​A florist arranges delicate cherry blossom branches in a large black vase in the office lobby, while another positions red blooms in a white vessel. Workers hang greenery around hallway entrances, creating the illusion of arbors, as others unload bottles of Courvoisier cognac and Auchentoshan scotch onto a bar. Beam Suntory Inc. was bustling as the liquor company prepared to unveil its new Manhattan headquarters.

Because the producer of Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam bourbons planned its new office design during the COVID-19 pandemic, company executives had a window into how the public health crisis was upending traditional work norms. The space reflects one of the biggest changes of the COVID-19 era: the widespread adoption of hybrid work schedules. Realizing people would spend less time onsite, Beam Suntory eliminated most private offices and limited assigned seating while ensuring there was an abundance of meeting rooms of various sizes and open spaces where colleagues could gather. 

“Before 2020, people worked and fit life into that. Now, people live—and work needs to fit into their life,” says Paula Erickson, senior vice president and global CHRO for Beam Suntory, a subsidiary of Japan’s Suntory Holdings. “We are a relationship business, and we were never going to be 100 percent remote. We are leaning in to hybrid.”


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Rethinking Office Design

Beam Suntory is not alone. Nearly three-quarters of companies (73 percent) said they plan to support hybrid work, while only 19 percent will require employees to go into the office full time, according to a survey conducted last year by real-estate giant CBRE.

Workers want that flexibility. When given the choice, almost 90 percent of employees opt to work remotely at least part time, according to a recent study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

“The office was the place you worked. The office was work,” says Janet Pogue McLaurin, global director of workplace research at Gensler, a San Francisco-based architecture and design firm. “Now, work is not where you are, but work is what you do.”

That new reality has left many company executives questioning what role the office plays now and how to refashion it for the future. A small minority of companies think it has become extraneous; they have abandoned their real-estate holdings and embraced a fully remote workforce. But most see value in bringing colleagues together and are revamping their spaces to create inviting, useful meeting areas while still offering quiet spots for solo activities. 

Nearly 75 percent of employees say the top reason they go to the office is to interact with colleagues, according to a recent survey by Zeeland, Mich.-based MillerKnoll Inc., commonly known as Herman Miller, which makes office furniture.

“The new workplace amenity is being with other people,” Pogue McLaurin says. 

Remote and Hybrid Challenges

As companies realize that videoconferencing will be a mainstay in hybrid workplaces, they are trying to improve the experience, especially for those not in the room. Many have invested in new technology. Beam Suntory equipped its conference rooms with big screens, and the larger rooms have half-moon-shaped tables that face the screens instead of the more traditional rectangular furniture. Erickson says that arrangement makes it easier for remote employees to see everyone in the room. 

“On any given day, someone is going to be remote, and this way the people who show up on the screen look like they’re sitting in the meeting room,” Erickson says.

Designing the physical space to incorporate hybrid work is another current challenge for employers, though many say it’s among the easier tasks they face. Most executives are still deciding how to schedule office time fairly between employees while ensuring work is getting done. Employees have complained of going into the office only to realize no one else from their team was present or that they didn’t have time to interact with colleagues in person because their day was filled with Zoom meetings.Screen Shot 2023-03-10 at 111055 AM.png

“Leadership mindset is slower than real-estate moves, and managerial mindsets, probably in some cases, lag, as well,” says Ryan Anderson, vice president of global research and insights at MillerKnoll. “This is about empowering people to have more control over their work experience.”

Hybrid work also benefits employers. Seventy percent of hybrid workers report feeling a strong sense of loyalty to their employer, compared with 64 percent of in-person workers and 59 percent of remote workers, according to a survey by Prudential Financial. Hybrid workers are also more likely to believe that they are compensated fairly for the work they do and that the benefits their employer provides are tailored to their individual needs.

Still, there are numerous companies—especially in financial services—that require employees to report to the office daily, including Goldman Sachs Group, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase & Co. In 2021, Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman notably said at an industry conference, “If you can go into a restaurant in New York City, you can come to the office.” 

Multiple studies have found that significant numbers of people say they would quit their job if they were forced to return to the office full time. Those in the financial industry, however, are often tethered to their employers by generous salaries and bonuses, also known as golden handcuffs. Most other industries don’t offer such lavish compensation.

