When the facilities team at Hootsuite decided to rip out 500 desks in its Vancouver headquarters and replace them with a combination of sit-stand workstations, meeting pods, bikes and treadmill desks, there was some understandable uncertainty about whether the company's expensive gamble on hybrid work would pay off.
But perhaps that's beside the point. "Maybe it's going to work well and maybe it isn't, but I think we need to try it and see how it goes," says Carol Waldmann, Hootsuite's director of global facilities.
Workplace design has come a long way since the day of Herman Miller's Action Office II – the infamous 'office cubicle' that came to be despised by office workers around the world (much to the dismay of designer Robert Propst, who ironically had conceptualized the Action Office II as a new type of flexible, customisable workspace for desk jockeys).
Fortunately, cubicle farms are mostly on the way out: now businesses are once again on the cusp of a major reimagining of the modern workplace as hybrid work takes root and challenges our long-held notions about work life, home life, and everything in between.
Like many companies, Hootsuite was forced to shut down workspaces at the outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020. In the space of 48 hours, the social media company had closed all of its 14 offices worldwide and sent its 1,200-plus employees home to work.
Amid the challenges that long-term remote working brought, including the struggle to keep employees engaged and connected, Hootsuite used the opportunity the rethink how it used its office space – and more importantly, ask its employees how they could continue to gain value from the office once it reopened.
What followed was an eight-month refurbishment of Hootsuite's Vancouver headquarters. Out went the rows upon rows of workstations, in came cosy soundproof booths, lounge areas and comfy chairs. There's a new 'wellness room', complete with velvet curtains, that can be used by nursing mothers or employees who simply need a break from the daily grind. For workers who wish to exercise their brains and bodies at the same time, they can do so using one of Hootsuite's new bike and treadmill desks.
These have proven fairly popular with Hootsuite employees, Waldmann says – though she confesses that she herself hasn't used one.
"We've tried to provide a wide range of different opportunities for people who work in different styles," she tells ZDNet. "Our whole process really is about testing and iterating."
Experimentation will be a key part of navigating the early days of the shift to hybrid work.
Back when the pandemic made working from home necessary for those who could, some questioned whether the office's days were numbered as professionals clawed back time and money from commuting and got a taste of how work could better fit around their own lives, as opposed to vice versa.
By now, most have settled on a model that combines the best of both worlds: allowing staff to work from home when they choose, while keeping offices open as a hub for collaboration and a space for forging social and professional connections.
For Hootsuite, shuttering its offices for good was never on the table. "I always believed that those offices are where, as an organization, you stay connected to your employees," says Waldmann.
"Having [video] calls, which we have a thousand times a day, it's not the same as seeing somebody in the office and stopping to have a quick five-minute conversation."
The previous office, Waldmann explains, was affectionally referred to as "racked and stacked" – in that it featured rows upon rows of hodgepodge desks, packed together "like little sardine cans."
During the office redesign, these were gutted and given to local charities. Hootsuite went from 600 desks down to just 110 (a big move for the company, Waldmann notes), all of which are now sit-stand workstations.
A core part of Hootsuite's office revamp was accessibility. Waldmann tells ZDNet that the company hired an accessibility consultant to come in and review its floorplans alongside Hootsuite's interior designer in an effort to figure out how it could make the entire office more employee-friendly.
"We added braille on all of our meeting rooms and outside the entrance to our building; we added touchless door handles so you could just scan your way in; we added dimmable lighting in all the meeting rooms, because sometimes when you're in a meeting room and you're sensitive to light or you've got a migraine, being somewhere with really strong lights can be too much."
Lighting was another key factor of Hootsuite's office revamp. Making the office somewhere employees are excited to work means creating a welcoming environment that doesn't dull or overwhelm the senses the moment employees step out of the elevator.
"Our building doesn't have a lot of natural light, so one of the things I really pushed for, and am quite passionate about, is natural light," says Waldmann.
"In our reception area, it was basically a little dark box with fluorescent lighting. So we cut a hole in the ceiling and put a huge skylight in."
Of course, what works in one location won't necessarily work in another. Hootsuite has offices around the world, each one reflecting different requirements of the teams that use them.
Most recently, the company unveiled a revamp to its London headquarters, which now features collaborative and relaxed soft-seating areas, 16 sit-stand desks, two under-desk treadmills and two under-desk bikes, a dedicated wellness room, greenery across the whole space, art and whiteboards in most meeting rooms, a dedicated "focus zone" complete with an acoustic screen, and day-use lockers.
Waldmann acknowledges that it's not all going to work. Much as companies are trying to figure out what hybrid means in the long term, so will the coming months and years be a period of seeing what employees really want to gain from coming into the office, and then tailoring the environment accordingly.
Does that mean the days of the humble office chair are numbered? "If you're wondering if we're going to be replacing all of our desks with treadmill desks, the answer to that question is 'no!'" says Waldmann.