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Global HR Lawyers

New space, new opportunities: are you hybrid working ready?

13 July 2023

A move to a new headquarters is the ideal time to instil an improved workplace culture and working patterns. It’s vital not to miss the opportunities a new office can provide and to avoid mistakes of the past. With only a quarter of employees thinking that their company is ‘very prepared’ for a hybrid work future, this article looks into what needs to be considered ahead of the move.

We have seen lots of organisations considering office moves recently as they seek spaces that meet their post-pandemic needs - whether this be a reduced footprint due to more hybrid working, or a space that better reflects their purpose and culture. At Lewis Silkin, we recently moved our London headquarters to the Arbor building in the Bankside Yards development, so have first-hand experience of the benefits, and challenges, that a new office space can bring.

It goes without saying that the legalities of changing someone’s physical place of work are not necessarily straightforward, particularly if this amounts to a change in terms and conditions of employment, and specialist legal advice should be sought. Notwithstanding this, this article explores other key considerations ahead of a move, which can be separated into two main strands:

  • the physical space and how that impacts how we work; and
  • the policies and structures being implemented which determine how employees interact and engage.

Encouraging employees into your new office

Many employers are keen for their employees to spend time in the office, often citing the need for collaboration and building a sense of community and belonging. A new office space may be the perfect time to consider if current hybrid working policies are working for your company or whether these could benefit from any changes. For example, you may feel that the new space means it would be beneficial for employees to be in the office for a certain proportion of their working week or, if the footprint of your office has been reduced, you may wish to encourage different teams to come in on particular days only.

Employees often value the autonomy and flexibility that hybrid working provides and although the power dynamic may have shifted more towards employers as the economic situation worsens, it is important to approach any changes to current hybrid working practices sensitively. Consulting with your workforce can help to avoid employee relations issues and ensure that the approach to hybrid working is helpful for your workforce. Whilst most hybrid working policies are non-contractual, it is important to ensure that any changes align with your employment contracts and any other contractual policies you have in place. Additionally, rules and practices that limit hybrid working may amount to unlawful indirect discrimination, unless they are for a good business reason and are proportionate. Making changes to arrangements, such as requiring more office-based work, may risk allegations of discrimination by employees who face difficulties. Long term homeworkers are, in practice, more likely to be women with caring responsibilities, raising the risk of indirect sex discrimination claims. Disabled employees may also be disadvantaged by limits on homeworking, again raising discrimination risks. We have previously written about this and some of the other key legal issues associated with hybrid working arrangements, including expenses, health and safety, data privacy and security and monitoring.

Carrot or stick?

Although we have been seeing more employers mandating higher levels of office attendance in recent months, actually enforcing this can be less straightforward, with disciplinary action often felt to be an unattractive and extreme option. Ultimately, if you can use your new office space to create an environment that encourages employees to come into the office voluntarily, this is likely to be the best solution. This means that an office needs to offer things that the home does not and cannot – there need to be other incentives and advantages for staff to make the journey into the office: free coffee and subsidised food offerings; yoga and other wellbeing classes; non-work events and drinks; or on-site or nearby gym memberships will all create a positive impression.

Office space and culture

A move to a new office may also be a good time to consider whether your current culture supports the vision that your company has for a hybrid future. Whilst the physical workplace does not define culture, it often reinforces and supports it, so it is important to ensure this aligns with your vision.

Clearly, the nature of the business will play a part in your office layout; for example, how much focus space is required compared with collaboration or breakout space? However, lots of your decisions will tie into the culture that you want to promote within your new office: will the C-Suite and other senior members of staff need their own offices, or will the hierarchy of space be dissolved? Will this mean better access to more senior figures that is sometimes lacking in more traditional office environments? In our Future of Work Hub podcast, Philip Ross and Jeremy Myerson, authors of “Unworking: The Reinvention of the Modern Office” explained the growing trend in the use of circular and curvilinear spaces within workplaces, which can help to promote a more democratic exchange of views.

