As we approach a full two years of pandemic life, there’s no doubt that the commercial office and the professional services workplaces have been forever changed. Being forced into remote working has opened the eyes of both employers and employees to the unique opportunities and challenges that will need to be weighed as organizations decide what makes the most sense for their future offices.
It’s no surprise that the flexibility of working from home will typically win against a lengthy commute or a cubicle farm, but anyone who has been strictly working from home knows that it’s nice to have options for changing one’s environment. The question for employers becomes, “What works best for their teams, and what will their employees expect moving forward?”
As organizations review options, it seems most employers are falling into one of four categories.
The Essential Office — where the task or duties of the employee require them to be on-site. A bank, for example, has tasks that must be done on the network for security purposes.
The Forced Return — typically the old-school mentality that people in the office means work is getting done. This format will likely run into a lot of resistance in the post-pandemic workplace.
The Full Remote — a great option for a fully distributed team but comes with its own challenges.
The Hybrid — a flexible format that allows for office usage when needed or on specific assigned days.
While each direction presents its own benefits primarily for the company, each also comes with its own challenges. The future of the office will need to be more dynamic and flexible to address these challenges and accommodate the needs of our future workforce.
For the past six years, our company, Few, has operated in a fully remote structure across 12 states and three countries. As a digital product design and development agency, we figured it made sense to forgo the office and create flexibility in hiring, both locally and nationwide. This format offered many benefits, especially as the pandemic set in.
Few was able to easily navigate the shifting work landscape. We had a small space in the Little Rock Tech Park that allowed for some basic office storage and collaboration opportunities. While the tech park is probably one of the most impactful options for the local startup community in Little Rock, as a company grows, it has to evaluate its positioning against other groups and their presence in the market.
This format served us well for a while, offering some solid benefits like low overhead and hiring flexibility, but with continued growth and hiring, we noticed some challenges with being fully remote that needed to be addressed.
These challenges included perception issues around size and capabilities of Few, due to lack of visibility or maturity. Few has more than 30 full-time employees, something you wouldn’t know based on the limited visibility. Without an intentional space for client interaction, where are the opportunities to put our company culture on display? Everyone knows that a decision to work with a vendor goes beyond just the price tag — a client wants to know who one is working with and feel good about that.
There were also employee challenges that came to light. While we’ve pretty much perfected hiring for a remote cultural fit, when we did have the opportunity to bring team members to Little Rock, we were missing the mark when immersing the team members in our culture. Even our local employees, roughly half of our team, still wanted to get out of the house at times. But the change of scenery often meant a crowded coffee shop with loud music or bad internet.
We’ve learned that employees want flexibility, but they also want connection with the place and people with whom they work. Teams of the future don’t want to be required to be in the office; they want to be in the office when it works for them, and they can take advantage of the unique benefits a controlled environment can offer.
For the remote team members, you optimize for collaboration both in person and virtually. Technology can help bridge the gap while creating a unique experience when a team member is visiting headquarters. This includes being intentional about bringing your remote team members to HQ to engage with others and your local environment.
The office becomes more of a social club or collaboration space for the team members and business acquaintances and less of a place to just plug in a laptop and put your headphones on. You can see examples of this in highly popular work environments like SoHo House and other concepts that cater more to the experience of the individuals who work there instead of just offering a desk.
Few is betting on its vision for the office of the future. We recently announced that we will be moving out of the tech park and into a stand-alone space at 1308 South Main in the historic SOMA district of downtown Little Rock. Few will use the retail office space downstairs to serve as its new HQ, with a focus on filling the options gaps for employees both local and remote.
To support those efforts, Few will utilize the second floor as apartments for use by remote employees when visiting HQ. The goal is to have an immersive experience of our culture, technical capabilities and the community we love. We don’t want to set ourselves apart from the community; we want to bring the community in. We can offer all the amenities of a large tech campus, right in this unique neighborhood.
Few will always be a remote-first company, but we will also be able to offer a uniquely flexible experience to all employees. There’s still a lot of work to be done to get us to that vision, as the new space will require a significant remodel. We are slated to have it brought to life this summer. We will continue to be transparent in this journey and our evaluation of the impact this unique hybrid format has for our company.
This may not be the future of your office, and I know every company can’t simply switch to remote or hybrid work. The changes in commercial real estate are going to create unique opportunities to think outside the box of what the post-pandemic office looks like. Unique spaces and formats may be able to accommodate more flexibility and options for your employees and reduce overhead by reducing overall footprint, while supporting and serving remote employees just as much as local team members.
Think about what the future of your workforce looks like, what do they value, what do they actually need to do, then optimize around that.
It’s about building culture, not an office.
Zack Hill is Partner and CEO of Few, a digital product design and development agency based in Little Rock.