Employees are designing the workplace of the future

Why do we go to the office?

This is not a rhetorical question. Do we go to be around other people and work collaboratively? Do we go because it’s a dedicated location that allows us to focus on our work in a unique way? Do we go because we believe it’s necessary to be “seen”? Do we go because we’re just supposed to, because it’s what we’ve always done?

At SAP, it’s important not only that we find answers to these questions, but that our employees play a role in answering them — and in building the hybrid workplace of the future.

Just this summer, we rolled out a brand-new, hybrid work pilot program at our offices in Palo Alto. For months, we’ve been testing different floor plans and setups, a variety of work schedules, the most productive uses of space and the ideal structure and composition of meetings. We’ve also been providing manager and leadership training, enablement and more that’s suited for this new world.

So, what have we learned? And how can you apply some of the lessons to your business?

Getting to work: What our employees had to say

Early employee feedback — from before and during the early stages of the pilot program — showed that demand existed for a high-utilization, high-energy workspace. We just had to find a way to build it so that people could use it not just when they needed to, but when they wanted to. So, what factors would make people want to come into the office?

Our research found four main factors:

Peer-to-peer learningOur employees are passionate about building out their network, and many cited peer-to-peer learning as an opportunity to quickly advance their careers and learn how SAP builds and innovates on its products.

While the majority of our onboarding, training and learning opportunities are still held virtually, we are now exploring hybrid options to give employees the opportunity to meet with each other in-person if they prefer.

CollaborationIf COVID permits, many people crave in-person interaction, according to our research. Video calls may be functional, but nothing matches the ability to sit across the table and brainstorm, learn and grow together.

Collaboration has been a major driving force for the employees participating in the hybrid work pilot program. We see a wide variety of our employees whiteboarding and sharing screens to solve complex problems together. The key is ensuring that they’re in a space equipped with high-quality video and audio equipment so that team members who are physically present and remote can be equally engaged.

Community buildingAll-hands meetings, Q&A sessions and other team-building events just hit differently when you’re all in the same physical space. Many employees we surveyed mentioned semiregular get-togethers as clear benefits of being in the office.

We’ve only just started experimenting with hosting employee events in our physical offices again, and they look much different than they did before — smaller, outdoors and with COVID precautions in place. Before our first event, we asked ourselves: Will employees want to come? The answer was, overwhelmingly, yes.

We opened a sign-up for an employee meeting and within minutes, registration was full, with double the amount on a waiting list. The energy the day of the meeting was palpable, and the feedback from employees was very positive — they were thrilled to be together again.

IntentionMany people told us that they simply miss their office routine. For some, having the ability to get dressed in the morning, drive to work and sit at a desk with team members offers an unmatched productivity and focus boost.

Not all employees come to the office for teamwork and community. Some simply prefer to separate their personal and professional spaces and are looking for individual quiet areas where they find themselves most productive. Open collaboration spaces are essential in the office, but so too are quiet zones and phone booths.

One way we’ve tried to put these attributes into action is via scrum neighborhoods in our physical offices. The environments are designed with 15 to 20 available desks, set in beautiful and creatively liberating office spaces built to empower collaboration and teamwork. We’ve even built a mobile app to help achieve high utilization of the space. Teams can use the app to coordinate when they come to the office together, and book spaces and phone rooms.

Simultaneously, we’ve worked with our leaders to better enable them to manage in our new reality, avoiding bias and molding the traditional manager-employee relationship into a more human and empathetic one.

Early lessons from the pilot program

This is only the beginning. Though the pilot program itself is well underway, we will not stop studying and testing the best ways to promote and optimize hybrid work for our employees going into the future.

We found that 80% of our employees want a mix of home and office work in the future. We also discovered that 80% intend to live in relatively close proximity to an office.

Still, many are uncomfortable returning at this particular moment. For those who have come into the office during the pilot program, though, many have specifically cited the peace and tranquility of an office working environment, the productivity of in-person meetings and amenities (like free coffee, snacks and lunch) as notable benefits. In addition, our leaders and managers feel better prepared to lead and manage in this environment, based on the communities of practice we have fostered with them.

With “normal” likely never to fully return, we must remain committed to continuous experimentation and introspection to determine what works and what doesn’t. Because the hybrid work model can’t just be successful in theory; it has to be successful in practice.

For instance, we’ve realized that many employees grew accustomed to being able to dramatically shift their working hours in the last year — whether working early in the morning or late at night to accommodate home and family life — and that eliminating a commute and an office has been a great adjustment for some on our team. Conversely, there are some previously in-person initiatives that still need to be rethought in order to improve overall execution and reach — and to make the employee experience more inclusive, regardless of location.

The questions we must ask ourselves are clear. Now, we just have to find our way to the answers.

What’s next? Using the "why" to find the "how"

At the same time, 2020 managed to hit pause and fast-forward on our work realities, a contradiction many of us are still learning to manage and operate within. We hope the lessons of our hybrid work pilot program can help inform the future of the office and productivity in this context, along with enabling our employees and leaders to navigate these changes. Moving into 2022, our pilot program findings will help inform our global flex work policies, giving regions around the world a baseline to determine what works best for them.

There is no better time to think through the answers than right now. So join us. Turn your “why” into a “how” and empower your employees to build the workplace of the future.