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A whole system approach to designing hybrid workplaces

Adapting a workplace to be hybrid ready is more than a policy change. 

Adapting workplaces and work practices to hybrid working is not simply a human resources issue or an isolated change to work design. As our interviews demonstrate, it’s a broad organisational design activity and can affect all aspects of a business and how work is done. Decisions over where and when employees are allowed or empowered to work should not be tackled in isolation since the wider system will influence, support or undermine whatever hybrid policy is in place. 

Employees or managers do not act within a vacuum. Their choices are shaped by the decisions, actions, needs and routines of those around them, together with the technologies and spaces available to them. Our research highlighted the value of having representatives from different disciplines/business areas involved in the adaptation of offices to COVID-19 restrictions. This enabled problems to be spotted early and for opportunities to join up the thinking during these changes. The same approach applies to longer-term workplace planning.  

Socio-technical systems thinking 

This is a socio-technical problem: we can’t disentangle hybrid policy, individual choices, the role of technology, availability and types of workspace, culture and ways of working from one another. The social factors (e.g. policies, individual preferences) are influenced by and may affect the technical factors (e.g. the physical workspace, the collaborative software). Any attempt to introduce or formalise hybrid working needs to consider both intended and unintended consequences of all the different factors. 

Diagram of a hexagon with connected lines used to illustrate socio-technical systems thinking

This way of looking at business problems is built on decades of socio-technical systems research. We can use this mind-set to view any organisation as a complex system made up of many interdependent parts, e.g. people, culture, goals, processes, technology and infrastructure, with a change in any one aspect of the system causing change or requiring adaptation elsewhere. Our hexagon model illustrates how these different factors may link together. Socio-technical research shows that systems work at their best when both the social and technical aspects are jointly optimised, i.e. we think about the knock-on effects of change before we implement it and we look beyond our immediate interests (e.g. HR, IT or estates).  

Interviews with industry stakeholders including workspace providers, designers and consultants and business representatives reinforced how hard it is to talk about the post-pandemic office, hybrid working or even just “the future” without jumping from topic to topic. For example, a discussion could move from mobile connectivity and the need for video conferencing equipment, to the variety of job roles and needs that need to be catered for, to people’s different home situations, the need to create places that inspire people, and the challenges of retaining staff. There is no escaping the connectedness of this issue. 

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