The Future of Work
How we designed our London office to be a collaboration hub that supports our hybrid way of working
Useful tools and lessons learned from designing the office of the future for our team and customers in an evidence-based way
In 2021, VMware Tanzu Labs reflected on what the future of work looks like for us and what role we want our offices to play. Normally, we design and build software. Designing office spaces has been quite an exciting stretch. We learned that the basic process of designing software applies really well to office design: understand people’s needs, co-create together and then iterate.
Do we even need an office?
Yes. The nature of our work is highly collaborative. We solve complex business challenges through software. The essence of our services offering is teaching clients how to build amazing modern apps. We identified that while most of our work can be done well remotely, we’re most successful when the first team bonding phase and other key project rituals happen in person.
We redesigned our largest offices in Europe, London and Paris to serve as collaboration hubs for our team and our clients.
Can we keep on using our offices from before the pandemic?
No. Historically, VMware Tanzu Labs, formerly Pivotal Labs, had a primarily in-person culture with most team members and several client teams working at the office at any given time. In 2020, we went fully remote. In 2021, we re-opened the London and Paris office as collaboration hubs at a smaller capacity. It would be a waste of money to keep on investing in offices that are too large for what we actually need.
We used surveys, interviews, workshops as well as historic engagement data to identify how much space we needed and how to best design our new collaboration hubs.
We had a budget available, but it didn’t allow for extraordinarily large investments (bye-bye real-time digital portal 😭). Our mission was to build upon what is already there, and to make iterative, impactful changes. And create evidence-based business cases for additional investments.
Program structure: a dedicated office working group
VMware invested in designing our future of work globally. The office redesign was part of our European future of work program. We created office working groups for London and Paris. Members weren’t working full time on the initiative, everyone gave as much time as they could. Almost every Labs team member got involved in one way or another, it was a great team effort. We paired up to address the different challenges and met for a weekly standup.
What we achieved: a hybrid collaboration hub
- Four team spaces with a mix of in-person and remote pairing workstations
- Two open-plan spaces to conduct ideation sessions and workshops
- Several snugs to have semi-private conversations, a library corner
- A kitchen for lunch breaks and a living-room type coffee corner
- Two focus-rooms for deep work without distraction
- A comfy room for 1:1s, several more formal conference rooms
- Two large conference rooms optimised for video conferences
How did we get there?
It took us about 2 months from first research to providing a plan to our facilities team, who then ordered and arranged the furniture and IT equipment. The London office opened in October 2021. Since then, we’re iterating on making it better every time we come in.
1. Interviews with our team
🔗 View the team interview guide here
We conducted in-depth interviews with 8 people to understand how frequently the team expects to be using the space, how much space is needed and what the space needs to look like. We interviewed engineers, product managers, designers, delivery leads, people managers and salespeople because we anticipated their space needs to be quite different.
2. Team workshop — hybrid working needs
🔗 View the team workshop Miro template here
In addition to in-depth interviews with team members, we conducted a team workshop to collect a more conclusive picture of team members’ needs. We asked about people’s hopes and fears for returning to the office, how often they were looking to come in and for what rituals.
3. Model past and future engagement data
To determine how many team collaboration spaces we need across Europe, we looked at historic client engagement data as well as all predicted client engagements for 2021/22. We analysed engagement type (build new apps, modernise existing apps, improve a team’s way of working...) engagement length, team size, team and client location as well as a client & team happiness score, to ensure we make an informed decision for our future working model.
4. Interviews with our clients
🔗 View the client interview guide here
We performed in-depth interviews with 4 clients from France, the UK and an area we call Emerging Markets, where we’re about to expand our services: Middle East, Africa and Southern Europe.
💡 Key insights from our clients
- Looking for recommendations: just like for best practices in software development, our clients are looking to us for advice and best practices on what working model makes sense for successful software teams
- Hybrid approach: clients believe the vast majority of software development can be done remotely. They are open to spending time at significant engagement events with us in our collaboration space
- Varying regulations: it’s mostly the human resources department that is in charge of creating the working model, not the people we tend to interact with during our engagements. Different countries have different COVID regulations that companies comply with. The UK and hence our UK clients tend to be more liberal, the rest of Europe is more strict with in-person working (vaccines, masks…)
- In-person — risk of attrition: most of the people we spoke with were well aware that they need to compete for highly skilled tech talent and are mindful not to dictate rules that contradict the local market situation
5. Design the actual office space
At Labs, we have a powerful workshop practice for facilitating the co-creation of ideas. We call it a design studio. We announced the design studio on Slack so that everyone who was interested could sign up. We also added an asynchronous board for inspiration.