In terms of the physical layout, there are, of course, dozens of decisions to be made. Chief amongst those, what model, or models will be adopted for the workspaces:

  • Will there be a need for cellular offices for individuals, pairs or small groups, or will the layout be entirely open plan? There has been a clear shift towards open plan in modern offices, but away from the soulless rows of desks with little or no delineation. A blend of smaller open plan areas, or ‘neighbourhoods’, punctuated with activity-based or touchdown spaces, quiet focus rooms and small meeting rooms has become the template for most new offices. Employers are recognising that activity-based working (the common term for a blend of different working layouts) achieves the best results and offers staff options depending on what their day looks like. Some employers are also introducing workplace experience apps which will mean that employees can make informed decisions about when it’s best for them to go into the office, how they use the space and help to drive a sense of purpose and belonging.
  • Will desks be allocated or bookable, and will there be anchor days for different workgroups? If so, how should you mitigate against the ‘midweek bulge’ of peak occupancy? Would this mean that a smaller footprint can be taken overall? This seems to be the thinking of many businesses. We are also seeing a growing trend of consolidating groups into one larger office, rather than having multiple satellite offices. The interplay of this with hybrid working in the coming years will be interesting to see - will there be culture clashes, or discontent from staff members, or will there be increased productivity and employee engagement? Clearly, how sympathetically the exercise is carried out will be a major factor.

Carefully crafted policies or guidelines for appropriate workplace behaviour can also help to support the culture that companies want to foster in the office, making sure that it is a productive and welcoming environment to work in. Of course, if you have international offices, it is important to be sensitive to any cultural differences when introducing this type of policy.

Diversity, equity and inclusion

Flexibility of workspaces is fundamental: employees are different, work differently and, of course, have different jobs. The beauty of hybrid working is in its name: true hybridity enables every employee to work to the best of their ability by working in the way they want. Whilst there is the potential for workplaces to be truly inclusive and provide employees with genuine choice and variety, there are challenges to surmount in order to achieve this balance.

Firstly, the office design needs to give options but not overwhelm. Ideally, ahead of relocating, business leaders should seek input from employees, listen and act on those preferences. If different layouts and designs can be trialled and feedback garnered, all the better.

Following feedback, a steering group – an internal cross-divisional committee – should be established, its objective to push the move forward and to make decisions along the way. It is important that voices from around the business are heard here: not only because this promotes engagement and a sense of inclusivity, but also because those voices may offer alternative perspectives and identify problems and solutions that would not otherwise be considered.

Whilst the benefits of hybrid working for DE&I are widely acknowledged, this type of working also comes with risks. Studies show that certain groups, for example women, are more likely to want to work remotely. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that these groups aren’t disadvantaged if they spend less time in the office. For example, ‘proximity bias’ can mean that those who are physically present in the office are provided with more advancement opportunities and/or more prestigious work than those who are not. In order to avoid this, companies can invest in technology to ensure that remote working is as seamless as possible, as well as giving managers appropriate training and guidance on how to minimise the risks.

Environmental, social and governance

Hybrid working can help to support your ESG goals, by enabling a smaller office footprint (as mentioned above). Additionally, a new office space can provide an opportunity to demonstrate your company’s principles at a physical level; for example, do you want your office to be carbon neutral and/or use renewable energy sources? Will there be opportunities to engage with and contribute to the local community? We have written about some of the initiatives that employers can put in place relating to the environment here.

Shifting employee expectations in recent years have been reflected in the growing focus on ESG. Employees, particularly in younger generations, increasingly value factors such as their employer’s sustainability and CSR credentials highly, often making decisions on whether to accept a role with reference to these factors. A focus on sustainability and wellbeing issues can also help to drive up employee engagement.

Rather than simply functionality, office space can help to support staff wellbeing, by providing cycle facilities, access to gyms and other wellness spaces that you might not expect to find in a traditional office – for example, outdoor relaxation spaces or yoga/dance studios.

Other considerations

If you are going to facilitate hybrid working, there are other points you may wish to consider:

  • How will you support learning and development in a hybrid environment? With people spending less time in the office, the traditional “eavesdropping” method of learning has become less effective. This often means employers need to make a more concerted effort to ensure more junior employees and new joiners have the knowledge they need to succeed. This is likely to involve investing in technology to facilitate hybrid training sessions as well as creating more dedicated training programmes and buddy systems. You may also want to consider whether your policies should require employees to attend the office for certain in-person training sessions.
  • Are you going to make any broader changes to your organisation’s working practices? An office move can also be a good time to reflect on your organisation’s wider working practices. For example, the success of the UK’s 4-day week pilot has meant that more employers are considering trialling a four-day week in their organisation. Our recent podcast explored what this means for the future of work.

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