Workplace Trends
January 29th, 2021

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A 5-Minute Return-To-Work Plan For HR Leaders

If you're reading this, you've likely heard the term "backyard office" pop up in conversations recently, or maybe you've seen the increase in news coverage from major publications such as The Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, and The New York Times.

This remote working movement is certainly having its moment in the sun. But what will it mean now that the COVID-19 vaccines have started to signal the eventual return to office and more organizations begin planning their reopening strategies?

With the end of the pandemic within sight, is the backyard office just a passing fad? Since mandatory work-from-home orders started the trend of separate home-office structures, you may think a return to office-based work will end it.

Not so fast.

New ways of working are the future, not just a short-term solution

Despite the interest employees have in meeting in person once it's safe to do so, the majority plan on splitting the workweek between working from home and the office. Incorporating an at-home workspace with the right technology can keep your remote work culture strong and be an essential part of maintaining a happy balance.

Here's why the stand-alone office keeps gaining in popularity and how it can help you support your hybrid workforce.

The backyard-office boom

The freestanding home office concept actually predates the COVID-19 pandemic. This trend has been on the rise for over a decade now; the coronavirus simply accelerated its growth.

One of the biggest frustrations when working remotely is trying to find a quiet place to work free from distraction. This is especially true when you have multiple people working from a single household, and that challenge is multiplied for those who have kids at home learning online.

For some, these detached studio office spaces provide a safe haven from the chaos they’ve experienced while working from home.

A bridge between home and office

Most employees, who’ve spent the past year physically isolated from their coworkers, will rush for the chance to meet face-to-face.

But with an unclear timeline for reopening and real estate budgets still undergoing evaluation, you’re probably feeling the crunch of limited resources and time.

Whether employees line up for a spot in the office today, next month, or next year, you can expect some constants to hold true. This means that the hybrid model of working will have real lasting power.

And a backyard office is a way to create space that’s connected to the workplace and home environments, while also providing a degree of separation.

At a time when every decision can feel like a guessing game, there’s some good news. The key to a successful return is keeping people engaged by focusing your efforts on supporting both live and virtual work.

The face of flexible work isn't just hot desking

A few years ago, it was enough to nix cubicles, add more meeting spaces, and offer flashy perks like T-shirts and snacks. But today, the face of flexibility has changed into something far more advanced.

For years prior to the outbreak of the coronavirus, investing in long-term leases of trendy — but inflexible — office space was considered the norm.

It’s not so, anymore. Today’s flexible office requires a hybrid approach that considers both the physical workspace in the office and at home. That means giving your workforce options and using an office space booking system that supports them wherever they’re working.

Think of the backyard office as one way to augment the workplace experience, not as a replacement for coming into the office altogether. An isolated home office structure can serve as a retreat from distractions and a place to host meetings quietly, so people have the space needed to focus and get creative away from other sounds and activity.

(Bonus tip: Make sure your employees’ home office technology is secure.)

Backyard offices can improve people’s ability to concentrate while they’re working from home. It doesn’t remove the need for the office — it just enables a better experience when they are remote.

Reboot outdated space management methods

These mini-office structures have a lot to teach us about the physical workplace, actually. It’s important to consider the holistic employee experience, and make sure your office and meeting spaces have the technology that lets people connect from their home office to meetings happening in your office.

With operating costs rising faster than budgets, you can turn to office hoteling as one way to improve spending while you give employees the level of autonomy that they’ve become accustomed to by putting the power of choice in their hands.

Desk booking apps and room reservation software free people up to spend less time on manual tasks like chasing after room schedules, updating three separate calendars, or dealing with double-booked spaces or “ghost” reservations.

Mobile solutions for your distributed workforce

Results from Gensler's U.S. Work From Home Survey indicate that the office will be used predominately for collaboration, company and department meetings, and much-needed creative brainstorming, the kind that leads to greater innovation and team cohesion. Meanwhile, expect employees to work from home when they need deep focus on a project or when personal circumstances — such as health conditions or children learning from home — necessitate working remotely.

There’s also the potential for other outcomes of COVID-19, such as the reported urban exodus, to shift the demand on office space. And don’t forget to factor in things like long commute times and juggling other responsibilities.

The important takeaway is to say on top of how work habits and employee expectations are changing. A key part of empowering the new ways of working is using technology to support your return to the office, so make sure you stay up to date on emerging workplace technologies.

If you have an employee app, employees can find and reserve spaces directly from their mobile devices. That means while Jim works from his backyard office on Monday, he can find and reserve a meeting room that has the amenities his team needs for a meeting on Tuesday and then book a desk near a colleague for Thursday.

Not only does that simplify his workweek, but it also lets you keep an eye on how employees are using your space so you can keep a pulse on how utilization is changing in the ‘new normal.’

You’ll be able to plan ahead for cleaning and sanitization of those spaces, and Jim will feel a sense of relief in the fact that he has a guaranteed spot for work when he needs it — and he can check availability from anywhere, anytime if he needs to make a change on-the-fly.

Leverage workplace analytics for data-driven decisions

You’re seen as a huge asset to your organization anytime you can save money and deliver value to employees. With workplace analytics, you get insights into categories of spend and cost allocations, and you can compare how your true space utilization stacks up against your predictions.

That’s a critical ability right now, as vacancy rates could either go drastically up or down, depending on what your employees need. Will you shrink your footprint due to fewer people coming in? Or will you need more space to accommodate everyone while adhering to physical distancing requirements?

It may be too soon to tell, but knowing you have the infrastructure in place to monitor, manage, and analyze the numbers offers a greater sense of control throughout each phase of your return.

Employee-driven strategies

Backyard offices aren’t just a flash in the pan. Though they were popularized by the pandemic, their success isn’t just attributed to needing a place to work during COVID-19. Rather, they helped us adapt to a new era of working — one that experts predict will stick around for years to come.

To overcome budget and space constraints, focus on the preferences of your workforce and let metrics lead your return strategy every step of the way.

The best thing you can do is look at the phenomenon as a sign of what’s coming next. Let employees drive your response and leverage workplace tools such as room scheduling software to benefit your bottom line.

When you can keep an eye on your data in dashboards and run custom reports to gain critical insight into how the workplace is being used by your employees, you will be uniquely positioned to deliver solutions that meet employee expectations today, tomorrow, and indefinitely.

Don’t get caught off guard by the fluctuation in work-from-home and office-based workdays. Get ready to see varied demand for conference rooms, office workstations, and the possibility of working from a backyard office or other makeshift workspace.

A major part of company culture is the ability to connect with each other. The challenge, then, is understanding how to seamlessly blend remote and in-office experiences to satisfy the need for both.

Commit to building a better workplace experience

In the end, there are no short-cuts or easy answers if you really want to prioritize the workplace experience.

Taking a hybrid approach will help future-proof your reopening, by making it easy for anyone to work from home without overlooking the importance of your physical workplace. Adopting flexible seating strategies, such as desk hoteling, will give your organization more options. It also bolsters your ability to pivot faster, should you need to rely on work-from-home situations for any reason in the future.

Now is the perfect time to prepare yourself with the employee tools and workplace analytics that make it possible to both create and enable high-quality workspaces. If you do it right, you’ll see more time and efficiency savings and make a positive impact on employee wellbeing.

Learn more about how to future-proof your return to work in our "5-Minute Return-To-Work Plan for HR Leaders” checklist. Get your copy here.

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