feel out of sync? Are employees expected to contribute to the culture? And how does that culture manifest? By posting in Slack? Or by coming into the office and picking up coffee on the way? Leaders must better understand employee motivation and what kind of culture they are trying to cultivate. It will be important to develop clear expectations and screening for people to know how to work: who should come into the office, where, and when. This could include outlining key expectations based on personality, characteristics and attributes of existing employees and new candidates. In most cases, talent will be a deciding factor, and in many cases, high-value employees may be allowed to continue to work remotely if they choose. Still, it will be important to begin defining what those norms look like in an intentionally hybrid culture.

Onboarding will become even more important.

Without everyone in the office all the time, there will be fewer serendipitous interactions that can lead to mentorship, innovation, ideas, connection, and career building. That can especially be problematic for new recruits and young workers, for whom in-person networking aids is crucial. Plus, when a team is entirely virtual, the democratization of voices is not nearly as visceral as when everyone is in the office. Today, more than ever before, leaders must embrace and welcome those new employees and ensure everyone feels connected. This will be key for talent management and developing the pipeline of people to move up through the organization. Leaders should ensure everyone feels as though they are on a level playing field, whether they are in the office or remote. An in-office meeting room, designed by ROOM, for instance, allows for hybrid collaboration, using videoconferencing systems and a 180-degree camera that stitch a room together for a more seamless experience. These kinds of solutions can be valuable when attempting to make a national or global campus feel like one connected network.

The growth of flexible office space will accelerate.

After years of relying on offices in large cities, including Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, more corporations are reexamining their real estate portfolios to determine the need for a physical headquarters, for a distributed network, and how to implement more flexibility within their offices. They are beginning to think regionally with a hub and spoke model that enables teammates to work close to home upon their choosing. In fact, this is the No. 1 request at Industrious, a leading provider of more than 110 flexible workspaces which now counts CBRE as a 40% shareholder. Industrious now offers new subscriptions that allow a company access to its flexible locations.

Workplace technology and modular designs will be more important.

Modular workspaces will allow for more flexibility and experimentation in hybrid workplaces, allowing teams to adjust their space on the fly. The hybrid workplace will also demand new technology—whether it’s reservation systems for conference rooms or desks, or sensors that show how people can more efficiently use space. Offices can now come prepackaged with one user interface, avoiding the hassle of installing multiple hardware and software systems in each office or rooms. ROOM, for instance, incorporated sensor software into its modular meeting rooms for real-time insights into space utilization, planning, and density.

Going back to the office will be deeply personal—and it must be attractive.

If you ask how one group of people relates to the office, the answers will vary greatly. It’s a deeply personal question and will likely bring up fears around safety and idiosyncratic circumstances regarding families, as well as passion and emotion. Leaders will be forced to better understand what motivates their employees, and therefore, what brings them together inside the office again. Safety amid the pandemic is now table stakes; the future, however, will require making amenities of the office appealing. The real carrot, however, will be choice. Workers may want to work close to home with teammates one day, but also with other colleagues on the days of their choosing. Or, it might be a curated choice for their individual workplace and schedule. That workplace choice will flip the script from feeling “forced” to go back to the office to actually yearning to collaborate and socialize with peers.

Change will require human connection.

The concept of change management in the remote world is new territory, and it will perhaps be the most difficult piece of the hybrid puzzle, challenging culture, leadership and decision-making. Organizational change will require over-communicating about what’s ahead, and genuine, conscious listening and acknowledgement of how the workforce is feeling. Human connection, clear communication and smart leadership will be crucial to welcome people back to a new environment and to foster them through that critical first year.