Dr Matthew Davies shares his research on the effects of hybrid working on office spaces.
Tell us a little bit about your background and interest in spaces.
MD I’m an organisational psychologist by background and I’ve always been fascinated by what influences how we think and feel at work. My PhD focussed on people’s use and experience of offices and how this links into their psychology about how they want to work. I’m really interested in how organizations can use systems thinking to look at the physical space, the technology, the people, the culture, as a joint design problem.
What is your view on the office as a workplace?
MD The office experience may be positive or less positive for people depending on a lot of things. Pre-Covid you knew you would have a critical mass of people within the office, whereas now you can’t take that for granted. There’s still a change of mindset that’s needed in order to create the conditions on site that will make the office a positive experience.
You look at the reluctance of some people to come back into the office – some of that will undoubtedly be down to practical issues and personal circumstances. But you also have a good proportion of people who had issues at work pre-pandemic and working from home gave them a chance to avoid an unhealthy or negative environment. The pandemic didn’t cause this, the work environment was poor already. Often, we talk about ‘before the pandemic it worked and it was a really stable productive environment’, but that’s not necessarily the case.
You had people there through presenteeism, who weren’t productive, but who were sat at work. Now people don’t need to put up with being in a poor environment to the same extent. Sometimes people don’t want to come back to that environment as opposed to the commute or being around other people. A level of honesty is needed in order to understand what is going on. If you’ve got a job that’s not fulfilling or is difficult, and then you’re asking people to come into an environment that doesn’t help them to do it better or has a lot of distraction, it’s understandable why people wouldn’t want to do that.
MD Training is massively overlooked. We talk about investments in space or technology – what’s not being talked about anywhere near as much is how we train people to work effectively in hybrid approaches. 74% of people want training and only 9% of people have had any. This is just 2 years into hybrid working but it’s a major shift that isn’t going away.
What’s a key difference between home and office work?
MD What suffers and can really suffer with home working (depending on hybrid) is the cross-team, cross-organisation interaction. This starts to be influenced by the opportunity to interact or where you’re sat in the office or whether you’re brought in on the same team day. This reinforces existing siloes.
If all we’re doing is prioritising departmental and project teams, this is a real risk as you are not creating conditions for cross-sector/departmental interaction. And if there’s no specific reason for interaction, people will not actively seek this out.
Does working at home suit introverted personalities?
MD When people were at the office most days, the likelihood that they would bump into someone was increased. That meant that they didn’t have to think about the experience or the activities that would allow that to happen. You would expect that extroverted people are more likely to go to the office and it is assumed that they have been missing the interaction. But they also make decisions about where they sit in proximity to their Line Manager or other teams for example, that accentuates this more. People who are more introverted, when they do come in, find that actually being in that social environment and being around others changes how you feel in that moment, and you start to display more extrovert tendencies. Which means, the office can be a really positive space for introverts, as long as you have an element of choice in the environment that makes you comfortable to be there.
“This is coming out of our research really strongly around the psychologically positive power of having control, whether it’s mental health or well-being at work. This links to the effects of collegiate working and not disturbing others.”
So, what’s changed?
MD When you have such a shift happening, some of this needs to be formalised through experience. Working norms have shifted radically in two years and there needs to be a formal setting of expectations. This is one of the things that’s lagging; we don’t sit and talk about what’s acceptable.
What does hybrid mean for office design?
MD Our individual preferences on ways of working don’t exist in isolation. So, if colleagues decide to be in the office more this is likely to influence how you work and interact and how tasks are undertaken. Flexibility has to be part of this as we haven’t learnt how effective hybrid working works yet. We had enforced home working and made do. We’ve had a partial return where people had more discretion with how they do that and making do with the tech and space that they had. What we haven’t really had is a properly designed hybrid workplace where we’ve really tried to think with a level of sophistication about how we do those things, or how we make the best of what we have.
What are the different types of hybrid working you have identified?
MD It’s important to have clarity of what we mean by hybrid, and we have identified four types:
Free hybrid workers, who have very little restraint over how they work, where they work, where their location is. The nature of the job means you don’t have set hours and can choose hours based on what you deliver. This is closest to more traditional knowledge working. Maybe something more high status with the luxury of autonomy. The sense of control around how, when and where you do your job.
Nomadic hybrid is where people don’t care where you’re doing your work, but you might have specific hours. So, you have less control of the ‘when’ (for example you might be part of a global team with particular hours) but you have full control over the ‘where’.
Timeless hybrid would be classed as having no restraint on when you work; this lends itself to much more output-based roles, where performance is judged on what you achieve and as long as you get things done on time, when you do it is up to you. Although you can spend some time at home, you have more restrictions around WHERE you do things. But you can spend SOME time at home.
With fixed hybrid, you might be on a very strict rota system of where and when you work (call centres are a good example). Your time is absolutely scheduled and you only have one or two days per week at the office. You’re told the exact hours you have to work. This lends itself to being more shift based, which may change week to week as well.
What do you see as the challenges?
MD If you have full time home or office working, you know how to arrange your other commitments. If you’re told to work in a particular location and the times/days you need to be there changes day to day/week to week, then this causes uncertainty and this becomes really challenging.
A lot of firms are trying to get away from an ‘anything goes’ mentality to implementing some kind of norm parameters such as the types of activities that should happen in the office, and agreeing particular team member work patterns. There are some enormous challenges around this and there needs to be a shared understanding of a minimum requirements.
MD What’s been missing is a positive narrative about why you would come into the office. In our research, when the same people were reporting spending time in the office, typically, they report better well-being and satisfaction, and lower exhaustion. All these positive things when they were in the office compared to when they were elsewhere.
Staying at home people might say is more convenient and all the other personal things. However, when you ask people in the moment, we’ve found that people were more positive being in the office. There was a gain over and above the business benefits of the collaboration etc. Individually, it can make you feel better working around other people and working in that space.