We came together as a balanced team to design the space. Using a digital whiteboard, we provided a plan of the building. My design skills proved to be useful for this: I simplified the initial complicated floor plan to contain just walls, windows and doors. In the workshop, people added furniture like desks, chairs, whiteboards, plants etc.
There were a couple of furniture pieces already in the space, predominantly desks and chairs for pairing. We tried to leverage what we already had, to optimise costs.
“How might we design the London office space in a way that meets our & our clients’ needs in a new, hybrid way of working? For the types of work that you do: what spaces do you need & what recommendations can you give for those spaces? Think of equipment, furniture, inspiration, …”
The team hadn’t seen the new office space. We conducted a video tour and took pictures from all angles to help people understand what we were working with. The London office is a leased space, so we knew we would not be able to carry out architectural changes.
6. Synthesising our ideas into a plan
Fast feedback loops: improve for neurodiverse people
Before providing the recommendations, we walked a number of people through the plan to ask for feedback. Talking to a team member with ADHD, one of their key pieces of feedback was: “Where will I be able to find a room for deep work? Occasionally, I would like to have a space just for me.”. Based on this feedback, we added two “focus rooms”, (J and K) with a single desk and a large monitor.
Translating the plan into more tangible recommendations
We created a deck of recommendations, introducing the new plan incl. a prioritisation. We also created mood boards about the look & feel: “what Labs feels like”. Each area was defined through the actual plan, a short description of the intended use and images for inspiration.
Example: Kitchen — reflective of London Old Street culture
This room should feel like a café. Light, plants, wood, busyness… It will be used to: have breakfast, prepare lunch, socialise, celebrate successes, have a coffee, chat with clients & potential hires and do a jigsaw during the break. It’s a place where you can bump into colleagues you haven’t seen in a while.
Example: Open plan, customisable team space
“All things movable, we can make the space ours”: Optimised for in-person work, customizable to team’s needs. They can create their own setup. Four pairing stations, accommodating up to 8 people, plus space to workshop.
- Movable whiteboard-walls
- 1 movable big screen, camera and microphone per team
- 2 lounge chairs and a coffee table to move round
- Standing desk with stools incl. large whiteboard for ad-hoc collaboration
Our office pairing stations are made of a Steelcase electric sit/stand desk and two ergonomic Hermann Miller chairs. They are equipped with two Dell UltraSharp 27 USB-C monitors with Logitech BRIO — 4K Ultra HD webcams, that can be easily connected to our MacBooks. Apple keyboards and mice/trackpads as well as noise-cancelling Jabra headsets are individual to each person, an adaptation we made since the pandemic. They’re stored in personal lockers.
Our hybrid optimised meeting rooms are equipped with a large Samsung TV/monitor with Dell Optiplex and Extron/Lightware management devices controlling the functions of the room as well as a Logitech Rally camera with Crestron touch controls.
Our two rolling displays for hybrid teams are NEC flat monitors with Mac minis in the base, with external conference microphone/speakers and a Logitech webcam attached… a very simple but effective way to keep hybrid teams in touch and give remote access to the office vibe.
Naming our meeting rooms after inspiring thought leaders
We did a call for theme ideas and suggestions from the team and decided to name our meeting rooms after inspiring people. We wanted the work of the people to represent our values: execution, passion, integrity, customers and community. Choosing names people haven’t heard of also helps to inspire curiosity, and encourage people to learn a little more about the diverse innovators who have helped shape our society.
We aimed for geographical representation across EMEA, as well as gender and racial representation. We chose: Marcus Rashford, Inge Lehmann, Rosalind Franklin, Alexander von Humboldt, Marie Curie, Jeanne Villepreux-Power, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and Himla Soodyall.
Working with the facilities team
Our office facilities team was brilliant! They were super collaborative throughout the whole process. They did the heavy lifting of finding excellent vendors, arranging and overseeing the delivery and assembly of the furniture. Prioritisation is key, compromises necessary: As software people, we embrace prioritisation. We were well aware that we won’t be able to make everything happen. So we sat down and prioritised our vision for the future.
7. Iterate together
Ordering furniture in an enterprise context takes time. The last bits only just arrived in early 2022. Since we opened up the office again in September 2021, we ran experiments and iterated on how we use the office.
Experiments we ran
🐝 Office Thursday
To re-ignite human connection and interactions with colleagues, customers and friends, we voted for one day a week where we all try to be in the office. It isn’t mandatory, we equally support colleagues who want to stay fully remote. But we recognized that for the people that do want to come in, we’d get a more vibrant office buzz when we all come in on the same day.
🥗 Bi-weekly lunches
To support community building and create an additional incentive to travel to the office. Conveniently located next to our ping-pong tables, our lunches turn out to be a great way to socialise with colleagues across VMware. Additionally, we have a decent stock of snacks, fruit and drinks.