The labor market continues to be tight even as the economy cools, and some executives say offering hybrid schedules keeps them competitive. “We weren’t going to be silly about [refusing to offer hybrid work] given the war for talent in some areas,” Beam Suntory’s Erickson says. 

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Balance of Power

Whether employers will use a stagnant economy to force workers back to the office full time remains to be seen. Many managers prefer that employees work onsite and may use the prospect of job cuts as a cudgel. But that’s a shortsighted strategy, according to Julia Lamm, workforce strategy partner at professional services firm PwC.

“We’ll come out of any recession and employees will have the power again and suddenly companies are on their backsides trying to recover,” Lamm says. “I think companies that are saying, ‘Hybrid is here to stay, so let’s figure out what works for us’ are going to be more successful in the long run, versus those that make employees feel like they’re forced to come back without an understanding of the rationale for why.”

Many companies have spent time, money and effort turning their workplaces into hybrid environments. Like Beam Suntory, power management company Eaton Corp. redesigned its Raleigh, N.C., office while employees were working from home during the pandemic.

“The reimagination was to design a space that facilitated two primary things: collaboration and flexibility,” says Lori Tyler, human resources director at Eaton. “We designed a space that would meet the diverse needs of our diverse employee population.” 

For example, Tyler notes, the company understands that some employees may not have private areas at home where they can work on projects that require deep concentration, so such spaces are available in the office.

“We wanted it to be more intentional, more engaging, more fun and obviously flexible for employees so that they can balance the needs of their roles at work with their needs at home,” Tyler says.

Before the redesign, the five floors in Eaton’s building looked the same: a perimeter of offices surrounded by a maze of cubicles in the center. Not anymore. The office’s first floor is largely open space, with sofas, chairs and booths that allow groups to gather for work and socializing. There’s also a large meeting space with stadium seating for big meetings. The fourth story is the “Zen space,” earmarked for quiet work. The remaining three floors have a mix of open space, conference rooms and small rooms for heads-down work. Tyler says the company plans to add about 150 employees in the next few years, and the new layout can accommodate that growth without requiring additional office space.

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Change Management

To help with the transition, Tyler says, Eaton involved employees in the planning phase by fielding multiple surveys asking their opinions on everything from their visions for the space to their chair preferences. Still, she notes that she spent considerable time explaining to managers and employees why the company was making the move to hybrid work. “Some people needed time to come around to the idea,” she says.

Eaton’s leaders decided to let managers and employees set their own schedules. Experts typically say that isn’t the best strategy, because some managers may embrace hybrid work more than others and that could lead to charges of inequity in the workplace. 

But Tyler says she doesn’t know of any such complaints at Eaton, and she attributes that to the fact the company took time to explain the reason for the change. She adds that employees understand there are certain roles that will require people to be onsite more than others. The company only began returning to the newly designed space last year, and Tyler believes there may still be growing pains ahead. 

“There was change management going into this, and there continues to be some need for change management,” she says.

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Adapting management styles and ideas is key to a successful policy. MillerKnoll’s research shows that employees are not spending as much time in community spaces as anticipated, and its clients want to know why. 

“Meetings,” Anderson says. “People say that they came to the office to hang out with people, but they’ve been trapped in front of a laptop all day.”

He suggests that managers limit the amount of time spent in online meetings and encourage employees to block off time for conferring with colleagues in person and doing quiet, contemplative work. 

“You can’t expect people to use the social space without giving them time to socialize,” Anderson says. 

Shifting Schedules

Finding the right balance may not happen right away. Online consignment store and thrift shop thredUP already has adapted its original hybrid work schedule. Initially, the Oakland, Calif.-based company was having everyone go into the office for one week a month. But after about 10 months, thredUP, which also adopted a four-day workweek, decided to have everyone go in on Wednesdays instead.

Natalie Breece, the company’s chief people and diversity officer, says the change was made so employees would be connected throughout the month instead of cramming all in-person interactions into one week. Plus, it distributed commuting time throughout the month and gave employees more flexibility. Still, some employees loved going in for a week at a time. 

“We decided to try this new approach, and who knows? We may go back,” Breece says. “It’s all about really understanding what are the opportunities that are in front of us to build connection and culture and camaraderie among the team. Our thinking is pretty fluid and always evolving.”  

Theresa Agovino is the workplace editor for SHRM.


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