How to Manage Your Design Staff in a Hybrid Work Model

The nature of work and workplace culture have undergone a dramatic shift in recent times—most notably for the interior design industry. Suddenly designers had to conduct all important design work virtually to meet the demands of regular clients but also manage the steady uptick of new projects. They quickly adapted to tools like Slack for instant messaging, Zoom for video conferencing, plus took advantage of existing systems like Studio Designer to keep up with the booming state of the trade.

Thankfully, vaccines and safety measures have allowed design professionals to open offices up for in-person work. This has allowed the hybrid work model to flourish in the past two years as workers divide their work time between home and the office. An article in the Washington Post declared that the “return to work is working” as office occupancy is at the highest rate in years. It also reveals hybrid work has become the norm in that today office occupancy still “remains below half of what it was in 2019.”

I have to admit that my personal perception of remote work has completely transformed. As I describe in my book The Business of Design, I once believed that working from home should be the exception rather than the rule. I changed my mind after seeing how top designers and design firms have done so well during the shutdown era—and in some cases thrive—using remote work.

Physical offices remain a key component—but not the primary focus—of successful design businesses. I strongly advocate in-person idea sharing and on-site collaboration but now know it doesn’t have to be every day. I recognize that the genie cannot be put back into the bottle and hybrid work is here to stay.

Tailoring the Hybrid Approach To Your Team

Architectural Digest declared that “physical offices are poised to become only one part of a wider-ranging work ecosystem.” Plus, Microsoft conducted a comprehensive study that polled over 30K people in 31 countries about hybrid work. It revealed that a majority of workers increasingly prefer a hybrid work model suggesting that “companies must meet employees where they are” and that hybrid work models prove “you can be a great employee and have a life.”  As a design firm leader, you must consider this growing preference for hybrid work when planning your office schedule and what you must do to retain skilled, long-lasting talent to grow with the company.

What are the best hybrid work solutions for interior design firms? Keep in mind that such work requires more envisioning, teamwork, and collaboration than most other professions. Inc.com details five of the most common remote work models—office-centric hybrid, fully flexible hybrid, remote-friendly hybrid, hybrid remote-office, and remote-first. For creative professionals, I recommend the office-centric and fully flexible hybrid models. With more time at the office, this will give the space for important in-person meetings with colleagues and clients. The flexibility and time-saving opportunities with remote work will lead to higher employee satisfaction.

Keep Company Culture Strong at Home and the Office

A successful design firm working in a hybrid model must establish and nurture a healthy company culture, especially with the communication challenges of remote work. From the Microsoft study, I borrow the phrase “radical intentionality” as the mindset one should have when accommodating the ever-changing needs of your employees. You want your employees to have a healthy work-life integration and it is important to be observant how each member of your staff handles the back and forth between home and the office.

When it comes to communication, I cannot overstate the overall value of in-person work in the design industry especially when it comes to fostering camaraderie in a team. The collaborative nature of design projects requires so much coordination and idea sharing in real time. Plus, it allows employees to get to know each other and have an open dialogue between leaders and teams. Microsoft even created a template for managers to create team agreements for hybrid work.

Make the most of the time you have at the office to sync and engage with each other so that remote work is a seamless part of the company culture. As design professionals, you must nurture the creativity of your staff and allow for brainstorming sessions between team members. Creative ideas and innovative thinking are hard to get from just a Zoom screen, so take advantage of in-person time for the creative and idea-sharing pursuits. You can carry on ideas sparked in person during video meetings or with Slack chats and huddles.

Nurture your active listening in both in-person and during video meetings. Work on your people skills or “soft skills” as detailed by a Fast Company article, as it is “critical to empowering leaders and teams to unlock their expertise, experience, understanding, and ability to innovate.”

I like the advice from Dr. Tsedal Neeley, who wrote a book, Remote Work Revolution: Succeeding From Anywhere. She advises business leaders to manage hybrid work schedules with the goal for employees to become “energized, connected, and purposeful.”

Making Hybrid Work for the Long Haul

As I state in The Business of Design, not everyone is cut out for remote work and it is important to pay close attention to your staff and plan accordingly. Design firm leadership should assess the skill sets and progress of each employee in a new hybrid setup. They should learn who needs more attention and a change in management style. There will be staff members who are independent self-starters who thrive in hybrid work. Then there are others who don’t have as much self-discipline and need more guidance and clear expectations in hybrid work. You may need to tailor a hybrid work schedule for each employee based on the above criteria or establish a hybrid work schedule for different various teams in your company based on your employee analysis.

For design firm employees, hybrid work offers a release valve from the daily grind. To keep them happy at the office, you might find it worth it to increase office perks, employee benefits, and team-building events. This is a great way to avoid burnout and make employees feel valued and their voices heard. You must prioritize the wellness of your team along with the regular work of mentoring and guiding them to productivity. Top designer Suzanne Kasler recently shared with Business of Home that she looks at the “overall wellness” of her team and said, “Productivity isn’t the only way to look at something. When you have a business, it’s the entire package—the connections people make with each other.”

As the design industry continues to experience robust growth and steady business, we cannot take this moment for granted. A healthy and thriving firm adjusts to the prevailing trends of the time in order to nimble enough to weather economic changes. If you thoughtfully tailor your hybrid structure to your team’s strengths and maintain a strong company culture, your firm will be resilient, and you will gain employee loyalty and longevity. The hybrid work model can absolutely be part of your current and future success.

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Studio Designer is the leading digital platform for Interior Designers managing and growing their design businesses. Featuring fully integrated project management, time billing, product sourcing, and accounting solutions for the interior design industry.