Is this the hybrid office of the future we’ve been waiting for? IBM is betting it is

At IBM’s new headquarters in downtown Toronto, the private office has fallen out of favour. In fact, in the entire 63,000-square-foot space, only three remain. One belongs to IBM Canada president Dave McCann, but he’s not picky about who uses it.

“Mine doesn’t have a lock, it’s used every day by whoever feels like it when I’m not here,” he said.

One of McCann’s first missions since he became president in January after 13 years with the company has been to facilitate the consolidation of IBM’s four downtown offices into one headquarters in the heart of the city’s financial district.

This new workspace is designed for the new era of the hybrid workforce: a balance of working from home with returning to the office. The goal is to rebuild a work culture that the company feels can only truly be realized with some level of in-person interaction.

“You need the best of in office and out of office. You want employees to experience the true end-to-end spectrum of what hybrid means,” McCann said.

Occupying the seventh and eighth storeys at 16 York St., the areas were designed to be nearly identical. But the walls are movable, work stations adjustable, and the furniture lightweight and easy to rearrange. The office spaces are so flexible they can be adjusted to suit the varying groups and staff members at the office.

“We don’t have back-to-work mandates,” said Charbel Safadi, a senior partner at IBM who is overseeing the office transformation. “We ask our employees to come in with a purpose, come to the office when it makes sense.”

Flexibility was top of mind when architecture and design firm Gensler, came up with the plans for this new age hybrid work space.

The goal was to design a space with various attractive work stations that encourage IBMers to come to work every day, said Aileen Holland, Gensler’s Toronto studio director.

So it has client-facing breakout spaces, social areas with pool tables and café-style working booths, not to mention the views of Lake Ontario and a proximity to transit hubs all to encourage workers to come in for a comfortable day at the office. Its finishing touches — adjustable tables and desks, breastfeeding and changing room areas, and meditation and prayer spaces — make the workspace more practical and welcoming than previous arrangements.

Holland’s challenge was to combine four offices into one space while avoiding overcrowding — IBM employees from all around the world can come use the office and clients often come in too, sometimes for weeks or months, to collaborate with staff on various projects.

Yet the office is bolstered with enough collaborative technology that employees won’t feel they are missing out when they choose to work from a distance.

The conference rooms are designed for hybrid meetings, lined with monitors acting as portals between workers in the office and colleagues tuning in from home. Mural, a big-screen smart board, facilitates real-time collaboration between staff and clients, wherever they may be. It allows people in different locations to work on designs and visual projects simultaneously, functioning like a bigger and more technical Google Doc.

The Mural can simultaneously record drawings and notes in real time from IBMers at different locations, which facilitates real-time collaboration between at-home and in-office colleagues and clients.  It's like a version of Google Docs or Microsoft Office Online that allows for more sophisticated drawings.

“You need both the physical space and the virtual capabilities to support the way your staff wants to live and work, and not mandate the way they do those things,” Safadi said.

IBM Toronto’s previous four-office setup made it challenging at times for the technology, consulting, communications and marketing teams to collaborate and interact, said Safadi.

When IBM shut down for the pandemic in March 2020, the company took it as an opportunity to bring staff together at one location. As remote work took over, it became clear to Safadi and his team that some of those collaborations would have to happen through the office’s many screens and monitors.

“We solved the problem of how we work in a collaborative fashion in a hybrid working environment,” said Safadi. “And having that shared environment is a must. I think anybody right now who doesn’t have the flexibility and collaboration tools built into their office is going to struggle and alienate their employees.”

To avoid congestion, most work stations — like the conference rooms — are shared and users must book a slot through an in-house online platform.

The platform uses IoT technology to track those bookings and learn which kinds of work stations are most in use. Executives can then use that data to reconfigure the work spaces to best suit employees.

“We can constantly update the office based on the preferences of whoever uses it,” said Sharon Shum, program manager of design and projects at IBM Canada.

“I think that’s something we’ve realized since all working from home in these last years: you work best where you are comfortable.”

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