Tess Julian with leaders

Hybrid working, best of both worlds

What is it about your workplace that makes people want to be there? What makes it unique? Does it encourage conversations? Create positive feelings and memories? Does it get people talking? Laughing? Telling stories? While hybrid working offers the best of both worlds, it’s time to think about the office – not as a place to work – but as a place to work together.

Hybrid working is a balancing act. Working apart offers immediate benefits: no commute or distractions, flexibility and time to focus. Meanwhile, working together brings long-term benefits: better relationships, peer learning and visibility. 

But despite years of practice, there’s still a sense of confusion over where – physically and digitally – people should be working. Indeed, there’s a lack of clarity on the best way to move forward when returning to a structured way of working won’t cut it for most of us. 

Research from Harvard Business School shows that hybrid work – with a balance of days in the office and remote – delivers improved productivity and employee experience. So it’s clearly time for organisations to enhance collaboration, productivity and well-being; to move forward by bringing people back together. 

  • Leading hybrid teams requires more planning and intentional, collaborative activities.
  • Relationships are formed when teams are together (in person) and maintained when apart (online).
  • Digital collaboration requires new habits and skills across all team members to strengthen those relationships.

How do you bring people back together?

By mandate?

For organisations facing the challenge of retaining talent, a mandated return to the office after years of successful hybrid working invites a simple answer. “Why?” And risks the response: “if coming into the office doesn’t offer me anything, I’ll just go somewhere else.”

Or by choice?

Which choice? For some, working from home is challenging or not something they prefer. Perhaps they focus more easily and work more effectively on-site. Or lockdown has left them yearning for camaraderie, those in-person interactions and water-cooler conversations. They’re in the office but lacking the in-person relationships they crave. 

Or by earning the commute?

It’s a phrase that well describes the effort required by leaders to get people back to the office. Whether it’s for a day a week – or a full week – requiring, requesting or mandating any physical office presence must be worth it. That is, the commute must be earned by delivering a great collaborative experience.

“We are seeing that a great ‘collaborative space’ means much more than rooms with beautiful furniture, lighting, and good food. The ‘space’ is also about what happens in those rooms — and for hybrid, that means thoughtful, engaging, in-person experiences that genuinely build productive relationships.”

Balancing the best of both worlds: hybrid and remote

While there’s quite a divide between those who prefer being in the office and those who prefer to work from home, it is evident that everyone wants more informal and social interactions.

At our ‘Best of Both Worlds’ event at Wilkhahn, leaders from a variety of organisations explored how combining collaborative spaces and experiences can attract people back to the office. 

Use tools and resources to:

Hargraves collaboration model

"To make hybrid work 'work', encourage team members to keep each other informed on what they're working on and where. We all know there's nothing more frustrating than turning up to the office to find no one else is there, or that feeling we've 'missed out' on something spontaneous."

How do we create workspaces that draw people into collaboration, socialisation and connection?

Laura Torreblanca, Project Consultant at Wilkhahn, sums up the challenge well:

“There is no magic formula to the hybrid workplace. However, in the furniture industry, we are experiencing a decline in workstation demand because focus work can be done at home.

Today, it is exponentially more important to design workplaces to bring people together in the office with a fit-out that is both flexible and agile. Companies are activating multifunctional spaces, creating incentive programs, such as pizza days, desk (room)-service coffee and building play areas.  However, this is not something new – companies have always encouraged collaboration, creativity and participation to some degree. Perhaps, the major addition to the office today is an urgency to develop a community experience to inspire employees to return to the space where they belong.

Organisations can enhance collaboration, productivity and well-being by thinking about the office – not as a place to work – but as a place to work together. Where workstations sit alongside flexible working areas and multi-use furniture. Tables that act as desks, move up to workbenches, move together for work areas, or fold away for open spaces. Stools that not only move up and down but accommodate our movements and how we work in different spaces. Soft seating can create areas for conversations or even introduce a sense of fun. It’s about creating a welcoming atmosphere, that sense of place.”

What makes a great collaborative workspace?

Whilst a prestige office furniture showroom was a unique venue for a leadership event, partnering with Wilkhahn allowed us to experience the benefits of different collaborative spaces. So we asked our experts what they thought of their ‘collaborative working space’.

Tess Julian with leaders

First in, first served, Tess was definitely the envy of the team.

Her space – a working-height bench and stools – was brilliant for exploring priorities using the diversity canvas. Guests could sit or stand, and all work together, so the area radiated energy. Very collaborative and inclusive, perfect for group collaboration.

Collaborative spaces for hybrid working Craig Browne

Nearly every office has a boardroom and it’s probably the go-to when teams want to work together. But Craig’s space, a typical boardroom, was a great example of why organisations should consider specific collaborative workspaces for different groups.

While a large boardroom table is ideal for a team/group activity or training, Craig “felt like he was in teacher mode” with everyone spread out around the long, wide table. However, being in a separate room was great for minimising distractions, keeping everyone focused and breaking up into pairs.

Collaborative spaces for hybrid working with Andrew Pope

Like Craig, Andrew had a long table, though much narrower and in an open area. With space to lay out materials, everyone gathered at one end, some sitting, some standing. However, Andrew commented it was challenging to bring those sitting into the conversation. 

Best suited to a team or larger group.

Collaborative spaces for hybrid working with Allan Ryan

Last but not least, Allan’s space, a small table, worked well. In close proximity, people could chat, sit, stand and work together. Allan stood to ensure he wasn’t craning his neck to engage those standing, but felt like he was in facilitator mode more than collaboration/team mode. Best suited to a small group.

"When using the conversation cards for one-on-ones, I find it definitely works best if I'm sitting next to someone - not across the table. It conveys that feeling of 'working together' rather than boss/employee or coach/mentee. This is critical when having those safe conversations that hybrid demands. And I find it anchors the conversation by helping us both stay focused."

Interestingly, through using different workspaces, we found that having everyone at the same height (sitting or standing) was key for working collaboratively. And while most of us grab the first available space when planning a meeting, we felt that a suitably proportioned working area was more inclusive.

It’s clear that the physical workspace can have an impact on the success of the overall collaboration experience. Something to ponder when bringing team members back together.

Next steps

Explore Resources

Is your office a workspace or a work-together place?

Hargraves’ 6 Pillars of Collaboration provides leaders with guidance and clarity to lead planning and change. 

Hargraves collaboration model - the 6 pillars of collaboration

Special thanks to our hosts, Wilkhahn, for inviting us to share their collaborative workspaces.

Written in collaboration with
Allan Ryan, Tess Julian, Laura Torreblanca, Craig Browne and Andrew Pope.

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