💙 In-Person collaboration time
On Thursdays, we go light on remote meetings and prioritise on in-person collaboration. We have in-person 1:1s, and you see crowds around whiteboards, solving tough challenges together.
👀 Remote advocate
Whenever we had hybrid events, we defined one person who was responsible for a great experience for remote participants. This might be through setting up an additional camera & microphone to see a speaker close-up, paying attention to virtually raised hands or comments from remote participants or simply sharing photos from the in-person atmosphere during the day.
🧐 Back to the office retro
After four weeks of coming in more regularly, we conducted a team retrospective to understand what people value and to find improvement opportunities. Additionally, we created an asynchronous retro board for people to share ideas for further improvements.
🚊Flexible commute time, half-day in
On Thursdays, we enable a more flexible working model for people who want to come to the office to better enable parents to do school drop-offs and enable off-peak travelling. Some colleagues come in around lunchtime, working from home for the first half of the day.
🚲 Cycle to work, bicycle storage and showers
This isn’t a new offering, but since the pandemic, more people cycle to work and greatly appreciate the facilities we offer. What’s more, VMware grants a considerable annual health and wellbeing allowance — that I, for example, invested in a new bicycle last year.
💻 Remote optimised pairing stations
We normally work in pairs, all our desks in the office are optimised for pairing. To enable a similar experience for remote & in-office pairing, we invested in a decent setup with excellent audio & a high-quality webcam.
🖥 A portal between the office and remote team members
For everyone who wasn’t making it into the office, we created a zoom room to drop in and hang out. We used our large moveable screen & camera to give remote people direct access to everyone who is in the office.
⌨️ Extra keyboards, mouse and charger for the office
One of the cumbersome things about hybrid work is to carry your equipment back and forth. We arranged for a second set of equipment just for the office to make coming to the office a less heavy experience.
⚡️ New business workshops and strategy on-site
While the vast majority of our client engagements continue to be delivered fully remotely, we came together for strategic workshops and new business conversations. We had a leadership onsite to develop our strategy for 2022, including an in-person Labs-pitch training.
What we learned
🏠 🏢 Hybrid model
We won’t be coming back to the office full-time. The vast majority of our team and clients prefer coming to the office for one day a week for team bonding as well as for key team rituals. We’ll continue to do most of the work remotely.
🤝 The office as a collaboration hub
We are using the office for the human aspect of our work: team rituals like kickoffs, workshops, ad-hoc whiteboarding and problem-solving and ideation sessions, one-on-ones and career conversations etc.
✅ Flexibility is key
Our team likes the flexibility that working from home has brought them. Commuting 1–2h per day across greater London in crowded trains isn’t something everyone is comfortable with coming back to. People appreciate being able to decide what’s best for themselves and their teams.
📈 Empathy levels spiked for folks who met in person
I think many of us felt a “Labs vibe” that we haven’t felt for a long time, including whiteboard-marker spots on our hands. It felt amazing having lunch together, the occasional coffee/tea, playing ping pong and celebrating wins and other occasions together.
🏓 Building relationships and taking a break is work, too
At Labs, we have a very sustainable work culture. We start and end on time, we take an hour lunch break and several smaller breaks throughout the day. When coming back to the office, taking regular breaks felt a bit weird. After a couple of times, we got back into the habit of our late afternoon ping-pong matches and occasional coffee chats.
🤖 We’re not robots
After over a year of not meeting anyone in person in a work context, we had to re-learn how to socialise at work, how to facilitate engaging workshops in person and how to manage our energy to suffice for a full in-person day.
⚠️ Proximity bias is real
As a leadership team, we intentionally invest in remote relationships to ensure we equally bond with everyone in the team, not just the people that we see in person.
🐶 People would like to bring their furry friends
Working remotely gives a great deal of freedom. Many team members have gotten dogs since the pandemic started. One thing that we, unfortunately, haven’t managed to improve yet is enabling team members to bring their dogs into the office.
🛋 Furniture ordering & delivery takes time
When we first re-opened the office after the pandemic, the office didn’t yet look like our vision. Our team is used to shipping software on a daily basis, I think people were a little disappointed about the slow progress.
Almost every Labs team member contributed to the Future of Work program in one way or another. Thank you in particular to the people more closely involved with the London and Paris office design: Nick, Andrea, Jon, Gagan, James, Anna, Paul, Emina, Vitor, Dale, Michael, Liam, Annamaria, Thomas, Agnes, Marco, Nana, Amanda, Tom, Rose and Natalie
How are you going about in-person working versus remote? What has worked well for your team — and what didn’t? I’m passionate to create a space where teams can do their best work and want to learn from you. Find me on LinkedIn.