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Andrea Bartlett, director of people operations at Humi, an HR software company, in a common area of the company's office on Queen's Quay in Toronto on July 31, 2021.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

The first time Cisco Systems, Inc.’s executive vice-president Fran Katsoudas returned to the office after restrictions eased, she had a realization: Commuting in to work to do the same thing she was doing at home simply didn’t make sense.

“I was on video with people all over the world,” said Ms. Katsoudas, based in California. “I’m wondering, ‘Why am I sitting here?’ ”

In recent months, her team learned that only 23 per cent of her employees want to work in-person full time. That meant that the time they did come in would have to be more purposeful in promoting collaboration – and the physical space would need to reflect that.

As companies approach their return to office, many are reconsidering how their places of work will look and what purposes they will serve. Previously, offices were filled with individual cubicles for quiet work. With employees now opting to attend to independents tasks from home, many are reconfiguring their workplaces to nurture connection and creativity.

This change of work style begins with remote work, lauded by many for increasing focus and productivity.

“There are a lot of things that are very, very well accomplished at home,” said Mary Sullivan, senior managing director and chief talent officer of CPP Investment Board (CPPIB). “When you have head-down work that you need to do independently, I think it lends itself very well to working remotely.”

In CPPIB’s hybrid approach, employees will be responsible for deciding where they work best, though the investment management organization is hoping to have employees back in the office when it is safe to do so.

“It’s important that we be flexible and patient as we bring people back but it will be great to have people back in the office. We know that certain things are best done together.”

Now, Ms. Katsoudas’s team at Cisco is rethinking the purpose of their workspaces across their 420 offices in 100 countries. Before the pandemic, she said, employees would have a place to sit with name tags. Now, they are replacing those cubicles and desks with larger tables, couches and huddle areas for employees.

“If you come in, it’s because you have team meeting engagement or a meeting with customers. We don’t come in any more just to sit in our office and send e-mails,” Ms. Katsoudas said.

Humi, an HR software company based in downtown Toronto, is redeveloping their physical space to allow for a more flexible work flow.

“We’ve broken it down into four different quadrants: areas for team-based brainstorming, areas for networking and events, areas of bookable desks, and areas for permanent seating,” said Andrea Bartlett, Humi’s director of people operations.

They plan to use the office, which boasts panoramic views of the water and a faux turf-lined lounge seating for groups, for whole-team events each quarter, collaborative department meetings and live events as soon as they can be done safely.

Ms. Bartlett said that the design was driven by their flexible work model – some employees will continue to work remotely permanently, while some plan to be in-office full time.

Companies will have to be intentional in their design to avoid disadvantaging those who choose to work remotely, said Mitchell May, an associate at Toronto-based architecture firm Giaimo.

The company is redeveloping their own Dundas Square office, and facing new considerations of their own in the design of their physical-digital boardrooms.

“We found that what was previously an afterthought has now become a really important piece of the project,” he said. “We’re working on the acoustics and technology, which means getting better microphones, cameras and speakers, so that everyone can actually see and hear each other properly.”

Technology, flexible rooms and rolling furniture could all be part of the new workplace. While the return to the office is still uncertain for many, employers are looking forward to seeing how new designs can improve the way their companies operate.

“I think it would be remiss not to take the learnings of this great experiment to make a better future,” Ms. Sullivan said.

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