If there was ever a word deemed worthy of a medal for its performance on the battlefield over recent years, it has to be ‘hybrid’. From electric vehicles to renewable energy strategies, hybrid has perhaps become a byword for progression – or of adapting to shifting circumstances. When we talk about what the future workplace might look like, hybrid has become a go-to word to describe an abstract concept that’s actually hard to pin down.

To make things less abstract, let’s consider the more in-depth meaning of many of the words, phrases and concepts we use, such as remote working, community, culture and productivity. Any future workplace strategy we construct should ideally be based on our learnings up to now, and what we learn over the next few years. Our understanding of the true meaning of the words we use are our best guides to success, so let’s work through some of the most influential ones.

Ditch the buzz-phrases and think deeply about being flexible

According to a UK survey from the ONS in February 2022, 78% of employees working from home said that they had a better work-life balance. Intriguingly, the same survey found that over half of employees said they were less distracted and were able to complete work more quickly.

This makes sense and goes against the grain of traditional thinking of what productivity means. The future workplace isn’t necessarily a destination for remote workers: it’s a mindset. Work isn’t something you go to, it’s something you do.

The statistics above should encourage leaders to think beyond trying to establish a work-life balance that works for everyone. The ability to drill down to individual needs may be a more crucial skill, and the office as a hub of productivity may be an outdated concept. It could be more accurate to describe a traditional office as being a place where productivity is monitored rather than driven. This line of thinking helps make sense of the notion that managers don’t want you to be more productive in an office, they want to watch you being productive. Employees, on the other hand, want to come to ‘connect’, whether that’s with management or work in general.

Yet, connecting is subjective, too. One person’s idea of connecting is meeting in-person to chat, to bounce ideas off a colleague, and to enjoy being face-to-face and informal. Another person may think that to connect is to be engaged with the business and its strategic goals, mission and values.

Whatever our differences, let’s properly acknowledge that the workplace has changed. With 60% of UK employees expecting the future of work to change drastically, it’s imperative to consider a more flexible approach to what a future workplace could look like. And we should strive to do this, whatever our understanding is of the various buzzwords and phrases we commonly use.

Changing minds about the future workplace

Key to achieving an ideal scenario is breaking down what being flexible actually means to your organisation. Flexibility is a broad concept because it’s also subjective and open to interpretation. Enabling your employees to work remotely is you being flexible as a leader, but true flexibility may lie in how your organisation accommodates various personalities. This may go against nurturing ‘one company, one culture’, but opens up the potential to manage micro-cultures, which is potentially more exciting and fruitful.

Wherever we work, whether it’s in an office, at home or in the middle of a field, we still engage with specific teams or groups. These teams operate independently. According to HR consultant Michael Burchell, they also have a sense of culture that isn’t necessarily office-centric:The task of CEOs and CHROs is quickly shifting from managing the company’s culture to harnessing and managing micro-cultures.’

This represents an opportunity to change minds about how the future workplace operates. In recognising micro-cultures over one homogeneous cultural group, it could be easier to imagine productive groups of teams distributed around the world. And when we visualise the benefits of nurturing micro-cultures of productive teams outside an office environment, it may be easier to see how to lead them.

The role of a workplace strategist is to create the best experience for employees. Yet, there is no perfect scenario. It’s a case of constantly experimenting and adapting to feedback and hard data. This is how company leaders should think, too. Physical spaces can now be made flexible enough to adapt to shifting circumstances. This can also work with fixed mindsets – about what workplaces should look like, how many people should be there, and what they should be doing.

A McKinsey article put this best when it said:True flexibility is much bigger than the freedom to work remotely, and many organisations still miss the mark.’ This lies at the core of what we mean when we strive to offer flexibility in the workplace. Flexibility is a significant concept that leaders should think about. 

We created offices for everyone, yet we’re all different. An office space for a salesman should look different from the office space of an architect, yet the rulebook often didn’t allow for new thinking. The pandemic changed how we think about the future workplace, and about our careers and how we want to work.

The words we use in day-to-day life remain, but their purpose and usefulness may also have changed. When we reassess what we mean by productivity, flexibility, connecting and hybrid working, we can move on and use them afresh for new concepts.

If we adopt the mindset of a UX designer in envisioning a workplace that’s flexible enough to cater to subjective needs and desires, yet is also tangible and workable, we could achieve success. And if we strive to form common opinions about how business language is transforming, we can help leadership teams move away from observing productivity to enabling it to flourish under more fertile circumstances.