Is this the hybrid office of the future we’ve been waiting for? IBM bets yes

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

“Mine doesn’t have a lock, whoever wants to use it every day when I’m not there,” 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 between working from home and returning to the office. The goal is to rebuild a work culture that the company feels can only truly be achieved with some level of in-person interaction.

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

Occupying the seventh and eighth floors at 16 York St., the areas were designed to be nearly identical. But the walls are moveable, the workstations adjustable, and the furniture light and easy to rearrange. The office spaces are so flexible that they can be adjusted to suit different groups and members of office staff.

“We don’t have back-to-work mandates,” said Charbel Safadi, an IBM senior partner 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 workspace.

The goal was to design a space with several attractive workstations that would encourage IBM employees to come to work every day, said Aileen Holland, director of Gensler’s studio in Toronto.

So it has customer-facing breakout spaces, social areas with pool tables and cafe-style work booths, not to mention views of Lake Ontario and proximity to transit hubs, all to encourage workers to spend a comfortable day at the office. Its finishing touches – adjustable tables and desks, nursing and dressing 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 and avoid overcrowding: IBM employees from around the world can use the office and clients often come too, sometimes for weeks or months, to collaborate with staff on various projects.

However, the office is bolstered with enough collaborative technology that employees don’t feel like they’re missing out when they choose to work remotely.

Conference rooms are designed for hybrid meetings, filled with monitors that act as portals between workers in the office and colleagues tuning in from home. Mural, a large screen smart whiteboard, facilitates real-time collaboration between staff and customers, wherever they are. It allows people in different places to work on designs and visual projects simultaneously, functioning like a larger, more technical Google Doc.

Mural can simultaneously record real-time drawings and notes from IBM employees in different locations, facilitating real-time collaboration between colleagues and clients at home and in the office.  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 people want to live and work, and not dictate how 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, Safadi said.

When IBM closed due to the pandemic in March 2020, the company used it as an opportunity to bring staff together in one place. As remote work took over, Safadi and his team realized that some of that collaboration would have to happen across the many screens and monitors in the office.

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

To avoid congestion, most workstations, like conference rooms, are shared and users must reserve a space through an internal online platform.

The platform uses IoT technology to track those reservations and learn what types of workstations are used the most.. Executives can then use that data to reconfigure workspaces to better suit employees.

“We can constantly update the office based on user preferences,” said Sharon Shum, project and design program manager, IBM Canada.

“I think it’s something we’ve realized since we’ve been working from home these last few years: you work best where you feel comfortable.”

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